In 2020, the Wuhan virus drastically cut down the speed of economic growth but accelerated the pace of geopolitical changes across the world.
For instance, several media reports indicate that Turkey and Pakistan are collaborating to train militia so that they can fight in Kashmir as in Nagorno-Karabakh. Usually, the move would have been surprising, but thanks to recent changes in US policies towards Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan, such a collaboration can be expected. Further, with China joining hands with Russia and expanding ties with Pakistan and Iran, what we see is a grand “Asian Axis” sweeping across Central Asia, to South Asia and East Asia.
With such conditions emerging in India’s northern and western neighbourhoods, one region particularly stands out, and that is Gilgit-Baltistan. Even though illegally occupied by Pakistan currently, the region is significant for India now, more than ever, for the following reasons.
Firstly, its location provides India access not only to Afghanistan but also to central Asia via Tajikistan by land. India invested in Iran’s Chabahar port for exactly this kind of connectivity. However, with China elbowing India in Iran, Gilgit-Baltistan’s importance increases further as it has the potential to reduce India’s dependence on Iran, as well as provide it with leverage while dealing with Iran over Chabahar-related issues.
Secondly, Gilgit-Baltistan separates China from Pakistan and can also provide India a route to Central Asia and Mongolia via Afghanistan, circumventing China. Should this become a reality, India will be able to turn the tables on the Chinese via land route. Moreover, obstructing this route along its Western border would place further strain on China’s already stressed human and technological resources, and boost India’s capacity to assert itself in the neighbourhood.
Thirdly, China’s physical to the other countries in the emerging Axis (through Pakistan) would also be broken and pose a challenge to its aim of encircling India and diminishing India’s presence in its own neighbourhood. Moreover, China is already looking to reduce its dependence on the Malacca straits for its trade and increase control over its energy imports through the CPEC, and if India controls Gilgit-Baltistan, it could gain an upper hand in the access-related negotiations with China.
Fourthly, it reduces the limitations in India’s response vis-à-vis its enemies in and around the region. Those who indulge in acts of encroachment and terrorism against India have, so far, been rather assured of the geographical limitations to India’s response; this will no more be the case.
These could very well be castles built in air but that is no reason to check India’s will or potential for asserting itself and becoming a formidable power. The dogmas and intellectual blocks within India’s leadership have lost the country so much time and opportunities till now, but now, in the 21st century, India must overcome them and claim what is theirs. The opportunity is ripe, and several factors now work in India’s favour.
India’s demographic dividend, large and growing economy, a professional and highly trained military, an innovative scientific and technological community, and a stable political system give it a strong foundation. Further, at this point of time, India’s political, diplomatic and military leadership is experiencing a realistic and rare synergy. This is phenomenal and makes a huge positive difference when it comes to making a bold decision such as regaining physical dominance over Gilgit-Baltistan.
On the world stage, India is a trusted nation and can find, with intelligent diplomacy, sound international support to back its claim on Gilgit-Baltistan which, let’s not forget, legally belongs to India in the first place. This is very much unlike the occupier, Pakistan, who has not only lost credibility in the international arena, but is also struggling with domestic economic and stability issues.
Also, quite simply, if India doesn’t control Gilgit-Baltistan, someday, China will. As former RAW chief Vikram Sood points out in his book The Ultimate Goal, as India grows, it is also seeing the ruthless rise of a truly hegemonic power, China, at its doorstep. If it is to step out of China’s shadow and face it, India needs to shed its inhibitions and stand up stronger. If it doesn’t, China will make the move through CPEC and eventually control this strategic area which has been illegally occupied by a weaker partner state.
Hence, India must view Uri and Balakot strikes beyond punitive actions and as recce missions for future operations regarding Gilgit-Baltistan. In the larger picture, building deep strategic relations with countries in the Persian Gulf and the IOR, modernising its Armed Forces, and strengthening infrastructure in its border areas are good supporting moves as well.
However, India need to focus on the narrative too. The US built a narrative (accuracy apart) justifying military strikes in Iraq and Afghanistan before actually carrying them out. Being a nation housing an enormous and vibrant media, it is important that India tells the Gilgit-Baltistan story compellingly to a world which is insular and bound to control narratives to further its interests.
Most importantly, India must put aside its inhibitions and dogmas. It must understand that solutions change as per situations, and that our old-fashioned diplomacy will no longer deliver results. As the world grows more complex, transactional and realistic, it must shift from managing situations to crafting situations suiting its interests. India must align its bureaucracy, military and society towards taking bold, collective decisions.
In that line, re-establishing its valid claim on Gilgit-Baltistan could be the first step on the new path. If done successfully, it could catapult India from the position of a problem-manager to a problem-solver in the eyes of the world.
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