Gilgit-Baltistan: paradise in peril
It was on January 4, 2010 when a massive landslide hit Attabad Lake, submerging three villages in Gojal and North Gilgit, blocking the Hunza River and forming a 23 km lake that claimed 19 lives and rendered thousands of people landless, without food and shelter. It was for the rights of these people that Baba Jan, a progressive chairperson of the youth forum and member of the central executive committee, raised a voice for their compensation and shelter. He, along with 100 people, was arrested for agitating against the police for firing at a displaced person and his son, killing them on the spot. He was arrested and was subject to severe torture during his captivity. Upon his release on bail, he showed signs of extreme torture and psychological disorder as a result of repeated beatings by the authorities. However, this did not diminish his struggle to fight for the rights of the people. The youth consider him to be the Che Guevera of their deprived land. He also raises his voice against the occupation of 2,800 square miles by the Chinese and the annexation of Chitral and Kohistan to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which should have been part of Gilgit-Baltistan. He also speaks against the growing Shia-Sunni tensions there and the government’s apathy that has claimed scores of lives so far.
Strategically, Gilgit-Baltistan lies at a very important juncture, which gives an economic corridor to China and other gas- and oil-rich Central Asian countries. The region itself is rich in important minerals and metals that can award an important economic status to the country. It has the second largest water reservoir in the world besides Antarctica, which provides a lifeline to the country’s agricultural productivity and can be used to make 50,000 megawatts of electricity. The scenic beauty can create many jobs in the tourism industry too. Gilgit-Baltistan forms a part of the disputed Kashmir region. It is an autonomous self-governing unit that was given its status in 1970, formed by the amalgamation of the Gilgit Agency, the Baltistan region and the former princely states of Hunza and Nagar. Gilgit-Baltistan was merged with the Northern Areas of Pakistan under a single unit but they remained constitutionally unempowered.
Historically speaking, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan fought for their freedom from the Dogars to be a part of Paksitan. The region has long been neglected. During the tenure of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the fiefdom system was abrogated and the Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) was abolished, thus giving the people the level of freedom they had been crying for. However, despite that, they have not been given constitutional rights even though Gilgit-Baltistan is a stronghold of the PPP. It is ironic that Gilgit-Baltistan does not come under the federation of Pakistan and the people there have no right to cast a vote during the elections, nor do they have any representative in the National Assembly. What they have there is a puppet government that does not have any constitutional or legislative rights, thus making it totally useless in promulgating laws. This is a strong predicament for the people of Gilgit-Baltistan who are not give full citizenry rights despite the countless sacrifices they have made for Pakistan.
In August 2009, the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order 2009 was passed by the Pakistani cabinet and later signed by the president of Pakistan, which gave self-government status to Gilgit-Baltistan but they still remained devoid of constitutional rights in the federation. Gilgit-Baltistan was given a province-like status without being constitutionally part of Pakistan. The people of Gilgit-Baltistan have been demanding that the region be considered a fifth province of Pakistan with full legislative powers. However, Pakistan has been rejecting the demand as it would stand in contradiction to the international agreement regarding the disputed territory of Azad Jammu and Kashmir.
However, there are some groups fighting for their constitutional rights within the federation of Pakistan. One such group is the Gilgit-Baltistan United Front, which is raising the issues they consider are not in the interests of the region. For example, they are against the accords signed with China; their argument is that Gilgit-Baltistan is a disputed territory and, therefore, any accord without the consent of the indigenous people cannot be accepted. They say that Nawaz Sharif is not a representative of Gilgit-Baltistan and hence he has no right to impose his economic interests onto the region.
Gilgit-Baltistan has also initiated the movement against the inclusion of the anti-terrorism law that they claim is against the mandate of the United Nations Commission on India and Pakistan (UNCIP) and consider it draconian as it arrests innocents and rights activists under the law. This law is a pretext to silence those who raise their voices for the people who have been deprived of their basic rights. Under the UNCIP resolution, the government of Pakistan can only assist the self-government of Gilgit-Baltistan but not impose laws that are in contradiction with the government of Gilgit-Baltistan, nor is it supposed to interfere in the internal affairs of the local government.
Gilgit-Baltistan is a beautiful region with beautiful people who want to live in peace and harmony and with the right to cast votes to elect their representative in the National Assembly. Special legislation needs to be devised to redress the grievances of the people. Unless these are met, the resentment of the people, like the voices of Baba Jan and scores others, could make this region another Balochistan.
The writer is a freelance columnist and may be contacted at email@example.com
Originally published in Daily Times on Feb 07, 2015