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Freedom at stake in Gilgit-Baltistan

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. (File Photo: XINHUA/IANS) by .
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan.

Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) wrote in its report that Gilgit-Baltistan had no human rights. Its top politicians are in jail and journalists cannot report this region freely….writes Dr Sakariya Kareem

Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan. (File Photo: XINHUA/IANS) by .
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan.

The people of Gilgit-Baltistan are fired by a strong desire to be their own rulers.  This desire became more pronounced in recent months after Pakistan’s Supreme Court’s verdict last year on the constitutional status of this territory spread over 72,495 sq. kms. and called disputed by its occupier, Pakistan.  The court said Gilgit Baltistan was a part of Kashmir and, therefore, could not be made a constitutional part of Pakistan.

The court’s verdict greatly disappointed that section of the population that wanted it to become the fifth province of Pakistan or become a part of “Azad” Kashmir.  The court ruled out either. So is ruled out the interim province idea. The Federal government, which had been falsely promising Provincial status for Gilgit-Baltistan, feels exposed by the Supreme Court’s verdict. It is now said to be planning to seek review of its verdict and present before it an alternative act to be named “Gilgit-Baltistan Governance Reforms Act 2019”. Chief Minister of Gilgit-Baltistan, Hafizur Rahman, who is part of the crowd that loudly condemns the court’s verdict, says he will petition for its review.

Pakistan Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi

The sum and substance of the Apex Court’s verdict is that no jugglery of Pakistan can make Gilgit-Baltistan its constitutional part without compromising its stand on Kashmir.  The court’s verdict gives some hope to those who want an autonomous Gilgit-Baltistan or the right to self-rule.  These reflect some of compromising views of nationalists about the set-up in Gilgit-Baltistan. The extreme view is for outright liberation from Pakistan. Nationalists, who include students, civil society and politicians, are really a frustrated lot: for decades they have been vainly making sacrifices to get an identity but their self-made history and geography have been cruelly unkind to them.  The Gilgit Scouts led by their British commander Maj. Brown, gave a tragic direction to the history of Gilgit-Baltistan. They revolted against the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir and handed over its administration to Pakistan.

The nationalists consider this action of the Gilgit Scouts as a curse for the people of Gilgit-Baltistan.  This is how Gilgit-Baltistan, known as Northern Areas until 2009, came under the occupation of Pakistan. Thus, the people of Northern Areas found themselves cut off from their State of Jammu and Kashmir and, therefore, from India.  As if this stifling was not enough, Pakistan cut off all communication lines with occupied Kashmir to prevent people-to-people interaction. In the North, they border with communist China’s Xinjiang  Thus the geography of Northern Areas makes it near impossible to start a liberation movement.  In the past for more than 70 years, we have observed indifference of the civilised world and human rights organisations to inhuman condition in this region. The people of Northern Areas may not be able to evoke any sympathies in Pakistan’s former cold war comrades in the West if they launch a movement to voice their plight.

However, whatever scrappy information escapes from Gilgit-Baltistan gives an impression that unrest may one day burst into some serious show for self-rule.  Political science teacher, Zaighum Abbas writes “grievances of the people (of Gilgit Baltistan) can no longer be masked with beautiful visuals of lakes and mountains”. He writes following the Supreme Court’s verdict, a demand for “complete internal autonomy has emerged with a powerful expression in social media debates”.

What he writes further makes one sit-up. He writes influential political parties including Awami Action Committee, students and youth and activist circles in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad have reached on informal political consensus regarding the future course of “the political struggle” in Gilgit Baltisan. They passed resolution to demand:

  • Complete internal autonomy where the elected members of Constituent Assembly will themselves draft the constitution of Gilgit-Baltistan;
  • The elected legislators shall be responsible for ensuring ownership of resources including in the subjects mentioned for Gilgit-Baltistan council – the Upper House-through proper legislation as necessary;
  • All political prisoners be immediately released as they were arrested under Pakistan’s Anti-Terrorism Act which after the verdict of the Supreme Court cannot be applied to a disputed territory;
  • They agreed that defence, foreign affairs and currency will stay with the government of Pakistan.

These resolutions clearly reflect the revolting mind of the new generation of Gilgit-Baltistan. It may sound an exaggeration to suggest that these resolutions smack of the burden with which Awami League leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman wrote his famous six points which are described as basic principle of a firm solution of the country’s inter-wing (West and East Pakistan) political and economics problems.  To a common observer the 6 points explained what ailed East Pakistan in Pakistan.

The six points demanded the implementation  of the 1940 Lahore Resolution which promised Pakistan to be a federation i.e. the federating units will be autonomous leaving only two subjects with the federal government viz: defence and foreign affairs.

While Mujib based his six points on the Lahore resolution, the Gilgit Baltistan nationalist organization, including the Awami Action Committee and others, based their demands in the above-mentioned resolutions on the UNCIP resolutions to which Pakistan was party and as such bound to respect them.  In their resolutions the Gilgit Baltistan nationalists left defence foreign affairs and currency to Pakistan.

The nationalists reject any Pakistani role in the governance of Gilgit-Baltistan. This may sound like a Sheikh Chilli’s dream.  The people of Gilgit-Baltistan are very weak before the might and brutality of the Pakistani Army. They don’t have the unity which the Bengalis of East Pakistan showed against the might of the Pakistani Army in 1971. There are broad divisions in the Gilgit-Baltistan population. There are Shias Vs Sunnis and locals Vs outsiders (Pakistanis hordes) who were pushed into Gilgit-Baltistan by Gen Ziaul Haq in 1988 to challenge locals who had been agitating for civil rights. The demand of civil rights changed into bloody Shia-Sunni riots fuelled by outsiders. These sectarian riots made the locals forget their political and economic demands for some years, not for ever, though.

PAKISTAN-KARACHI-DEFENSE DAY by . The Pakistan government took advantage of the lull in the political agitation caused by sectarian riots, and began imposing cruel laws on Gilgit-Baltistan. One was Pakistan’s anti-terrorism act.  That makes anybody a terrorist who says something which is not liked by Pakistan’s establishment. Thus no politician and no newspaper is free to express his /its opinion which Pakistan does not like.  Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) wrote in its report last year that Gilgit-Baltistan had no human rights. Its top politicians are in jail and journalists cannot report this region freely.

Educated young people can’t get a job either in Gilgit-Baltistan or in Pakistan. A growing Army of angry jobless young people is emerging. They are angry, their land has been grabbed by China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).  Local members of the Gilgit-Baltistan have protested that this project was started without taking the local people into confidence.

It looks the people of Gilgit-Baltistan have realized that their sectarian conflicts have encouraged Pakistan to be more repressive in Gilgit-Baltistan.  The aforesaid resolution by young people of Gilgit-Baltistan working in different provinces of Pakistan indicate that the new generation has the same yearning for freedom to rule themselves.  But no sane person may want to believe that the people of Gilgit-Baltistan can challenge the mighty Army of Pakistan which does not have a second thought while bombing its own people.  Remember how Gen. Zia dealt with them in 1988.  He got them killed by hundreds by the Army and the armed hordes of Pakistanis he sent there.  The people of Gilgit-Baltistan may be weak, but international powers can remind Pakistan of its commitment to the UNCIP resolutions.  How can they shed tears for Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang and ignore human rights violations next door in Gilgit-Baltistan?

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