Gilgit-Baltistan is bounded in the north by the Wakhan corridor (Afghanistan) and the Xinjiang region of China, on the south and south-east by Indian-Occupied Kashmir and on the west by Chitral. The Mintaka Pass is the point where the borders of Pakistan, China, Russia and Afghanistan are linked.
The strategic rivalry between the British and the Soviet empires for supremacy in Central Asia was known as ‘the Great Game’. The British wanted to protect their interests in the Subcontinent and in Asia against a possible Russian advance. A Russian officer visited Hunza and signed a treaty. His presence in Hunza was taken as the start of the Great Game. Because of this treaty, Col Algernon Durand was sent to Gilgit to analyse the situation.
The British at the time were afraid of Russia crossing Pamir and attacking British India through the passes of Chitral and Hunza. This forced the British to develop as the ‘forward policy’. Lord Curzon visited Gilgit even before becoming viceroy of India. Lord Kitchener also visited Hunza after receiving the news of Russian officer’s visit to the area.
The Siachen glacier, situated in Baltistan, has immense significance. India started occupying key peaks in April 1984 in a major airborne operation called Meghdoot. From Indian occupation sites the terrain slopes down to positions held by the Pakistan Army and leads to major towns in Baltistan. The Indians are afraid that if Pakistan occupies further heights the Indian line of supply of Ladakh and Kargil would be threatened.
The people of Gilgit-Baltistan have close religious, ethnic and linguistic ties with the people of Kargil. Here, contrary to Siachen, Pakistan has superior strategic orientation – particularly in the Kargil area where it threatens the Indian line of communication to Siachen. Even tactical gains in selected areas may create strategic effects on both sides.
There are some important passes which link Gilgit-Baltistan with Afghanistan, China and India. The Kilik, Mintaka, Khunjerab, Shimshal, Mustagh and Karakoram passes links Pakistan with China. Darkot Pass is a link from Yasin to Chitral then to Wakhan through Baroghil Pass. Irshad Pass connects Chupursan river valley/ Baba Ghundi in Gojal with the Wakhan corridor in Afghanistan. Sia La, Bilafond La, Gyong La, Chul Lang La, Chorbat La and Marpola connect Gilgit-Baltistan with Indian-Occupied Kashmir. Kamari Pass links Astore with Srinagar via Gurez, Bandipur and Wular Lake. This was also known as the Gilgit transport road.
River Indus flows through Gilgit-Baltistan, where it is joined by various other rivers until Sazin in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. This river provides key water resources for the country’s economy, especially to Punjab.
The importance of Gilgit-Baltistan has increased initially with the construction of the Karakoram Highway and now with the start of CPEC. If the Chinese road in Tibet is threatened then this road has importance for China. In case of Indian aggression, the Chinese can support Pakistan logistically via this road.
CPEC passes through the Karakoram Highway and covers almost 600 kilometers distance in Gilgit-Baltistan. CPEC will bring a lot of changes in Gilgit-Baltistan because of infrastructure development, construction and hydropower stations. Some mega development projects have has already started.
India has a so-called claim on Gilgit-Baltistan as a part of Jammu and Kashmir and has now moved a bill seeking to reserve seats in Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha for Gilgit-Baltistan. The Indian-Occupied Kashmir assembly has 24 seats reserved for Gilgit-Baltistan. In order to damage Pakistan and Chinese interests, India is playing a key role in exploiting sectarian and nationalist issues. Gilgit-Baltistan’s geographical proximity with Afghanistan through Wakhan signifies the importance of CPEC. This strip can be used by Indians and Afghans to carry out sabotage activities in Gilgit-Baltistan.
The people of Gilgit-Baltistan are concerned that they are getting little from CPEC. There have been rumors that there is a plan to shift the Sost dry port to Havelian. This move will certainly have adverse affects.
At the same time, the constitutional status needs to be addressed by the government of Pakistan immediately, according to the wishes of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. They do not have any representation in parliament. It is their demand that they be declared constitutional citizens of Pakistan and Gilgit-Baltistan be made a province. The government must act on the recommendation of the committee constituted by the government of Gilgit-Baltistan on November 21, 2015.
The writer is the commissioner of
the Afghan Refugees Organization, Balochistan.