(Mr. Zafar Choudhary, 35, was born in Rehan village of Rajouri district. He received his post graduate degree in Journalism from the University of Jammu. Mr. Choudhary is a Journalist and Policy Analyst based at Jammu (Jammu and Kashmir, India). He is founder Editor of Epilogue Magazine and Honorary Director of Indus Research Foundation (IRF), a think tank, research and resource centre on issues of historical and contemporary importance within and around the region of Jammu and Kashmir. A non-political, non-governmental Trust, IRF promotes the entire region of undivided Jammu and Kashmir as a bridge between India and Pakistan and essential link between Central and South Asia. Zafar is regularly engaged in tracks of peace processes on Kashmir and he writes a popular weekly column known as 'This, That & The Other' appearing every Friday in Srinagar based English daily 'Rising Kashmir'.)
What to do With the West of LoC?
On a recent morning when thousands of hapless villagers and town dwellers of the Kashmir Valley were taking stock of their roofs blown off by cyclonic winds, the Legislative Assembly, currently in session in Jammu, witnessed noisy scenes over a strange issue. While members of the main opposition Peoples Democratic Party did try to raise issue of the calamity in Kashmir but they couldn’t make a point as the members of Bhartiya Janta Party, Panthers Party and a loner from Jammu State Morcha caused a situation of pandemonium in the House before staging a symbolic walkout to lodge protest on,
What they called as, ‘issue of grave national importance’. Both factions of BJP and the Panthers Party were inviting attention of the House towards media reports suggesting Pakistan’s alleged moves of ‘leasing out’ the region of Gilgit-Baltistan, (GB) the traditional known as ‘Northern Areas of Jammu and Kashmir State’, to China. The senior Minister present in the House at that point in time, Abdul Rahim Rather, responded to the opposition members with nearly equal concern. Rather said, “It is a matter of serious concern but this (J&K Legislative Assembly) is not the appropriate platform to raise this issue”.
It is heartening to note concerns of responsible people in Jammu, or for that matter in Srinagar or Ladakh, when something happens in up north in Gilgit or down south in Mirpur but the key question here is: “Do we have a national policy on the parts of Jammu and Kashmir towards on the western side of Line of Control? Or, do we have an audit of the local public sentiments or an idea of the political standpoints on those areas under custody of Pakistan?”
China in Gilgit-Baltistan
The case of Chinese presence in Gilgit-Baltistan is open and shut. For its geographical location, terrain and to some extent ethnic and cultural affinity Gilgit-Baltistan, for all practical purposes, has more interaction and dependence on southern Sinkiang (or Xingjiang) province of China than with the mainland Pakistan. In recent years most of Gilgit-Balistan’s trade is with Kashgar and other areas in Sinkiang. Every other day there is a report in the Indian Press attributed to our Army Generals pointing to ‘reports of Chinese presence in Gilgit-Baltistan’. If China connection is ‘really, seriously and honestly’ any cause of concern in India, there are many other glaring cases. For example, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan don’t need to visit the Chinese Embassy in Islamabad to obtain a visa and take flight to Beijing. In fact, residents of Gilgit-Baltistan don’t need a visa, at all, to visit China. All they need to do is to pay Pakistani Rs 200 at the outer border of Hunza-Nagar district and take a permit for visit to China. NATCO (Northern Areas Transport Company) and another private operator ply daily two buses from Gilgit and Baltistan to Kashgar. The passenger traffic between GB and Islamabad-Rawalpindi is not as frequent as it is towards Kashgar. It takes 22 hours from Gilgit to reach to Rawalpindi. Another interesting fact is that while GB operates two bus services with Kashgar in China, there is no road link between any part of GB and the Pakistan administered Kashmir in the south. A large area of Hunza towards northwest of Attabad lake has practically no link even with rest of Gilgit-Baltistan –their entire dependence is on China after submersion of a key pass. It often surprises when ‘revelations’ are made about Chinese presence in GB when it is an open secret that all major and essential infrastructural development in GB is all Chinese doing. May that be Karakoram Highway, Bhasha-Diamer and other dams, the upcoming high speed rail project –it is all in Chinese hands and, of course, they their engineers, skilled and unskilled workers and the men to secure them–all in thousands. China has recently unveiled a major infrastructural and development blueprint for enhancing the restive Sinkiang’s business relations with neighbouring area. Gilgit-Baltistan has been identified as a priority area. So, there is more of China in Gilgit-Baltistan than the fuss in India but the question is what to do with that.
What is on the West?
This might sound self humiliating but the fact of the matter is that neither we have a national policy nor a cohesive public agenda on 37 percent of the total area of Jammu and Kashmir that lies towards west of the Line of Control and is known by different names by different people –for ‘official’ India, the entire area on the west of LoC is ‘Pakistan occupied Kashmir’ and at the same time anyone living outside of the Valley of Kashmir and calling himself a Kashmiri is ridiculed misnomer of identity. A section of Indian civil society has, however, recently started calling the southern parts of areas under Pakistan’s control as ‘Pakistan administered Kashmir’. And for Pakistan, the southern long stretch is ‘Azad State of Jammu and Kashmir’ since October 24 1947. Gilgit-Baltistan, the vast area with sparse population that made part of Dogra rule, is entirely a separate case for Pakistan. Known in Pakistani parlance as Federally Administered Northern Areas (FANA) since taking over its control on November 16, 1947 Pakistan had kept the legal and constitutional status and also name of the region loosely undefined until the promulgation of ‘Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order’ of 2009. Therefore, since 2009, Northern Areas have a provision of elections, an assembly, a Chief Minister, a Governor and more importantly the name – Gilgit-Baltistan. This is in stark variance with Pakistan’s administrative mechanism with respect to the southern strip –the PoK, Pak or whatever. Precisely, Gilgit-Baltistan has been assimilated by Pakistan, more or less, as its fifth province. This strange piece of information may of importance for those who are concerned about the ‘so called lease to China’ that except for one symbolic statement from the spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs and another from RSS there was hardly a word from anywhere in Jammu and Kashmir or rest of India when Pakistan carried out strategically surgical operation in 2009 to alter the status of Gilgit-Baltistan as far as the question of territorial jurisdiction of Jammu and Kashmir is concerned.
Now what is the plight of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan or Pakistan administered Kashmir or what do they want for the future is an irrelevant issues for the people on east of LoC or in rest of India unless they are clear about the people and places on the west of LoC. The 1994 resolution of Parliament is certainly not enough to answer these questions.