Control of the geostrategic province in the state of Jammu and Kashmir will give India access to energy resources while limiting the reach and ambitions of Pakistan and China.
In the existing South Asian geopolitical setting, the disputed Kashmir valley does not possess any significant geostrategic value for its three neighbouring powers of India, Pakistan and China, among which the state is sandwiched. Since the division of British India in 1947, Delhi has kept its eye on the "strategically indispensable" province of Gilgit-Baltistan, part of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, and it is in this regional hinterland that the fate of the Indian subcontinent is being reworked.
Soon after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ring-wing government unilaterally annulled Kashmir's special status, India's top political and military leadership made repeated assertions about "reclaiming" Pakistan-administered Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan province from its archrival.
On 12 September, Indian army chief General Bipin Rawat said that India's "next agenda" was to "retrieve" Pakistan-administered parts of Kashmir from the "clutches" of Islamabad and make it part of India. "The government takes actions in such matters. The institutions of the country will work as per the orders of the government. The army is always ready," he said.
Earlier, a statement issued on 10 September by the secretariat of Indian Vice-President M Venkaiah Naidu said that "bilateral talks with Pakistan would be held only on Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK)". He made similar proclamations when speaking at an event on 28 August, after the annulment of Kashmir's autonomy.
Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh also asserted that if talks were to be held with Pakistan, "they would be about PoK and not on any other issue". Indian Union Minister Jitendra Singh further claimed that the Modi government's "next agenda" is "retrieving parts" of Kashmir under Pakistan and merging them with India.
"It is not only my party's commitment, but it was also part of a unanimously passed resolution of the Parliament in 1994. This was passed by the Congress-led government of [former prime minister] Narsimha Rao," Singh said.
In August, Singh urged the redrawing of Indian boundaries with Pakistan that included not only PoK but also Gilgit-Baltistan. "We must assert more strongly and consistently our claim on Gilgit and Baltistan," wrote India's former foreign secretary, Shyam Saran, in his column for the India Today magazine, adding: "Why not invite and give prominence to dissidents and activists from these areas? After all, they are technically our own citizens."
Islamabad has red-flagged these assertions by top Indian politicians and policymakers on annexing Pakistan-administered Azad (Free) Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) and Gilgit-Baltistan.
"The Pakistani army has solid information that they [India] are planning to do something in Pakistani Kashmir, and they are ready and will give a solid response," Prime Minister Imran Khan told the Pakistan National Assembly on the country's Independence Day. He added that its army was preparing to respond to "anticipated Indian aggression" in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. "The time has come when we will teach [India] a lesson."
The importance of Gilgit-Baltistan
Situated at the confluence of three great mountain ranges - the Himalayas, Karakoram and Hindu Kush - Gilgit-Baltistan is a vital geostrategic site. The region borders Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province to the west, Afghanistan's Wakhan Corridor to the northwest, China's Xinjiang province to the east and northeast, AJK to the southwest and the 480km Line of Control (a military control line serving as a de facto border) running alongside Indian-controlled Kashmir in the southeast.
The province effectively provides Pakistan with direct land access to China through Xinjiang via the Karakoram Highway. Beijing's ambitious $60 billion (about R875 billion) China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) infrastructure programme - a vital component of China's transcontinental Belt and Road Initiative - passes through the region, which is considered the main access point between the neighbouring countries.
Through the CPEC project, Islamabad has become China's gateway to the world's energy market and it has assumed a centrality in Beijing's foreign policies. Unlike most countries that welcomed the CPEC project, India has expectedly voiced its unhappiness over the CPEC, conveying to Beijing that the project was "unacceptable" as it passed through the disputed region of AJK and Gilgit-Baltistan, which Delhi claims as its own territory.
Gilgit-Baltistan, in the current geostrategic alignment, cuts India from the mineral and energy-rich markets of Central Asian countries including Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan, as well as Afghanistan. Islamabad has long refused to allow Delhi transit to these Central Asian states, further annoying India as it aims to tap such energy resources for its growing fuel demands. Delhi also perceives growing Sino-Pak cooperation, as evidenced by the CPEC, as an attempt to contain Delhi's clout as a regional power.
India initiated its Connect Central Asia policy in 2012 to counter the growing Sino-Pak influence in the region, and sought to engage Iran and Afghanistan to circumvent Pakistan and gain direct access to the markets of Central Asia. Delhi, especially, increased its bilateral cooperation with Tehran to access oil supplies, and invested in the development of Iran's Chabahar Port as a counter to Pakistan's critically important Gwadar port. The development of the port was further aimed at opening a route to landlocked Afghanistan, where Delhi has developed security and economic ties.
However, with the latest United States sanctions against Iran and pressure from Washington to cut all fuel imports from Tehran, Delhi has been left high and dry. To counter what they see as China's geostrategic advancements through its CPEC programme, many Indian policymakers have long recommended the military takeover of Gilgit-Baltistan and the rest of Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
By capturing the contentious territory, they say, Delhi can establish "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".
The Hindutva project
Because of the territorial dispute with India over the entire Jammu and Kashmir region, the constitutional status of Gilgit-Baltistan as a province of Pakistan remains undefined. This has left the people of the region in a difficult political and legal limbo.
Despite having had de facto control over the region since 1949, Islamabad didn't represent the residents of Gilgit-Baltistan until the GB Self Governance Order 2009. And despite this, the province hasn't been given any control over its resources in the GB Reforms Order 2018, prompting nationalist protests among the residents.
The GB Reforms Order was announced amid local pressure for recognition, prompting a movement to declare Gilgit-Baltistan Pakistan's fifth province. In January, the Supreme Court of Pakistan sanctioned the limbo for Gilgit-Baltistan after ruling that "no change can be made" in its status, which remains subject to the pending plebiscite that would determine the future of Kashmir.
While the court announced that its jurisdiction extends to the Gilgit-Baltistan region and maintained that the state should uphold the fundamental rights of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan "as enjoyed by the people of any other province", the residents' primary demand remains unaddressed.
India's right-wing political class, led by Hindu nationalist groups the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), appears to believe that Delhi can exploit the mandate of international law and capture the region because of its disputed nature, use India's diplomatic clout to validate its actions and exploit local "resentment" against the pending legal impasse to its advantage.
Signals and posturing from Delhi's power corridors suggest that Modi's far-right dispensation has set its eyes on annexing the region through military action. By potentially annexing Gilgit-Baltistan, Delhi aims to achieve at least five strategic goals. It will grant India a direct line to energy-rich Central Asian republics; eliminate Pakistan's land route and direct access with China; scuttle China's ambitious CPEC programme and thereby undermine a vital component of Beijing's one belt, one road initiative; undercut Pakistan by delivering a decisive body blow; and announce its emergence as a global power.
More importantly, Modi's military takeover of Gilgit-Baltistan and AJK will be a step towards the realisation of the RSS's Hindutva project of Hindu Rashtra (Hindu Nation) and Akhand Bharat (Undivided India) that for so long has been the aspiration of Indian Hindu nationalists.
Akhand Bharat, in its most expansive version, is envisioned to include territories that constituted the third-century BC Empire of Chandragupta Maurya. The RSS sees Akhand Bharat as including not only Pakistan and Bangladesh, but also Afghanistan, Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Tibet. It terms the combined region as a "Rashtra" based on "Hindu cultural" similarities.
"The fact of the matter is that not every post-colonial leader harbours blood-soaked expansionist ambitions against neighbouring post-colonial states - but Modi does," writes Adam Garrie in an article titled "Modi's Global Danger: 'Akhand Bharat' is the 'Lebensraum' of the 21st Century".
In this context, the 5 August decision by Modi's government to strip Kashmir of its autonomy must be seen as another step along that expansionist course. And while the immediate focus may be on Kashmir, the end game is most certainly Gilgit-Baltistan.