Northern frontier of Kashmir is ever in the eye of storm. Historically, it was a meeting point of empires. Empires evolving into republics has not changed how it is viewed in strategic terms. While as Czarist Russia controlling Central Asia, British India and Chinese empire kept an eye over it in past, in modern times republics of India, Pakistan and China have hardly lowered the gaze. Even the glaciers located as high as 18,000 feet, such as the one in Siachen holds Indian and Pakistani troops in eyeball to eyeball stance. Either side is not blinking, as LoC beyond the northernmost point remains ill defined. China across LOAC is not far away. The northern border stretches from Gilgit under Pakistan administration to Ladakh under Indian administration. Both countries claim it in Toto; neither is satisfied with truncated northern frontier, given its strategic importance. Russia has lost direct control over Central Asia. That however has translated, neither in losing influence in the region under control since Czarist times, nor in contesting trilogy of China, India and Pakistan. Russian strategists continue to keep the political moves of contending powers in purview. Northern frontier has an interesting historical backlog. It would be interesting to note it, as it could have bearing on future.
British Raj acquired Kashmir from Khalsa Durbar of Lahore as per the Lahore Treaty of March, the 9th 1846. Subsequently the vale was sold to Gulab Singh a week later on August 16th 1846 for 75 lac Nanak Shahi rupees. Col. Nathay shah of Lahore's Khalsa Durbar annexed Gilgit, while the Durbar ruled Kashmir (1819-1846 A.D). As Khalsa Durbar contemplated replacing him, he resisted and ruled Gilgit independently. After Amritsar sale deed (Bainama) of August, the 16th Nathay Shah traded loyalty to Dogra Durbar. Jammu’s Dogra Durbar however faced constant British interference in Gilgit. In 1890’s Maharaja Pratap Singh was accused of hobnobbing with Russians. Instead of Maharaja, a council nominally headed by his anglophile brother Amar Singh ruled the state. It was in essence de-facto British control. In 1935, Maharaja Hari Singh was forced to cede control of Gilgit for sixty years, though he remained the ceremonial head.
In one historical phase from another the stand of British Raj changed. In 1846 A.D, Gilgit was taken to be a part of Jammu and Kashmir State, hence Maharaja’s suzerainty was accepted, British Raj with sovereign rights never allowed Maharajahs to let go of the fact that they were tributaries. Further article one of Bainama Amritsar defining territory to be held by Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir State falling between rivers Ravi and Sindh, towards Hazara, with river Sindh on eastern and river Ravi on western side was interpreted differently in different time phases of British Raj. It was meant to convey that the territory defined in article one might leave Gilgit out of it. In order to confirm British take, these areas were not looped with Jammu and Kashmir State in 1941 census. Prime Minister of Jammu and Kashmir-- Gopalaswamy Ayyenger rebutted British assertion in a detailed note. British Raj however continued to assert its right to oversee the northern frontier, with likes of Durand and Younghusband leading the British missions in various time phases.
Pandit Nehru in a cable to Clement Attlee on October, the 25th 1947 outlined the importance of northern frontier for India. He moved effectively to secure it by landing troops in Kashmir on October, the 27th however not effectively enough take hold of it in Toto. In Gilgit-Baltistan, Major Brown of Gilgit scouts urged by men under his command paved the way for Pakistan getting hold of most vital chunk of northern frontier. Pakistan exercised direct control in northern areas in contrast to what was named Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) where a local administration was put in control. Kashmir’s Muslim conference in its Karachi session of 1948 ceded control of northern areas to Pakistan. Exercising direct control was a British legacy for strategic reasons. Pakistan followed the British trail for identical reasons. India left Ladakh under control of JK Government. Heavy military presence nevertheless ensured Delhi’s sway. Like much of erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir across LoC, northern frontier from Gilgit to Ladakh remains heavily militarized. Military presence has been a British legacy. In 1947, Gilgit scouts shaped the course of events to follow.
China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) has heightened stakes, as China seeks global connectivity for easing energy supplies and enhancing trade via the northern frontier. And, as reported, China wants its political status to be clearly defined. Pakistan weighing options has put northern frontier, yet again, in eye of storm. Pakistan has to consider several factors. One, massive Chinese investment re-igniting Pakistan economy could be the prime factor. Two, Kashmir resistance leaders disfavouring any change in the present status of Gilgit-Baltistan could be taken note of. Three, political aspirations of people of Gilgit-Baltistan in a re-defined political status would form a part of any evolving equation. Lastly, any counter moves of India, a party to Kashmir dispute could form a part of any purview. All these consideration plus the available historical data related to northern frontier would remain a part of strategizing the future.
Given the historical backlog, what the future holds would be keenly watched; especially in JK State across LoC. CPEC has added loads to importance of northern frontier, geostrategic calculations are multiplying by the day.
Yaar Zinda, Sohbat Baqi [Reunion is subordinate to survival]
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(The author is doctor in medicine, a social activist, and a senior columnist)