New Delhi: There is a burning smell in the air as the Imran Khan government backed by the Pakistani Army is holding elections to annex the Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) region located in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), as the fifth province of Pakistan.
The reasons advanced are that people here have been left behind in the enjoyment of their rights and in the progress made in various disciplines of life in Pakistan. The argument that the people of GB are left behind and the process would lift them has no merit.
“Pakistan occupied our land in 1947 and since then no development has been done here. These elections are a farce… everyone knows Imran Khan’s party has the backing of the army. He will win,” says Nawaz Khan Naji, founder of the Balwaristan National Front, a small Gilgit-Baltistan-based party that advocates independence for the region.
For the last few months, locals and activists in GB have continued to express resentment against the arbitrary decision to alter its legal status and against holding elections in violation of UN resolutions.
These activists, like many others who had challenged the writ of the Pakistani state in GB earlier, have been charged under draconian anti-terror laws. Activism against the state’s heavy-handedness peaked in October when the residents of Hunza blocked the stretch of the Karakoram Highway between Gilgit and the Khunjerab Pass border crossing with China to demand the release of activist Baba Jan and 13 other activists, sentenced to life imprisonment after violent clashes in 2011 between police and protesters, who were merely seeking compensation for the loss of lives and property caused by a massive landslide.
Reiterating that GB “will always be part of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K),” local activists say that making the region a “so-called province of Pakistan will not bring development to GB.”
“The region will never become a part of Pakistan. The people of GB have witnessed that Balochistan did not see any development despite it becoming a part of Pakistan,” said Senge Sering, President of Institute for Gilgit-Baltistan Studies. Sering added that the people of “Gilgit-Baltistan on the Indian side” are enjoying freedom and equality under the Constitution of India unlike those living on the Pakistan side.
One of the most mountainous regions in the world that is rich with mines of gold, emerald and important minerals, GB is known for its extraordinary scenic beauty, diversity, ancient communities, and languages. However, Gilgit-Baltistan is largely an underdeveloped region.
It’s home to K-2, the second tallest mountain in the world. Tourism remains restricted by many factors, including military hostility, though the region has ancient Buddhist sculptures and rock edicts. It is also home to an old Shia community, which often finds itself subjected to persecution in Pakistan. At present, a Governor and an elected Chief Minister rule the region, which is divided into Gilgit, Skardu, Diamer, Astore, Ghanche, Ghizer, and Hunza-Nagar.
Following Pakistan’s announcement of holding the legislative election in GB, India has been reiterating that “the Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh, including the area of so-called ï¿½Gilgit-Baltistan’, are an integral part of India by virtue of the legal, complete and irrevocable accession of Jammu and Kashmir to the Union of India in 1947,” stating that the Pakistani move to change the status of the region will “have no legal basis whatsoever”.
Though Pakistan knows that its accession theory is a myth, the reality is that it holds an area to which it has no legal claim. And that explains why it has not been able to define the region’s legal and constitutional status so far.
It treats GB as if it is part of the mainstream and yet has kept it out of it, depriving it of popular rule. It runs the territory through a series of executive orders, the last of which is the Gilgit-Baltistan Order 2018 which has been derisively called the “emperor’s order” as it vests the final authority in almost every matter in Pakistan’s prime minister.
The orders have concerned, among other matters, changes in nomenclature- from Gilgit Agency to the Northern Areas to Gilgit-Baltistan.
At the same time, violent attempts have been made to alter the region’s Shia-majority demography. Freedom House Report of 2019 confirmed that GB has undergone government-led demographic engineering and since Jan 2001, the population ratio of 1:4, between non-locals to locals, had changed to 3:4. The original Shia population has decreased from 68 percent to 41 percent.
Sunni extremists and terrorist groups like Sipah-i-Sahaba, Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and Harkat-ul-Mujahidin have set up terror training camps and are involved in sectarian violence resulting in a genocide of Shia Muslims.
It is pertinent to mention that even China has significant stakes in the demographic engineering of GB to secure the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. This project, which falls under the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is supervised by Pakistani Army Chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, underlines the Chinese influence in the political drama that is being played out. It is no secret that China has been demanding a provincial status for GB for a long to safeguard its CPEC assets. It, therefore, has become imperative for Bajwa to assuage Chinese concerns about the safety of the massive $64 billion investment.
Pakistan has grabbed forest and agricultural lands to transfer them to Chinese companies for large-scale infrastructure projects. Wahabi Sunni settlers have displaced the Shia population from villages on the Karakoram Highway to secure the CPEC. Moreover, hundreds of Chinese nationals have been settled in GB to establish businesses, thus exploiting local natural resources. China’s interest in Gilgit-Baltistan is also motivated by the broader ambitions of controlling the Indian Ocean. China’s plans to develop ports like Gawadar, Jiwani, Sonmiani, Pasni, and Ormara require absolute control over GB.
Because of these vested interests in Pakistan and China, suppression of the local populace, sectarian violence, and exploitation of the natural resources, the people of GB have finally spoken their hearts-out. The original people of GB are not only protesting on the streets against Pakistan but are also putting their legitimate fears on international forums. The civil society is more than willing to accept the reality of its only legal home – India.
Amjad Ayub Mirza, a political analyst from Mirpur in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), currently living in Scotland, says that the people of GB relate themselves more with the people of Ladakh.
Senge Sering believes that GB will grow if it physically integrates with Ladakh. He says: “Till August 5 (2019), we were an integral part of J&K but after the amendment was done in Article 370 and the state was bifurcated into two Union Territories, we are part of Ladakh Union Territory… it will give people a lot of opportunities to grow.”
Meanwhile, “elections have been already rigged…” says Mirza.