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Friday, September 3, 2010

Know Your Balawaristan

In an op-ed in the New York Times (NYT) on August 26, 2010, the well-known commentator and analyst, Selig S. Harrison noted that China was, according to estimates by local citizens of Balawaristan, heavily involved in infrastructure activities in those areas. As part of those activities, this area was witnessing presence of large-scale Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) soldiers. One estimate put the number of PLA soldiers deployed as between 7000 and 10000. The NYT Op-Ed also alludes to 22 tunnels being built in these places where even Pakistanis are not permitted. Satellite imagery has since confirmed the existence of many of these tunnels with roads going into the tunnels. More permanent Chinese residential enclaves are also coming up in these areas. Satellite imagery has also picked up large army convoys moving on these roads. Various analyses attribute different reasons for the presence of the Chinese Army in these areas, though China itself has vehemently denied the presence of its Army in what it provocatively termed as ‘Northern Areas of Pakistan’. This is for the first time that China has denoted Balawaristan as ‘Northern Areas’, a term which Pakistan itself has changed to ‘Gilgit-Baltistan’ (or, GB) after the 2009 Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment Act. While the Pakistanis have attributed reasons such as flood relief aid and aid to those trapped on the other side of the landslide-created Attabad lake for the presence of the Chinese, they are flimsy reasons and are not convincing enough for frenzied and very large-scale construction activities. On the other hand, some Chinese analysts have admitted that these indeed are road and railroad construction activities to link the Chinese-constructed Gwadar port on the extreme west of the Makran coast in the Balochistan province and bordering Iran as well as to link other naval facilities such as Pasni and Ormara, also along the Makran coast further to the west of Karachi.

Let us try to understand this remote area of Balawaristan.

1. Balawaristan is an area of approx. 38000 Sq. KMs. with a population of apprximately 1 million (based on the last census of Pakistan with suitable projection).

2. Balawaristan has six districts, Gilgit, Skardu, Ghanche, Ghizar, Diamar, and Astore, two States of Hunza and Nagar and the subagency of Chilas. In c. 1947, the Mir of Hunza, the Mir of Nagar, the Raja of Punial, the chieftains of Koh Ghizar, Yasin and Ashkoman were subordinate to the Governor of the Maharajah of J&K located at Gilgit.

3. The languages spoken in Balawaristan are: Shina, Balti, Wakhi, Khowar, Burushaski, and Domaaki.

4. The Pakistani government has thrown a ‘cordon sanitaire’ to a depth of 50 Kms from the border along the Afghan border (Wakhan Corridor) area and of 16 Kms along the Kashmir-border area.

5. Today Gilgit is 60% Shia (Twelvers), 40% Sunni; Hunza 100% Ismaili; Nagar 100% Shia; Punial 100% Ismaili; Yasin 100% Ismaili; Ishkoman 100% Ismaili; Gupis 100% Ismaili; Chilas 100% Sunni; Darel/Tangir 100% Sunni; Astor 90% Sunni, 10% Shia; Baltistan 96% Shia; 2% Nurbakhti; 2% Sunni. They do not consider themselves as Kashmiris and speak a number of languages.

6. Ethnically, the main groups are Baltis, Yashkuns, Mughals, Kashmiris, Ladakhis, Tajik, Mongol, Turkmen and some population of Greek origin.

7. In c. 1889, the British, worried about the Russian Czarist expansion, created the Gilgit Agency as the suzerain power. Gilgit Agency was taken on a 60-year lease from Maharajah Hari Singh by the British in 1935 due to fear of spreading Russian Communism and the civil war in China, especially in Sinkiang. The Gilgit Scouts (currently part of the enlarged Northern Light Infantry, NLI) was a British India force created to help the British Political Agent. In June, 1947, the lease was cancelled and the Agency was returned to the Maharajah. However, the J&K State had retained the services of Maj. William A Brown and Captain A.S. Mathieson of the Gilgit Scouts, a decision that proved fatal. In the night between October 31 and November 1, Maj. Brown and about 100 men of Gilgit Scouts surrounded the house of the Governor, Brig. Ghansar Singh, who had taken over from the British Political Agent, Lt-Col. Bacon, only on Aug. 1, 1947, and asked him to surrender. It now turns out from records that Lt-Col. Bacon and Major W.A.Brown had worked out ‘contingency plans should the Maharajah take over the state to India’ in June 1947 itself. We must remember that it was exactly what the duo did after the Maharajah had signed accession papers to India on Oct. 26, 1947. After a heavy exchange of fire throughtout the night, the brave Brigadier had to surrender the next morning as Major. Brown threatened to kill all non-Muslims in Gilgit if he did not do so. On November 3, 1947, this British Major, William A Brown, hoisted the Pakistani flag at the garrison and formed an Interim Government and within two weeks, a ‘political agent’ of Pakistan, Maj. Aslam Khan who had taken part in the invasion of Kashmir, took control of Balawaristan as Col. Bacon, now posted at Peshawar acted as the liaison between the British officers and the Pakistani Government, especially Defence Secretary Maj. Gen. Iskander Mirza. Maj. Brown and Col. Mathieson opted to serve in Pakistan after this episode. Maj. W.A. Brown was bestowed with the Order of the British Empire (OBE) within a few months in c. 1948. No citation was announced as to why he was awarded the OBE.

8. Thus the incidents in Gilgit were plainly a mutiny by certain sections of the Scouts, aided by British perfidy, who took the Governor of the province a hostage, and not a rebellion by ordinary citizens and inhabitants of Balawaristan. In fact, the people of Gilgit wholeheartedly welcomed Brig. Ghansar Singh on August 1, at the thought of the demise of the British rule and the return of the Maharajah’s administration. The locals also protested on November 1, 1947, the arrest of the Governor but were suitably pacified by the leaders of the scouts. Pakistan later falsely claimed that ordinary citizens rose in revolt and they sent telegrams to the Government of Pakistan of their desire to unite with Pakistan. A ‘Republic of Gilgit-Astore’ that was setup was forcibly disbanded by Pakistan’s ‘political agent’.

9. The British perfidy in ensuring that Pakistan possessed Balawaristan has been described by C. Dasgupta in his book, ‘War and Diplomacy in Kashmir”, citing records from British archives. The IAF was prevented from attacking the Pakistani Airforce’s supply aircraft that ferried supplies to the Gilgit region, by the combined pressure on the British chief of the IAF, Air Vice Marshal Thomas Elmhirst, by the British Commanders of the Pakistani Air Force, Air Vice Marshal Perry-Keene, and Pakistani Army, Gen. Gracey, and the Commander in Chief of Indian Army, General Bucher. The IAF, which did attack one such PAF Dakota aircraft on November 4, 1947 was stopped from conducting similar operations afterwards by the British. AVM Thomas Elmhirst personally met Nehru and persuaded him from conducting such operations. Thus, Balawaristan was saved from Indian military operations, for its recovery from the mutineers.

10. It has now come to light how the British conspired to keep two territories for Pakistan, Gilgit and North Western frontier Province (NWFP, now called Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa), in order to meet the geo-strategic interests of the British.

11. Since then, Balawaristan has been directly under the control of the federal government through the Ministry of Kashmir and Northern Areas (KANA). Z.A.Bhutto introduced a locally elected ‘council’, Northern Areas Legislative Council (NALC), in 1974 and Musharraf announced a reforms package in 2007 which were all cosmetic in nature.

12. After the annexation, Pakistan started referring to Balawaristan as Northern Areas. It did not want to term the annexation as ‘accession’ of Balawaristan as that would have weakened Pakistan’s claims on the rest of J&K which had acceded to India. Besides, ‘accession’ was a privilege that could be exercised only by the Maharaja and not by ordinary citizens or even governors appointed by the Maharaja for administrative purposes. Also, the Maharaja could only accede his whole state, not parcels of it, to either India or Pakistan. So, the status of Balwaristan was kept in a limbo within Pakistan.

13. Pakistan enacted the Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self Governance) Order 2009 in Aug. 29 and changed its name from Northern Areas to Giligit-Baltistan. As per this act, Gilgit-Baltistan was accorded a province-like status with a federally appointed Governor, a Legislative Assembly and a Chief Minister. The Assembly will have 33 members, of whom 24 are to be directly elected; it will have powers to legislate on 61 subjects. The Governor will head a 12-member Council, with half the members from the Assembly and the other half appointed by the Governor. In that respect, it is very similar to the Kashmir Council of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK) located in Islamabad, to which is subordinated the POK Legislative Assembly. Thus, the Secretary of Ministry of Kashmir and Northern Areas (KANA) actually rules POK, who, in turn, is controlled by the ISI and the Military Intelligence (MI).

14. Pakistan has explicitly barred the Legislative Assembly from dealing with Gilgit-Baltistan’s natural resources including minerals and water. The federal Pakistani government has awarded the construction of the multi-billion USD hydro-electric and water storage projects at Bunji (south of Gilgit) and Diamar-Basha to Chinese companies. India has vehemently objected to Chinese involvement in projects in areas which China itself accepts as 'disputed territories'.

15. This recent empowerment of Balawaristan is nothing but a farcical attempt as the Governor’s council oversees the powers of the Assembly. With half the ‘Council’ consisting of the Governor’s appointees, the federal government has complete and tight control.

16. The Pakistani intention is to separate the Balawaristan region from the J&K dispute. It feels emboldened because India, since even Nehru’s days, had not paid much attention to the recovery of Balawaristan from Pakistani occupation. Both the Kashmiris and the Balawaristanis consider themselves parties to the J&K issue, however.

17. Large scale migration of Pashtuns and Punjabis has been deliberately engineered by Pakistan over the years changing the demography of the region and imposing the Sunnis over the Shi’a. This has lead to frequent clashes and even rebellion which had been crushed with the Pakistani military ruthlessly.

18. The Balawaristanis first rebelled in c. 1988 which Gen. Zia-ul-Haq suppressed, an action in which a certain Brig. Musharraf played a significant role. The trouble erupted when the Shi’a celebrated Eid-ul-Fitr a day ahead of the Sunnis. The still-fasting Sunnis were angered and invited a lashkar from NWFP (now, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) who indulged in unfettered and large scale looting, arson and rape for several days. Many say, the lashkar was aided by the Pakistani Army. Thus, the 1947 spectre of tribal lashkar from NWFP invading J&K under the Pakistani Army’s patronage and guidance and indulging in an orgy of violence, massacre, loot and rape was repeated. The final death toll was 700 Shi’as killed.

19. Since 1996, the Balawaristanis have been angered by the Sunni-biased syllabus imposed upon their schools by the federal government.

20. Again, after the 1999 Kargil Conflict in which over 3000 soldiers of the Gilgit Scouts were said to have died, a revolt brewed in these areas which required direct and urgent intervention of the then Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif. The 1999 Kargil invasion also resulted in large scale transplantation of Sunni jihadis into Balawaristan.

21. Pakistan has exported its sectarian conflicts into Balawaristan through the policy of deliberate settlement of Sunnis in Balawaristan. In January, 2005, a Shi’a leader, Agha Ziauddin Rizvi, was killed in Gilgit.

22. In March 2005, the ex-Inspector General of Police in Gilgit, Sakiullah Tareen, was assassinated by the Shi’a who claimed they had suffered a great deal under his tenure. He was a known Sunni sectarian and a pro-Taliban jihadi who was earlier a diplomat of Pakistan accredited to the Taliban regime at Kabul.

23. Since Pakistan does not allow journalists or human rights activists or international relief organizations into Balawaristan, these human rights violations do not get reported at all. In this respect, Balawaristan is handled similar to Balochistan. The remoteness of both these places along with a ruthless clampdown on news from these regions hide the large-scale violations of human rights that take place regularly.

24. The Ismailis, who owe allegiance to the Aga Khan, have been running a large number of welfare projects in this region which have been also targets of the Sunni sectarians though the Ismailis have largely never retaliated. The Ismailis have faced similar oppression in other parts of Pakistan as well and the Aga Khan University has been a frequent target.

25. Pakistan had concluded a Border Agreement with China on December 26, 1962, a day prior to the US-initiated India-Pakistan Peace Talks in Rawalpindi, thus upsetting the talks even before they started. The Agreement itself was signed much later on Mar. 2, 1963 in Beijing. Later, Ayub Khan claimed that the Chinese had tricked him by timing the announcement of the border agreement to wreck the peace talks. Some historians try to project a picture of these border talks having been initiated much before the 1962 Indo-China War and hence no ulterior motives should be attributed to the Pakistanis. But, the Muslim League and the Pakistani perfidy is such that these pious protestations fall simply by the wayside. First of all, no progress had been made with the Chinese in the border talks up until December 1962, by which time the India-China war had concluded with China having decisively dealt a blow to Indian military. The talks which started in Beijing in May, 1962 had stalled immediately because neither side had any legal records to claim their border alignment. Later, when the talks resumed in Pakistan this time on October 12, 1962, Ayub Khan records in his book, Friends not Masters, how the Chinese were ‘very difficult’ by claiming several areas on the Pakistan side including the Khunjerab Valley and the K-2 mountain peak. The Indo-China War was still more than a week away, October 20, 1962. After the India-China war ended abruptly on November 20, 1962, the Pakistanis were able to immediately find an innovative solution to their vexatious border problem with the Chinese based on the principle of using the watershed of the Indus basin rivers and the traditional grazing grounds used by the Hunza shepherds.

26. Thus, Pakistan conceded vast portions to China, including the Shaksgam Valley. The Official Pakistan Map of 1962 in this area included 11000 Sq. Miles of territory (to the north of the ‘Traditional Frontier’)which has been totally lost by Pakistan to China. Pakistan never staked its claim to these areas in c. 1962, choosing rather to go by the 'Traditional Frontier' several hundred Kms. to the South of the Official Frontier. This is the area bordering Xinjiang (Sinkiang) where the British had built a road all the way from Gilgit in Hunza to Kashgar in Sinkiang where they had a Consulate. In addition, Pakistan conceded another about 3200 Sq. Miles to the south of the ‘Traditional Frontier’ to arrive at the new boundary alignment (out of the 3700 Sq. Miles claimed by China, it was ‘gracious’ enough to give 500 Sq. Miles of cattle grazing ground to Pakistan).


1. Operations in Jammu & Kashmir: 1947-48, Ministry of Defence, Government of India
ISBN 81-8158-053-2

2. The United States and Pakistan 1947-2000: Disenchanted Allies, Dennis Kux, Oxford Press
ISBN 0 19 579656 X

3. War and Diplomacy in Kashmir 1947-48, C.Dasgupta, Sage Publications,2002
ISBN 81-7829-069-3

4. The Shadow of the Great Game, Narendra Singh Sarila, HarperCollins, 2005

5. Facing the Truth, A.G.Noorani, Frontline, Volume 23 - Issue 20 :: Oct. 07-20, 2006

6. The Trouble in Gilgit, Khaled Ahmed, The Friday Times, July 8-14, 2005 - Vol. XVII, No. 20

7. Gilgit-Baltistan Autonomy Package Wins Few Friends, Nirupama Subramanian, The Hindu, Sep. 15, 2009