Gilgit — Strategic importance

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And sensitivities

 

An atmosphere of great tension and confrontation prevailed between British India and Czarist Russia, a cold war was at its peak and both sides were manoeuvring to overpower each other. Rivalry between the two superpowers was termed as ‘great game’ or ‘tournament of shadows’ which in fact was code named ‘Gilgit-game’

 

 

Gilgit is an area of enormous strategic and economic-importance, lying in the northern most region of Pakistan and bordering with states of central Asia, China, Afghanistan and India. Being the fulcrum of Asia it has been the centre of strategic manoeuvers between Czarist Russian and British empires. This region came under the focus of superpowers since 1800 as Russia, with its expansionist policies in the north, was pushing south to reach the hot waters of the Indian Ocean. During the course of its onward odyssey it annexed the Muslim states of central Asia by vanquishing their rag-tag armies. The rulers of Muslim states could not put up stiff resistance against the invading imperial Russian army and resultantly lost a huge territory measuring about 41,00,000 square kilometers, five times the size of Pakistan.

By acquiring the fertile Muslim lands spread over the entire length and breadth of central Asia, Czarist Russia became a formidable power in the world. Russian greed to acquire more Muslim lands did not lessen rather it increased with the passage of time, and it kept its onward pursuit to reach the Indian ocean through British-India. Colonial authorities at Delhi were fully aware of the Czar’s designs and kept a close watch on imperial Russian army’s activities across the border by placing informers in the enemy territory. An atmosphere of great tension and confrontation prevailed between British India and Czarist Russia, a cold war was at its peak and both sides were manoeuvring to overpower each other. Rivalry between the two superpowers was termed as ‘great game’ or ‘tournament of shadows’ which in fact was code named ‘Gilgit-game’.

For all purposes, the centre of politico-strategic activities for the British was Gilgit. They took many measures to protect their northern frontiers by keeping a constant vigil on their borders and monitoring enemy activities.

In 1846, the famous ‘Lahore-Treaty’ was signed; the British government according to the treaty accepted the sovereignty of Maharaja-Gulab-Singh over Jammu and Kashmir. The treaty did not include Gilgit proper, states of Hunza Nagar, Punial Ashkoman, Yasin, Chilas and Darel Tangir, which later became part of Jammu and Kashmir by recommendations of a high powered committee endorsed by British authorities at Delhi.

Top functionaries of the British government at Delhi knew well the strategic importance of Gilgit and they did not consider any region of Jummu and Kashmir comparable or equal to it. The Royal Indian Army generals, General Sir Clard, General Massouri, General Gracy, General Rob, General Lockheart, General Scott, Colonel Becon and George Kingham  were unanimous in their views that Gilgit should not fall in the hands of would be Indian government after partition of India. According to learned sources, this probably was the reason that Major William Brown, then head of northern military command, was ordered secretly to prepare his force for the impending revolt against the Maharaja during partition of India and protect Gilgit and its surrounding states from falling into the hands of Indian national army. Britishers knew well the pivotal importance of Gilgit and its placement at cross-roads between central and south Asian states.

There were three routes for Russia in the north to reach the south:

  1. Maru-Hirat-Farah-Sestan-Chahbahar
  2. Tabriz-Mazar Sharif-Kabul-Peshawar
  3. Kashghar-Gilgit -Thakote -Peshawar

Kashghar-Gilgit, the third route, is the shortest and safest.

In 1889 the British government established its first agency at Gilgit and appointed a military colonel as a political agent. The second in command was a civillain from the Maharaja government in Kashmir titled as ‘ Wazir-Wazarat’ and the power reigns were actually held by the British political agent. The colonial authorities at Delhi were extremely concerned about their northern frontiers.

In 1893 ‘Durand-Line’ was demarcated between India and Afghanistan and Sir Durand was political agent of Gilgit at that time. Amir Abdur Rehman, the ruler of Afghanistan and a signatory to treaty, was extremely happy and flaunted this as an achievement of his government which brought peace between the two countries.

After the Durand Line demarcation, ‘Badakshan’ was given to Afghanistan and Wakhan to india. By taking control of Wakhan the British and Russian armies came face to face. An atmosphere of high tension existed between the two powers and there was a likely hood of a military confrontation. In order to avoid a head-on collision, the British authorities created a ‘buffer-zone’ by handing over a strip of land 300km in length and 210km in width to Afghanistan from ‘Wakhan’ the northern part of Gilgit. This action helped the Royal Indian Army to be placed behind the Afghan lines and avoided a direct confrontation with Russians. During this period, British raised a force named ‘Imperial Service-troops’ and kept a large detachment of these troops in Gilgit.

The Russian onslaught continued, Muslim lands fell to Czarist conquest one after another. In 1930 the Czarist army Captured Xing-Zaing province of Turkistan. British authorities at Delhi, who were keeping a close watch on Czarist conquests, took this adventure to be used as launch pad to attack Gilgit by Russians.

In 1935, as a strategic manipulation British authorities acquired Gilgit on a sixty-year lease from the Maharaja Kashmir to defend Gilgit themselves against a possible Russian invasion.

Historian B. Cock writes in his book “The fall of Gilgit” that Britishers wanted to keep Gilgit in their own hands. Although first and second Afghan wars were controlled from Delhi but Gilgit remained the actual centre of military activities as these wars were being fought in the back drop of Czarist invasion in the central Asian states.

Now CPEC passing through Gilgit has stoked the much debated issue of constitutional rights of people in GB.

Higher echelons in Pak army, having under stood the implications of CPEC on Pakistan’s economy and strategy, have vowed to protect CPEC construction activities at all costs, bringing relief to the worries of millions of people

The importance of Gilgit can be gauged from the fact that Indian viceroy Lord Curzon at Delhi, about 2,000 square kilometers away from Gilgit, journeyed to this mountainous, inaccessible area on horseback for hundreds of kilometers. He visited northern most part of Gilgit bordering Russia and satisfied himself with the management of these borders and state of alertness of his troops guarding the frontiers. He was quoted as saying, that a force commander would be looked short sighted who merely managed his ramparts in India and did not look across his borders.

After the subcontinent’s partition in 1947, British authorities left India but were extremely concerned about the security of Gilgit as their economic and strategic interests in the Persian Gulf were likely to be threatened by a monstrous Russian army stationed on the borders of Gilgit.

No change in Russian expansionist policy was noted after its transition from imperial Czarists to communists in 1917.

It was rumoured in Delhi that British authorities desired a Jammu and Kashmir merger with Pakistan after partition of India. If it did not materialise due to any reason then Gilgit with its surrounding hilly states was to be merged with Pakistan at all costs.

Colonial authorities believed that Muslim clerics can raise a rampart against communist invasion by their sermons and edicts thus preventing the Russian communists reaching the south. Whereas, having a fertile ground in India communism could easily penetrate India without resistance, rendering British assets and interests vulnerable.

HL Saksina, an Indian author, writes in his book the ‘Tragedy of Kashmir’ that the last Indian viceroy Lord Mount Baton made certain that Gilgit should not fall back in Jummu-Kashmir rather Gilgit should be given to Pakistan in order to keep their hold on this region with the collaboration and support of the Pakistani government.

Historians like Professor Usman Ali, Zafar Hayat Pal and many others are of view that the Gilgit revolt against Maharaja of Kashmir reflected British government policies. Last governor of Gilgit, Ghansara Singh, in his memoirs says that British army officers planned and helped local forces to rise in revolt against the Maharaja’s government.

Ghansara Singh conveyed his displeasure to Maharaja in Srinagar-Kashmir over these inductions. It was of no avail, as General Scott and George Kingham were hell bent to keep these officers in Gilgit scouts for the success of their covert plans.

The Gilgit scouts rose in revolt against the Maharaja’s government, annihilated their rule. It is said that Britishers from behind the scene directed the revolutionaries.

The British government relinquished her hold of Gilgit in 1948-49 but kept monitoring the events by their embassy staff. They wanted to ascertain whether the northern borders are being properly guarded or not.

In 1962 the China Pakistan (Gilgit) boundary demarcation was done, in 1970 China-Pakistan agreed to re construct Karakorum Highway (KKH). Indian and Afghan governments violently objected to this agreement. Afghan government termed it an act of aggression against their sovereignty. “TASS’ News agency declared it a dangerous step and criticized China for her expansionist designs in Asia.

Now CPEC passing through Gilgit has stoked the much debated issue of constitutional rights of people in GB.

Higher echelons in Pak army, having under stood the implications of CPEC on Pakistan’s economy and strategy, have vowed to protect CPEC construction activities at all costs, bringing relief to the worries of millions of people.