By S. Binodkumar Singh*
On August 8, 2018, the Supreme Court (SC) of Pakistan restored the Gilgit Baltistan Order 2018, suspending the decision of the Supreme Appellate Court of Gilgit Baltistan. A three-member SC bench, headed by the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Mian Saqib Nisar heard the appeal moved by the federation. CJP Nisar observed, “The government needs to ensure that the people of GB have the same respect and rights as all others.”
The Gilgit Baltistan Order 2018 was promulgated by the former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi on May 21, 2018, and replaced the Gilgit Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order 2009, with the ostensible aim to provide the ‘same rights enjoyed by the other citizens of Pakistan to people of Gilgit Baltistan’. The new order purportedly provides political, administrative, financial and judicial powers to people in the region. However, the order shifted powers from the Gilgit Baltistan Council — including those related to passing laws relating to minerals and tourism — to the Gilgit Baltistan Assembly. A comparative analysis of the 2009 ad 2018 Orders indicates that the ‘special rights’ the people of Gilgit Baltistan enjoyed have been curtailed further. For instance, the Legislative Power, according to the 2009 Order, was vested in the Gilgit Baltistan Council (though this was led by the Prime Minister of Pakistan, but also had representatives from Gilgit Baltistan) and the Gilgit Baltistan Assembly. As per the 2018 Order, this power lies with the Prime Minister of Pakistan and the Gilgit Baltistan Assembly. Furthermore, as per 2018 Order, the “Government of Pakistan may, if it deems necessary to acquire any land situate in Gilgit-Baltistan for any purpose, require the Government to acquire the land on behalf, and at the expense, of the Government of Pakistan or, if the land belongs to the Government, to transfer it to the Government of Pakistan on such terms as may be agreed mutually”. There was no such provision as per 2009 Order. This inclusion appears to be intended to facilitate massive acquisitions to house the CPEC project. Further, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OUNHCHR) Report on Human Rights Concerns in Gilgit Baltistan released on June 14, 2018, the 2018 Order retains restrictions on freedom of expression and association of people that existed under the 2009 Order. Article 9(2) under the fundamental rights section states, “No person or political party in the area comprising Gilgit-Baltistan shall propagate against, or take part in activities prejudicial or detrimental to the ideology of Pakistan.” This provision has employed in sweeping initiatives to quash any dissent in the region.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, in a high-level meeting held at Prime Minister House, Islamabad, on February 15, 2018, directed the authorities concerned to abolish the Gilgit Baltistan Council within a month. Gilgit Baltistan Chief Minister Hafeezur Rehman, Federal Minister for Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit Baltistan, Chaudhry Barjees Tahir, Planning Deputy Chairman Sartaj Aziz and senior Government officials attended the meeting.
Unsurprisingly, the newly introduced Gilgit Baltistan Order 2018 triggered protests, as thousands of people took to the streets in nine of the ten Districts of the region to express their opposition. The most notable was the May 25, 2018, demonstration by about 2,000 supporters and workers of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), Islami Tehreek-i-Pakistan (ITP), Majlis Wahdatul Muslimeen (MWM), Balawaristan National Front (BNF), Awami Action Committee (AAC), and members of civil society organizations and trade unions, who gathered at the Ittehad Chowk in Gilgit District and chanted slogans against the order. They alleged that the order that pretends to empower the people of the region by giving them unprecedented liberty to exercise their fundamental rights was, in reality, another document of deceit and falsehood, designed tactfully to further suppress the beleaguered indigenous people of the territory. Further, on May 26, 2018, several people were injured as Police fired tear gas and resorted to firing in the air in Gilgit city to stop protesters approaching the Gilgit Baltistan Assembly for a scheduled sit-in against the newly introduced order.
Criticizing the Gilgit Baltistan Order 2018, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) in a statement on May 24, 2018, observed,
In claiming to grant the people of GB their fundamental freedoms, the GB Order has clipped their right to freedom of association and expression. It has denied any Gilgit-Baltistani the right to become a chief judge of the Supreme Appellate Court or to have any say in internal security. Above all, it has disregarded people’s needs despite continual public pressure in GB to address their problems fairly and in accordance with local aspirations. The continuing imprisonment of Baba Jan and his comrades for having stood up for their fundamental rights is a sore case in point. There is nothing in the GB Order to protect others like Baba Jan in the future.
Baba Jan, a left wing political activist from the Hunza Valley in Gilgit Baltistan and two other youth activists, Amir Khan and Iftekhar Hussain, were convicted in August, 2011, by an anti-terrorism court for participating in a mass movement against the inaction of the Government during the Attabad incident. The protesters were seeking compensation for the loss of their hearth and homes in the wake of a landslide that hit Attabad on January 4, 2010, killing 19 people, blocking the Hunza River and forming a 23 kilometers long lake that submerged three villages upstream in Gojal, rendering around 500 people homeless and 25,000 stranded. On August 11, 2011, the Police opened fire on the internally displaced persons, triggering violent protest in the peaceful Hunza valley. Jan was among the nearly 100 people, including youth activists, arrested for allegedly ransacking a Police Station and torching Government offices after the death of an internally-displaced man and his son.
Meanwhile, highlighting the tactics of the Pakistan Government to establish military control in the disputed area, BNF Chairman Abdul Hamid Khan on May 31, 2018, wrote a letter to United Nations Security General Antonio Guterres, pointing out,
As per United Nations Commission for India and Pakistan (UNCIP) Resolution of April 28, 1949, Pakistani nationals who have entered that part of Jammu and Kashmir illegally after August 14, 1947, and Pakistani forces which entered Jammu and Kashmir should withdraw from Gilgit Baltistan and other occupied areas within three months. Pakistan issued a notice stating “Prime Minister of Pakistan has got powers like a King of British Empire to appoint Governor, Public Service Commission, Chief Election Commissioner, Auditor General, Inspector-General of Police and Chief Secretary.” The notice further claimed that Prime Minister of Pakistan has now acquired the divine right to appoint Chief Minister and even dictate Chief Minister to appoint Ministers. Prime Minister of Pakistan has got the powers now to appoint, promote and dismiss the judicial officers and the whole judicial system.
Significantly, on June 20, 2018, the Supreme Appellate Court of Gilgit Baltistan, the highest court of the region, suspended the newly-promulgated order. In a short order, it also issued contempt of court notices to respondents, including the former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi as Chairman of the Gilgit Baltistan Council, Federal Minister for Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit Baltistan and Joint Secretary of the Gilgit Baltistan Council, for violation of law. Earlier, Member of the Gilgit Baltistan Council Saeed Afzal, elected from the Gilgit Baltistan Legislative Assembly, had filed a petition in the Supreme Appellate Court in April under Article 61 of the Gilgit Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order 2009, pleading that the court declare the Gilgit Baltistan Order 2018 illegal and issue a stay order. In the petition, Afzal had stated that he was elected amongst others as a Gilgit Baltistan Council member, who took oath under Article 33 of the Gilgit Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order 2009 and was entitled to hold the office till 2020.
The Supreme Court’s decision comes in the context of unabated political persecution in Gilgit Baltistan. On Jul 17, 2018, the Gilgit Baltistan Home Department added several political workers, social activists and religious leaders to its watch list, on suspicion of being involved in terrorism or abetting terrorism, and barred them from moving out of their districts without the permission of the Police. In total 12 people from Gilgit, seven from Ghizer, three from Kharmang, two from Skardu and one each from Hunza, Shigar, Ghanche and Nagar have been included in the list. Their accounts have been frozen and their mobility restricted because they are considered potential ‘terrorists’ and ‘saboteurs,’ said Baltistan’s Commissioner Hamza Salik while talking to media. Further, on July 20, 2018, a high-level Police meeting headed by Inspector General Police Gilgit-Baltistan to discuss the overall progress in National Action Plan (NAP) informed that 700 suspects were arrested during various operation from January to July 2018. 5812 combing operations, 61 intelligence base operations, 1206 snap checking, 22330 hostels checking, 5905 rented houses checking was carried out during this period. There is no record of any demonstrable ‘terrorist’ activity against any of the individuals arrested or placed on the watch list. Terrorism in Gilgit Baltistan has overwhelmingly been the work of outside Sunni majoritarian formations, ordinarily implicitly supported by Pakistan’s state agencies, against the Shias who constitute a majority in the disputed territory.
Denouncing the flagrant abuse of the Anti-Terrorism Act by Islamabad scores of people residing in Gilgit Baltistan launched a protest on the streets of Ghizer city in Ghizer District, on July 29, 2018. One of the leaders declared,
You all know that who have been placed under Schedule IV. Someone is a teacher, other is a businessman. We are peace-loving people. They have slapped the Anti-Terrorism Act against just to satisfy their personal ego. This is not justice, this is an atrocity. We want to live in peace. We want to do our work peacefully. We are seeking our rights within the limits of law and order. If an establishment doesn’t want this then we’ll be forced to choose a different path. If laws will continue to be misused like this then Gilgit Baltistan will also see what Balochistan and FATA are going through. If this continues and the unlawful step is not taken back then, let me remind you, especially the military commander, establishment, and administration that if they fail to stop this spate of violence, it will have severe consequences and will rise, and there will also come a day when you will plead and we will not listen.
Schedule-IV of Anti-Terrorism Act deals with people who are not directly involved in terrorist activities, but whose affiliation with banned outfits or previous criminal record brings them ‘under suspicion’. They are kept under surveillance by the Police to prevent the possibility of their involvement in any potential or future terrorist activity.
Shedding light on how the human rights situation for ethnic and religious minorities in Pakistan has regrettably deteriorated in recent years, especially for those living in Sindh, Balochistan, and Pakistan-occupied Gilgit-Baltistan, a March 2017 report ‘From Occupied Gilgit-Baltistan to Gwadar: Human Rights in Pakistan’ revealed,
From enforced disappearances to extrajudicial killings, torture, the persecution of activists, violence against children and women, evictions without compensation and non-observance of the rights to fair trial or to freedom of speech and assembly, Pakistan has been systematically violating international law. For over sixty years, Pakistan-occupied Gilgit-Baltistan has had neither political autonomy nor a working legal system to provide human rights protection for its indigenous peoples, resulting in constant human rights violations, slow economic development and growing sectarian violence.
Meanwhile, on July 21, 2018, in a letter to the United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHRC), Sher Nadir Shahi, an activist from Gilgit Baltistan, while stating that several activists have been arrested under Schedule-IV of Anti Terrorism Act, wrote “Hundreds of activists have been confined to their houses and cannot move without permission of local police and administration. They are not allowed to participate in political gatherings and cannot protest for their rights.”
Gilgit Baltistan has no record of local terrorism. Occasional terrorist activities of the past have been executed by groups drawn from Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In the latest such incident, on August 2, 2018, unidentified assailants burned down 12 girls’ schools in Gilgit Baltistan’s Diamer District and fled, causing panic among residents. The prime suspect responsible for torching the schools was killed during a search operation in the Tanger area of Diamer District on August 5, 2018. On August 9, 2018, Diamer Superintendent Police (SP) Rai Ajmal, in a report submitted to the Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of Police, disclosed that the suspect, ‘Commander’ Shafiur Rehman, killed in an exchange of fire with the Police was a “high-profile Afghan-trained militant”. An official privy to details had revealed that the ‘militants’ were part of a wider nexus associated with Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), Gilgit Baltistan did not account for any terrorism-related fatality through 2017. In 2016, two incidents were reported in which 10 people, including two civilians, four Security Force (SF) personnel, and four terrorists were killed. On March 17, 2016, two soldiers and two women were killed in a suicide explosion in the Smagal area of Darel Valley in the Diamer District of the Gilgit-Baltistan. On the same day, in a rare incident, two soldiers and three terrorists were killed in an exchange of fire in the Gayyal area of Tarel Valley in Diamer District. Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the media wing of the Pakistan Army, in a statement released on the same day, did not mention which group the terrorists belonged to. But, the District is a known stronghold of Sunni extremist outfits such as the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). Gilgit Baltistan has recorded at least 87 terrorism-related fatalities (51 civilians, 16 SF personnel, and 20 terrorists) since 2011 (data till August 12, 2018).
Moreover, since its commencement in 2013, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project has been facing strong opposition from the local people. Though Islamabad claims the project would create employment opportunities for some 1.8 million people in Gilgit Baltistan, locals explicitly reject the claim, and there is no evidence of any significant local employment generation till date. Discrediting the Federal Government’s assurance of employment, Amir Hussain, a political analyst from the Lower Hunza part of the region argued, “The Chinese bring their own manpower wherever they go. For CPEC, they are likely to bring seven million Chinese workers to Pakistan. Around 400,000 of them will be working in Gilgit-Baltistan. How will the locals get jobs?” Accusing Pakistan of making moves to sell the disputed region of Gilgit Baltistan to China, Dušan Vejinovic, Senior Research Analyst at the European Foundation for South-Asian Studies, stated, at the 37th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Genva on March 9, 2018,
While Pakistan manifests itself as a self-styled advocate of the rights of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, the factual situation is that it remains an illegal occupier of Jammu and Kashmir, which has deprived the people of their political and civil liberties. Contrary to the country’s diplomatic rhetoric, it is Pakistan which has denied the people of Jammu and Kashmir their fundamental human rights. Moreover, it is now aspiring to become a broker of Jammu and Kashmir, by negotiating the sale of Gilgit-Baltistan to Beijing, in return for stacks of Chinese Yuan.
Significantly, Pakistan has already illegally ceded 5,180 square kilometers of occupied territory in Gilgit Baltistan to China, and commentators are now arguing that Pakistan has ceded operational control of Gilgit to the Chinese under various ‘security arrangements’ for the CPEC project. An influx of about 7,000 to 11,000 Chinese soldiers in the region has already been confirmed by international media.
With the exception of occasional and largely peaceful political demonstrations, there have been no local disorders in Gilgit Baltistan. However, Islamabad continues to employ oppressive methods of administration in the region, and these have intensified with strong local opposition to the CPEC projects. As Gilgit Baltistan is the only contiguous point of contact between China and Pakistan it is critical to the strategic ties between the two countries, as it is to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), of which CPEC is a component. The opposition to the CPEC rampage through Gilgit Baltistan is likely to escalate; Islamabad, in turn, will likely get more brutal in its attempt to crush all voices in the region.
*S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management