Recent incidents of sectarian violence in which 16 people were killed and 50 others injured in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of the Pakistan-occupied Northern Areas of Kashmir have turned the spotlight on the brewing discontent among local Shias against Sunni jihadi groups allied with the Pakistan army.
To this decades-old unrest has been added, over the past few years, China's attempt to exploit this region's untapped natural resources and carve out a transportation route to the Persian Gulf through Pakistan. Both these developments have important ramifications for India's security.
Democratic activists in Gilgit-Baltistan have for long been demanding a legislature and other institutions without restrictions. The local people believe that rule from Islamabad has been foisted on them through a fake assembly, powerless governor and chief minister.
Practically, power vests in the Pak army through its field commander, Northern Area (FCNA) aided by a chief secretary, home secretary and deputy commissioner, all of whom are Pak nationals.
Two years ago, the exiled chairman of Balawaristan National Front (BNF), Abdul Hamid Khan had alleged that outsiders had not only destroyed the exemplary peace of the region but were also conspiring to expel locals from their ancestral land through terrorism.
In the latest violence, the hand of Ahle-e-Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat (ASWJ), a radical Sunni group and considered a front for the banned Sipah-e-Suhaba, is suspected.
Another stakeholder in the dispute, the Gilgit-Baltistan United Movement (GBUM) focused attention on the Chinese factor.
The New York Times (dated August 27, 2010) had reported not only the simmering rebellion against Pakistani rule but also the influx of 7,000-11,000 soldiers of China's People Liberation Army who were no longer living in temporary encampments but in big residential enclaves, suggesting long presence.
The GBUM reiterated its resolve to resist Pakistani attempts to hand over Gilgit-Baltistan to China. The recent sectarian violence appears to be a fallout of the seeds of dissension sown by absence of political, civil and economic rights to the local populations as also against economic exploitation by foreign powers.
China is taking necessary steps to ensure markets and through its presence in Gilgit-Baltistan, materials and transportation routes to the Persian Gulf through Pakistan.
For instance, China has 4,000 military personnel in Sudan to protect its interest in energy and mineral investment there. As is the trend, Chinese hunger for raw material, natural resources and transportation routes has meant a more intrusive foreign policy that will keep India competing with China in its own quest for strategic resources to feed its own huge population.
China is taking steps to protect its investments in this region as elsewhere (it has reportedly constructed 22 tunnels in secret locations, out of bound for locals ostensibly to transport oil through pipelines, but may be used to store missiles).
China's growing clout will increasingly affect a favourable resolution for India in the Jammu & Kashmir dispute, as by its long-term presence, China would have signalled its intent to be a stake holder in a three-way resolution of the dispute.
We must also factor in China's penchant to draw on historical rights to push its envelope in territorial disputes. In the 1963 border agreement with Pakistan, it had swapped Oprang and Hunza valleys for Shaksgam valley and will hark back to its historic presence in these areas in future dispute-resolution mechanisms.
India will do well to press Pakistan on these issues. Otherwise, in the long term, we may lose the ability to deter China with strategies focused on interruption of oil supply through critical eastern sea lines of communication, or what is more commonly known as China's 'Malacca dilemma'.
The Gilgit-Baltistan 'strategic intrusion' in our dispute with Pakistan represents a critical potential threat on our north-western borders. Presence of tunnels signifies China's willingness to protect its economic interest, militarily.
These "military following the economic flag" intrusions showcase Chinese expansion of geostrategic influence to vet its voracious appetite for strategic resources, increasingly at India's cost. Healthy trade with Pakistan is on the cards. Even as we do that, India must take stock of emerging ground realities in these Himalayan heights before China's inroads and Pakistan's forcible sectarian cleansing pose insurmountable challenges to our national security.
The author is associate fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies
Courtesy: The Economic Times, 18 May 2012