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How Gilgit was lost forever

Published : Aug 17, 2016, 6:55 am IST
Updated : Aug 17, 2016, 6:55 am IST

With Prime Minister Narendra Modi launching a massive counter offensive against Pakistan’s intensified propaganda war on Kashmir, by throwing into stark relief the human rights violations in the Shia-

With Prime Minister Narendra Modi launching a massive counter offensive against Pakistan’s intensified propaganda war on Kashmir, by throwing into stark relief the human rights violations in the Shia-majority Gilgit and Baltistan in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, the Great Game has taken a spanking new hue. By highlighting how Pakistan is an occupier of Indian territories, Mr Modi has given the whole Kashmir calculus a new spin. India is no longer the desperate prey, cornered and submissive in this equation. As the uncoiling of history takes place, it is pertinent to understand that the state of Jammu and Kashmir originally had five parts to it: Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh, Aksai Chin and Northern Areas (Gilgit-Baltistan).

Over time, India has lost Aksai Chin to China and, of course, the part captured by the tribal raiders in October 1947, which Pakistan chooses to refer to as “Azad” Kashmir, which incidentally includes the Gilgit-Baltistan area garnered courtesy a quietly executed British coup.

In The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition, Narendra Singh Sarila highlights how in 1935, the administrative and defence responsibilities of this northern frontier had been transferred by the Maharaja of Kashmir to the British government of India under a 60-year lease. As the result of the civil war in China became uncertain, the Viceroy prevailed upon Maharaja Hari Singh to do so in the interests of the security of the empire. Gilgit was administered by the political department from Delhi in the same way as Malakand or Khyber in the NWFP, with political officers reporting to the Viceroy through Peshawar. A carefully chosen force capable of rapid movement in mountainous territory controlled by British officers, the Gilgit Scouts, provided the muscle to the administration.

On August 1, 1947 the Gilgit lease was receded by Delhi to the maharaja of J&K and Lt. Col. Roger Bacon, the British political agent, handed over the area to Brig. Ghansara Singh, the state’s new governor. According to V.P. Menon, secretary of state and Sardar Patel’s pointsman in the integration of states, Kashmir did not have the resources, including financial, to hold Gilgit which was cut off from Srinagar during winters. In view of the lapse of paramountcy, the retrocession was probably inevitable, but the fact remains that no sooner was Gilgit handed over to the maharaja than it came under the mercy of Pakistan.

The British officers of Gilgit Scouts: Major William Alexander Brown and Capt. A.S. Mathieson, still served Hari Singh as contract officers, though they continued to receive instructions from the political agent for Khyber based in Peshawar which was now Pakistan.

Brown and Mathieson had to swear an oath of allegiance to the maharaja on the “holy book”. According to Alistair Lamb: “In fact, they knew as the story has it that the book which they held in their hand, while swearing was actually the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, suitably wrapped in an opaque cloth.”

As the new governor occupied his official residence in the grandeur of impotence, it was Brown and Mathieson who held the keys to power in Gilgit.

Lt. Col. Bacon, on transfer from Gilgit, was given the Khyber post. This ensured perfect coordination between the Gilgit Scouts and Peshawar. According to the bulletin of Military Historical Society of Great Britain, the broad post-Partition plan had been discussed by Brown and Bacon in June 1947. And after Mathieson arrived in Gilgit, as second in command, the two British officers refined contingency measures, should the maharaja take his state over to India.

In such a situation, writes Sarila, whatever the fate of the rest of J&K, delivering Gilgit to Pakistan was fairly straightforward. This was accomplished on the night of October 31, 1947. As soon as Maharaja Hari Singh acceded to India, Brown got the Gilgit Scouts to surround the residency and, after a short gun battle, he imprisoned governor Ghansara Singh. Brown then informed Peshawar about the accession of Gilgit to Pakistan. On November 2, the major raised the Pakistani flag at his headquarters and informed the force that they now served the government in Karachi. Brown and Mathieson had surreptitiously opted for service in Pakistan when the maharaja signed the Instrument of Accession in favour of India. Since Gilgit by this act had become a part of India, properly, they should have made an immediate request for release from their appointments. But they didn’t.

The actions of Brown and Mathieson were suspect politically and, while Brown describes it as a coup d’etat, Lamb writes that Brown was certainly not acting as a party to a British conspiracy. However, there existed a small number of British soldiers and officials who, in a private capacity as friends of Pakistan, encouraged Brown and Mathieson to be in Gilgit on the eve of the transfer of power. Moreover, subsequent events came as no surprise to Col. Bacon, who certainly acted as a liaison between Major Brown and the government of Pakistan. In this respect, he may have contributed significantly to the success of Gilgit coup d’etat. Col. Bacon, however, in no way represented the policy of the British government in London.

The geopolitically sensitive Gilgit had been swallowed whole by two Brits acting in concert with Pakistan. India was aghast. Sir George Cunningham, the new governor of NWFP (whose role has been disputed in the sending of the tribal raiders), on hearing of Brown’s coup in Gilgit instructed him and his colleague Mathieson to restore order, ignoring the fact that Gilgit was part of J&K, which had acceded to India. Even the King of England didn’t frown upon the coup. An entry in the 1948 London Gazette reads: The King has been graciously pleased on the occasion of his birthday to give orders for the following appointments to the Most Exalted Order of the British Empire to Brown, Major (acting) William Alexander, Special List (ex-Indian Army).”

It was unparalleled. Maj. Brown had been officially rewarded by the King for the Gilgit coup, once again proving how the British continued to play their sinister games of chicanery and subterfuge in the subcontinent.

Soon Major Aslam Khan, once deputy to Major Khurshid Anwar (one of the key Pakistan Army strategists who organised the tribal lashkar raid on Kashmir from the Muzzafarabad road), arrived to take control over Gilgit. Throughout the Kashmir War (October 22, 1947 to January 1, 1949), Britain successfully ensured that Pakistan’s occupation of this region was not disturbed. After Mountbatten’s mediatory role and the collapse of the direct talks between Jawaharlal Nehru and Liaquat Ali Khan, the Indian Cabinet planned a full-scale war. But Mountbatten made a monumental blunder of suggesting to Nehru that “the UN would promptly direct Pakistan to withdraw the raiders, which would make war unnecessary.” And Nehru believed him, internationalising Kashmir in the process. Thus, Gilgit was lost forever. The writer is a former editor, author and visiting fellow at Observer Research Foundation. He loves the space where politics and economics converge.