Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh made a bizarre statement recently in Srinagar regarding Azad Jammu and Kashmir, and Gilgit-Baltistan, saying that India’s northward journey of development would be complete after regaining control over Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan.
This proclamation is not an off-the-cuff statement but part of an offensive strategy which aims to up the ante by expanding the battleground from Indian-held Kashmir to the areas under the Pakistan administration. It also aims at dissuading Pakistan from providing political and diplomatic support to the cause of Kashmiris’ right to self-determination.
Although India has constitutionally claimed AJK and GB to be its integral part since 1949 when the ceasefire line was drawn between the two parts of the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir, these areas rarely found noteworthy space in India’s political discourse. India preferred to maintain the status quo based on the existing borders along the Line of Control. Additionally, the intensive debate on the Kashmir dispute over decades pushed the strategic significance of Gilgit-Baltistan into the background until the onset of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in 2016.
The advent of CPEC and the BJP’s rise to power occurred almost simultaneously. The BJP has traditionally been pro-US since Vajpayee’s days in power. Two factors favoured the BJP to take an aggressive stance towards Pakistan and the territories under it without any fear of international reprisal.
First, American and Indian interests converged against China and successive US administrations encouraged India to play the role of counterweight to China in the region. India was given unprecedented economic and diplomatic support to enhance its regional and international standing. Second, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s politics thrived by demonizing Pakistan and exploiting anti-Muslim sentiments. It greatly enhanced the BJP’s global standing and served its domestic political requirement.
Therefore, the slogan to recapture AJK and GB provides the BJP with an exceptionally explosive strategy to change the narrative over the Kashmir issue and put Pakistan in defensive mode. In this context, since Modi became prime minister, AJK and GB have received exceptional attention in the Indian political and strategic discourse. Several research institutions and universities were funded to study the socio-political development taking place in Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan on a regular basis. Several books and reports were published in India about AJK and GB, though containing distorted facts and false narratives. Above all, Indian print and electronic media give exaggerated coverage to even insignificant events happening in AJK and GB.
The Indian parliament unanimously passed a resolution on February 22, 1994, which defined the territories of Occupied J&K and made it binding on the Indian government to take back the “occupied territories” from Pakistan’s control. The resolution says, “Pakistan must vacate the areas of the Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir, which they have occupied through aggression; and resolves that all attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of India will be met resolutely.”
These days, Indian leaders, diplomats and media frequently raise issues of human rights, economic conditions, and the so-called demographic change of AJK and Gilgit-Baltistan. Rajnath said, “The Pakistan government is sowing the seeds of hatred in PoK and time is not far when people will resort to mass rebellion there”. In 2001, when India-Pakistan tensions were at a peak, the then Indian prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, spoke about the political and democratic system in AJK.
On August 12, 2016; Prime Minister Modi chaired an all-party meeting over Kashmir wherein he stated that the time had come to expose the atrocities committed ‘by our neighbouring nation’ in Balochistan and AJK. This statement is considered a paradigm policy shift which was followed in the letter and spirit subsequently. As a result, a few days later while speaking on Independence Day, Modi said, ‘The people of Gilgit and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir have thanked me a lot in the past few days. I am grateful to them”.
India frequently highlights issues related to Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, particularly after the revocation of Article 370 of the Indian constitution in August 2019. The emphasis on Gilgit-Baltistan has considerably increased since then. Indian officials often talk about the Shaksgam Valley which Pakistan swapped with China in the 1963’s border agreement, gaining some territory and conceding areas which were already under Chinese administration.
In the 1970s, India tried hard to prevent the construction of the Karakoram Highway, the sole land link between China and Pakistan, running through Gilgit-Baltistan – but to no avail. However, the developing Pakistan-China relations, and several ongoing developmental and hydropower projects funded and constructed by Chinese private companies also keep India immensely upset. India has invariably been protesting over foreign investment, and particularly Chinese investment in AJK and GB.
The growing Indian interest in Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan generated a huge wave of suspicion in Pakistan about India’s intention regarding these areas. Although these two regions are largely peaceful, the issues of bad governance, corruption, and undue interference from the federal government in local affairs have often surfaced and attracted criticism but no sustained political discontent has been reported so far.
The people of Gilgit-Baltistan have been demanding full status as the fifth province of Pakistan which Pakistan is reluctant to announce due to its stance on Kashmir.
Instead of stoking unrest in AJK, India should spend its resources and intellectual capital to create regional harmony beneficial to all countries and regions for shared prosperity and regional connectivity. The resumption of dialogue between India and Pakistan is long-awaited. The unending tension and constant suffering of the people of Occupied Kashmir can only be alleviated when a meaningful and result-oriented process of engagement commences.
The writer is a freelance contributor. He tweets @ErshadMahmud and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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