Hindu nationalists support Pakistan’s Ismaili separatists

India Express reports that authorities on the Indian side of divided Jammu & Kashmir state are on “red alert” as Hindus prepare for protests following yesterday’s attack by presumed Islamic militants on Ayodhya, the disputed holy site in Uttar Pradesh. A July 6 report in India Express also notes that Hindus displaced from the Pakistani side of the line, organized in the Panun Kashmir Movement (PKM), are demanding a seat at the dialogue table over the divided region’s future. They call themselves the Kashmiri Pandits (pandit literally meaning a scholar of Sanskrit, underscoring their religious identity), and call their homeland (now occupied by Pakistan) Panun Kashmir.

Another issue which Hindu hardliners are invoking is that of Hunza, Gilgit and Baltistan—Himalayan enclaves (now collectively known as the Northern Areas) that they charge were artificially separated from Kashmir by Pakistan so as to exclude them from negotiations over the divided territory. Pakistan, in turn, maintains it did so to give these enclaves local autonomy in response to the desires of the populace, which is predominantly Shi’ite rather than Sunni. The extremely pro-India Asian Tribune website provides the following historical background:

Not many people would realise that the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, with Muzaffarabad as its capital, is only 1/5th of the area illegally occupied by Pakistan out of the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir. The other areas comprise Gilgit, Baltistan and Hunza, which Pakistan has integrated with itself and given it the name of Northern Areas.

Areas that fall in this region include Chitral, Chilas, Nagir, Konghazar, Ishokirman Puniyal and Yasin. Pakistan does not accept these areas to be a part of Jammu and Kashmir State. As such there is no dispute about these territories, so believe the Pakistan authorities.

It was to highlight this lesser known aspect of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir that the Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh mentioned the occupation of these vast areas by Pakistan during his recent visit to Ladakh. He also reiterated India’s commitment to get them back through dialogue, in line with the current peace process that the two countries have initiated. But the illegal occupation of the region has a bearing on the Indo-Pak relations and has therefore to be addressed.

Most of this area is a tribal belt. About one million people living here follow Buddhism and Islam. The region has been a hot spot for Pakistan through the decades as the people here have never been allowed political freedom, so much so that the so called Northern Areas has never seen an election since 1947. The question of a Legislative Assembly of elected representatives does not therefore arise.


By every account, the whole of Northern Areas has been a part of Jammu and Kashmir established by Maharaja Gulab Singh in 1846. This is established by a number of documents as well as circumstantial evidence.

One, the U.N. resolutions of 1948 and 1950 do not make a separate reference to these areas. Two the British Trignometrical survey of 1874 also showed the areas of Gilgit, Hunza and Nagir clearly within the J& K territory.

Even the 1933 Government of India Act stated that the State of Jammu and Kashmir would include all territories under its sovereignty and if Kashmir acceded to the federation, then Hunza, and other areas would automatically become parts of the federation as parts of the state. Even the official map of Pakistan published in 1950 showed the Northern Areas as the Administrative Units of Jammu and Kashmir.

In 1935, the British took Gilgit on a 60 year lease from the Maharaja and administered it through a Political Agent. Once their suzernity over the sub-continent ended in 1947, the areas were given back to the Maharaja. And he appointed Brigadier Gansara Singh to administer Gilgit.


Pakistan began tinkering with the status of these areas some time in 1982. Before that none of the constitutions adopted by it make any mention of these areas nor do they provide for any representation to them in the Federal Parliament. The process of treating them at a different level began with General Zia- ul- Haq granting the nominated representatives from these areas the status of observers. He set up the Northern Areas Council ostensibly for its development. The real purpose was, however, to present the area as a separate entity so that the dispute about Jammu and Kashmir, it raises all the time, is limited to the area which acceded to India and a small portion of the erstwhile state under Pakistan’ s occupation.

An analysis on India’s Observer Research Foundation website provides further details:

Before 1948, this area, which the then Maharajah of Jammu & Kashmir had given on lease to the British since 1935 in order to enable the British to keep a watch on the developments in Xinjiang and Afghanistan, used to be known as the Northern Areas of J&K. Gen. Zia ul-Haq, Pakistan’s military dictator between 1977 and 1988, had it renamed as the Northern Areas of Pakistan, at the culmination of a process of integration of the territory into Pakistan.

This area, which borders on India, China and Afghanistan, has been of strategic concern and interest to India, Pakistan, China and the US.

To India, because, firstly, it is its territory, which has been under the illegal occupation of Pakistan since 1948; secondly, this area, particularly Baltistan, has close ethnic, religious, cultural and other historic links with the Ladakh region of J&K, of which it used to be a part before the Pakistani occupation; thirdly, the Shias and the Ismailis of the area, who constitute the majority, have close fraternal links with the Shias of the Kargil area of the Ladakh Division and look up to India and its Shias for moral support in their struggle against the Pakistani authorities for the right of self-determination for the Shias of Pakistan in general and of the Northern Areas in particular; fourthly, part of the jihadi terrorist training infrastructure of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is located in this area; and, fifthly, the growing Wahabisation of the local population promoted by the Pakistan Army since the days of Zia. The developments in this area have an important bearing on India’s national security.

To Pakistan, because the river waters which sustain agriculture in its Punjab flow from this area, the Karakoram Highway from the Xinjiang province of China constructed with Chinese help in the 1960s and the 1970s and inaugurated in 1978 is of tremendous strategic significance for the clandestine road transport of nuclear and other military material and missiles and missile parts from North Korea and China to Pakistan; the mountainn heights in this area provide vantage points in any Pakistani attempt to cut off the Ladakh region from the rest of J&K; and the Shias of this area have always proved to be a thorn in Pakistan’s flesh.

A particular irony is that Hindu nationalists appear to be supporting elements in the Northern Areas that, not content with autonomy, seek actual independence from Pakistan. Religious identity is again paramount: it appears the populace in the region are not only Shi’ite, but Ismaili—the long-persecuted minority Shi’ite sect (recognizing seven rather than 12 imams, or successors to the Prophet). The Ismaili separatists call the Northern Areas “Balawaristan,” and hope to establish it as an independent nation. The pro-Hindu Jammu-Kashmir.com website includes a favorable report on the Free Balawaristan Movement. Among the complaints which animate the separatist movement is the conscription of the region’s young men to fight against India, most recently in the 1999 Kargil crisis.

The Ismaili separatist struggle hasn’t reached the point of open war, but it is headed in that direction. Jammu-Kashmir.com also includes a Jan. 8, 2005 clip from Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper on riots in Gilgit following an armed atttack on a Shi’ite (presumably Ismaili) leader that left him wounded and his two bodyguards dead. The ensuing violence left 11 more dead.

This is definitely a case of strange befellows: Hindu nationalists supporting Islamic separatists because they share a common enemy in Pakistan. The Ismaili separatists of Balawaristan should beware that they could easily outlive their usefulness to the Hindu nationalists: if they ever acheive their aim of an independent state, the inclusion of the Northern Areas in negotiations over the future of Kashmir would be more remote than ever. This is one to watch.

See our last posts on the politics of Kashmir and recent border adjustments on the subcontinent.