Great game in Kashmir
India has a long history of ignoring Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir. With China entering the fray, can the country afford to follow this policy of indifference? Utpal Kumar talks to two well-known experts from Gilgit-Baltistan
To anyone not knowing much about him, Senge Hasnan Sering would appear to be an easy-going person with a big smile on his face. The president of the Institute of Gilgit-Baltistan Studies in Washington, DC, he is upright, punctual and greets you with a warm namaskar. But underneath this gentle demeanour is a hurt Sering has been carrying for years. “India could have done more for us,” he says. Prod him a little, and he adds: “Constitutionally and legally, Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan are still being claimed by New Delhi. And this claim has been recognised by the international community. This is the reason why Islamabad hasn’t been able to take the unilateral decision to formally merge this region with Pakistan. The Indian Government should have used this legal sanctity to its advantage.”
At this point, Mumtaz Khan, director of the International Centre of Peace and Democracy in Toronto, steps in. “Yes, the people in the region have close ties with Pakistan. But do they have a choice? It’s India’s policy that forced them to look westward. They knew Delhi won’t be doing anything. If India doesn’t even talk about this region, then how can people of Gilgit-Baltistan say they would be part of this country? Pakistan, for wrong or right reasons, has always been there,” he says.
The hurt is obvious. Ever since Pakistan wilily captured this part of Kashmir in 1947-48, the region hasn’t figured much on India’s political radar. Instead, Delhi seems to have made the sanctity of the LoC an article of faith, though Islamabad continues to breach it at the first given opportunity. Even the media hardly talks about it. Interestingly, while weather reports of PTV talk in detail about Srinagar and Gulmarg, the Indian media keeps a steady silence over Gilgit, Skardu and Muzaffarabad, except when it talks about Pakistan-sponsored terrorist camps being run in the region. Maybe we have taken Jawaharlal Nehru’s “not-a-blade-of-grass” comment too seriously.
This moronic status quo could have continued but for the ominous entry of the dragon. There are reports in Pakistani newspapers that Islamabad has agreed to lease Gilgit-Baltistan to Beijing for 50 years. This has alarmed Delhi, which now realises that the land where not a blade of grass grows is actually the region where most Asiatic or even non-Asiatic empires — including the British and the Soviet — played some sort of Great Game for centuries. With a new player in sight, eyeing not only the resource-rich Persian Gulf but also threatening the interests of India and the US, particularly the former, Delhi seems to be in a fix. It’s, however, on the Kashmir issue that the country appears to be more worried.
With Pakistan allegedly ready to swap its role to take the backseat as China exerts itself as a major player in the Kashmir issue, India can’t afford to miss the Gilgit-Baltistan bus this time. At least that’s what Sering and Khan believe. Over to the two experts on Chinese strategic grandstanding, Indian ruinous restraint, Pakistani duplicitous expediency and the ongoing human rights violation in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir.
What’s your take on the increased Chinese activities in Gilgit-Baltistan?
China has been involved with the region since the early 1950s and the 1960s. First, it occupied 5,180 sq km of Gilgit-Baltistan which Pakistan gifted it in the 1960s. And then in the 1970s, it started working on infrastructure, building roads through Gilgit-Baltistan into Pakistan’s Karakoram Highway. Since then, there have been trade activities and military movements between China and Pakistan through this region. There were also reports of Pakistani missiles being transported through this highway. So, it has been a strategic route used by Beijing for a long time.
In the past 10 years, however, China has realised the need to exploit the resources of West Asia as well as enhance its military/strategic relationship with the Muslim world. And it’s Gilgit-Baltistan that can provide it a short, safe and quick access to Iran, Afghanistan and Arab countries. No wonder, the Chinese are now talking about spending $16-18 billion on a rail line between Pakistan and China through Gilgit-Baltistan. They have built more than 20 tunnels to quicken the time needed to transport humans as well as goods — both civilian and military — between Pakistan and China. It is expected that when this whole road and rail transportation is completed, it will take less than three days to cover the distance between Beijing and the Persian Gulf, whereas right now it takes about two-three weeks. It will allow Beijing to build a strong economic and military/strategic alliance with the Arab world. Also, China is working on increasing the influence of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) and is offering membership to other countries. Maybe one day it will be extended to Arab countries.
There are reports in Pakistani newspapers that Islamabad has agreed to lease Gilgit-Baltistan to Beijing for 50 years. Is it true? How is it going to impact the region?
Like many others we too have read these reports. Incidentally, it hasn’t been denied by any side, Government or non-Government, military or civilian. This is strange as they could have just denied the report, especially as it has come from a leading American think tank. Also, Pakistan’s military chief Ashfaq Parvez Kayani has recently said that the two countries are starting a strategic programme — the Pakistan-China Strategic Programme for Gilgit-Baltistan — in June this year. Eventually it will enable China to have more military presence in the region.
China does understand that having control over Gilgit-Baltistan is important to safeguard its economic and military interests in east Turkistan and Tibet, besides having more access to the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan. And, of course, this will help tighten noose over India.
Has it something to do with growing rift between America and Pakistan?
Pakistan tries in its own way to play China against the US — and vice versa. But Beijing is pragmatic and believes in pursuing a long-term goal. There are reports that China eventually wants to transform the SCO into an Asian NATO. One also needs to understand that these are the issues of mutual interest for Iran, Pakistan and China. Iran is isolated and the way out of isolation is getting help from China. Beijing wants the Persian Gulf for its strategic and economic growth. As for Pakistan, it is playing the game to extract benefits from the US by using the China card and vice versa. So, Gilgit-Baltistan has today become the focal point of a new ‘Great Game’ being played in the region.
How are the people of POK reacting to the Chinese presence?
We should first understand the perspective of the people of the region, its history and the nature of Pakistan’s control and its use of this territory for terrorism against India. Before 2005, POK was a closed territory. During this time China wasn’t involved with it. But after 2007, Chinese role increased in the area, particularly after negotiations between India and Pakistan during the Musharraf era entered into a more serious phase. China was alarmed by these developments and didn’t want complete breakthrough on the issue. As a result, we witnessed a shift in the Chinese policy vis-à-vis Kashmir as it started issuing visa on a separate sheet of paper. Also, Beijing started calling POK an integral part of Pakistan.
In 2007-08, China jumped onto a reconstruction bandwagon in Gilgit-Baltistan and signed almost 72 projects with Pakistan. Such reconstruction activities, however, are just a Chinese excuse to control the region. China does understand the importance of POK in politico-strategic terms. Now, as the crises have deepened in Pakistan, whether political, economic or strategic, China is alarmed. Tomorrow Pakistan might disintegrate, and China could find India in control of POK, thanks to its historical, constitutional and cultural claims. So, in order to prevent such eventualities, China has registered its presence. If Islamabad disintegrates, Beijing is there to question Delhi’s claims.
There are two schools of opinion in POK: One is nationalist, and the other is pro-Pakistan. Of course, the latter will say what Islamabad will dictate, but the nationalists have a mind of their own. They have sent protest letters to China when it started giving stapled visas to those belonging to Jammu & Kashmir, saying it should do the same for POK. So, the nationalists are quite concerned with the increasing influence of China.
What role do you expect from India?
India has a strong legal case. It should, therefore, bridge the gap between Delhi and the people of POK. Also, it needs to understand that it can’t be ignored. Those who don’t want to be a part with India, they have to talk to India. Those who want to merge with India, they have to talk to India. And even those who want to be independent will have to talk to India. As for Pakistan, it only claims to provide a moral and diplomatic support to the region and its people. That’s what the UN resolution means when it calls Pakistan an outsider. So, this attitude that we have developed in the past 64 years that we will not talk to India or we will only talk through Pakistan won’t work. Pakistan is just a middleman. And it doesn’t want the issue to be resolved.
But to blame people is not right. It’s India’s policy that forced them to look towards Pakistan. They knew that India won’t do anything. If Delhi doesn’t even talk about this region, then how can people of POK say we would be part of India?
Even today many political activists are in jail, but they don’t expect India to stand up for them. This country has to perform its responsibilities — moral, legal, constitutional and even economic. It can give students access to its universities; it can admit patients to its hospitals. India can have trade with Gilgit-Baltistan.
Do you find any change in global perception regarding POK?
To be frank, in the past 10 years whatever changes we have seen at the international level, they are mainly because of China. Otherwise, nobody cared about us. Even India wasn’t bothered about the region.
The fact is that from early times, this region has been strategically important. The valleys between the Karakoram-Hindukush mountains were closely contested by the empires of the Persian Gulf, West Asia, Central Asia, South Asia, China and even Russia. That’s what the British realised: They worked hard to keep the Russians out of it. Khunjerab Pass (in Gilgit), for instance, is today called the Khyber Pass of China, underlining the fact that it is as important for Beijing as Khyber Pass was for the British.
In 2003-2004, for instance, when we talked to Congressmen or think tanks in the US, they would just ask us for a cup of tea and there would be no follow up. The same was the case with Indians. We met so many Indian researchers, professors, politicians, etc, but nothing concrete came out. Thankfully, the attitude has changed in the past five-six years.
What about human rights violations in the region?
Human rights violations are at different levels. At the political level, we don’t have any freedom of political activity, voice or expression. Local people aren’t even allowed to participate in elections. We are ruled by political masters in Islamabad. Intimidation is very much there. The media has been particularly under attack in the last two years. Situation hasn’t been so bad even during Musharraf’s time. It’s no better for political activists: Babajan Hunzai, Manzoor Parwana, Abdul Hamid Khan, among others — they all have been treated shabbily. In many cases, terrorism charges have also been filed against them.
Then there are violations at the cultural level. The identities of the Gilgits, Baltis, Wakhis, Khowars, etc, have existed for thousands of years. They are proud of their culture, their land, their identity. Suddenly, the Wahaabi movement is threatening to uproot the indigenous culture.
Also, there are violations at the economic level. Our natural resources, the decisions over how to exploit them, or how to generate revenue — all these are decided by Islamabad. All our means of production and revenue are controlled by central authorities. Our transit routes are exploited by China and Pakistan. Revenue from the Khunjerab Pass custom check-post goes to Islamabad. Nothing at all is shared with Gilgit-Baltistan.
You have worked for the revival of the local script. Has it made any change?
Our local scripts are fighting a losing battle against the Government-imposed Urdu. We experimented with Persian/Arabic languages, but it didn’t work. When I was in the ninth grade I got in touch with Tibetans who provided money for the project and that’s how we brought up signboards in our local script. If you want to grab attention, you must start with a signboard. That’s what we tried to do. Also, this is what would make Skardu Bazaar different from, say, Peshawar and Karachi.
But since I (Sering) was connected with Tibetans, it became a huge issue. As I worked within the framework of pan-Tibetanism, it annoyed many. I started getting angry letters, saying culture was good but I must not forget that I was a Muslim first. One Prof Fateh Malik, then chairman of the National Language Board, came all the way to Skardu to register his protest, saying I belonged to the Muslim ummah and Urdu — and not my local script — was my present! Also, the fact that I worked with Tibetans annoyed the power that be in Pakistan as it not only challenged their two-nation theory but also could weaken their case in POK and Gilgit-Baltistan.
So, I had to stop my work. And I realised that till the moment there is a political guarantee and a constitutional setup, we can’t save our identity, culture. First, we needed a political identity, a constitutional system to save our culture. So, the real issue — the issue that comes before culture, language — is our politico-administrative identity and our freedom from Pakistan.
How do people in POK see the rise of Imran Khan?
Imran Khan is one of the Taliban without a beard. He is very much the extension of the Pakistan Army. There’s a famous female activist in Pakistan who recently said that the women of that country would fear the day Imran Khan would come to power. Minorities fear the day he would come to power. The disputed areas fear the day he would come to power.
Imran Khan’s emergence is a lesson for the West, which erroneously thinks that if someone drinks or has an open relationship with the opposite sex, he is a liberal. In Pakistan, if you want to find a real liberal, ask him five questions: About India, Kashmir, China, Taliban and America. The person on the extreme left and the right would have the same answers. So, there is no liberal community in Pakistan. Here there is no difference between a Bhutto and a Mullah Omar. They all work for the Army and Islam. They are all same.