It is seldom that the part of Kashmir under Pakistan’s control comes under western media scrutiny. However, a report published in the New York Times has recently trained the spotlight on the area by disclosing that as many as 11,000 soldiers of the Peoples’ Liberation Army have been stationed in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of the PoK, apparently to meet the challenge of local unrest. The opinion piece is written by Selig Harrison, a seasoned expert on South Asia, and therefore carries a great deal of credibility. The article calls the latest development a “quiet geopolitical crisis” where Pakistan has handed over “de facto control” of PoK to China and calls on the United States to take note of the Chinese presence in the region. The article describes how these Chinese soldiers are taking part in construction activities such as building dams, roads and other projects such as the broadening of the Karakoram highway in PoK.
The uproar in the aftermath of the report resulted in Chinese and Pakistanis denials of the disclosures. Chinese justifications for the troop presence is based on the prevailing flood situation in PoK. India’s response has been balanced and the Ministry of External Affairs has clearly stated that apt measures would be initiated once these developments have been confirmed by an independent assessment.
Notably, the Chinese presence in PoK has been known to the Indian side. Statements from the Government on India from time to time reflect India’s sensitivities on the developments in PoK which is as an integral part of Indian territory. India’s opposition to the construction of the Bunji Dam with Chinese assistance in the Astore District is a recent example in this regard.
The Karakoram Highway situated in PoK is the lifeline between Pakistan and China and it is alleged that this route has been used in the past for sending arm supplies including nuclear materials from China to Pakistan. This highway is thus pivotal for the Chinese agenda. China has intensified its engagement in PoK, starting with rebuilding and reconstruction activities after the earthquake of 2005, the consequences of which were not fully appreciatedat the time.
The Chinese are thus using the flood situation as a cover to justify troop movements in a territory which legally belongs to India. China had always attempted to highlight that Kashmir is a contested territory by issuing stapled visas to Kashmiris and denying a visa to a military general who was serving in Jammu & Kashmir. So it was fully aware of the significance and implications of moving an entire unit of the PLA into PoK .
There is no doubt that the New York Times report has elicited wider attention mainly because it is of western origin. In the past, independent international reports have pointed out gross human rights violations taking place in PoK but without creating much impact. This report is important because it is non-partisan and is published in the United States which itself is in a dilemma regarding its strategic objectives in Pakistan .
The New York Times report has important lessons for India, which has been less than assertive on the issue of PoK. The report has stirred up the debate on Kashmir, thereby providing a ripe opportunity for India to reemphasize its legal right over PoK. After making an objective assessment, India needs to use such reports as effective tools to educate the international community that all is not well in that part of Kashmir (read PoK).
India needs to evaluate the current development including in the context of the overall encirclement of India by China in its entire neighbourhood, and state in clear terms that Chinese intervention in PoK is unwarranted.
Subsequently, India needs to up the ante against Pakistan’s unlawful control of PoK. It is for the world to know that this territory which is an integral part of India has been kept undee closed wraps over decades. There is simmering unrest against Pakistan in PoK which needs to be highlighted across the globe, especially amongst countries who are strong advocates of human rights and freedom.
There are pertinent questions relating to the status of PoK which need an answer: why is that the sufferings of the local population in PoK go largely unnoticed by the world community? Why has Pakistan deliberately kept the so called Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan away from media attention?
Against recent developments, PoK can no longer be treated as one of the several issues pending between India and Pakistan. The emergence of China in the picture has added a new dimension which needs to be dealt with consistently to strengthen India’s claim on PoK.
India could also advertise the situation in PoK to refute the separatist argument that militarization of J&K is adversely affecting the normalization and peace process in the valley. Pakistan on its part has allowed a foreign force in PoK, a territory which does not even belong to it, to suppress a popular uprising. Hence, Pakistan has further imperiled the security of the people of PoK.
Selig Harrison’s comments are of some consequence to the United States also as PoK is currently under Pakistan’s control. Any development taking place within territory under Pakistan’s control, that too with a Chinese dimension to it, needs urgent attention from the United States.
To conclude, India cannot afford to be indifferent to the emerging situation. And this is not only to ensure India’s geo-strategic interests are secured but also because the Parliamentary Resolution of 1994 necessitates it to respond appropriately. The problem has been signaled by a third party and the eventual denials from Pakistan and China would not count to much. For India to put forth its legitimate claim on the whole of Kashmir, the time is now or else, never.