It is high time that India’s diplomatic channels reach out to the voices of Gilgit-Baltistan in favour of India
Gilgit-Baltistan region, formerly known as the Northern Areas, is an integral part of India though currently under forceful occupation of Pakistani since April 1949, when the leadership of the so-called Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJK) was forced to sign away this territory to Pakistan. However, the region does not have any place in the constitutional framework of Pakistan and has been kept under the tight control of the Pakistan’s Central Government.
On August 29, 2009 the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order 2009, granted self-rule to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, by creating, among other things, an elected Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly and Gilgit-Baltistan Council. Gilgit-Baltistan thus gained a de facto province-like status without constitutionally becoming part of Pakistan. However, the real power rests with the Governor and not with Chief Minister or the elected assembly. Currently Gilgit-Baltistan is neither a province nor a state. It has a semi-provincial status. It is neither a part of what Pakistan calls Azad Kashmir nor is it a province of Pakistan. In fact, Pakistani Supreme Court pronounced in 1994 that these areas “are part of Jammu & Kashmir state but are not part of “Azad Kashmir”. The Pakistani Supreme Court in a judgment passed on September 14, 1994, stated that “the Northern Areas are part of Jammu & Kashmir state but are not part of “Azad Kashmir” as defined in the “Azad Kashmir” Interim Constitution Act, 1974. Even the grant of national representative governance in 2009 has not altered the ground reality in any significant manner.
Pakistan occupied Jammu and Kashmir (PoJK) is a part of the state of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), and hence it is an integral part of India. “State Subject Rule” was a law passed by the erstwhile Maharaja of Kashmir in 1927, defining a hereditary state subject, and forbidding employment of non-state subjects in public services. Also, non-state residents were not allowed to purchase land in the State of Jammu and Kashmir.
However, under Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, this law was abolished in 1974 which opened the floodgates of immigration for people from different parts of Pakistan to settle in Gilgit-Baltistan. Interestingly, both on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LoC) as well as in other areas of PoJK, the “State Subject Rule” is still in force. This is one of the clearest manifestations of the intent of Pakistan to change the demographic profile of the region. This paved way for settling outsiders-mostly Sunni ethnic Pathans and Punjabis—in Gilgit-Baltistan region.
Pakistanis are not democracy loving people as they don’t listen to the people’s voice”. “Now the people of Gilgit-Baltistan are becoming a minority in their own land. Tomorrow, if the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is completed after the construction of many dams in that area, the Pakistan’s Army will be deployed to protect these dams, the ISI and Chinese people will also be there. So after the completion of this corridor, it would be very difficult to find any indigenous people in the area. People in Gilgit-Baltistan are living under constant fear as Pakistan and China continue to indulge in violating all international norms by exploiting the resources and land. A large number of political workers in Gilgit-Baltistan are facing death sentences in fake cases without right to appeal in any High Court and Supreme Court.
The Gilgit-Baltistan region has suffered enormously due to rise of sectarian violence, lack of or no development of civic infrastructure and amenities, denial of fundamental rights, oppression by Islamabad-based political establishment. This marks the history of the last six decades of this region. Democratic voices of dissent get ruthlessly crushed and their political rights cruelly trampled upon. The Shia population of Gilgit-Baltistan has been facing extreme forms of oppression like brutal killings, arrests and torture. Besides, a systematic campaign to unsettle the demographic order in the Shia-majority region is underway by encouraging large scale migrations from the different parts of Pakistan. What is strange and shocking is that the gross violations of the human rights of millions of people of PoJK go completely unnoticed and unattended by world media.
Protest Against Pakistan
Recently, many hotels in Gilgit-Baltistan received letters from the Gilgit-Baltistan Council Secretariat, in which the hotel owners, businessmen and traders have been asked to file tax returns for the last three years. The traders, shopkeepers and various other people of the region went on a complete shut down against the Pakistan’s immoral and unlawful imposition of taxes. They raised “anti-Pakistan” slogans, and took to the streets in Gilgit town against illegal taxation.
It is argued that the region, which has been given a step-motherly treatment by Pakistan, has been looted through the heavy taxes levied by the Federal Board of Revenue of Pakistan. Economic activities in Gilgit-Baltistan have come to a standstill after the entire region observed shutter down protest against illegal taxation. It is also claimed that “the taxes collected by Pakistan were never spent on the development and welfare of the region and Pakistani Government through ordinance is imposing new taxes illegally.” The business community has alleged that when Pakistan’s Supreme Court has declared the region as disputed territory, Islamabad has no right to impose taxes and imposition of any kind of taxes will be termed illegal and unacceptable. The traders have said that no taxes can be implemented in the Gilgit-Baltistan region till the resolution of its Constitutional status, and till giving it representation in the Pakistan’s Parliament. People of the region have now become increasingly intolerant of the Pakistani occupation and they have intensified their ante against the authorities who have done nothing except plundering the resources. Pakistan’s apathetic attitude towards the region and adoption of high handed measures to suppress reasonable voices of the region is a major concern today.
It needs to be noted here that the people of Gilgit-Baltistan have been demonstrating against the step-motherly treatment meted out to their region by Pakistan for decades. Some demand greater rights and representation within Pakistan, while others demand outright independence. Despite Pakistani claims to the contrary, the government’s record of investment in the local economy remains poor and patchy. Unemployment rates are soaring, leading to an exodus of youth from the region to different areas of Pakistan as well as to the Persian Gulf and other regions.
Chairman of the Balawaristan National Front (BNF), Abdul Hamid Khan, has said that the oppressed people of Gilgit Baltistan will vote in favour of joining India as they are fed up with Pakistan’s colonial rule. “There are only two options—either you can vote for India or you can vote for Pakistan. After the long experience of 69 years, we the people of Gigit-Baltistan believe, we are living under Pakistani occupation and we live like in a prison of 72,000 square kilometres (area). By keeping that in our mind, if we have only two options, we will not vote for Pakistan, we will vote for India” said Khan, who lives in Belgium in political asylum.
On February 22, 1994, a unanimous resolution was passed by the Indian Parliament in the context of Jammu & Kashmir.
Out with Pakistan
This resolution declared that, the State of Jammu & Kashmir has been, is and shall be an integral part of India and any attempts to separate it from the rest of the country will be resisted by all necessary means and Pakistan must vacate the areas of the Indian State of Jammu & Kashmir, which they have occupied through aggression; and it is resolved that—all attempts to interfere in the internal affairs of India will be met resolutely.” It is widely argued that much has not been done in keeping with this Resolution of February 1994. Huge territory of the Jammu & Kashmir state of India still remains under the illegal occupation of Pakistan. It is called the Pakistan occupied Jammu & Kashmir (PoJK). PoJK is legally and constitutionally an integral part of India. Unfortunately, successive Indian governments have maintained a stoic silence over the happenings there. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mention of supporting voices from Baluchistan and Gilgit during his 2016 Independence Day speech was seen as a positive signal of his deliberate shifting of Indian foreign policy. India needs to explore mechanisms to communicate its support to Gilgit-Baltistan’s people. It is high time that India’s diplomatic channels reach out to the voices of Gilgit-Baltistan in favour of India.
The Foreign Affairs Ministry is exploring the possibility of inviting the diaspora from Gilgit-Baltistan for the next Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas, which would be a first step in this direction. The next Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas is scheduled to be held in Bengaluru in January next year. While Pakistan has raised the Human Rights issue in Kashmir at every international forum, from OIC to P-5 countries to the UN, India can also use the “Human Rights issue in Gilgit-Baltistan” as its response and future course of action after taking into account all the pros and cons.
(The writer is a Professor of Political Science at Gautam Buddha University)