Gilgit’s Independence Day


By Yaqoob Khan Bangash

A few months ago, both India and Pakistan celebrated seventy years of independence. While independence has been a mixed bag on both sides of the Radcliffe line, the sheer power of freedom is strong and gives hope, strength and vitality to a people. Hence despite shortcomings and the communal holocaust the partition unleashed, the freedom achieved seventy years ago is something to be celebrated, cherished and enjoyed.
Today is November 1, and today is the seventieth anniversary of another area in South Asia achieving independence – but that independence is yet to be recognised. Today is the independence day of Gilgit-Baltistan.
Every year on Pakistan’s independence day the Prime Minister of Pakistan, the military chiefs, the President, and almost everyone in power, renew their resolve to work for the right of self-determination of the people of the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir. However, while a large number of Kashmiris still struggle for their rights under Indian yoke, the people of Azad Jammu and Kashmir – the area administered by Pakistan exist in legal limbo, and the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, an area which had little to do with the State of Jammu and Kashmir still await their moment when they will become full citizens of a country they chose to become a part of exactly seventy years ago.
The history of the Gilgit-Baltistan area is often confused in both India and Pakistan, which leads to erroneous views on its status. The area of what is now Gilgit-Baltistan, was the erstwhile Gilgit Agency formed and controlled by the British since 1889. The Agency was composed of three distinct parts: the Gilgit Wazarat, which was part of the State of Jammu and Kashmir, the tribal areas of Chilas, Koh Ghizr, Ishkoman, and Yasin, and the states of Hunza and Nagar. Since 1935, the British had leased the Gilgit Wazarat from the Kashmir government and so the whole area was fully administered by the British for a long time.
When Lord Mountbatten announced the Transfer of Power in India on June 3, 1947, it was also announced that all treaties and engagements with the princely states of India would also come to an end meaning that all the princely states would achieve their legal independence with the departure of the British on August 15, 1947. Since this announcement meant that the Gilgit Wazarat lease would also lapse, Lord Mountbatten returned the Gilgit Wazarat back to the Kashmir Durbar on August 1, 1947. Hence on August 15, 1947 several legal entities in the region, the State of Jammu and Kashmir, the State of Hunza, the State of Nagar and the tribal territories of Chilas, Koh Ghizr, Ishkoman and Yasin, all achieved their independence.
While it was clear that the states of Hunza and Nagar, as well as the tribal areas, would want to join Pakistan, all were waiting for a decision from the Maharaja of Kashmir, Hari Singh, to decide the fate of his large kingdom. Hunza, Nagar and the tribal areas were not parts of Kashmir – and their separate legal status had been defined by the British in 1941, but since these areas were so closely tied to Kashmir, all of them waited with bated breath to see which course of action Srinagar would take.
When the Maharaja of Kashmir decided to throw in his lot with India on October 26, 1947, and a disputed Instrument of Accession was signed, there was large-scale disappointment in the erstwhile Gilgit Agency. Major Brown, who was Commandant of the Gilgit Scouts, notes in this diary that almost to a man the population of the area wanted to join Pakistan. While Hunza, Nagar and the tribal areas could simply join Pakistan through an Instrument of Accession, as provided in the Independence Act, the Gilgit Wazarat, forming part of the Kashmir State, could only revolt against the decision of the Maharaja. Hence, Major Brown devised a plan under which he secured the accession of Hunza and Nagar states, and the tribal areas, and between the night of October 31 and November 1, 1947, led the Gilgit Wazarat to revolt against the Kashmir Durbar. Then in quick succession, Major Brown arrested the Kashmir appointed Governor, Brigadier Ghansara Singh, neutralised the state forces at Bunji, and secured the treasury. Thereafter on the morning of November 1, 1947 Major Brown cabled the shocked premier of the North West Frontier Province that the whole of the Gilgit Agency had decided to join Pakistan!
Despite the fact that the area of the Gilgit Agency joined Pakistan out of its own volition, and despite the fact that except of the small Gilgit Wazarat, none of the other areas of the Agency formed part of the Kashmir Durbar, the people of the region are still waiting for the realisation of their aspirations which they showed seventy years ago. Seventy years later the people of the area are still not full citizens of Pakistan, with all the rights and privileges of a free person, and the freedom they achieved all those years ago exits merely as a shell. It is certainly time to accept the will of the people of the erstwhile Gilgit Agency and make real the freedom they deserve.
(The writer teaches at IT University Lahore and is the author of ‘A Princely Affair: The Accession and Integration of the Princely States of Pakistan, 1947-55.’ He tweets at @BangashYK)