Baba Jan: an ideology can’t be imprisoned
By: Muzzammil Mukhtar
Political activism is the way people voice their criticism to elected representatives and the powerful. However, state’s oppression, persecution, prosecution and suppression serve today, to a considerable extent, for the rule and privileges of the state’s bureaucracy. In contemporary political history of Pakistan, Baba Jan’s prosecution and detention depict state’s utmost oppression of a political activist. Baba Jan is a progressive political activist of the Hunza valley in the Gilgit-Baltistan region. He is one of the popular contemporary leaders of the ordinary people and the working class, and he has had the courage to loudly speak against the human rights violations in the region.
Gilgit-Baltistan has, no doubt, great politico-economic and strategic importance. In 1970, Gilgit-Baltistan became a separate administrative unit. It is also known as the northern areas of Pakistan. However, in 2009, the government of Pakistan led by the Pakistan People’s Party announced the region’s so-called autonomy and self-rule through an elected legislative assembly under the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order 2009. Announcing self-governance could be, at the very least, considered as an optimistic step forward towards a process of devolution of power. However, in reality, it is merely ‘lollipop’ autonomy for the people of Gilgit-Baltistan under the shallow slogans of empowerment of the people of the region. The real face of this so-called autonomy can better be understood in the contemporary history of events leading to state’s imperialist oppression against the region’s popular leader Baba Jan and other activists.
In fact, this area is under the taut control of the state establishment, primarily because of its geographical location and great economic value: it is part of the historic silk route. The so-called autonomy of the region is merely an imperialist cliché to suspend the process of real empowerment of the ordinary people and the working class.
Baba Jan and 11 other activists were convicted of being involved in political riots linked with the 2010 Attabad landslide. Baba Jan and his fellow activists are currently serving a 40-year imprisonment. What is Baba Jan’s crime? His only fault is daring to challenge the fundamentals of society and wishing for a real change in the lives of ordinary people.
In January 2010, a huge landslide occurred, which left hundreds of families homeless. Baba Jan dared to organise the homeless people in order to lobby for seeking compensation and rehabilitation for them. In August 2011, ordinary people were protesting for the rights of several families who never received any compensation when the police opened fire and killed innocent people; this led to protests starting off in several towns. Thereafter, arrest warrants were issued against several protestors; Baba Jan and other activists were arrested and brutally tortured. Later, they were charged under the provisions of the Anti-Terrorism Act, and an anti-terrorism court sentenced Baba and other activists to life imprisonment.
Baba Jan is so popular among the masses in the region that when he contested the elections in 2015 from prison for a seat in the Gilgit-Baltistan legislative assembly, he stood second losing out to a candidate backed by the ruling Party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz. He procured more votes than the candidates of mainstream political parties i.e. Pakistan People’s Party and Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf. Yet again, Baba Jan was contesting the by-elections as a candidate of the Awami Workers Party, since the winning candidate was later elected as the governor of Gilgit-Baltistan, and his seat was vacated.
Human rights activists demanded for Baba Jan’s release, and world-renowned left wing intellectuals including Noam Chomsky and Tariq Ali signed a petition for his release. However, on June 9, 2016, the Supreme Appellate Court whilst hearing the state’s appeal against the Chief Court’s decision upheld the sentence of Baba Jan and other activists by overruling the earlier verdict of the Chief Court acquitting Baba Jan and his fellow activists. Therefore, Baba Jan was also disqualified from contesting the by-elections, and his lawyer described the decision as imposed.
Interestingly, a judicial commission was also formed to probe the matter of killings at the demonstration after which Baba Jan and others were arrested; however, quite surprisingly, the commission’s report was never made public.
Baba Jan and his fellow activists are not terrorists; they are progressive political activists. Any such imprisonment, in a politically motivated case, apparently seems to be an abysmal miscarriage of justice in modern times. It is a pity that the leaders of workers who raised their voices against human rights violations and prevailing fundamentals of society in the Gilgit-Baltistan region were charged and convicted under the Anti-Terrorism Act. It seems that those who suck the blood of the ordinary people by imposing international neo-imperialist economic policies would never come under the purview of any provisions of the law of the land; rather, real leaders of the working class are being sentenced to abysmally longer periods of imprisonment.
Baba Jan and his fellow activists were protesting along with ordinary working class people, and the state’s establishment should not be blind with its power. Rather, it should recognise people’s basic rights to protest and to have political opinions.
It is understandable that China is profoundly interested to make a multi-billion dollar investment in the area i.e. the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. However, the state’s bureaucracy should not consider progressive political struggles as obstacles to the way of any such investment, and put popular leaders in prison rather than focusing on winning the popular support by giving rights and real autonomy to the people of the Gilgit-Baltistan. Only a fair and impartial devolution of rights and real autonomy would pave the way for a realistic integration of the Gilgit-Baltistan into Pakistan.
A bare reading of the history of national and international progressive political movements clearly suggests that nothing could be gained with the imprisonment of Baba Jan and other activists. Political imprisonment of those who represent the collective conscience of the people in a society would open the hatch to hatred, and a further upsurge for nationalism and politico-economic autonomy.
Apparently, it seems that despite the harsh experiences of past and contemporary nationalist movements, the state establishment of Pakistan is yet not prepared to come out of the bonfire of illusions as to patriotism. In the real world you cannot suppress the voice of those fighting for human rights by convictions based on politically motivated charges and declaring them as anti-state actors. Such acts would prove to be counterproductive, and would help to open the floodgates for even greater resentment. Baba Jan’s voice is rapidly becoming the voice of the people in the Gilgit-Baltistan region. Let us not forget that only humans can be imprisoned not the ideology they believe in or the voices they raise.
The writer is a lawyer/solicitor and a left-wing political activist. He is a director of a London based law firm Synthesis Chambers Solicitors.
The article appeared in Daily Times on August 30, 2016