Colonial transactions in Gilgit-Baltistan

By Aziz Ali Dad

Untimely meditations

For the last few months, news about making Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) a province of Pakistan has been making the rounds. This development is eliciting different responses from various sections of society in Pakistan, GB and Azad Jammu and Kashmir.

Unfortunately, the whole debate about the status of GB hinges upon treatises and agreements made during the colonial era. In fact, it is because of such transactions that GB has been pushed into a liminal political position. That is why it is imperative to expose the debilitating impact of the transactions between the ruling powers in the colonial period on the colonised region of GB

The Dogra ruler of Kashmir made inroads into Baltistan in the 1830s and completely subjugated it by 1842. Later, the Dogras brought Gilgit under their control. This was a prologue to a process whereby the power of local principalities started to wane and external forces intruded deeper into the region. The colonial rulers were different from the local ones because they introduced a system that was meant to safeguard colonial interests in the region.

In the nineteenth century, GB was still an unchartered territory for the Dogras of Kashmir and the British. Therefore, the British embarked upon a project of mapping and collecting information about the region. At the same time, Tsarist Russia also started charting the unknown territories of High Asia. The intersection of political power and treatises with cartography laid the foundation for the formation of new entities, including unified Kashmir.

The Treaty of Amritsar in 1846 was the first agreement that defined the identities of different valleys in GB, according to colonial requirements and at the expense of local realities. The treaty was loosely defined: it included some parts of Baltistan and all of Astore, and it excluded Hunza, Nagar, Ghizer, Gilgit and Chitral. This agreement provided ground for administrative arrangements and the identity of Kashmir. Today, some in Pakistan are proposing a solution to the Kashmir imbroglio by dividing it on the same lines. The Amritsar Treaty had two salient features: the absence of local stakeholders in the decision-making process and the lack of knowledge of foreign rulers about the region. It is obvious that in defining the boundaries, no local ruler was consulted by either the British or the Kashmiri rulers.

Initially, the Dogra forces attempted to subjugate local principalities, but their efforts were thwarted by Gohar Aman and the rulers of Hunza and Nagar. The Dogra forces’ forays into the region of Baltistan and Gilgit had the tacit consent of British. From the collusion between British and the Maharaja of Kashmir, Martin Schofield infers that “in the beginning of Kashmiri domination in Gilgit, the British and Kashmiri discourse on the legitimacy of rule in Gilgit converged”.

Although the Treaty of Amritsar was oppressive for the common people of Kashmir, it did provide legitimacy to the Kashmiri rulers to claim Gilgit-Baltistan as a part of Kashmir. Another feature of the treaty was the lack of knowledge about GB, as it was hitherto an unchartered territory. Frederic Drew also attributes the nonexistence of Gilgit in the Amritsar Treaty to a lack of appropriate knowledge.

Before the advent of the Dogras and the British, identity markers in Gilgit-Baltistan were defined by the boundaries of local principalities. Although different valley domains shared the same culture and – to a great extent – worldview, the identity of the principalities superseded all other aspects, including religion, ethnicity and language. This facilitated the emergence of different but highly localised identities across Gilgit-Baltistan. These identities were enmeshed in the power relations of society and the structures of the principalities. Since the power was rooted locally, it enabled local rulers to make decisions regarding issues pertaining to the areas under their rule.

The conquest of GB by foreign powers and the introduction of a centralised system in the second half of the nineteenth century not only usurped the power of local principalities, but also brought about changes in markers of identity. This effect is evident in the establishment and reestablishment of the Gilgit Agency in 1878 and 1889 respectively, as it brought the principalities of Gilgit Hunza, Nagar, Punial, Yasin and Ghizer under a single administrative system. One of the reasons for establishing the Gilgit Agency was to stop the Russian advance in Pamir and Afghanistan. The other major reason was to subdue local rulers who did not obey the British policy and forged friendly ties with Russia. One such ruler, who proved to be intractable, was Mir of Hunza Safdar Khan. After the failure of Kashmiri forces to defeat Hunza and Nagar, Algernon Durand was appointed the British Agent in 1889. He brought Hunza and Nagar under British control after the battle of Nilt in 1891. Thus the whole region of Gilgit-Baltistan came under British control.

The complete dominance of the British over GB’s administration opposed the traditional mode of operation within and between principalities. The emergence of the British in GB’s political scene broke the cocoon of regionalism and exposed it to the outside world. Until then, the populace had not been influenced by exogenous lifestyles, ideas and institutions. Opening up the closed society propelled the region on a trajectory that was alien to the populace. At the political level, the region remained subordinate to the exogenous power centres.

After the conquest of Central Asia, Tsarist Russia took measures to carve out new states from the Khanates and introduced a new administrative structure. Unlike the Russians, the British relied on local rulers for their control of GB, by allowing them to rule the population through traditional means while remaining loyal to British interest. This relegated the local rulers to a subordinate position to that of British. This system of allowing local rulers to have administrative powers within their spheres, while keeping them subordinate at the collective level of decision making, proved effective for the British.

In 1935, the Gilgit Agency was leased to the British government by the Dogra ruler of Kashmir; the local stakeholders were neither consulted nor made part of the arrangement. Through this agreement, Gilgit-Baltistan was given to the British for 60 years. When the lease was cancelled in July 1947, the region was handed over to governor Ghansara Singh of Kashmir, without the consent of local people.

The Maharajas of Kashmir were a part of all the agreements, treaties and contracts regarding GB during British rule. Thus, Kashmir attained a paramount position in the dispensation of power under British rule and carved out a new identity for itself because of the developments that took place from 1842 to 1948. While Kashmir was playing a role in the processes of the borderlands of High Asia in the Indian subcontinent, GB was gradually deprived of its agency. It has thus became a periphery in the nation of Pakistan and had been subjected to Kashmiri nationalism in the years leading up to 1948.

The agreements and treaties made during the colonial period were meant to perpetuate colonial hegemony by keeping the local inhabitants at bay. These transactions laid the foundation for a system of governance that reduced the region to a liminal entity during the colonial period (under Kashmiri/British rule), as well as in the new state of Pakistan. In the long term, it has had dire repercussions on the socioeconomic, cultural, religious and political spheres of GB.

The liminality of Gilgit-Baltistan in the current order of things can be ended by delegitimising the transactions of the colonial period, which have given it an ambiguous political status in the region.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Gilgit.


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