By Ajit Kumar Singh*
Speaking at a webinar on ‘Rhetoric vs Reality: Comparing Human Rights & Development in J&K [Jammu and Kashmir] and PoJK-G-B [Pakistan occupied Jammu and Kashmir-Gilgit-Baltistan]’, on January 29, 2021, the London-based Pakistan-origin human rights activist Arif Ajakia observed, “The people of G-B and PoK [Pakistan occupied Kashmir] are living under a hell, like slaves. People of PoK and G-B cannot speak in their mother tongue, cannot wear ethnic clothing, practice local customs, and have no freedom of religion, or language. We also see that the demography has entirely changed in these two regions.”
Several other activists of the region had, in the past, raised the issue of demographic engineering. Pakistan has deceitfully changed the population profile of the region, settling people from other Provinces that were supportive of Islamabad’s agenda. The region, where the Shias, speaking a range of local languages, were an overwhelming majority, is now dominated by Urdu and Punjabi speaking Sunnis.
All this was done to impose a vice-like grip on the region, where indigenous inhabitants have always opposed the Pakistani State for its forced annexation of the region and ill-treatment of the local population.
Meanwhile, an official notification declaring election to the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly was issued on September 23, 2020. According to the notification, November 15, 2020, was declared the poll day. The elections, which were to be held on August 18, 2020, had been postponed on July 11, 2020, due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Soon after the announcement of the elections, massive protests took place opposing the exercise. To pacify the protests and ensure that the elections could be held without major hurdles, Islamabad assured the protestors that political prisoners would be released within two months. Later, one of the prisoners, Baba Jan, the most popular leader in the region, who was serving a life sentence in prison for his alleged role in inciting violence in 2010, was released on November 27, 2020.
Meanwhile, to tighten the stranglehold over the region, Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan announced the grant of provisional-provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan on November 1, 2020. This change of status, he argued, “was a long-standing demand of the people of the region.” The ‘provisional-provincial’ status was a necessity, as the Government does not have the 2/3rd majority in the Parliament required for the constitutional amendment to make Gilgit-Baltistan the country’s fifth province.
People in the region came out onto the streets, protesting against Islamabad’s machinations to alter the status of the region. They alleged that this was being done to appease China, which has been exerting increasing pressure on Pakistan to provide legal cover to the USD 62 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) in the Gilgit-Baltistan region. The security of the Corridor continues to be worrisome for China, as Beijing increases its economic stakes in Gilgit–Baltistan.
Gilgit-Baltistan, formerly Northern Areas, was earlier governed with limited autonomy, by the “Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order of 2009.”
Nevertheless, the Army helped the Federal Government conduct ‘peaceful elections’ on November 15, 2020 [elections for one seat were held on November 22], and Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) emerged victorious. PTI won 10 seats, followed by independents, 7; Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP), 3; Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, 2; and one each to the Jamiat-Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl and Majlis Wahdatul Muslimeen. PTI later lured six of the seven independently elected candidates to its side, and won another six reserved seats, to raise its strength in the Assembly to 22 out of a total of 33 seats — 24 of which are contested through direct elections; six reserved for women, and three reserved for technocrats and professionals. Barrister Khaild Khurshid of PTI was elected as the Chief Minister on November 30, 2020, and sworn-in on December 2.
As expected, there were allegations of large scale rigging in favor of the PTI. Massive protests broke out in the region. PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, addressing protestors, during one of these protests declared, “your mandate has been stolen. The votes of Gilgit-Baltistan have been stolen.”
In December 2020, protests also broke out in the Danyor District as the new government demolished several houses and properties in the region. It is reported that the houses and shops were demolished to pave the way for CPEC.
Moreover, in order to crush any further momentum of the protests in the region, the Federal Government decided to send additional troops to Gilgit-Baltistan. Commenting on the development, PoK activist, Amjad Ayub Mirza, stated, on December 12, 2020, “Pakistan wants to convert Gilgit Baltistan into a military cantonment.”
In reality, the region has long been a military cantonment and boots on the ground have been used to suppress the genuine demands of the people. The federal government continues to overlook the demands for providing basic facilities to the people of the region.
For instance, on November 12, 2020, students of Karakoram International University held a massive protest in Gilgit against the discontinuation of the Prime Minister’s Fee Reimbursement Scheme. The scheme was introduced in 2011 for the students from the Least Developed Areas but discontinued two years ago without any prior notice. They threatened to boycott the Assembly elections on November 15. One of the student protesters complained,
This scheme was deliberately withdrawn so that these students do not study and remain illiterate. They know that if they get higher studies, they will create troubles for Islamabad.
On January 6, 2021, a protest broke out after an under-construction engineering department of the Karakoram International University was set on fire by some unknown persons. An unnamed teacher of the University disclosed,
It is not the first or an isolated incident of this nature. Educational institutes have been targeted time and again by terrorists who are allegedly backed by Islamabad. In August 2018, around a dozen schools were burnt down overnight in the Diamer District of the region… This is an extraordinary situation, all the university staff, students, and teachers are scared that tomorrow they (arsonists) will enter the campus and create chaos.
Another teacher said,
Today they are burning down the university, tomorrow they will burn down the hospitals and in future the city itself.
Karakoram International University is the only University in the entire Gilgit-Baltistan region, which has a population of 2.2 million. In contrast, there are more than 10 universities in ‘Azad Jammu and Kashmir’, which has the current population of just over four million.
The region lacks healthcare facilities as well. According to a July 22, 2018, report, in a letter to the UNHRC, activist Sher Nadir Shahi had noted,
There are no quality government hospitals and health facilities in Gilgit-Baltistan. Hundreds of pregnant women die during delivery. There is no gynecologists and mechanism in hospitals. People go to private hospitals for health facilities. Poor people do not have access to free health in the region.
More recently, on June 15, 2020, health professionals in Gilgit staged a protest sit-in demanding, among other things, construction of 100-bed hospitals in each of the 14 districts of Gilgit-Baltistan, and payment of salaries to health professionals comparable to other parts of the country.
The region also faces an acute power shortage. Protests against power outages are rampant. Most recently, in December 2020, a transmission tower was set on fire by locals in Gilgit-Baltistan who complained that it was of no use, as the region was not getting any power. One of the protestors complained, “There’s no electricity here for 18 hours, almost daily.” They added that the electricity crisis was deepening day by day, not only affecting normal lives, but also their health and employment.
Instead of dealing with these demands, Islamabad core interest in the region is to help China complete its CPEC projects, which the locals strongly believe will be used for further exploitation of the region, even as little or no benefit accrues to the region. The locals fear that their land will be taken away, and their employment opportunities will shrink further as more Chinese as well as people from other areas are settled in the region. There is also justifiable apprehension that the project will have adverse impact on the culture and ecology of the region.
Amir Hussain, a political analyst from the Lower Hunza part of the region, observes,
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? Forget about the jobs; the locals are actually losing their livelihood because of this project. Small manufacturers and shop owners are suffering as a result of the Chinese goods flooding the market. The government has also cancelled the licenses for local miners. Mining in the areas is being handed over to the Chinese… The locals are not allowed to protest against CPEC projects. Those who do so are booked under anti-terrorism laws and dubbed anti-state elements.
Similarly, speaking at the 45th Regular Session of the Human Rights Council, PoK activist Amjad Ayub Mirza, argued, on September 17, 2020,
Under CPEC, our rivers are being diverted for hydropower projects causing water shortage. The projects would destroy forever, the ecology of our region. Scores of young men from Gilgit-Baltistan are serving 70-90 years imprisonment for protesting against the plunder of our national resources. Anti-terrorism laws are used as a tool to crush any dissent.
Indeed, on September 18, 2020, people in Chilas organised a protest against non-payment of compensation for the land acquired for the construction of the Diamer Bhasha Dam. Earlier, on September 9 and 11, people in Diamer had held demonstrations asserting their claim on jobs and opposing the inadequate employment of local youth.
Meanwhile, according to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), Gilgit-Baltistan accounted for five terrorism-linked fatalities in 2020. On July 28, 2020, five Counter-Terrorism Department personnel were killed and five were injured during an exchange of fire with suspected terrorists in Rohnai Muhallah of Chilas town in Diamer District. Two civilians also sustained injuries.
The last terrorism-linked fatalities in the region before this were registered on August 10, 2018, when unidentified assailants shot dead three Policemen at Kargah checkpost in Gilgit town. Two of the assailants were also killed when the Policemen returned fire.
Since March 6, 2000, when the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) started compiling data on conflict in Pakistan, the region has accounted for a total of 175 fatalities, including 118 civilians, 31 Security Force (SF) personnel and 26 terrorists. Indeed, civilians have bore the brunt of terrorism in the region.
Terrorism-linked violence in the region has remained under check in recent times. However, Gilgit-Baltistan recorded a peak of 60 fatalities (52 civilians and eight SF personnel) in 2005, as well as 41 fatalities (27 civilians, two SF personnel and 12 terrorists) in 2012. Crucially, the region continues to serve as a safe haven for various terrorist groupings.
Out of around 81 banned terrorist formations in Pakistan, several operate out of and in the PoK region. These include domestically oriented Sunni extremist outfits such as the Ahl-e-Sunnat-wal-Jamaat (ASWJ), the front organisation of the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). As SAIR had noted earlier Islamabad has turned PoK – including both ‘Azad Kashmir’ and Gilgit-Baltistan – into a hub of Islamist extremism and terrorism since the 1990s. Militant groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), and many others have been facilitated to create bases and training camps in the region.
Given these realities, Pakistan’s effort to crush all opposition and complete the process of annexing the Gilgit-Baltistan region with ‘legal cover’ can only intensify the processes of demographic engineering, feeding the apprehensions and anger of the indigenous population.
*Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management