Projecting deep into the heart of Asia, combined Jammu and Kashmir & Ladakh cover an area of 2,22,713 Sq Kms. It includes, besides the Valley, the areas of Jammu, Ladakh, Baltistan, Gilgit, Hunza, and Nagar. From North to South, it extends over 640 Km and from East to West 480 Kms.
However, its original area of 2,22,713 Sq kms has undergone considerable change as a result of Pakistani aggression in 1947-48. At the time of ceasefire in 1949, 78,932 Sq kms of the J & K State's territory remained under the illegal occupation of Pakistan. Another major change occurred when the People's Republic of China launched a massive attack on India in 1962 and forcibly occupied 37,555 Sq km of Indian territory in the Ladakh division of the state. Later, Pakistan transferred 5,180 Sq kms of the state's territory ( Shakshgam Valley ) in 1963 under its illegal occupation to China. According to the "line of control" agreed upon in 1972, only 83,806 Sq kms has remained under Indian control. Ladakh’s boundaries extending up to Afghanistan in the North West and the Karakoram and Tibet in the North East is strategically important to India, Pakistan, and China. The heterogeneous demography of Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists makes it a politically sensitive zone. The state has a total area of 2,22, 236.2 Sq kms which includes 78, 114 Sq kms under illegal occupation of Pakistan, 5180 Sq km illegally ceded by Pakistan to China and 37, 555 Sq km under illegal occupation of China.
The Jammu & Kashmir, & Ladakh combined has a complex of mountain ranges diverging in different directions from Pamir Knot i.e. Pamir ranges, Hindukush ranges, Karakoram ranges, Ladakh Ranges, ZanskarRanges, Kun-Lun Ranges, and Great Himalayan Ranges. Along with the ranges, there are Kashmir/Jhelum Valley, Chenab-Maru valley, Ladakh plateau, and Plains of Jammu.
Jammu & Kashmir, & Ladakh have the lowest density of the population in India. The Vale of Kashmir is mostly mountainous rising in several tiers from the plains in the South to the high altitude valleys and peaks in the North enclosing some of the loftiest inhabited hamlets in the world. Obviously with such diversities of physical features, both the UTs offer interesting variations in the soil, elevation, geological formation, climate, vegetation, and the people. This diversity has largely shaped the history of the UTs. By virtue of its central position in Asia, Jammu & Kashmir, & Ladakh commands strategic importance touching on northwest Afghanistan, on the North the Sinkiang – Uyghur Autonomous Region of China, and on the West, Pakistan. It stands on the old Central Asian trade route and Kashmir Valley since ancient times have been the halting-place of caravans traveling between the plains of India and the high reaches of Central Asia.
North Western areas of Ladakh (now with Pakistan) provide a direct land route to Afghanistan and the oil fields of Central Asia. Siachen Glacier to some extent dominates the Karakoram highway. Ladakh Region is extremely important for India, Pakistan, and China. Any other country having a base here can influence/interfere with Chinese Tibet, Xingjiang, India, Pakistan, and the Russian Federation. There are two important routes of ingress into Ladakh:
(a) Eastern route through Karakoram Pass and Aksai Chin.
(b) Western route through Gilgit, Hunza, and Khunjerab.
Both the above routes before construction of the Karakoram Highway converged at Srinagar, and are important from the military point of view. Gilgit, Skardu in the West, Karakoram Pass, Aksai Chin in the East are politically and strategically important as observation centers to 'watch' over Central Asia, Xingjiang, Tibet, and Russia. Unfortunately, some of these areas were lost to Pakistan and China in 1948 and 1962, and Indian influence has been marginalized in this region. Furthermore, it can well be visualized that any loss of territory will be completely against the strategic interests of India.
Gilgit and Baltistan having gone to Pakistan through illegal occupation, Ladakh is now the most strategically important part of the Indian security point of view.control over it by China or Pakistan will lead to the complete encirclement of the Kashmir valley. Link up of Pakistan and China through Ladakh will pose a new threat to India from the North North East. The Kargil War in effect was an unsuccessful attempt by Pakistan to achieve this end. Similarly, Siachen Glacier, which Pakistan has been laying its claim on, is also born out of the same game plan to encircle the Kashmir Valley.
The Valley of Kashmir is surrounded by high mountain ranges from all sides. This valley, which is about 15,945 Sq km in area, lies in the structural basin of a valley - once the bed of a great lake. This incidentally is the most fertile and densely populated region stretching 200 Kms from South East to North West at an average
elevation of 1700m and has a maximum width of about 120 km. There are numerous lakes in the valley, the biggest being the famous Wular Lake through which the Jhelum River passes. It enters Wular near Bandipur and leaves it at Sopore. Anchar and Manasbal are other well-known lakes of the valley. The main river is Jhelum or Veth and it has numerous tributaries like Liddar,
Sindh, Sandran, and Vishwa rivers. In addition, hundreds of fast flowing Nalas called Nars and man-made canals called Khuls are found all over the Vale. The main surface route to Leh, Siachen, and Daulat Beg Oldi passes through Srinagar and Zojila Pass. The Baramulla Gorge through which River Jhelum flows out of the Vale is the only natural opening of the valley. This lends importance to areas between Baramulla and Uri. The old Srinagar- Rawalpindi road also follows this alignment.
Jammu and Kathua provide linkage to the plains of Punjab, i.e, Pathankot and Gurdaspur, and thus entry into the heartland of India. Kishtwar and Doda provide ingress into Himachal Pradesh and further to Uttranchal and the plains of Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. Even a cursory look at the map would indicate the vital importance of the areas of Jammu and Kathua and their strategic linkage with the areas of Pathankot and Gurdaspur. Similarly Kishtwar, Doda, and Bhadarwah influence and provide ingress into Himachal Pradesh. In the obverse lies the importance of the Kotli-Mirpur belt in Pakistan occupied Kashmir, as an area that puts pressure on Pakistan's capital region.
The main surface route to Ladakh through Srinagar via the Zojila pass remains snowbound for about six months in the year. The other route via Manali-Rohtang pass is underdeveloped, long, rough, and desolate. This route traverses several high passes, which remain open for traffic hardly for four to five months in a year. A convoy takes four to five days to reach Leh via this route from the logistic
bases, as compared to three days journey from Srinagar to Leh. It is therefore vital to keep the lifelines to Leh and Siachen open. The Pir Panjal and the Siachen ranges are important from our point of view and cannot be allowed to be compromised.
Importance of Gilgit & Baltistan
This territory of the State of Jammu and Kashmir under the illegal occupation of Pakistan since January 01, 1949, which lies to the West of Baltistan and North-West of Kashmir Valley is the most important piece of land from the geostrategic point of view. It includes the valley of the river Gilgit and the small kingdom of Hunza, Nagar, Ishkuman, and Chilas. The total area of this region is about 24,000 Sq kms and is flanked by Sinkiang Province of China in the North, Islamic States of Central Asian Republic in the North-West, and Afghanistan in the West. Pakistan
has declared Gilgit as a Centrally Administered Area ruled directly from Islamabad. It has built military and air bases in this region with the help of China and America. Pakistan has also linked this territory with China through the Karakoram Highway.
Baltistan which lies to the East of Gilgit includes the Valley of the Indus. The region which has an approximate area of 21,000 Sq kms has also been placed under the Centrally Administered Areas of Pakistan. Skardu, the Capital of Baltistan, has a road link up to Gilgit, with a major airbase. Gilgit and Baltistan which flank the Kashmir valley in the North West have been developed by Pakistan as strong military cantonments. It has also made use of its de-facto control of these regions to enter into an agreement with China under which it handed over more than 3000 Sq km of territory to China. The Sino-Pak military alliance against India may manifest
itself most profoundly through this area reiterating its strategic importance.
Due to geographical barriers, there is a distinct difference between the cultures of the people in Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh regions. Even within each region, there is a wide variation in the race, religion, and culture of the people. This diversity is a major contributing factor to history. The vast mountain barriers and the network of rivers cutting one part of the country off from another, tend to restrict mutual intercourse and confine the various population groups within limited and isolated areas. The Valley because of its Geography remained more or less isolated from the influence of other cultures. Although it was ruled by many foreign rulers, it had little impact on its own distinct culture.