Pakistan spurred need for India to abolish Article 370: New Delhi reframed terms of territorial dispute that mirrors those set by Islamabad

Prem Mahadevan

Ever since the Central Government announced changes in Article 370, most commentary has focused on the public and elite reaction in the Kashmir Valley. Pakistan, for obvious reasons, has played to this because the soap opera-like quality of Indian television debates keeps international attention limited to the Srinagar side of the Line of Control. But the real trigger for New Delhi's move likely lies on the other side, in Gilgit-Baltistan (formerly the Northern Areas) of Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir.

Over the last three years, Islamabad has been taking steps to stealthily annex Gilgit-Baltistan as Pakistan's fifth province. Such a move is in contravention of the same UN Security Council resolutions that Pakistani officialdom is fond of citing. Gilgit-Baltistan is a disputed territory and has been since 1947. But Islamabad now wants to change its status because the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) cuts through this region. The corridor has provided an excuse for the Pakistan Army to strengthen its presence in Gilgit-Baltistan. It has also allowed China to boost an already large troop presence there, a presence noted by the New York Times as far back as August 2010.

China , India, Pakistan. Representational image. AFP

Representational image. AFP

As far as New Delhi is concerned, Pakistan is using CPEC to recast the Kashmir dispute. The same pattern had played out in the early 1980s when completion of the Karakoram Highway led Mohammad Zia-ul-Haq to assert that the-then Northern Areas were part of Pakistan proper and that their status was not subject to dispute. General Zia said this in an effort to spare Beijing embarrassment from Indian accusations, made in the UN, that China was helping Pakistan to grab disputed territory. The currently ongoing backdoor effort by Islamabad to incorporate Gilgit-Baltistan is a continuation of this process: China has asked Pakistan to clarify the region's status by declaring it as a province. In this way, it hopes that India's objections to CPEC passing through its own, ie, Indian land, would be blunted.

Gilgit-Baltistan has long had a peculiar status. It is officially neither a part of Pakistan nor granted the token autonomy afforded by Islamabad to the region of so-called 'Azad' Kashmir (Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir). Gilgit-Baltistan was included in the greater Kashmir dispute not just because it was a historical part of the erstwhile kingdom of Jammu and Kashmir, but also because in the 1950s, Pakistani strategists had wanted it to be so. They knew at the time that memories of Pashtun tribal depredations from 1947 were still fresh in the minds of Kashmir Valley Muslims. They hoped that since Gilgit-Baltistan had been spared such atrocities, its populace would dilute the size of the pro-Indian vote if a plebiscite ever were to be held.

During the years after 1947, things dramatically changed along the way. At first wary of mentioning Kashmir in international forums for fear of rekindling memories about the 1947 invasion, Pakistan grew bolder in 1957. The Hungarian uprising of the previous year, together with the Suez Canal crisis in which the United States supported an Arab regime against Britain and France, gave new hope to Pakistani foreign office mandarins. They began to push a narrative that India was 'repressing' the Kashmiris just as the Soviets had repressed the Hungarian uprising. In their assessment, the United States would be loath to antagonise the Arab world by outrightly rejecting such a discourse. Helping them was the fact that the first signs of a rift between the Kashmir Valley and New Delhi had already appeared in 1953 when the government of Sheikh Abdullah was dismissed.

Thus, the importance of Gilgit-Baltistan diminished in Pakistani strategy with regards to a future plebiscite. But its importance in the military realm shot up following the India-China War of 1962. In a bid to win Beijing's favour, Pakistan ceded the Shaksgam Valley to Chinese control in 1963. In doing so, it sought to present India with a two-front threat. Nine years later, when the Simla Agreement was about to be signed, the consequences of the Pakistani gesture were felt. As Indian and Pakistani officials prepared to haggle over the future of Kashmir and 93,000 Pakistani prisoners of war being held in India's custody, three companies of Pakistani troops intruded into Ladakh from Gilgit-Baltistan. At the same time, one company of the People's Liberation Army crossed the Line of Actual Control from Aksai Chin. The 3rd Infantry division of the Indian Army responded forcefully, deploying 120-mm artillery against the Pakistanis and compelling them to withdraw with several dozen casualties. The Chinese company meanwhile was not engaged with but voluntarily returned to its own side of the LAC.

When Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee undertook his much-celebrated bus ride to Lahore in February 1999, soldiers from Pakistan's Northern Light Infantry were already intruding into Indian territory at Kargil. The small coterie of generals who had planned the intrusion thought that by using mainly NLI personnel, who were indigenous to Gilgit-Baltistan, they had given civilian politicians in Islamabad an easy route towards disclaiming Indian charges that 'Pakistani troops' had violated the Line of Control. But once this ruse was exposed €" thanks in part to the Research and Analysis Wing intercepting telephonic conversations of the Pakistani high command, which revealed who the authors of Kargil intrusion really were €" no further need existed for maintaining the fiction that Gilgit-Baltistan was outside of Pakistani military occupation. A legal problem remained, though: Having previously included the region in the larger territorial dispute with India over Jammu and Kashmir, how could it now be formally incorporated into Pakistan?

This is where Article 370 came in. By guaranteeing the autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir and prohibiting the resettlement of citizens from other parts of India to the state, the article had tied New Delhi's hands. Since Gilgit-Baltistan had no such privileges under Pakistani occupation, Islamabad had for years been able to change its demographics virtually unnoticed. The local Shia Muslim majority gradually became prisoners in their own homeland as militant Sunnis from Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa were resettled there with support from the Pakistan Army. In 1988, hundreds of Shias were killed when Sunni gunmen ran riot with support from Arab jihadists. Among the latter was allegedly a 31-year-old financier of militant Islamism named Osama bin Laden. The massacre and the Arab role in it were covered up at the time by the Zia regime but has since been reported about in the Pakistani media. In the time since, Gilgiti Shias have been prevented from organising for self-defence, with their firearms impounded by local authorities while Sunni militants are allowed to roam freely.

India could only watch these developments unfold, helpless while Article 370 was in place. Its claim to Gilgit-Baltistan risked being overwhelmed by new facts on the ground, much as China had earlier 'Hanified' Tibet in the 1950s and more recently built artificial islands in the South China Sea to claim this water body as its own. With Pakistan now emulating Chinese tactics for grabbing territory and changing the political status quo through resettlement policies and dubious executive orders, it was necessary for New Delhi to respond in some non-violent way. That was why Article 370 had to go.

Islamabad's dream objective is that its own claims on the Indian side of the Line of Control should remain in totality, but those of New Delhi on the Pakistani side should be incrementally diminished. By seeking to incorporate Gilgit-Baltistan as a province €" a process that gained serious momentum in 2018 €" Pakistan has been unilaterally reducing the size of the landmass that it is prepared to accept as 'disputed'. But in doing so, it gave India a reason to do the same. By dividing its own portion of Jammu and Kashmir into two separate regions, New Delhi has reframed the terms of territorial dispute in a way that mirrors those set by Islamabad.

With Ladakh now being awarded a separate administration as a Union Territory, New Delhi will perhaps be better prepared to meet any adventurous Pakistani moves launched from the direction of Gilgit-Baltistan. Not having a partially-cooperative state government and archaic population laws to worry about will likely mean the creation of a more streamlined early warning and response system to deal with future Kargils.

Equally important, India has now signalled that just as Pakistan will not give up its claims to the entirety of Jammu and Kashmir, it too will not give up its symmetrical claim to Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir regardless of whether or not Gilgit-Baltistan is labelled a 'province'.

The writer is author of the book €" Islamism and Intelligence in South Asia: Militancy, Politics and Security (London: IB Tauris, 2018).

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