Monday, March 9, 2020

India’s Gilgit & Baltistan Conundrum!

POK (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir) is consisting of the entire province of Gilgit & Baltistan with a long and narrow tail like region of Kashmir valley and Jammu, starting from Muzaffarabad to Mirpur. Probably it should have been called POJK i.e. Pakistan Occupied Jammu and Kashmir. Since J&K is now subdivided into two Union Territories i.e. Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh, logically it should now be called as POJK (Pakistan Occupied Jammu and Kashmir) and POL (Pakistan Occupied Ladakh). 
Gilgit and Baltistan logically should have been with us by 1948 only, except for the treachery of the British and lack of foresight of our PM, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru!

Till 1865, British India Empire had a common border with Russian Empire (it was actually a border with Tajikistan which was a part of the Russian Empire) with Afghanistan and China occupying left and right flanks respectively. British were not comfortable with common border with Russia and conceded a portion of territory of British India to Afghanistan to act as a buffer zone between two empires and also created “Durand Line” …. a demarcation line between Afghanistan and British India. The buffer zone is called “Wakhan Corridor” and is separating three nations i.e. Russian Empire on the North, China on the East and British India Empire on the South.

Since British were dominant naval power, they understood the importance of warm water port at Karachi and were always afraid that Russian Empire who does not have any warm water port  ( Even the Black Sea port is partially frozen during the winter with the additional disadvantage of “chock point” at Bosporus which was exploited by Turks during the WWI……famous landing at Gallipoli etc. etc.) might one day invade British India across Wakhan Corridor and cut across down to Karachi. With this apprehension in mind, in 1935 British India took on lease the province of Gilgit & Baltistan from Maharaja Hari Singh who was the ruler of the Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir (Gilgit and Baltistan and Ladakh are all part of J and K only). 
During the partition of India and Pakistan, The British had the same apprehension of Russia invading across Wakhan Corridor and wanted J&K to join Pakistan with whom they were more comfortable.  They made all arrangements to make sure J and K joins Pakistan only and even terminated their lease on Gilgit and Baltistan and gave it back to Maharaja Hari Singh! 
Eventually, however, when they saw their elaborate plan has failed and Maharaja Hari Singh has signed the instrument of accession with India ( on 26th of October’1947), their Major Brown with the help of Gilgit Scout, executed all the non-Muslim soldiers at Skardu Fort,   captured the Governor of Gilgit and Baltistan who was the representative of Maharaja Hari Singh, and was stationed at Skardu  and handed over the entire province of Gilgit and Baltistan to Pakistan and left for UK! That was the level of British treachery!

Towards the end of 1947, when Indian army reached the border of Gilgit and Baltistan province and ask for the permission to invade, Nehru refused and rather decided to go to UNSC (on 1st January’1948) on the basis of Instrument of Accession as signed by Maharaja Hari Singh. Among the many points considered by Nehru for not invading Gilgit and Baltistan, one was Sheikh Abdullah's rejoinder that he does not have any influence in Gilgit and Baltistan since they speak different dialect! Little did Nehru realize that not taking over Gilgit and Baltistan, he is losing the land connection with Afghanistan and instead providing a direct connection between China (Nehru always had disdain for Chinese Leaders) and Pakistan!
Now the question being asked, after about 72 years of inaction and rhetoric, is it worth raking up the issue of taking over POK or let the sleeping dog lie?
It was, however,  never actually a sleeping dog! Over J and K and POK we have fought four wars….1947-48, 1965, 1971 and 1999…. with very limited gain except in 1971 when we could free erstwhile East Pakistan from colonial reign of West Pakistan and create Bangladesh with active help from local Mukti Bahini. 

Almost daily there is firing across the border and frequent incidence of infiltration and sabotage (like Pulwama) and our surgical retaliations (Uri surgical strike, Balakot airstrike etc.) taking place across the border. It is a constant bleeding on both sides with collateral civilian casualties. 
Though we always consider POK as the integral part of India and taken Parliament Resolution on the same, we have never really tried to seize control over POK except hollow rhetoric and rather let Pakistan invade us instead, during the last four wars! 
If Britain could send an armada to regain Falkland, a tiny island with practically no commercial and strategic importance, from Argentina, there is really no justification why we should not fight a war to regain POK which is logically belonging to us! 
Things are little different since the present government came to power in 2014.
Abrogation of Article 370 and 35A are steps in the right direction. J and K was always in limbo because of those articles and it was like a country within the country with Indian Constitution having no role to play. Positive effects are already visible with 90% drop in militancy and the things are going to improve further for the common men as the systems are fully integrated. It is essential to secure J and K before we venture across the LOC/LAC.
Help from the local population and Mukti Bahini played a crucial role for the successes of freeing Bangladesh (erstwhile East Pakistan) from West Pakistan. Similar help is also expected in POK as well
In a major embarrassment to Pakistan, Senge H Sering a political activist from Gilgit-Baltistan and Director of Institute of Gilgit-Baltistan Studies, during the 43rd session of United Nations Human Rights Council on 6th March’20, urged India to acquire control of the region to save its people from the “brutal colonial reign of Pakistan”. 

He also said that  “People of Gilgit-Baltistan, who are constitutional citizens of India as part of the union territory of Ladakh, are under constant threat of terrorism perpetuated by the Pakistani military,”  He added, “70 years ago, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) asked India to station troops in Jammu and Kashmir to protect locals ( Part II of UNSC Resolution 47 dated 24th April’1948). Today, as a native of Gilgit-Baltistan and Jammu Kashmir, I request India to resume constitutional responsibility and acquire the control of Gilgit-Baltistan to save us from the brutal colonial reign of Pakistan.” Further, Sering said that the “Locals who are trying to protect the natural resources peacefully are threatened with abduction, genocide and economic blockade as it happened recently when pro-Taliban Pakistani citizens called for a massacre of Shias and Ismailis of Gilgit-Baltistan travelling through their district,” he said. Sering told the UNHRC during his intervention, “The people of Pakistan-occupied-Gilgit-Baltistan continue to face torture, sedition and terrorism charges and life-imprisonment for opposing onslaught on their resources and cultural identity. Locals are losing battle against worst demographic engineering due to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor that encourages illegal settlements of Pakistanis and Chinese”.

It is quite evident from Mr. Sering’s statement that the situation in Gilgit and Baltistan is no different from the situation in East Pakistan just before the war in 1971. It is time we keep reserve seat in Parliament for the representatives from POK.

Besides being our land, which is now being occupied by our enemy and which we should reclaim, POK is having tremendous strategic significance as well.
It will be easier to explain if POK is hypothetically subdivided as POJK i.e. the tail portion consisting of Muzaffarabad – Mirpur zone and separately Gilgit and Baltistan as POL (Pakistan Occupied Ladakh).
Taking over POJK will shift LOC/LAC to International border (IB) and our neighbor will still remain Pakistan. But the big gain will be in checking infiltration across the border particularly near the Uri-Poonch bulge at Haji Pir Pass. During both 1965 and 1971 wars, Indian army did capture Haji Pir Pass with considerable loss of life but the politicians surrender the same on the negotiation table.
Taking over Gilgit and Baltistan (POL), however, is more significant since it will establish direct land connection with Afghanistan through Wakhan Corridor ensuring 106 km of land border which is essential for maintaining our logistic supply and trade with Afghanistan.

The huge potential of two-way trade between Afghanistan and India could not grow mainly due to logistic problem. Once the land border is established at Wakhan Corridor, Afghanistan could even export their goods via ports at Gujarat.
India has already invested billions of dollars in Afghanistan as humanitarian / reconstruction aid, be it hydro-Electric power generation, Parliament Building, Hospitals, Schools etc. earning goodwill across the society including Taliban (though Taliban has not thanked India after signing the peace deal with USA on 29th February’20)! 
Incidentally there is already a substantial ITBP contingent deployed in Afghanistan to protect these assets, construction personnel as well our embassies in multiple locations. We also provide training to Afghanistan army and police force as well as supply them with arms and ammunition including Helicopter Gunships (MI 24 / 35).
Strategically it is in India’s interest to keep Afghanistan stable, friendly and as a strategic partner, which will get a big boost with the establishment of the 106 km land border at Wakhan Corridor. Since Afghanistan is not so friendly with Pakistan for harboring Jihadis, the Durand line is always volatile and forced Pakistan to deploy a substantial force (a couple of divisions) which could have otherwise been deployed against India. If the peace settlement is not proper ( which is very likely) and the Afghanistan goes under Taliban control, not only India losses all the fruits of the investment made and goodwill generated but Pakistan will have the advantage of freeing deployed forces from Durand Line and use them against India and also pump in Afghan Taliban across Kashmir!

Retaking of Gilgit and Baltistan will also open our door to Central Asia.
Tajikistan is just across Wakhan Corridor and with permission from Afghanistan we may establish land connection and strategic relation with Tajikistan and then to other central Asian countries. 

We are having excellent relation with Northern Alliance, who are mostly ethnic Tajik, for a long time and to maintain air supply, RAW struck a deal with Tajikistan in nineties,  to use their cold war vintage disused air base at FARKHOR  which is 130 km from their Capital, DUSHANBE and only 2 km from Tajik-Afghan border. India repaired the airbase as well as constructed and operate a hospital nearby where leader of Northern Alliance, Ahmed Shah Masoud was brought when he was fatally wounded by Taliban’s suicide attack.
Similarly, India also repaired and made it operational another disused cold war vintage air base at AYNI which is 10 km from DUSHANBE. India wanted to use both these air bases and deploy one squadron MIG 29. Though Tajikistan was willing, they could not give the clearance due to Russian pressure. Things are now, however, a little different since we are also a formal member of SCO and Russia is very much dependent on us for big ticket defense purchase and LNG. So, a nod from Russia could make the deal and India could deploy MIG 29 or SU30MKI as the case may, be to provide the air cover for our assets and deployed forces in Afghanistan.

To take back POK, however, we need to play our cards well with USA, Russia and China.
It was Donald Trump’s political compulsion to sign peace deal with Taliban so that all the US troops could return to USA before the election. He knows very well that peace deal is not likely to hold and USA is likely to remain committed to Afghanistan for a couple of more years, preferably after he get his mandate for the second time. Hence, USA will be too happy if we agree to provide peacekeeping force. 

Presently we are maintaining our logistic line through CHABAHAR port and then through the railway connection up to Afghanistan (HERAT). Deployment of Su30MKI with BRHMOS at THANJAVUR Air base could easily provide the air cover for our sea-lane.

USA is not slapping any sanction on India for the development of the CHABAHAR port since it is taking India’s help is dispatching some of its supply through CHABAHAR port only.USA will be very happy if India could establish a land route to Afghanistan via Wakhan Corridor since that will reduce their dependence on Pakistan to a great extent. Transportation via India will also be much safe and could also be cheaper.

Contrary to popular belief, our trade with Russia is rising mainly because of our huge energy requirement and defense. Irrespective of US pressure not only did we sign the S-400 deal we also finalize deals for the manufacture of AK-203 Assault Rifles and Ka-226 Helicopters.   Instead of Russia, transporting natural gas through pipeline up to VLADIVOSTOK and then to ship to Chennai port, it will be much easier to make a pipe line directly via GILGIT and BALTISTAN and save in millions in transportation cost. Once the transportation so establish, India might even double the energy purchase from Russia.
We are already having a longstanding very friendly relation with Russia which is likely to develop further if Russian intention of promoting India as provider of training and spares for the defense equipment supplied by Russia in the region, fructifies. So, with proper diplomacy, Russia could be more than willing to help India take over GILGIT and  BALTISTAN may be purely on economic consideration. 
Russia will also be very happy if India deploy Peacekeeping Force to Afghanistan since their special envoy Zamir Kabulov has already expressed their desire to deploy Peacekeeping Force in Afghanistan as well.

China really does not know what to do with CPEC! After spending so may billions of dollars, it will be a tough decision to abandon the project but keep it going is also not easy! Beside economic slowdown, trade war with USA, fallout of Coronavirus spreading from WUHAN ( according to some sources it could be some Biological Weapon leaked from WUHAN Laboratory and the death and economic damage could be substantial ),  CPEC  passing not only through geographically unstable region but also through disputed region (GILGIT and  BALTISTAN, POK) claimed by India, both the starting point ( KASHGAR, XINJIANG) and end point (BALOCHISTAN) are in disturbed regions, no chance for Pakistan paying the debt! Instead of all these, if China’s main aim for CPEC is to avoid chock point at MALACCA, it will be much better if China could negotiate with India to make the corridor through India, using ports in eastern India (Kolkata) or / and western India (Gujarat). Since roads and infrastructure are mostly there, investment would be substantially lower and could be met from balance of payment offset! China’s construction activities in G and B is illegal since they are working on a disputed territory. India might agree to allow them to use their CPEC portion through G and B, if they remain neutral during India’s G and B operation.
If this could be negotiated, GILGIT and BALTISTAN could be easily occupied by India with tacit help from Russia and USA and China being remaining neutral. 
It is very sad that our the then political leaders did not have the vision to understand the importance of GILGIT and BALTISTAN during the first war with Pakistan in 1947-48!

To act as a net security provider of ASEAN countries, India is already upgrading its tri-service facilities at ANDAMAN and NICOBAR beside stationing SU30 MKI with BRAHMOS at THANJAVUR Air Base. India’s decisive action in to retake Gilgit and Baltistan and establish land route with Afghanistan for strategic partnership will only reinforce its standing. 

This could be an opportunity to reset our relation with Central Asian countries as well as proactively solve the vexing POK problem once and for all. 

There is a window for India to alter the discourse in its favor. India's willingness to fight together COVID -19 and providing medical help has also raised its standing in the world. Only India needs a strategy to re calibrate its approach on this long pending issue. Now, it is for the political leadership to take the call with proper inputs from the newly created post of CDS! Economic downturn, however, could be a big stumbling block for taking a far-reaching strategic decision.

Monday, February 24, 2020


Chief of Defence Staff’s statement of shifting priority from third Aircraft Carrier i.e. INS Vishal to much needed Submarines both nuclear and non-nuclear merits consideration. 

Earlier also both our RM (Mr Parrikar) and MOD floated a similar idea to scrap the astronomically costly 65,000t INS Vishal for a much cheaper 45,000t INS Virat II which will be identical to INS Vikrant, thus also giving the economy of scale! 

Before, however, we discuss any further, let me mention a few points which require consideration:

  •  Navy, in consultation with highest political leadership, must publish a “White Paper” detailing out India’s sphere of influence in short as well as, in long term, strategy, doctrine etc.
  • During WW II countries that had enemies nearby did not require aircraft carries. Aircraft Carriers were mostly used by British who had empire all over the globe as well as by USA and Japan who had to fight far away from their home countries.

  • Even today only USA having super carriers for power projection throughout the globe.

  • Aircraft Carriers are too costly an asset and are too venerable to operate alone, particularly in any hostile environment. They will always be protected by a “Carrier Battle Group (CBG)” consisting of number of Submarines (mostly SSN), Destroyers and Frigates. So, while planning for the aircraft carrier for power projection at far of places, we must also plan our budget for the entire CBG along with the operating cost for the entire CBG!

  • Normally sea denial is much less costly than sea control. Nobody must forget how a hand full of German U-boats created havoc to Atlantic convoy. Pakistan used it effectively against a superior Indian Navy by sinking INS Kukri in 1971 Similarly a small Russian naval contingent with a single SSN could prevent both British and US Navy (7th fleet – the entire CBG) to enter Bay of Bengal during 1971 war.

  • Sea control with surface ships are always very costly and risky. It was, however, done very effectively by USA during Cuban Missile crisis and may be the main reason for Nikita Khrushchev to lose his job. Blocking of Karachi Harbour by Indian Navy in 1971 was also a case in the point.

  • As per Rand report 1140, projecting a military engagement between USA and China ( two time frames : 2015 & 2025), the losses for US surface fleets including AC could be substantial due to missile attacks ( DF 21 etc.) unless they could be kept outside the range.

  • Advent of Ship / Air launched Cruise Missiles have also change the strategy / doctrine for the naval war. One should not forget Karachi attack and Falkland war. It has become more devastating now with the introduction of Brahmos ( relatively a short distance of 290 km as of now, but could be used as a standoff land attack / anti-ship missile by Su 30MKI), DF-21 or Kaliber missile ( small frigates could fire 2500 km range Kaliber from Black Sea to targets in Syria!). 

  • Overspending on military asset which may not be commensurate with your immediate need may really ruin your economy. There is a saying that the gigantic “Typhoon” SSBNs really sank Russian economy and finally lead to disintegration. If you overlook history, history will overlook you!

  •  India’s wedge like shape with nearly 7500 km coastline does give enough coverage for the shore-based aircraft with conformal / drop tanks and air-to-air refueling facilities. Use of standoff munitions / cruise missiles will only increase the range further.

  •  Airfields at India’s far-flung islands both A and N and Lakshadweep as well as signing of logistic agreement with USA, France, Maldives, Seychelles, Oman, UAE, Singapore and other IOR countries will increase the coverage further.

With the preamble as above, I just wanted to explain that there was no case for a 65,000t AC with nuclear propulsion and with EMLS etc. Priority wise it would be better to go in for additional six SSK and six SSN for sea denial, a slightly larger size SSBN with K4 / K5 missiles for second strike, 2 to 4 LPD / LHD to protect A and N island and may be …. only may be a second AC identical to AC-1 but with CATOBAR facility! With the advent of F 35B stealth fighter, any LPD/LHD or Helicopter Carrier could also be converted to a mini-aircraft carrier! As far as naval diplomacy is concerned, LPD / LHDs are much better suited than an Aircraft Carrier.