Over the last couple of days, news has surfaced that the government might be mulling a change in the constitutional status of Gilgit-Baltistan. This is a really welcome move and is long overdue. In fact, the present status of the region stems from a skewed understanding of what happened in the aftermath of the transfer of power in the Indian empire in August 1947, as well as a lack of knowledge of the region.
As I explain in my book, the story of what we call Gilgit-Baltistan is not as simple as just a constituent part of the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir. Historically, what we used to call ‘Gilgit Agency’ was made up of the princely states of Hunza and Nagar, the smaller entities of Chilas, Koh Ghizr, Ishkoman, Yasin and Punial, and the Gilgit Wazarat. Out of these territories, only the Gilgit Wazarat formed a part of the State of Jammu and Kashmir, while the other areas were under the paramountcy of the British Government of India. The British had been instrumental in pacifying this area, and even helped the Kashmir Darbar establish its writ in parts of its own territory. In order to consolidate its control in the area, especially as the Great Game was still on, the British Government of India established the Gilgit Agency in 1889. Since its inception, the Agency controlled the defence, foreign affairs and communications of the region, with the help of a political agent in Gilgit city and an assistant political agent in Chilas. By the 1930s, however, it was proving to be difficult to govern the Gilgit Wazarat under the local rule of the Kashmir governor and external control of the British, and so an agreement was signed in 1935 between the Government of India and the maharaja, leasing the Gilgit Wazarat for a period of 60 years. Henceforth, the British became complete masters of the Gilgit Agency.
While the Maharaja of Kashmir always claimed that the whole Gilgit Agency formed his state, the Indian government was very clear that this was not the case. After the Kashmir Darbar submitted a long note to the Indian government, New Delhi concisely and clearly put an end to the confusion. Colonel Fraser, a resident in Kashmir, wrote to Maharaja Sir Hari Singh on March 5, 1941, the final decision of the viceroy on the status of the constituent units of the Agency: “1) Hunza and Nagar: though these are under the suzerainty of the Kashmir State, they are not part of Kashmir but are separate states; 2) Chilas, Koh Ghizr, Ishkoman, and Yasin: Though these are under the suzerainty of Kashmir State they are not part of Kashmir but tribal areas.” As the British were the paramount power in India and because the Kashmir Darbar had long accepted the paramountcy powers of the Crown, the viceroy had all legal authority to define the status of any part of India — which he unequivocally did in this declaration. Hence, the treatment by the Pakistani government of the whole Agency as Kashmir territory was wrong from the outset.
On the issue of what happened even in Gilgit Wazarat in the aftermath of the transfer of power, it is clear that the entire population was pro-Pakistan and had no intention of either remaining a part of Kashmir or joining India. The British ended the lease on August 1, 1947 and the Kashmir government had sent in its governor to Gilgit town but the populace as well as the Gilgit scouts — the main paramilitary force in the region — were unhappy with the move. The commandant of the Gilgit Scouts at that time was the young Major Brown, who helped by his assistant, Captain Matheison, planned a coup in favour of Pakistan if things became unmanageable. Then, as the news of the alleged accession of Kashmir to India reached Gilgit in late October 1947, Major Brown launched a coup on the night of October 31/November 1, 1947, arrested the Kashmir-appointed governor, secured the treasury, protected the minorities, and then sent a cable to the premier of the then NWFP, asking the Pakistani government to take over. While Major Brown was removed from his post in a few months due to his precarious position as a British army officer, it is sufficiently clear from all records that he indeed — rather than all the later claimants — was the person who led the Gilgit area into Pakistan. This was acknowledged officially by the Pakistan government, the erstwhile NWFP government, the first Pakistani political agent of Gilgit and even the Kashmir-appointed governor, Brigadier Ghansara Singh.
Nearly 70 years ago, the people of the Gilgit Wazarat revolted and joined Pakistan of their own free will, as did those belonging to the territories of Chilas, Koh Ghizr, Ishkoman, Yasin and Punial; the princely states of Hunza and Nagar also acceded to Pakistan. Hence, the time has come to acknowledge and respect their choice of being full-fledged citizens of Pakistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 9th, 2016.