Pak Repression: Gilgit-Baltistan Residents Demand Balawaristan
In keeping with the Modi doctrine, India continues to talk tough with Pakistan over Kashmir. Responding to Nawaz Sharif’s four-point peace initiative – demilitarisation of Kashmir, formalisation of ceasefire, affirmation of non-use of force and mutual withdrawal from Siachen – External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj told the UN General Assembly that only a single-point peace plan was needed, and that was for Pakistan to stop sponsoring terrorism.
The emergence of videos showing the residents of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) being brutally beaten by the Pakistani security forces while protesting Pakistani occupation, provided an opportunity to India to call for Pakistan’s withdrawal from PoK. Ever since it occupied PoK and the Northern Areas (Gilgit-Baltistan), Pakistan has been ill-treating residents and denying them fundamental rights.
Pakistan’s Kargil Misadventures
The perfidious employment of the hardy men of the Northern Light Infantry (NLI) as cannon fodder by the Pakistan army during the Kargil conflict still rankles in the minds of the people. Shortly before launching the ill-fated intrusions, the Pakistani army withdrew battalions from the Punjab, Baluch, Sindh and Frontier Force regiments from the LoC opposite Kargil district and replaced them with NLI battalions from the Northern Areas.
Not only were the NLI soldiers considered expendable, the bodies of their dead comrades were moved at night to avoid publicity and they were not given ceremonial military funerals. A local leader told The Herald at that time,
The authorities dumped our martyrs at our doors like logs of wood; they were mostly buried in the same civilian clothes in which they had left for the front line.
Residents of the Northern Areas also claimed that the wounded NLI soldiers were not provided with adequate medical attention.
According to The Herald, “The anger of the people spilled into the streets of Hunza where activists of the Karakoram National Movement... openly raised slogans against the manner in which the Kargil operation was being handled. Trouble broke out in Skardu too when Al-Badr mercenaries forcibly tried to occupy a house to set up their office. The militants had to be ordered out of Skardu to appease the infuriated population.”
Past Precedents of Repression
This was not the first time that the people of the Northern Areas had been discriminated against. The Gilgit Agency and Baltistan, that now comprise the Northern Areas, were part of J&K at the time of partition. The woes of the people of the Northern Areas began on November 4, 1947, soon after the state of J&K acceded to India under the terms of the Independence of India Act.
A young British Major who was commanding the Gilgit Scouts overstepped his authority and illegally declared the accession of the Northern Areas to Pakistan. It shall remain one of the quirks of history that a Major of the British Raj could violate good order and military discipline and seal the fate of the people of an area almost as large as England.
Since then, the people of the Northern Areas have been denied all fundamental and political rights just like the Kashmiris in the rest of PoK. They have been governed with an iron hand by a Federal Minister for Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas nominated by Islamabad and supported by the Pakistan army.
The judiciary exists only in name and civil administration is virtually non-existent, with the result that almost no development has taken place and people live poverty-stricken lives without primary healthcare and with only primitive educational facilities based primarily on madrasas run by Islamist fundamentalist. Consequently, there have been frequent riots and uprisings. The most violent political outbursts took place in 1971, 1988 and 1997.
Continuing Turmoil in Gilgit-Baltistan
General Musharraf, then a Brigadier commanding the Special Service Group (SSG) commandos, was handpicked to put down a Shia uprising in Gilgit in 1988. He let loose Wahabi Pakhtoon tribesmen from the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) on the hapless protestors. These tribesmen invaded Gilgit, ransacked houses, destroyed standing crops and left the area smouldering for years.
Skardu-born human rights activist Senge Hasnan Sering, now based in Washington, said recently,
The native people have been suffering rape, torture and economic exploitation at the hands of non-state actors from Pakistan as well as China…
He also said that Pakistan had settled 3.5 lakh Sunni Muslims in Gilgit-Baltistan and was running terrorist camps in the area. China has begun work on building the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor through the troubled region and thousands of Chinese workers and PLA guards have descended on the area. All Chinese activities in Gilgit-Baltistan are illegal as the area is internationally recognised as disputed.
The simmering discontent of six decades, continuing atrocities and deep resentment against being treated as second-class citizens have led to the demand for the state of Balawaristan. The people are demanding democratic rule and the right to govern themselves. A large number of influential leaders of the Northern Areas have buried their political differences and joined hands to form the Balawaristan National Front (BNF), with its head office at Majini Mohalla, Gilgit. It would be in India’s interest to support the people of Gilgit-Baltistan in their hour of need.
(The writer is former Director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS), New Delhi.