May 18, 2021
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An Area Of Darkness

Gilgit-Baltistan ranks among the most beautiful places in the world. It is, however, a region of the most enduring oppression and despair despite Pakistan's periodically orchestrated charades and package dramas

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An Area Of Darkness
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-0001-11-30T00:00:00+05:53

Gilgit-Baltistan ranks among the most beautiful places in the world. It is, however, a region of the most enduring oppression and despair. This dark corner of Jammu & Kashmir, illegally occupied by Pakistan since 1947, has largely remained outside the spectrum of international attention and concern. Harsh controls over the entry and movement of the Press, both domestic and international, choke off information flows within and from the region, even as the population is silenced by an overwhelming military and intelligence presence, illegal detentions and ‘disappearances’. Periodically, however, Islamabad orchestrates a charade, largely for the benefit of the fitfully apprehensive international community, and in efforts to divide and dilute increasing sub-nationalist sentiments and demands, variously, for human rights, autonomy or independence.

A fifth "package drama" since 1971 has now been announced by Pakistan Prime Minister Yusuf Gilani. This comes after the October 2007 "comprehensive package" – introduced by then President Pervez Musharraf, purportedly to "help bring the region at par with the rest of the country" – failed to secure the slightest improvement in this unhappy land. It is significant that the Musharraf package came as a damage control exercise after the passage in the European Union Parliament of the devastating report by the EU rapporteur, Baroness Emma Nicholson, which, while deploring "documented human rights violations by Pakistan" declared unambiguously that "the people of Gilgit and Baltistan are under the direct rule of the military and enjoy no democracy". Nicholson’s report was scathing, both on sheer oppression of the people, on the complete absence of legal and human rights and of a Constitutional status, as well as on the enveloping backwardness that had evidently been engineered as a matter of state policy in the region

Over the past two years, echoes of the Nicholson report continue to reverberate in the international discourse, even as there are growing concerns regarding the re-location of Islamist extremist and terrorist groups in Gilgit-Baltistan, and a growing restiveness in the region's predominantly Shia population. It is against this backdrop that Prime Minister Gilani signed the "Empowerment and Self-governance Ordinance, 2009, for Gilgit-Baltistan", on August 29, 2009. Through the Ordinance, President Asif Ali Zardari explained to a delegation of leaders from Gilgit-Baltistan, the Government had given "internal freedom and all financial, democratic, administrative, judicial, political and developmental powers to the Legislative Assembly of Gilgit-Baltistan."

How, then, does Manzoor Hussain Parwana, Chairman of the Gilgit-Baltistan United Movement (GBUM), which demands ‘full autonomy’ for the region, describe the Gilani ‘package’ as an "Ordinance for Advancement of Slavery"? And why has the Ordinance been rejected as an outright fraud by virtually all political formations struggling for constitutional, political and human rights in Gilgit-Baltistan? Why do leading parties even in Pakistan condemn the Ordinance as a "unilateral decision of (the ruling) Pakistan Peoples Party", while others reject it as an attempt to "annex these regions through a presidential ordinance and by imposing governor’s rule"?

The reality quickly reveals itself in the most cursory examination of the provisions of the Ordinance. The Ordinance ostensibly gives Gilgit-Baltistan its own ‘elected’ Legislative Assembly and Chief Minister, but takes away with one hand what it endows with the other. It is in the Governor that all real power is vested, and this would be an ‘outsider’, appointed by the President of Pakistan. Significantly, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, since they have been granted no Constitutional status in Pakistan, do not vote to elect the President, the Prime Minister, or the members of the National Assembly. The Chief Minister may not select his own Council of Ministers, but must act in this regard on the ‘advice’ of the Governor. Critically, the Gilgit-Baltistan Assembly cannot discuss or legislate on any issues relating to defence, foreign affairs, and crucially, finance, security and the interior. The ordinance awards no constitutional rights, guarantees or freedoms to the people. In effect, nothing has changed in what the region’s only weekly, K2, describes as ‘Sarzamin–be–Ain’, the "Land without a Constitution".

On examination, it is clear that the new ‘package’ only brings "a change in nomenclature rather than genuine political reforms". It offers little that is concretely different from the Musharraf ‘package’, and has quite rightly been dismissed as ‘old wine in new bottles’ by a wide consensus of political leaders across Gilgit-Baltistan. Indeed, premonitions of the puppet Assembly were already visible in the Emma Nicholson Report:

The Northern Areas (Gilgit-Baltistan) Council, set up some time ago, with the boast that it is functioning like a 'Provincial Assembly', screens, in reality, a total absence of constitutional identity or civil rights…

Creating a Legislative Assembly under an Islamabad-dominated Gilgit-Baltistan Council, and allowing the ‘election’ of a Chief Minister, cannot, consequently, conceal or alter the circumstances that have been closely documented in the Nicholson Report:

The people are kept in poverty, illiteracy and backwardness. The deprivation and lack of even very basic needs provision can be easily seen – 25 small hospitals serviced by 140 doctors (translating into 1 doctor per 6,000 people) as compared to 830 hospitals and 75,000 doctors in the rest of Pakistan, an overall literacy rate of 33%, with especially poor educational indicators for girls and women; only 12 high schools and 2 regional colleges in Gilgit and Baltistan, with no postgraduate facilities; apart from government jobs, the only other employment being in the tourism sector, which is obviously problematic A few locals are able to secure government jobs but even then they are paid up to 35% less than non-native employees; there is no local broadcast media.

Indeed, the new Ordinance simply reinforces the Constitutional limbo within which Gilgit-Baltistan exists, continuing with the substantive provisions of the Musharraf package, in continuity with the succession of ‘Legal Framework Orders’ under which the region was ruled over the preceding four decades. The new order is just another attempt to perpetuate and conceal the "political atrocities on the people in the occupied region", and to "buy time and hide violations of human and political rights".

It is useful, within this context, to review the contours of the illegal occupation of Gilgit-Baltistan. When the British granted Independence to India, the 565 ‘Princely States’ – including Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) – technically became ‘sovereign states’. Consequently, following the collapse of British paramountcy in 1947, the entire Gilgit agency was restored to the then Dogra King, Hari Singh, who eventually acceded to India. Pakistan, however, fomented and supported a rebellion in the region, and seized control, consolidating its administration through a succession of illegal ruses, such as the Karachi Agreement of 1949, under which entirely unrepresentative officials signed ‘letters of accession’ and ‘ratified’ Pakistani administrative control over the region. Crucially, a Supreme Court judgement in 1999 took note of the legal and constitutional anomalies, as well as the denial of basic rights and development, in Gilgit-Baltistan and explicitly directed the Pakistan Government, among other things,

...to initiate appropriate administrative/legislative measures within a period of six months from today to make necessary amendments in the Constitution/ relevant statute/statutes/ order/orders/rules/notification/notifications, to ensure that the people of Northern Areas enjoy their… fundamental rights, namely, to be governed through their chosen representatives and to have access to justice through an independent judiciary inter alia for enforcement of their Fundamental Rights guaranteed under the Constitution. (Emphases added).

A decade later, Pakistan has failed to meet even the minimum requirements of the clear and specific direction of its own Supreme Court.

The region continues, consequently, to be "directly administrated by fiat from Islamabad… The bureaucracy, primarily drawn from the North West Frontier Province and Punjab, has intensified the sense of alienation and negated any semblance of self-rule in the Northern Areas." Balawaristan National Front (BNF) leader, Nawaz Khan Naji, notes, "In every department, the chief is from Pakistan, the other, secondary positions are locals."

These legal and constitutional anomalies have been compounded by what the non-governmental Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) describes as "a distinct pattern of brutality and violence towards citizens". The Pakistani administration has long been involved in a campaign that seeks to alter the demographic profile of the region, and to reduce the local Shia and Ismaili populations to a minority. In the Gilgit and Skardu areas, large tracts of land have been allotted to non-locals, violating the United Nations Commission for India and Pakistan (UNCIP) resolutions and the Jammu and Kashmir State Subject Rule, and outsiders have also purchased vast landholdings. One unofficial estimate suggested that over 30,000 Gilgit residents had fled the city and its suburbs just between 2000 and 2004, in the wake of orchestrated incidents of sectarian strife, followed by discriminatory and repressive action by state Forces.

Three different sects of Islam, Shia, Sunni and Ismaili are prevalent in Gilgit-Baltistan, with the Shias dominating, unlike other parts of Pakistan, where Sunnis constitute the overwhelming majority. With the very small exception of Chilas, Darel and Tangir villages of the Diamer District, Shias constitute the clear majority across the rest of the region.

However, Islamabad’s direct rule has allowed Pakistan to engage in a vast campaign of demographic re-engineering, opening up the region for colonisation by Sunnis who are brought in with a number of incentives, including ownership of lands and forests. Following the construction of the Karakoram Highway connecting Pakistan to China in 1978, the region saw a swelling Sunni influx from the Pakistani ‘mainland’ – essentially Pathans. Sources in Gilgit-Baltistan indicate that large tracts of land continue to be allotted to Afghan refugees and Pashtuns from the North West Frontier Province (NWFP). BNF’s Nawaz Khan Naji observes:

...the Pathans are buying property and our cities are becoming Pathan-majority cities, where our locals are becoming minorities. We have no right to cast votes in Pakistan, nor in Azad Kashmir. Like a no-man’s land. We are the last colony in the world.

A sectarian polarization has been continuously encouraged in Gilgit-Baltistan since the Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto regime in the mid-1970s. When Sunnis in Gilgit objected to Shia processions and the construction of a stage on the city’s main road, these activities were immediately banned. Shias subsequently protested the ban and the Police fired on them. The seeds of a sectarian polarization had been sown, but the situation worsened dramatically under General Zia-ul-Haq, when the military dictator encouraged cadres of the radical Sunni Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) to extend its activities to the Gilgit-Baltistan region. A local (Shia) insurrection broke out in Gilgit in May 1988, with people demanding wider rights. In order to suppress the rebellion, the Special Services Group of the Pakistani Army based in Khapalu was dispatched. Former President Pervez Musharraf, then a young Brigadier, was in charge of the operations, in which he used Sunni tribal irregulars to execute a brutal pogrom against the locals, earning himself the sobriquet ‘butcher of Baltistan’. Truckloads of Sunni tribals were sent in from the Afghan border to the region, and they indulged in anti-Shia brutalities unprecedented in Pakistan’s history. After eight days of sustained violence, the Army ‘stepped in’ to ‘restore peace’.

The anti-Shia pogrom resurfaced in 1993, when sectarian riots started again in Gilgit, leading to the death of 20 Shias. Later, the Shia population was further alarmed when large numbers of Sunnis were brought in from Punjab and the NWFP to settle in Gilgit. This Government-supported migration towards Gilgit-Baltistan has been hugely successful and, according to unofficial estimates, the 1:4 ratio of non-local to local people in the region, which prevailed in January 2001, had dipped to an alarming 3:4 by June 2004. The Shias retain a slim but continuously diminishing regional majority, but there are areas where concentrations of Sunnis already outnumber them. A cycle of sectarian killings has, moreover, become a continuous feature of the Gilgit-Baltistan political landscape, escalating repeatedly during religious festivals and periods of political tension.

Cyclical tensions and strife compound an extended campaign of intimidation, terror and inspired sectarian violence. There is cumulative evidence of an accelerated radicalization of Sunni organisations in Gilgit-Baltistan, especially since 2001, with the shifting of base of a number of terrorist groups – some affiliated with al Qaeda – to ‘Azad Jammu and Kashmir’ and to Gilgit-Baltistan. Abdul Hamid Khan of the BNF records:

There has… been a steady inflow of Taliban and Al Qaeda operatives into the Ghezar Valley…. Terrorist training to Afghan mercenaries and various groups active in Indian held Kashmir is being provided in the remote hilly areas of Hazara, Darel Yashote, Tangir, Astore, Skardu city and Gilgit city.

There is, moreover, "evidence to indicate that the sectarian violence in the NAs, in particular at Gilgit, is being planned and orchestrated from other Pakistani provinces, especially the North West Frontier Province." Very significant quantities of weapons have also been seized in Gilgit-Baltistan, and are shipped in from the neighbouring provinces, even as "the tactics used by sectarian terrorists in places like Quetta, Karachi, Islamabad, Lahore, and elsewhere are now being employed in the Northern Areas."

As the Nicholson Report clearly noted, moreover, the entire Gilgit-Baltistan region remains mired in extreme poverty and backwardness, with a pervasive absence of most basic amenities. Even the Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas (KANA) Ministry, which is charged with the development of the region, conceded, in the late 1990s, that the ‘Northern Areas’ "have been neglected for the last 50 years… (and) still rank in the most backward areas of the country."
In late August 2005, a 10-member group from the HRCP visited the Northern Areas to assess the level of social services and infrastructure in the region. The mission was fiercely critical of the inadequate structures of governance, the appalling justice system, and the paucity of social services available to the people of the region.

An index of regional backwardness can be found in the Education sector. While current data for the region remains unavailable, in 1998/99 the overall literacy rate in the Northern Areas was estimated to be 33 per cent – substantially below the national rate of 54 per cent. There were significant disparities between the male and female population: the estimated literacy rate for males was 40 per cent, whereas the estimate for females was only 25 per cent.

More significantly, there are wide disparities even between the number of educational institutions in Gilgit-Baltistan and ‘Azad Jammu and Kashmir’, reflecting Islamabad’s peculiar orientation towards, and biases against the former: Thus we find a total of 787 educational institutions at all levels, servicing a total population of 870,347 in Gilgit-Baltistan, as against 6,094 institutions in ‘Azad Jammu and Kashmir’, servicing a population of 2.97 million (population figures: 1998 Census).
A comparison of the number of public health facilities in the Gilgit-Baltistan and ‘Azad Jammu and Kashmir’ again reveals Islamabad’s partiality. Gilgit-Baltistan has a total of 305 public health facilities in all categories, hospitals, dispensaries and first aid posts. ‘Azad Jammu and Kashmir’, in sharp contrast, has a total of 4,585 public health facilities across a much wider range of categories. Most of Gilgit-Baltistan’s settlements lack proper sewerage and drainage systems, with the result that virtually all the water supply is contaminated with human and animal waste, leading to a wide range of diseases. In January 2000, for example, the Army Field Hospital at Gilgit reported that some 47,152 patients had been treated for cholera over a period of just four months.

The region also suffers from under-utilization of its natural resources. Although the Northern Areas have tremendous potential for hydropower generation, and are, indeed, seen as a primary source of both water and power for the rest of Pakistan, the region fails to meet its own energy demands. Gilgit-Baltistan currently has the lowest per capita rate of energy consumption in Pakistan and firewood is still the main source of domestic energy. Field surveys conducted by the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) with German technical assistance revealed that 99.6 per cent of all respondents used firewood as fuel for domestic purposes. Kerosene is currently the second most widely used energy source in Gilgit-Baltistan. Even in its ‘electrified’ regions, kerosene is commonly used because of limited coverage of the population and frequent disruptions of the power supply. There is a large and rapidly growing gulf between existing supplies of electricity and regional demand.

Despite a long history of protests against Islamabad’s discriminatory policies, against growing sectarianism and violence, and against brutal state repression, Gilgit-Baltistan remains a neglected centre of inequity and widespread suffering. Pakistan has utterly and continuously suppressed the people of Gilgit-Baltistan; denied them the most basic constitutional and human rights; blocked access to development and an equitable use even of local natural resources; and repeatedly and brutally suppressed the local Shia majority, even as it seeks to violently promote Sunni sectarianism in the region.

Gilgit-Baltistan remains an ‘area of darkness’, of deep neglect and exploitation, and of the denial of political rights and identity – indeed, a violation of every conceivable element of the very ‘self-determination’ that Pakistan advocates abroad. Circumstances in Gilgit-Baltistan constitute an international humanitarian crisis. Yet, for decades, Pakistan has set a distorted international agenda of discourse, treating areas under its occupation – ‘Azad Jammu and Kashmir’ and Gilgit-Baltistan – as settled issues, even as it violently promotes and stridently proclaims a ‘dispute’ over the Indian-administered State of Jammu & Kashmir. Regrettably, the poorly informed international community has accepted this travesty of history.

The troubles of Gilgit-Baltistan, and the repeated cycles of state repression, have remained concealed behind an iron veil that has been pulled across the region by Islamabad, reinforced by international indifference to, and ignorance of, the plight of the people. It is now time to administer correctives and to deny to Pakistan the fruits of aggression and criminality that have accrued for over six decades, in the process creating immense suffering on a hapless sectarian minority in Gilgit-Baltistan.


Ajai Sahni is Editor, SAIR; Executive Director, Institute for Conflict Management. Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal


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