A Brief History of Gilgit

A Brief History of Gilgit

by Subroto Roy

This is a rather self-contained excerpt from my two-part article in The Statesman of June 4-5 2006 titled“Pakistan’s Allies”.

“Jammu & Kashmir and especially Gilgit-Baltistan adjoins the Pashtun regions whose capital has been Peshawar. In August-November 1947, a British coup d’etat against J&K State secured Gilgit-Baltistan for the new British Dominion of Pakistan.

The Treaty of Amritsar had nowhere required Gulab Singh’s dynasty to accept British political control in J&K as came to be exercised by British “Residents” in all other Indian “Native States”. Despite this, Delhi throughout the late 19th Century relentlessly pressed Gulab Singh’s successors Ranbir Singh and Partab Singh to accept political control. The Dogras acquiesced eventually. Delhi’s desire for control had less to do with the welfare of J&K’s people than with protection of increasing British interests in the area, like European migration to Srinagar Valley and guarding against Russian or German moves in Afghanistan.

“Sargin” or “Sargin Gilit”, later corrupted by the Sikhs and Dogras into “Gilgit”, had an ancient people who spoke an archaic Dardic language “intermediate between the Iranian and the Sanskritic”. “The Dards were located by Ptolemy with surprising accuracy on the West of the Upper Indus, beyond the headwaters of the Swat River (Greek: Soastus) and north of the Gandarae (i.e. Kandahar), who occupied Peshawar and the country north of it. This region was traversed by two Chinese pilgrims, Fa-Hsien, coming from the north about AD 400 and Hsuan Tsiang, ascending from Swat in AD 629, and both left records of their journeys.”

Gilgit had been historically ruled by a Hindu dynasty called Trakane; when they became extinct, Gilgit Valley “was desolated by successive invasions of neighbouring rulers, and in the 20 or 30 years ending with 1842 there had been five dynastic revolutions. The Sikhs entered Gilgit about 1842 and kept a garrison there.” When J&K came under Gulab Singh, “the Gilgit claims were transferred with it, and a boundary commission was sent” by the British. In 1852 the Dogras were driven out with 2,000 dead. In 1860 under Ranbir Singh, the Dogras “returned to Gilgit and took Yasin twice, but did not hold it. They also in 1866 invaded Darel, one of the most secluded Dard states, to the south of the Gilgit basin but withdrew again.”

The British appointed a Political Agent in Gilgit in 1877 but he was withdrawn in 1881. “In 1889, in order to guard against the advance of Russia, the British Government, acting as the suzerain power of Kashmir, established the Gilgit Agency”. The Agency was re-established under control of the British Resident in Jammu & Kashmir. “It comprised the Gilgit Wazarat; the State of Hunza and Nagar; the Punial Jagir; the Governorships of Yasin, Kuh-Ghizr and Ishkoman, and Chilas”. In 1935, the British demanded J&K lease to them for 60 years Gilgit town plus most of the Gilgit Agency and the hill-states Hunza, Nagar, Yasin and Ishkuman. Hari Singh had no choice but to acquiesce. The leased region was then treated as part of British India, administered by a Political Agent at Gilgit responsible to Delhi, first through the Resident in J& K and later a British Agent in Peshawar. J& K State no longer kept troops in Gilgit and a mercenary force, the Gilgit Scouts, was recruited with British officers and paid for by Delhi. In April 1947, Delhi decided to formally retrocede the leased areas to Hari Singh’s J& K State as of 15 August 1947. The transfer was to formally take place on 1 August.

On 31 July, Hari Singh’s Governor arrived to find “all the officers of the British Government had opted for service in Pakistan”. The Gilgit Scouts’ commander, a Major William Brown aged 25, and his adjutant, a Captain Mathieson, planned openly to engineer a coup détat against Hari Singh’s Government. Between August and October, Gilgit was in uneasy calm. At midnight on 31 October 1947, the Governor was surrounded by the Scouts and the next day he was “arrested” and a provisional government declared.

Hari Singh’s nearest forces were at Bunji, 34 miles from Gilgit, a few miles downstream from where the Indus is joined by Gilgit River. The 6th J& K Infantry Battalion there was a mixed Sikh-Muslim unit, typical of the State’s Army, commanded by a Lt Col. Majid Khan. Bunji controlled the road to Srinagar. Further upstream was Skardu, capital of Baltistan, part of Laddakh District where there was a small garrison. Following Brown’s coup in Gilgit, Muslim soldiers of the 6th Infantry massacred their Sikh brothers-at-arms at Bunji. The few Sikhs who survived escaped to the hills and from there found their way to the garrison at Skardu.

On 4 November 1947, Brown raised the new Pakistani flag in the Scouts’ lines, and by the third week of November a Political Agent from Pakistan had established himself at Gilgit. Brown had engineered Gilgit and its adjoining states to first secede from J&K, and, after some talk of being independent, had promptly acceded to Pakistan. His commander in Peshawar, a Col. Bacon, as well as Col. Iskander Mirza, Defence Secretary in the new Pakistan and later to lead the first military coup détat and become President of Pakistan, were pleased enough. In July 1948, Brown was awarded an MBE (Military) and the British Governor of the NWFP got him a civilian job with ICI~ which however sent him to Calcutta, where he came to be attacked and left for dead on the streets by Sikhs avenging the Bunji massacre. Brown survived, returned to England, started a riding school, and died in 1984. In March 1994, Pakistan awarded his widow the Sitara-I-Pakistan in recognition of his coup détat.

Gilgit’s ordinary people had not participated in Brown’s coup which carried their fortunes into the new Pakistan, and to this day appear to remain without legislative representation. It was merely assumed that since they were mostly Muslim in number they would wish to be part of Pakistan ~ which also became Liaquat Ali Khan’s assumption about J&K State as a whole in his 1950 statements in North America. What the Gilgit case demonstrates is that J&K State’s descent into a legal condition of ownerless anarchy open to “Military Decision” had begun even before the Pakistani invasion of 22 October 1947 (viz. “Solving Kashmir”, The Statesman, 1-3 December 2005). Also, whatever else the British said or did with respect to J & K, they were closely allied to the new Pakistan on the matter of Gilgit.”

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