Abdul Hamid Khan is the Chairman of the Balawaristan National Front, an organization struggling for the independence of Gilgit Baltistan, which he considers to be under the illegal occupation of Pakistan. He spoke to Yoginder Sikand on issues related to the Kashmir question and the quest of his own people for independence from Pakistan
Yoginder Sikand: Could you tell us something about the idea of Balawaristan and the aims of the Balawaristan National Front?
Abdul Hamid Khan: Balawaristan is a term which we use to refer to that area of the former state of Jammu & Kashmir which is now under the illegal occupation of Pakistan, consisting of Gilgit Baltistan. It has an area of 28000 square miles (in contrast to the rest of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, which comprises only 4000 sq miles).
Pakistan has illegally ceded some 2500 square miles of the territory of Balawaristan to China in the Shoomshall Hunza area. Balawaristan has a population of some two million, consisting of Shi'as, Sunnis, Isma'ilis and Nur Bakhshis. The Balawaristan National Front (BNF) was been established on July 30th, 1992. To free Balawaristan and its people from the occupation of Pakistan and make it as an independent country is the only aim of our party.
The party has presented a manifesto for a sovereign and independent Republic of Balawaristan for the people of this region are treated by Pakistan as virtual slaves and have been deprived of all basic human rights. Pakistan's occupation of our territory is not legal according to international or any other law.
Do you think your ideas have a strong appeal among the people of your area?
Unless an election or referendum is held in our region under an impartial authority such as the United Nations we cannot measure the degree of support that we enjoy. Yet, many people in Balawaristan seek freedom from Pakistan, of that there can be no doubt. In fact, our people are increasingly veering round to the idea of independence. The growing entry of Pakistani forces as well as terrorists into Balawaristan is ample proof of the fact that the Pakistani state is now facing a serious threat from nationalist groups like the BNF.
How have the violent events of recent years impacted on relations between different religious groups in Balawaristan?
One of the major issues that we are today faced with in Balawaristan is the growing menace of sectarian rivalries. For this Pakistani occupants and their agents are to blame, masters that they are of the art of 'divide and rule', pitting Shia's and Sunnis against each other. Pakistani agents paid Sunni and Shi'a clerics to spew venom against each other and thus divide our people.
There is evidence to suggest the direct involvement of Pakistani soldiers and Afghan militants in promoting this increasing strife. As a result, many of our people have been killed in what are euphemistically termed 'Sunni-Shi'a' conflicts. Whenever efforts were made to breach the divide between the Sunnis and the Shi'as, Pakistani occupants attempted to stoke the flames of sectarianism even further.
On April 9th, 1993, when sectarian strife was at its peak, a conference of all political, religious and nationalist parties of Balawaristan was organized by the BNF. Hardliners belonging to both the Shi'a and the Sunni communities both sects were also attending the conference, and so the local administration was requested for security. The police present was near the conference venue usually, but was deliberately withdrawn while the conference was going on. The intention of the occupying forces was quite clear. They wanted to see the murder of rival groups, but fortunately nothing untoward happened. The conference concluded peacefully, demanding political, democratic and human rights for our people and the withdrawal of the Pakistani administration. The participants unanimously expressed their anguish against the Pakistani occupation.
The Inter-Services Intelligence, the Pakistani secret services' agency, has also played a central role in promoting sectarianism in Balawaristan. And so have the judiciary as well as the head of administration and Police, which is now under control of Pathans, who are said to be involved in the drugs and arms trade and the smuggling of rare birds. The courts have taken little or no action against those involved in promoting sectarianism.
How has the involvement of Wahhabi-style Islamists impacted on inter-communal relations in Balwaristan?
A: This is difficult and dangerous question to answer, because of the Wahhabi terrorists' presence in many parts of the world, and in South Asia, in particular. I would like to elucidate my own experience. I had migrated from my native village (Bahrkohlti) of Yasen valley to Gilgit town in 1967.
At that time there was no sectarian problem at all, and one was not supposed to talk about sectarian differences. The majority of the population of Gilgit consisted of Shi'as, and Barelwi Sunni Muslims, who believe in revering the Pirs, the Sufi saints. Barelwis would freely attend Shi'a religious gatherings (majlis) and processions (julus) during the holy month of Muharram in Gilgit. There were a few Pathan Wahhabi traders and smugglers in the area, but, being only a small minority, they lacked the courage to promote sectarian strife.
But then, from Bhutto's rule onwards, sectarianism began growing, sponsored by the Pakistani state to quash growing demands for freedom for Balawaristan. Bhutto's government encouraged the Pakistani Pathan and other Wahhabis to strengthen themselves and create sectarian instability by providing them access to funds. This saw a further boost when Zia took over Pakistan in the name of Islam. Zia managed to get vast amounts of funds from Saudi Arabia, America and Europe, which were used, among other things, to strengthen Pakistani Wahhabism and marginalize the more tolerant Barelvi tradition.
Zia appointed Wahhabi fundamentalists to high ranks in the Pakistani Army and the civil administration. He also attacked the Shi'as of Balawaristan and made (Pakistan Occupied Gilgit Baltistan) it possible for Afghan and Pakistani Wahhabis to attack and kill innocent Shi'as. Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and Musharraf, all have consistently supported of Wahhabi fundamentalism by following the guidance of ISI and instructions of Pakistan Army.
In your proposed independent state of Balawaristan, you include Ladakh and Kargil as well, which are currently under Indian administration. Do you seriously believe that the Buddhists of Ladakh and other non-Muslim communities would be willing to join you in an independent state?
Before the treacherous occupation of our land by Pakistan, inter-communal relations in our region were exemplary, even during Sikh and Dogra rule. The Gilgiti Muslims have close historical, cultural and even racial bonds with the Kalash of Chitral, who are the last remaining non-Muslim group in our region. Pakistan has damaged the ancient heritage of Kalash by making all efforts to convert them to Wahhabi fundamentalism by force and by use of Saudi funds.
The Ladakhis and Kargilis are our brethren and we share much the same culture. We have great respect for our Buddhist brothers of Ladakh, because we have historical and cultural relations with Ladakh and Tibet. We know that because of Pakistani fundamentalism and because the so-called Azad Kashmir is actually even more badly enslaved than the Indian-held Kashmir, no Ladakhi Buddhist in his right mind would ever consider joining us as long as we remain under Pakistani occupation.
But if and when we gain our freedom from Pakistan it is quite possible that the Ladakhi Buddhists and the Kargilis would join us as we are essentially the same people.
The people of that part of Jammu and Kashmir state under Pakistani occupation other than Gilgit-Baltistan are almost entirely Sunnis and are closer in terms of culture to the Punjabis. Would they be part of your envisaged state of Balawaristan?
No, they would not, for we have little in common with them and we are an independent nation by ourselves. Although they, too, are slaves of Pakistan, they have increasingly replaced the tolerant and peaceful Islam of their forefathers by Wahhabi fundamentalism, thanks to the role of the ISI, Saudi funds and the Kalashnikov culture.
And it is not just the Buddhists of Ladakh, but also the Shi'a, Barelvi and other moderate Muslims of Balawaristan as well as Pakistani-occupied Kashmir, who do not want to join hands with any fundamentalist group or party in either Pakistani-occupied Kashmir or Indian-occupied Kashmir. I am sure that the Buddhists of Ladakh, and the Muslims of Kargil, Chitral and Shenaki Kohistan would be willing to join us only if and when their political, economical and religious interests are protected in Balawaristan.
How do you see the Kashmir dispute ever being resolved?
The resolution of the Kashmir dispute has been made even more difficult due to the intrusion of radical religious groups sponsored by the Pakistani state, propagating a distorted understanding of Islam. A viable solution to the Kashmir issue can emerge only after consulting all the many ethnic, religious, cultural and political groups who inhabit this land. Unless religious harmony, political tolerance and trust are created no headway can be made.
A possible solution to the Kashmir problem, based on the will and aspirations of the people of all the five parts of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir ( Kashmir Valley, Jammu, Ladakh, Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir and Occupied Gilgit Baltistan) could be as follows:
There should be a referendum/election/plebiscite conducted under the auspices of the UN that would grant the people of all five parts the following options:
- To vote for Pakistan
- To vote for India
- To vote for the independence of Jammu and Kashmir as a single, sovereign state.
- To vote for the union of one of the five parts (Balawaristan, PoK, Ladakh/Kargil, Kashmir Valley and Jammu) with one or more of the other parts as a separate sovereign state.
- To vote for their own part as a sovereign state.
This plebiscite or referendum or election should take place in several stages. After withdrawal of foreign forces and terrorists the plebiscite should be held under the supervision of UN forces. In order that the referendum/plebiscite/election be free and fair, all civilians should be disarmed. I think this formula will lead towards peace and tranquility among the people of all five parts of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir, and between people in India and Pakistan as well.