13 August 2015

How India's control over Pakistan-occupied Kashmir has loosened over time

11 August 2015

The land across from us: PoK, while of immense strategic importance, has gone beyond India's control 

Contrary to the relentless media glare on Jammu and Kashmir, the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) is somewhat akin to the Bermuda Triangle for Southeast Asia, shrouded in everlasting mystery. It is not often one gets to see any news about the place, about its people, about its terror-training schools, about the hectic infrastructure projects undertaken by China, or the elections conducted byPakistan to lend a veneer of legitimacy to its occupation. India for its part, keeps on showing PoK as part of its territory in all the international and national pieces of cartography, never showing any real stridency about defining its role as to what it wants to do about it. Despite India’s tentative overtures to the need of embracing central Asia, PoK remains outside its overarching loop of diplomacy.

Recently the ‘mainstream’ media paid very scant notice to Pakistan holding polls to elect a regional legislature after devolution of powers in 2009 changed the region’s name from Northern Areas to Gilgit-Baltistan and provided it with a local assembly. Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) won 14 out of 24 seats, contested by 272 candidates. And the à la carte of contesting parties — besides (PML-N) — consisted of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) of Imran Khan, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) of ex-president Asif Ali Zardari and All Pakistan Muslim League (APML) of former military ruler Pervez Musharraf — that showcased how almost all the mainstream parties of Pakistan had legitimised Pakistan’s occupation of North Kashmir region which we call PoK.

Did India, besides just a murmur, cry blue murder when the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative assembly was formed as part of the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order, 2009 which granted the region self-rule and an elected legislative assembly? The Ministry of External Affairs of India, this time, went livid terming the elections as “an attempt by Pakistan to camouflage its forcible and illegal occupation of the regions” and persisted that the “entire state of Jammu and Kashmir which includes the regions of Gilgit and Baltistan is an integral part of India.” Pakistan saw this as an Indian alibi for interfering with Islamabad’s bilateral relations with Beijing and the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).

Minister of State in the PMO, Jitendra Singh questioned the very constitutionality of Pakistan in holding elections in the Gilgit-Baltistan area, as Pakistan, had no “locus standi” in doing so. The issue is hanging fire since 1947. A study titled Pakistan Occupied Kashmir: Changing the Discourse published in 2011 by the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, referred to Pakistan’s “dual policy” on Kashmir evident in its dithering in declaring Gilgit-Baltistan to be one of its provinces.

The strategic significance of PoK is immense not only because it is contiguous to Pakistan, the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan and Tajikistan to the west and the Xinjiang province of the People’s Republic of China to the north, but also because of the “strategic depth” garnered since the Karakoram Highway (KKH) was built to connect Pakistan with China via PoK. PoK being a gateway to Central Asian republics and to their expanding markets explains why China had continued with an ambitious economic corridor linking Xinjiang to the Pakistani port of Gwadar, envisaged by a plan to expand the Karakoram Highway and build a railway link through PoK — backed in turn by Chinese President Xi Jinping as part of his new “Silk Road Economic Belt” project. The $46 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor is also proposed to pass through the area, all of which cumulatively prove that things have well gone beyond India’s control: first in 1947, next when Pakistan illegally ceded the Shaksgam Valley to China in a 1963 border agreement, or in 1970 when Pakistan divided the region into two separate administrative divisions: Mirpur-Muzaffarabad (aka Azad Jammu and Kashmir, or AJK) and the Federally Administered Gilgit-Baltistan.

One might argue that the defensive position of India vis-à-vis its part of Jammu and Kashmir accounts for its less than strident, rather lame duck protestations about the growing Chinese investment and presence in PoK and its involvement especially in the infrastructure development in the area, and its listlessness about Pakistan’s rapacious exploitation of the rich natural resources of PoK, which has, in effect, left China almost a free hand to exercise and extend its influence in the region. While China is loath to India’s oil exploration in the South China Sea on the grounds that it is a “disputed” area, it has no problem in justifying its economic corridor through PoK on the grounds that it was a “livelihood project”. Detractors, however, think that the water resources of PoK partially explain China’s growing interest in this region.

If it is an act of territorial aggression, a charge levelled against India, India has tried to play down its sense of affront, if any, either in the pretext of maintaining a status quo in its unhurried approach towards its larger policies on the border dispute, or in the insidious fear that upping the ante about PoK might rock the boat, or worse, might open the poisonous can of worms surrounding the Kashmir dispute. Be that as it may, India’s defensive position has not acted in its favour: Pok has gone irretrievably out of India’s hands with each passing year and decade. And while the UN had earlier been Pakistan’s favourite stick to beat India’s Kashmir policy, India chose not to overplay the August 13, 1948 UN resolution on Jammu and Kashmir that had implicitly recognised the Indian “sovereignty” over the Jammu and Kashmir territories Pakistan had occupied “illegally” urging it to vacate the “occupation”.

As it stands today, the ceasefire line, redesignated as the “Line of Control” following the Simla Agreement signed on 3 July 1972 has become the de-facto border between India and Pakistan, beyond which India has no practical access. Terrorist organisations, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and terror camps continue to thrive in Muzaffarabad, the capital of the so-called AJK, which, as we are made to know, belongs to India. The Line of Actual Control (LAC) that separates the Indian-controlled state of Jammu and Kashmir from the Chinese-controlled area known as Aksai Chin has long been an unrealised quid pro-quo.

The map of Kashmir we are wont to draw might be historically right but technically wrong, or the reverse of it. But the other Kashmir, going by the stark picture — extra-judicial killings, terrorism, disappearances, sectarian conflict — portrayed by the leaders from PoK raised during the 29th session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva recently, is certainly no paradise. 

The author is a teacher and social commentator

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