By Mehr Ispahani
Historically, what we used to call the ‘Gilgit Agency’ was made up of the princely states of Hunza and Nagar, the smaller entities of Chilas, Koh Ghizr, Ishkoman, Yasin and Punial, and the Gilgit Wazarat. Out of these territories, only the Gilgit Wazarat formed a part of the State of Jammu & Kashmir, while the other areas were under the paramountcy of the British government. The British had been instrumental in pacifying this area, and even helped the Kashmir darbar establish its writ in parts of its own territory. In order to consolidate its control in the area, especially as the Great Game was still on, the British Government of India established the Gilgit Agency in 1889. Since its inception, the Agency controlled the defence, foreign affairs and communications of the region, with the help of a political agent in the Gilgit city and an assistant political agent in Chilas.
The Maharaja of Kashmir claimed that the whole Gilgit Agency formed his state, but the Indian government was very clear that this was not the case. After the Kashmir darbar submitted a long note to the Indian government, New Delhi concisely and clearly put an end to the confusion. Colonel Fraser, a resident in Kashmir, wrote to Maharaja Sir Hari Singh on March 5, 1941, the final decision of the viceroy on the status of the constituent units of the Agency: “a) Hunza and Nagar: though these are under the suzerainty of the Kashmir State, they are not part of Kashmir but are separate states; b) Chilas, Koh Ghizr, Ishkoman, and Yasin: though these are under the suzerainty of Kashmir State they are not part of Kashmir but tribal areas. What happened even in Gilgit Wazarat in the aftermath of the transfer of power, it is clear that the entire population was pro-Pakistan.
Gilgit-Baltistan is six times the size of Azad Kashmir. The territory also borders the Indian Illegal Occupied Jammu & Kashmir which is separated by the Line of Control. The territory of present-day Gilgit-Baltistan became a separate administrative unit in 1970 under the name “Northern Areas”. It was formed by the amalgamation of former Gilgit Agency, the Baltistan district and several small former princely states, the larger of which being Hunza and Nagar.
G-B covers mostly a highly mountainous area of over 72,971 sq km. It had an estimated population of 1.249 million in 2013 (1.8 million in 2015). Its capital city is Gilgit with 216,760 estimated population. It is home to five of the “eight-thousanders” and more than 50 peaks above 7,000 metres. The main ranges are the Karakoram and the western Himalayas. The Pamir Mountains are to the north, and the Hindu Kush lies to the west. Amongst the highest mountains are K2 (Mount Godwin-Austen) and Nanga Parbat, the latter being one of the most feared mountains in the world.
Three of the world’s longest glaciers outside the polar regions are found in G-B. The main tourism activities are trekking and mountaineering, and this industry is growing in importance. The present-day G-B territory became a separate unit in 1970 as Northern Areas. It was formed by the amalgamation of Gilgit Agency, Baltistan district of the Ladakh wazarat and the hill states of Hunza and Nagar. It now consists of 14 districts, has a population one million and an area of 73,000 sq km. It shares borders with Pakistan, China, India and Afghanistan: with Khyber-Pukhtunkhwa province to the west, a small portion of Wakhan trip of Afghanistan to the north, the Chinese Xinjiang Uyghur region to the northeast, the Indian-Occupied Jammu & Kashmir to the southeast, and the state of Azad Jammu & Kashmir to the south.
Three of the world’s longest glaciers outside the polar regions are found in G-B: the Biafo Glacier, the Baltoro Glacier and the Batura Glacier. There are, in addition, several high-altitude lakes in G-B: The economy of the region is primarily based on a traditional route of trade, the historic Silk Road. The China Trade Organization forum led the people of the area to actively invest and learn modern trade knowhow from Xinjiang. Later, the establishment of a chamber of commerce and the Sust dry port (in Gojal Hunza) became a milestone. In early September 2009, Pakistan signed an agreement with China for a major energy project in G-B which includes the construction of a 7,000-MW dam at Bunji in the Astore district. Pakistan gave G-B the status of its fifth legal provisional province. The region is not disputed as it is part of Pakistan.
Understanding G-B’s strategic position is important. We can do that by revisiting the centrality of G-B in the 19th century Great Game between Russia and British India, and then throw light on the contemporary strategic importance of the region for China and Pakistan on one hand, and the opponents of the BRI, including the US and India. This contest makes the region a critical strategic prize. Gilgit-Baltistan being a province will grow in strength and develop further with its huge potentials.
Recently an Indian plot came to limelight, including a plan that was aimed at poisoning the minds of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan through elements of hate. A dirty propaganda campaign has been launched to distort the history and prove that G-B was a disputed territory. But above mentioned facts reveal that G-B never was an integral part of Jammu & Kashmir. It is on record that in 1935, the British Raj leased the area from J&K state’s autocratic Maharaja for a period of 60 years. People of G-B acceded to Pakistan willingly after an arduous struggle. They acceded to Pakistan on November 1, 1947 after getting independence from the Dogra army. Similarly, the liberation forces emancipated Skardu after a year. The brave people of G-B defeated a well-equipped and trained army. They are not ready to accept anyone’s claim over the region.
(The writer is freelance columnist based in Peshawar)