By Ajit Kumar Singh*
Nasir Aziz Khan, an activist from Pakistan administered Kashmir (PaK), speaking at the 43rd Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), Geneva, on March 10, 2020, raised deep concern over “growing human rights violations taking place in PoK [PaK] and Gilgit Baltistan”. He stated that “peaceful political activists and members of civil society have become targets of state infrastructure”.
He urged the UNHRC to ask, “Pakistan to release all peaceful political prisoners including Baba Jan and Iftikhar Hussain and their colleagues who were trailed under Anti-terrorist act and facing 40 to 80 years imprisonment.”
Baba Jan is one of the most popular leaders in the region, who is serving a life sentence in prison for his alleged role in inciting violence in the region in 2010.
Khan also stressed that “terrorists’ network and infrastructure are very much intact in these areas”. Though he did not specify the groups, he added that “leaders of banned terrorist organizations are roaming freely”.
Pakistan has at least 81 banned terror formations and several of them operate out of and in the PaK region. Sunni extremist outfits such as Ahl-e-Sunnat-wal-Jamaat (ASWJ), the front organisation of the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) have a strong presence in Gilgit Baltistan in particular. Way back in 2013, reports had confirmed that, as in the neighbouring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had opened a new front in Gilgit Baltistan, and their terrorists were operating in the region. As SAIR had noted earlier Islamabad has turned PaK – 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.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), Gilgit Baltistan has accounted for at least 170 terrorism-related fatalities (104 civilians, 26 SF personnel, 26 terrorists, and 14 Not Specified) in 57 incidents of killing since March 6, 2000, when SATP started compiling data (data till March 22, 2020). The worst of these incidents took place on June 23, 2013, when TTP militants attacked a base camp of the Nanga Parbat mountain in the Bonar area of Diamer District in Gilgit Baltistan, and killed 10 foreign tourists-cum-mountaineers. One Pakistani woman guide was also killed in the incident.
Meanwhile, speaking at the 43rd Session of the UNHRC, Senge H. Sering, Director of the Institute for Gilgit Baltistan Studies, Washington, demanded from Pakistan “to release political prisoners including dozens serving life-term”. Sering further demanded,
I remind Pakistan and China about their commitment to promotion and protection of human rights including accountability for violations and request both to cooperate fully with the Council when dealing with disputed territories like Gilgit-Baltistan. This includes complete withdrawal from the territory to enable genuine stakeholders to solve the chronic political impasse.
He also urged Islamabad to refrain from declaring locals’ terrorists for demanding self-rule and share in China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC).
The statement of these two activists describe the factual position of the unending sufferings of the people of the region.
Instead of dealing with all these concerns, Pakistan is in more of a hurry to further change the constitutional status of the region to tighten Islamabad’s vice grip. The region has always been under illegal occupation and direct control of the powers that be in Islamabad, though some nominal autonomy was provided at the local level in 2009, with the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order 2009. The steps taken in 2018 and thereafter, however, are intended to destroy that notional autonomy as well.
According to reports, the Government is trying to bring the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order 2020. Though the details were not made available, reports indicate that, through this order, the Government is attempting to undermine the Self-Governance order in violation of the Supreme Court (SC) ruling of January 17, 2019.
It is useful to recall that the then Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi on May 21, 2018, had promulgated the Gilgit-Baltistan Order 2018, with the ostensible aim to provide the “same rights enjoyed by the other citizens of Pakistan to people of Gilgit-Baltistan.” The real aim was, in fact, to ‘incorporate’ Gilgit-Baltistan as the ‘fifth province’ of Pakistan, and to quell any voice of opposition to China’s ambitious CPEC project. The people of Gilgit-Baltistan realized this at the very beginning and opposed the Order. Unsurprisingly, on June 20, 2018, the Supreme Appellate Court of Gilgit Baltistan, the highest court of the region, suspended the newly-promulgated Order.
The matter went to Pakistan’s Supreme Court and, on August 8, 2018, the Court 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 then Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Mian Saqib Nisar heard the appeal and CJP Nisar observed, “The government needs to ensure that the people of GB have the same respect and rights as all others.”
In view of the SC’s emphasis on ‘equal rights’ to the people of GB, the Pakistan Government proposed Gilgit-Baltistan Governance Reforms 2019. Though the details of the Reforms 2019 were not publicly available, it was reported that some rights had been ceded to the people. On January 17, 2019, the SC ruled that the ‘modified order’ shall be forthwith promulgated by the President on the advice of the Federal Government, within a fortnight. As expected, the deadline was not met, and the Federal Government on May 13, 2019, sought time to implement the Gilgit-Baltistan Governance Reforms 2019. the application filed by Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit and Baltistan stated, “Timeframe prescribed in the January 17, 2019, judgement may kindly be extended.” The application observed, further,
Some discontentment expressed by the people and the Government of Gilgit-Baltistan were reported (sic). The people of Gilgit-Baltistan demanded that instead of governing Gilgit-Baltistan through Presidential Orders, the area should be governed through an Act of Parliament of Pakistan. The government of Gilgit-Baltistan also raised certain observations that their view points were not addressed… A meeting of the stakeholders was held in February [February 6, 2019] and the consensus was reached that the G-B Governance Reforms 2019 may be enacted through the Parliament of Pakistan as per aspiration of the People of G-B.
The hearing in the case, after a long delay, resumed on November 7, 2019. The SC declared that it had announced the verdict and the matter was now handed over to the Government.
Despite this, Islamabad has sought to bring the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order 2020. Not surprisingly, on February 7, 2020, Gilgit-Baltistan rejected this Order and demanded that no change be brought about in the constitutional status of Gilgit Baltistan. Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly Speaker Fida Mohammad Nashad asserted that the SC order regarding the status of Gilgit-Baltistan should be implemented. Notably, in its January 17, 2019, order, the SC had categorically stated,
Nothing in the judgment shall be construed to limit the jurisdiction conferred on this Court by the Proposed Order itself and if the Order so promulgated is repealed or substituted by an Act of Parliament the validity thereof, if challenged, shall be examined on the touchstone of the Constitution.”
Meanwhile, reacting to the proposed Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order 2020, Senge H. Sering, asserted,
Locals oppose unconstitutional land reforms and unconstitutional 2020 ordinance imposed by Pakistan as both rob locals of decision and their cultural identity while empowering Pakistani and Chinese citizens to abuse common property regime with impunity.
Crucially, there is enveloping backwardness in the region. Ashok K. Behuria, Surinder Kumar Sharma, and Yaqboo ul Hassan, in their Pakistan Occupied Kashmir: Politics, Parties and Personalities published in 2019, observe, “The Pakistan Government has not done much to improve the economic condition of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan which is considered as the most backward in South Asia.” Behuria et al also note that there has been an increasing frequency of suicides in the region, adding that over 300 youths, both boys and girls, had committed suicide in Ghizer District alone since 2000. “One major reason for committing suicide is unemployment”.
Unsurprisingly, the region has witnessed several anti-Government protests. But these have not been effective, as Islamabad has deceitfully changed the demography of the region, settling people from other provinces who were supportive of Islamabad’s agenda. The region, where the native language speaking Shias were an overwhelming majority, is now dominated by Urdu and Punjabi speaking Sunnis. Indeed, accusing Pakistan, of changing the demography of the region, Sering noted, “You will be surprised that while Pakistan is trying to be the attorney of Kashmiri people, it has changed the demography in a huge manner.”
Though Islamabad has so far succeeded in quelling the protests, suppressing the genuine demands of the people in the region by deceit and force, popular resentment is building up, and will present a significant challenge to the Federal Government in the long run.
*Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management