Gilgit-Baltistan, constitutionally India, physically Pakistan and managed by China
Director, Gilgit Baltistan Institute, Washington
Gilgit Baltistan,high in the northern ranges of Kashmir, has been in the news of late due to the reported presence of a large number of Chinese troops there.Senge Hasnan Sering, the director of the Gilgit Baltistan Institute, believes that the number of Chinese troops in the region could be lot more than 11,000. Born in Skardo district of Baltistan, Sering finished an engineering degree from Pakistan and eventually earned a Masters in Development Studies from England. A cultural activist during his college days in the early 1990s, he was instrumental in reviving the indigenous Balti script, and went on to work as a language expert with the Baltistan Cultural Foundation. In 2009, he was selected as a fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, Delhi. Over the past 12 years, he has presented papers on cultural and political issues of Gilgit-Baltistan at several international universities, think tanks and rights based organizations. The Organiser representative and researcher with J&K Study Center Arvind Kumar spoke to Senge Sering on wide range of issues pertaining to Gilgit Baltistan (GB). Excerpts:
Born in Skardu you are an engineer from Pakistan. You got masters in development studies from England. At what point did you decide to go to USA?
In 2003. I travelled to USA 1998 but then I settled in USA in 2003.
Tell us something about present situation of Gilgit-Baltistan.
Gilgit-Baltistan is a region with evolving political and socioeconomic dynamics. There is a growing frustration among the local people because of lack of political rights. There is also a growing awareness about the importance of the region about its geostrategic location as well as the socioeconomic potential that it can offer in terms of water resources, minerals and transit routes.
There is this disconnect between how the government of Pakistan intends to utilize benefit from our land resource vs how much they want to return in terms of political rights. So, I think that disconnect has caused a lot of frustration in the Gilgit-Baltistan. They are asking for constitutional rights, identity, right to self determination……local people have been more of consistent in their demand and looking for a platform and forming alliance both national and international to seek what they ask for.
We all are aware of geostrategic importance of the region. Which are the foreign powers seeking presence in this region?
Every major player in the world is aware of GB’s location i.e.; China, European Parliament, European Union, British, USA, India, Russia as well as Saudi Arabia and Iran. Japanese and Koreans have shown interest there. Australian has shown interest there. In different capacities Indonesians have shown interest there. China at the moment is benefitting the most among other international communities.
What are the main issues of GB you want international attention on?
The most compelling issue right now is socioeconomic persecution. Religious persecution tops all of them. We want recognition for local communities for the religion that they follow and the language and culture that they follow. Then obviously, the constitution issues have always been there. There is plethora of issues that we can talk of.
Tell us something about GB institute. What inspired you to found it?
I have been an activist since early nineties. I was a cultural activist. I worked on language and cultural identity for a longer time. Then I slowly started talking about political issues. When I moved to the United States … I realized that Pakistan and United States are in a very good relation and therefore, United States is in a position to influence Pakistan if its understanding of Gilgit Baltistan improves. So, that was the thought that I thought that an NGO should be started; a think-tank should be established.
What is the ultimate goal of the GB institute?
The ultimate goal of the institute is to, eventually, persuade international community including United Nations to make Pakistan respect the UN resolutions and follow the different articles of the Un resolution which enhances internal autonomy and more political right to the people of GB.
What kind of policy the government of Pakistan adopts towards the people of GB?
It’s a very colonial attitude; taking benefit from the resources, benefit from the resources, do not give the rights to them and always keep them under control, do not give them enough rights where they will start demanding more.
What is your view on huge Chinese investment in the area?
Gilgit-Baltistan, being a gateway for china the Muslim world, specially south Asia and Persian Gulf, is very important. I think, China understands that and China has been investing in GB for the last 20 or 30 years. They are investing in Dam building, they are investing in building roads and tunnels and mineral exploration.
How do local people see that?
Road and tunnel building is seen as a very positive step because Pakistani government had failed to do that. So, China has replaced the role of Pakistani government in proving connectivity. .. There were issues and there are still issues and confrontation with Chinese when it comes to mineral exploration, land compensation and who is going to control the revenue and the royalty of the dam. Especially when Chinese bring their own labor and deny the labor to local people then there is resentment among the local people. So, there is a mix bag of being happy with the Chinese presence and as well as being insecurities and threats coming out of it.
In the recent past sectarian attacks have increased manifold in the region of GB. What can one infer from it?
You can say that Pakistan State has become weaker. So, that forces the Pakistani military to employ tactics like increasing Islamisation and using Islam as a binding force. All these actors Jamat-e-Islami, Taliban, Lashkar-e-Dawat, Lashkar-e-Taiba and Lashkar-e-Janghwi have been employed by the state to enhance their strategic interest.
One of the major activities of the Takfiri groups is not to tolerate Shia in the region, they want Shia to come to the band of Islam they follow. These are the different mechanisms that they use and that are how Shias have been persecuted along with Christians, Ahamadis and Hindus.
According to you, what role can India play towards the people of GB? What is your expectation from people of India?
India just cannot sit like that. Talibanisation of Pakistan, eventually, is going to affect India. So, India has to take an active role and work with the partners in the region which have an intension and interest of eliminating them. So, India can work with the local partners like people of GB or you can work with the international community like USA, UN and European Union as well as other actors like Iran has an interest in countering Taliban. India has supported status quo which does not favors anyone including India and Pakistan as well as the local people.
Legally you are a citizen of India. But you needed visa to come to your own country. Any comment on it?
Indian constitution claims that I am citizen of India. India either has to get rid of us or India has to do something (for us). Here is the thing, we are in physical control of Pakistan but Pakistan has no constitutional capacity to do something about us. India has the constitutional capacity but India has no physical control. So, we cannot just sit and wait. We cannot just sit and wait another 60 years.
That’s what India and Pakistan need to think. We have to be citizen of some country.
How do the people of GB react to the rights and facilities the Indian side of JK is getting?
The things, which Indian side has, are very charming. People of GB are now talking about it. Ok! Give us something which the Indian Kashmiris have which is; membership in the parliament, special status, democratic rights, right to choose our own president and prime-minister etc.
Even there are some people who are saying that give us something that, they call, AJK has. Others people say we want to be straight Pakistani and make us a province of Pakistan. They are looking at Indian Kashmir as a model and many politicians, especially pro-Pakistani, are now talking about it as they think that Indian Kashmiris have been able to retain their special status and still they can get benefit from Indian judicial, political institutions and economic institutions. You cannot have your cake and eat it too. Pakistan has to abandon one or the other. Pakistan is not willing to do that. .. Pakistan has to find some kind of interim solution outside it’s constitutional framework.
(Full text of the interview is available at www.organiser.org)