Things have been heating up at the border, to put it mildly. At his address at the Field Marshal KM Cariappa Memorial, Army Chief General Bipin Rawat described Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir as “Terrorist-Controlled”. He went further and said Gilgit-Baltistan and PoK are illegally occupied by Pakistan.
“The territory (PoK) occupied by Pakistan is not controlled by the Pakistan establishment but it is controlled by terrorists. PoK is actually a terrorist-controlled part of Pakistan,” he said. As expected DG-ISPR Asif Ghafoor of Pakistan reacted to it strongly on social media.
The comments by General Bipin Rawat had come days after the Indian Army attacked terrorist camps in PoK after Pakistan tried to push terrorists into India. General Rawat had said afterwards that 6-10 Pakistani soldiers were killed and heavy damage was inflicted on terrorist infrastructure across the LoC. Ghafoor, as usual, was satisfied with feeding Pakistanis convenient state propaganda through social media.
The recent change in the India-Pakistan relationship
It’s symbolic of the tectonic shift India-Pakistan relations have undergone since the fateful terrorist attack at Uri that the Pakistani establishment did not engage in dire threats following the retaliation by the Indian Army. One would expect the establishment of a country such as Pakistan to react in extreme fashion if their arch enemy stated that numerous soldiers of theirs were neutralized. It’s how Pakistan would have reacted in the past.
However, on this particular occasion, Ghafoor contained himself by putting up a false sense of bravado on social media and the Pakistani establishment did not escalate affairs. The international community as well, which would have engaged in calamitous doomsday apocalypse narrative earlier had the Indian Army Chief announced such a thing, quietly ignored the entire matter and allowed things to pass unnoticed by the world at large.
Something has changed fundamentally about the India-Pakistan relationship. And the statements that have been by top officials of the Indian government are a testament to that effect. There is an increased boldness about the manner in which high-ranking members of the Indian government speak of Pakistan and that is translating into action on the ground.
Defense Minister Rajnath Singh on the 25th of September warned Pakistan that if it refuses to mend its ways, they will lose territory again as they did in 1971. He said, “we are advising Pakistan again and again, in 1971 Pakistan was split into two, Pakistan and Bangladesh were created. I say don’t repeat the mistake of 1971 again, otherwise, understand clearly what will happen to PoK”. Earlier, Singh had hinted at the revision of India’s “No First Use” nuclear policy.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced on US soil at the Howdy Modi event that time had come to wage the decisive war against terrorism. Home Minister Amit Shah declared in the Parliament after the abrogation of Article 370 that they are willing to sacrifice their lives for PoK (Jaan de dengey iske liye). On the 25th of October, Union Minister Jitendra Singh asserted that days are not far off when it will be possible to unfurl the Indian flag in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir.
And then, of course, we have General Bipin Rawat’s remarks as mentioned above. The comments are far too numerous and far too precise to be dismissed as mere rhetoric, especially when things are extremely heated up at the LoC. There is a certain change in the air and every one of us can feel it. Thus, we have to ask, what is the endgame here?
All roads lead to Gilgit-Baltistan
The clue, perhaps, lies in comments that were made by Rajnath Singh in 2013 as president of the BJP during his five-day visit to the US. He had raked up the issue of the violation of human rights and the oppression of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan and the strategic significance that the region holds for India.
“India and Afghanistan have traditionally been tied together by the Silk Route. If India does not share a land border of 106 km with Afghanistan today, it is because of Pakistan’s illegal occupation of this historical part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir since 1948,” Rajnath Singh said in a keynote address at a conference on Afghanistan held at the Capitol Hill.
He further stated, “The Northern Regions of Gilgit and Baltistan, whose people are subjected to massive oppression and human rights violations today, are a gateway for India to Central Asia with which we have had millennia-old relations. India should get rightful access to Central Asia through the Gilgit-Baltistan region, with connectivity being established between Kargil in India and Skardu in Gilgit.”
These statements cannot be brushed away lightly. In 2013, it became clear that the UPA will not be able to form the government for the third time, thus, people in the US would have wanted to know more about the foreign policy approach of the potential incoming government in 2014. As BJP President, Rajnath Singh was best placed to convey the message.
Since then, important people in the administration have consistently emphasized on the geostrategic significance that Gilgit-Baltistan has for India. NSA Ajit Doval, who holds an indispensable position in the Modi government, said at a BSF function in May 2015, “We have to plan and prepare for the future. We have got seven countries with which we share our border. We have six with which we directly share a contiguous border. But we also have a 106-km-long non-contiguous border with Afghanistan that we need to factor in. With all these seven countries, we have very special and peculiar relationships and peculiar problems.”
In June 2015, Spokesperson in the External Affairs Ministry Vikas Swarup called elections in Gilgit-Baltistan an attempt by Pakistan to “camouflage its forcible and illegal occupation” of the regions which are an integral part of India. “India’s position is well known. The entire state of Jammu and Kashmir which includes the regions of Gilgit and Baltistan is an integral part of India. The election in Gilgit and Baltistan on June 8 under the so-called ‘Gilgit Baltistan Empowerment and Self Government Order’ is an attempt by Pakistan to camouflage its forcible and illegal occupation of the regions,” Swarup had said in New Delhi.
The geostrategic significance of the region
The geostrategic significance of Gilgit-Baltistan appears obvious from the statements Rajnath Singh made in 2013. Numerous others have made similar observations about the region as well. S. Kalyanaraman. Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis, said, “Regaining this territory would also provide India with a direct land link to Afghanistan and thence to the Central Asian Republics, both of which are increasingly falling into the Chinese sphere of economic and political influence.
As Kalyanaram mentioned, there is significant Chinese involvement in the region. Manoj Joshi, a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, wrote on June 2015, “Beijing has been an important player in the region. Beginning in the mid-1960s, China constructed the Karakoram Highway linking Kashghar in Xinjiang with Gilgit and Abbottabad through the Khunjerab Pass. Though prone to landslides, efforts are on to upgrade this highway and make it an axis of China’s Silk Road Initiative which will link Xinjiang to Gwadar port in Balochistan through the highway, a possible railroad and oil and gas pipeline. China has invested in a number of projects in the Gilgit-Baltistan region and the Chinese connection is an important element of the region’s economy. During his recent visit, President Xi Jinping committed some $46 billion to projects in Pakistan.”
Major General (retired) Umon Sethi, wrote in an article in 2012 in the Vivekananda International Foundation (VIF) founded by NSA Ajit Doval, “The Chinese investments and involvement in infrastructure development project have seen a steady increase over the last few years. It is interesting that both the countries have remained evasive and non-committal while explaining ever-increasing Chinese presence in GB and POK.”
He added, “Investing billions of dollars in various infrastructure and other projects in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of PoK involving several thousand Chinese personnel belonging the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have caused much suspicion and uneasiness both among the indigenous people and the strategic community. There have been reports of protests and clashes in Hunza and other places between locals protesting against the ‘stealing of jobs’ by the Chinese.” The retired Major General elaborated numerous other Chinese projects in the regions which are a cause for concern.
Gilgit-Baltistan is situated between the mountain ranges of the Hindu Kush and borders Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan; Xinjiang Province of China, Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, Pakistan occupied Kashmir and Indian State of Jammu and Kashmir. Thus, it lies at the confluence of Central Asia, China and South Asia. By virtue of its geography, it offers the advantage of being the vital hub for trans-region exchanges. Most importantly, Gilgit-Baltistan is the entry point for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Thus, it’s perfectly understandable why India would want it back.
Thus, the abrogation of Article 370 was merely the end of a chapter that began at Uri in 2016. It also marked the beginning of a new one which, quite possibly, will end with the reclamation of Gilgit-Baltistan. It makes sense for India to pursue the strategy not only for ideological reasons but for sheer realpolitik and economic necessities as well. It will help India access Central Asian markets and will help India counter China’s OBOR in a grand fashion.
Implications for the World Order
We have said earlier at OpIndia.com that the ongoing trade war between the USA and China provides India with a unique opportunity to pursue its own national interests without any inhibition. The current global climate offers India an opportunity to pursue a geostrategic realignment in the region that is more suited to its interests.
MEA Jaishankar, during his interview at an American Think Tank, said quite bluntly that the West will have to come to a new understanding with India. He said, “You have a new set of people there with different thoughts, with their own sense of roots, who relate to the world obviously different from the people who dominated the Indian political scene before them.” He further stated that the West never wanted India to become weak but it never wanted India to become strong either. He described it as the ‘Goldilocks era of the relationship’. He also emphasized the fact that “India would hedge enough to make sure that it always has a strong bargaining hand vis-à-vis the West”.
The ongoing tensions and the Trade War between the USA and China were bound to occur at some point. China, with its hegemonic ambitions, was always destined to collide with the US, the current hegemon. And ironically as it may seem, China cannot pursue its hegemonic ambitions without inadvertently strengthening India, the only power which could ever hope to thwart them in the region. The Doklam conflict was the most glaring demonstration of it. The Dragon stared down at the Elephant in Doklam and the Elephant refused to look away and stared right back until the Dragon was forced to flinch. And the world took notice.
The USA and much of the West will be more than happy if India controlled a region as significant as Gilgit-Baltistan instead of the Chinese regime. The British Parliament, too, passed a resolution in 2017 condemning Pakistan’s attempts to declare the regions its fifth province and reaffirmed that its position Gilgit-Baltistan belongs to India. The resolution also stated the construction of the CPEC is illegal.
The USA will see it as an effective counter to China’s rising influence in the international arena. And as long as China is mired in a conflict with the USA, it cannot afford to antagonize India as well without massive consequences for its economy, which by all accounts, is taking significant blows already due to the Trade War.
From the Indian perspective, the USA cannot afford to antagonize India as well while it engages in a Trade War with China. The increasing cooperation between India and the USA that we see today was not born in a vacuum, it was triggered by the Chinese threat. The VIF, in a response to a question posted to its website in February this year, said, “A direct Chinese involvement during an Indo-Pak conflict seems highly unlikely in any scenario. India’s own ties with China have high economic stakes involved and both are keen to keep the borders calm.”
Thus, it’s no wonder that Pakistan is being hammered both at the LoC and international forums. Even Imran Khan was forced to concede that Pakistan has found no support from the global community on the matter of Kashmir. And the developments are not surprising at a time when the USA is in a conflict with China, and Pakistan has been basically selling itself to the Chinese regime for quite a while.
The grand reception that Chinese President Xi Jinping received recently in Mamallapuram in Tamil Nadu was as much a message to China as it was to the West. It’s India making clear to the West that the time when they could bully India has long since passed. At the same time, India conveyed to China that we are more than willing to cooperate with them provided that our strategic interests are not compromised. And right now, if India’s strategic interest is the reclamation of Gilgit-Baltistan, China may well not be in a position to do much about it given the current equations in the global world order.
From the Indian perspective, it isn’t too farfetched to assume that India’s objective in the current tensions between the two countries is the reclamation of Gilgit-Baltistan. It makes sense from a geostrategic and economic perspective. Is the Indian government really considering it? That only people in the government could ever tell, but it will be extremely hard to argue that the thought hasn’t crossed their minds. Can India really pursue this strategy at this point in time? At the end of the day, it’s a decision for the Prime Minister and others in the Indian government to make.
From an outsider’s perspective, the phase period between 2021-22 appears to be an optimum period to initiate military operations to reclaim Gilgit-Baltistan. Donald Trump’s reelection as President appears very likely and even if he loses his reelection bid, it appears unlikely that the American establishment’s approach to China will change in the near future. In the time frame mentioned, the economic policies of the US against China if they continue, which appears it will, will certainly start affecting China’s economic prowess significantly.
Pakistan has never been weaker than it is now. And it’s extremely unlikely that they will be able to recover anytime soon. By 2021-22, one expects Pakistan to be on even weaker ground than it is now. Thus, hitting them when they are at their weakest makes sense. Reclamation of Gilgit-Baltistan will also be a massive psychological blow to Pakistan and it might disintegrate further as a consequence. All of this works in India’s favour. But the question at the heart of the matter is: How far is the Indian government willing to go and what are the sacrifices is it willing to make?