Baba Jan is a man with a mission – a messianic mission to end the periodic rhythms of carnage unleashed on his people. So are his colleagues, all born and bred in the tranquil heights of picturesque Gilgit and Baltistan (GB), otherwise known as the Northern Areas (NA) in Pakistan which was wrested from the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir in 1947.
It came into being with a monumental act of treason on the part of a British officer, Major William Alexander Brown, who was in command of the Gilgit scouts belonging to the army of Maharajah Hari Singh. In cohorts with Muslim generals who turned their backs on the Maharaja, they threatened the Governor of Gilgit, Brigadier Ghansara Singh, with murder and killing of the whole Hindu and Sikh population if he did not surrender to their wishes. The illegal coup engineered with threats by Mr. Brown who exceeded his brief, put him in the driver’s seat of the decision making process. Needless to say he decided that GB should join Pakistan.
However, Pakistan’s skewed thinking would not accept GB as a province in Pakistan, partly because it would become the only Shia dominated province in Pakistan and partly because keeping it disputed would ensure a plebiscite wherein they could claim the whole state of Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan believed that if POK (Pakistan occupied Kashmir which consists of GB and Azad Kashmir) were given a provincial status, then it legally becomes part of Pakistan. This would then legitimize India’s hold over Kashmir within India’s control. Marooned in a fantasy land, they actually believed that a deprived GB would vote to join Pakistan!
Thus GB came into being with Imperial Britain’s blessings but its earthly sojourn turned out to be anything but blessed. GB is not even mentioned in Pakistan’s constitution. And beneath the serene breathtakingly beautiful landscape, there lurks a sordid tale of exploitation, suppression and slavery. The simmering discontent includes sounds of genocide and savage violence by the Pakistani state on hapless and innocent mountain tribes. Reduced to a virtual colony of Pakistan, the Shia dominated region is witness to swindling of precious metals, ethnic cleansing of Shias, Ahmedias, Ismailis, and other minorities, sectarian strife caused by injection of the Taliban and ISIS and extensive use of torture and intimidation to keep the population cowed and terrified.
Bureaucrats from Islamabad under a council headed by the Prime minister of Pakistan govern GB through their puppet regime the Gilgit-Baltistan council. The people have no rights and no legislation of their own. Institutionalized repression of Shias goes unabated. On Oct. 11, 2005, hired guns opened fire on a group of Shias about 58 km from Gilgit. Four vehicles of the charitable Aga Khan Health Services Office in Chitral were torched and two of its workers murdered on Dec. 27, 2004. On Feb. 12, 2012, in Kohistan, eight armed terrorists of Sipah-e-Sahaba wearing army uniforms stopped two buses, pulled off all the Shias around 20 of them and shot them point blank. One month before the Kohistan massacre, 42 Shias were killed in an attack on a mosque in Parachinar and the list goes on and on.
The May 1990 issue of “Herald”, the monthly journal of the “Dawn” group of publications of Karachi, wrote as follows:
“In May 1988, low-intensity political rivalry and sectarian tension ignited into full-scale carnage as thousands of armed tribesmen from outside Gilgit district invaded Gilgit along the Karakoram Highway. Nobody stopped them. They destroyed crops and houses, lynched and burnt people to death in the villages around Gilgit town. The number of dead and injured was put in the hundreds. But numbers alone tell nothing of the savagery of the invading hordes and the chilling impact it has left on these peaceful valleys.”
The man behind this massacre was none other than Brigadier Pervez Musharaff, also known as the “butcher of Gilgit” who later on became the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Today, this purveyor of all wisdom is wined and dined and honored like no one else in the “sublime” environs of New Delhi. This alone speaks a lot about the self-obsessed blindness of Delhi.
A leading intellectual of Pakistan, Dr. Ayesha Siddiqa is clear about one thing – that the Pakistani army and its jihadist policies are responsible for the decimation of Shias. Even among the people, there is a strong but muted belief that the invisible hand that guides Shia massacres has the sovereign seal of the Pakistani army and its notorious side-kick, the ISI (Inter-services Intelligence). A local saying articulates the obvious – “Ye jo Dashat Gardi hay, is key peichhey wardi hay” (there is a uniform involved behind every terrorism).
And there is more. The long shadow of the ISI haunts every hovel and palace, engineering chaos, threats and outright murder. A Washington based activist, Senge Sering alleges that the meddling Sultan of Terror routinely sets up targeted killings with the aid of ruthless mercenaries.
The battered and the bruised are fighting back. Their angry murmurs are echoed within the daily drumbeat of Gilgit newspapers. Daring voices speak out. “We can’t control any of our own income generating ministries – tourism, forestry, water, power, gems or commerce,” says Nawaz Khan Naji, founder and President of Balwaristan National Front (BNF), a party which seeks outright independence from Pakistan. Naji also feels that seceding from Pakistan would ensure prosperity for GB due to its geo-strategic location. Adds Senge Sering, another activist from Washington DC and originally from Gilgit Baltistan, “there is institutionalized slavery. Pakistan has been eating our resources and this slavery has been legalized by an ordinance,” referring to the Gilgit Baltistan Empowerment and Self-governance order, 2009.
As if Jihadi guns from jobless Mujaheddin were not enough, there is a new player in the ever expanding chaos-making machinery – China. The new bully on the block wants to ensure its permanent foothold by introducing the CPEC (China Pakistan Economic Corridor). For China, CPEC would be a game changer as it would get unfettered access to the gulf via road and rail. With an investment of 46 billion dollars to build a network of roads, railways, investment parks and highways, China hopes to connect Kashgar in Western China to Gwadar in Pakistan. This would reduce the time required to transport cargo from China to the gulf from the present 16 to 25 days to only 48 hours. About 3000 km of CPEC will pass through GB, which is claimed by India. However, India was not consulted, neither was GB. The profits will go to Pakistan, jobs will go to the Chinese and GB will have to put up with an overwhelming Chinese domination as the Chinese typically are reluctant to transfer authority to GB institutions even under court order. As a result, skirmishes occur and GB erupts in agony.
GB is now teeming with Chinese soldiers estimated to be around 8000 to 11,000, and their problems have multiplied. Pakistan is cracking down on any sign of dissent. Since October 2014, more than 50 activists have been charged with sedition. “China wants to send its goods through here, and Pakistan is looking for its own benefits,” claimed Baba Jan, whose defiance caused him to face the harsh crackdown. “There is a fundamental right to protest in Pakistan, but it is not being given to us,” he said in an interview to Al Jazeera from his prison cell in Gakuch. About CPEC, Jan and other activists feel slighted that they were not consulted. Naeem, a Gilgit truck driver voiced his unhappiness, “What are we going to get from this deal? We can’t even control our own border. Pakistan will collect customs from China, and it will go to Islamabad.”
A local representative of the Human Rights Commission, Israr-ud-din Israr, was also arrested along with nine others and charged with sedition in October 2014. “I hold a Pakistani ID card, but I cannot vote for people in parliament. I cannot become Prime Minister, or a member of parliament. I do not fit the description of a citizen, according to the constitution. How can there be sedition? He asked. His arrest sparked up a campaign of protests. In Feb. 2015, 19 people were arrested on charges of sedition because they referred to GB as “disputed” territory in a seminar. Again in June 2015, eight activists were in the process of delivering a letter of protest against the elections to the UN observers in Gilgit, when they were arrested, beaten and thrown into jail.
The ruthless crackdown has triggered another powerful protest which began on April 15. This time it is an indefinite sit-in strike (dharna) and for the first time all groups sunni, shia, the leftists, rightists and a rainbow range of groups have come together to form the Awami Action Committee (AAC) and coalesced around a common cause – the removal of a longstanding wheat subsidy. On April 22 they roused the local puppet Government to be responsive to the needs of GB and not to his political masters in Pakistan. The pressure worked and Pakistan reversed the removal of wheat subsidy. However the agitation will go on until subsidies on oil, and edibles, are restored along with other demands regarding health services, medicines, halting movement of precious gems and minerals, meritocratic hiring, addressing power problems, preventing awards of mining leases to non-locals, withdrawing taxes as per “no taxation without representation,” protecting the borders and obtaining a provincial status.
According to Selig S. Harrison, a New York Times op-ed contributor, the Chinese are constructing 22 tunnels in secret locations where even Pakistanis are barred. Harrison thinks that it could be used for a projected gas pipeline from Iran to China that would pass through Gilgit. However, it could also be used as missile storage sites. The Chinese construction crews have also built big residential enclaves for a long term presence. This development is alarming considering the Chinese penchant to gobble up vast territories as the world looks the other way. It happened in Tibet and Xinjiang and could very well happen in GB.
The Chinese are aware of Pakistan’s shaky hold on Kashmir. Their policy of providing stapled visas to politicians from Kashmir indicated that they consider that the territory is disputed. Hence they have shown hesitance to further commitment unless GB is given a provincial status. Before Pakistan presents a fait accompli with a provincial status for GB, India must stop snoring and run a media blizzard on the remote unknown area and stake its rightful claim. It must develop the required audacity to support pro-India activists in GB. There are many takers for this narrative. Mumtaz Khan, a Canada based Kashmiri activist who also heads the International Center for peace and Democracy, a Canada based NGO said “the people of Gilgit and Baltistan had pinned their hopes on New Delhi but India has been defensive in the Kashmir policy. This has allowed Pakistan to take an aggressive stance.”
Regarding the people of GB throwing their lot with Pakistan, Khan adds, “But do they have a choice? It’s India’s policy that forced them to look westward. They knew Delhi won’t be doing anything. If India doesn’t even talk about this region, then how can GB say they would be part of this country?” A hurt Senge Sering, president of the Institute of Gilgit-Baltistan Studies in Washington DC, says “India could have done more for us. Constitutionally and legally, POK and GB are still being claimed by New Delhi. And this claim has been recognized by the International community. This is the reason why Islamabad hasn’t been able to take the unilateral decision to formally merge this region with Pakistan. The Indian Government should have used this legal sanctity to its advantage.”
India as usual has been sleeping on the wheel, and has never evinced any interest in GB. The establishment pundits have willfully kept the nation in the dark and themselves out of the loop. GB activists see the moral inertia of Delhi, and though many of them are in jail, they don’t expect India to stand up for them. This apocalyptic abandonment of a region and its people who are in favor of the tricolor flying high on their soil, is going to cost the nation dearly. For in a tough neighborhood, survival requires every ally and every bit of strategy.
According to the unanimous parliamentary resolution of 1994, the entire princely state of Jammu and Kashmir is part of India as it was in 1947. While Pakistan vociferously demands Kashmir valley at every opportunity, India’s inexplicable silence on GB and Azad Kashmir is damaging. While Pakistan highlights human rights abuses in IHK (India held Kashmir), India is reluctant to retort in a similar vein regarding much wider abuses and horrendous suppression, torture and rape in POK and GB. The world hears the roar of Pakistan but not the silent truth of India and acts accordingly.
Unfortunately, India’s political radar is focused on Line of Control (LOC) which it considers as sacrosanct. Yet Islamabad violates it with impunity. The sold out media operates on the principle of seeing nothing, hearing nothing except the fatal romance with “Aman ki Aasha”, Akshay Kumar’s groovy moves or leading the endless witch-hunt against Modi.
The stakes are high. GB, rich with water resources, is also a vital gateway via the Wakhan corridor to Afghanistan, Central Asia and Russia. The Chinese can and will deny land access to Central Asia and Russia for trade in oil and other resources. GB also has precious resources such as some rare earth metals vital for touch screens, electric cars as per a recent NPR report. China has a monopoly on rare earths which it uses as leverage to strangle the world. With the acquisition of GB, they would eliminate the only other known source of competition for rare earth metals.
In addition, China will get the bonus of controlling Gwadar once CPEC is completed as per a 40 year lease signed with the Pakistani Government. Gwadar is very close to the straits of Hormutz, through which 63 percent of India’s oil imports gets transported. China gaining control of Gwadar can directly impact the economic and political security of India.
When Nehru justified the loss of Aksai Chin, he said that he did not regret because “not a blade of grass grows there.” His myopia and dreams of “brotherhood” with bandits of the region has made the whole nation snoring for decades while the plundering thieves climbed the ramparts of India and held the nation by its jugular Kashmir.
Fortunately, there are indications that the ruling party is resolved to shake the status quo. The BJP stated on January 29, 2016, that Pakistan had no right to Gilgit and Baltistan which is part of Jammu and Kashmir illegally occupied by Pakistan. “As Gilgit Baltistan is also part of POK, so Pakistan has no legal right to use it for any purpose. The party stands by the 1994 unanimous resolution of parliament which pledges to work for getting Pakistan occupied Kashmir freed from Pakistan,” said BJP spokesman Arun Gupta.
We can only hope that the current administration will muster the political will and prowess to wrest control from Pakistan. Else we will be forcibly evacuated from being a major player at the crossroads of GB to being a minor satrap of China in the cul-de-sac of Delhi with far reaching ramifications.