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Founding Editor view on Gilgit-Balitstan

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The Wakhan Corridor connects India to Afghanistan. That is on the maps that India claims to represent its post-1947 boundaries. Until independence in 1947 India and Afghanistan were neighbours, just as with Iran. All that changed on 14 August with the creation of Pakistan, thereby leaving the Wakhan Corridor as the only Indian border with Afghanistan. This too changed when the Pakistan army launched the first of its many operations to wrest Jammu and Kashmir from India. The subsequent ceasefire and the later recognition of a Line of Control between the two countries has altered the boundaries between India and Afghanistan. Between Jammu and Kashmir, India and the Wakhan Corridor now lies the Northern Areas, or Gilgit-Balitstan as the area is now referred to officially.

There are a number of activists from Gilgit-Balitstan who accuse India of ignoring their plight. The accusation revolves around the well documented fact that India has long been focused on what is referred to as Kashmir, under Pakistani occupation or areas that comprise the state of Jammu and Kashmir in India. The activists believe that the tragedy that has befallen the people of Gilgit-Baltistan remains far removed from public discourse and policy formulation. 'If you believe this area to be under the illegal occupation of Pakistan and have a claim on us as Indians, then there is every reason for you to raise your voice in our favour', said one recently in a seminar in New Delhi. It was a compelling argument, for if India claims Gilgit-Baltistan to be a part of Jammu and Kashmir state, which it once was, there is every reason for it to pay greater attention to the people of this area and what has been happening to them.

Since the Siachen battles began in April 1984 the people of Gilgit-Baltistan have been at the receiving end of a brutal policy of subjugation forced through sectarian programmes unleashed by the Pakistan army. Repeated attempts by the Pakistan army to wrest the initiative on Siachen failed. But as the failures mounted so did the atrocities on the hapless people of Gilgit-Baltistan. The well-documented is of course the massacre of Shi'a Baltis in 1988 when the Pakistan army's Brigade Commander was a certain Pervez Musharraf. It is no coincidence that his failure to dislodge the Indian army from its gains on Saltoro and Siachen led to the massacres and his subsequent attempt to take the heights of Kargil and Drass. That too came a cropper and then began the diplomatic attempts to evict India from Siachen. The latest round of talks has just ended in another stalemate in Islamabad.

This only highlights that there is more than a geographical connection between the heights of Siachen and the happenings in Gilgit-Baltistan. Sectarian violence raised its head once again viciously in April when a bus load of Shi'a pilgrims was attacked. This caused a shutdown in Kargil, once again pointing out the deep linkages between the people of this area. It is those linkages that beckon a more informed Indian policy on Gilgit-Baltistan. As the judicious claimant the onus is on India to renew its links with the area and its people. Anything that improves their lives is a better policy than not having one at all. China has quietly stepped into the vacuum that currently exists, raising the stakes for India. If India wants to be a global player it should first begin to play the game in its neighbourhood.


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