Gilgit-Baltistan: 'Final Annexation' Accelerated
In the meantime, Gilgit-Baltistan Chief Minister (CM) Khalid Khurshid has circulated the draft of the “26th Constitutional Amendment Bill” among members of the Gilgit Baltistan Legislative Assembly and his Cabinet, asking them to submit their “feedback and views as early as possible.”
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan is expected to grant Gilgit-Baltistan the provisional-provincial status on Pakistan Day, observed each year on March 23.
To tighten Islamabad’s stranglehold over the region, Prime Minister Khan had announced the grant of provisional-provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan on November 1, 2020. This change of status, he claimed, “was a long-standing demand of the people of the region.” The provisional-provincial status was a necessity, as the Government lacks the 2/3rd majority in the Parliament required for the constitutional amendment that could make Gilgit-Baltistan the country’s fifth province.
On March 9, 2021, to validate Imran Khan’s claim that the demand for provincial status came from the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, the Gilgit-Baltistan Assembly passed a joint resolution, demanding that the region be granted the status of a provisional province of Pakistan and be provided representation in the National Assembly, Senate and other federal institutions. Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) has a 2/3rd majority in the Assembly. The resolution was also supported by opposition parties, who don’t want to be left behind, since a stand on Kashmir plays the central role in Pakistani politics.
After the resolution, Imran Khan asked his law minister Muhammad Farogh Naseem to fast-track a draft legislation for granting provisional-provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan. At July end, the first draft of the “26th Constitutional Amendment Bill” was prepared and submitted to the Prime Minister. Subsequently, a second draft was submitted on September 3, 2021. A September 13 report stated that Prime Minister Khan gave his consent to the draft and asked Chief Minister Khalid Khurshid to get it approved by the Gilgit-Baltistan Assembly. The Draft Bill recommendations inter alia include:
• There should be four seats, including one reserved for a woman, for Gilgit Baltistan in the National Assembly of Pakistan.
• There should be two members representing Gilgit-Baltistan in the general seats of the Senate of Pakistan, who will be elected by the members of the Gilgit-Baltistan Provincial Assembly.
• A member from Gilgit-Baltistan should be included in the Election Commission of Pakistan.
• The jurisdiction of the Supreme Court of Pakistan shall extend to the provisional province of Gilgit-Baltistan, the Gilgit-Baltistan Supreme Appellate Court shall cease to function, and the Gilgit-Baltistan Chief Court shall be called the Gilgit-Baltistan High Court, which shall be deemed to have been established by the order of the President.
Till the passing of the September 9, 2009, Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self-Governance) Order 2009, the region had no legal existence after its illegal annexation from India. Even after the 2009 Order the region was excluded from any constitutional status, despite clear directives from the Supreme Court of Pakistan, resulting in the denial of constitutional rights and protection to the population. Later, the Gilgit Baltistan Order 2018 was promulgated by the then Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi on May 21, 2018, replacing the Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self-Governance) Order 2009, with the ostensible aim to provide the ‘same rights enjoyed by the other citizens of Pakistan to people of Gilgit Baltistan.’
Significantly, on June 20, 2018, the Supreme Appellate Court of Gilgit-Baltistan, the highest court of the region, suspended the Gilgit Baltistan Order 2018 after violent protests across the region. In one such protest, on May 26, 2018, several people were injured as Police fired tear gas and resorted to firing in the air in Gilgit city to stop protesters approaching the Gilgit Baltistan Assembly for a scheduled sit-in against the newly introduced order. A day earlier, on May 25, 2018, about 2,000 supporters and workers of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf, Islami Tehreek-i-Pakistan, Majlis Wahdatul Muslimeen, Balawaristan National Front, Awami Action Committee, and members of civil society organizations and trade unions, who gathered at the Ittehad Chowk in Gilgit District, chanted slogans against the order. They alleged that the order, which pretends to empower the people of the region by giving them unprecedented liberty to exercise their fundamental rights, was in reality another document of deceit and falsehood, designed tactfully to further suppress the beleaguered indigenous people of the territory.
Subsequently, on August 8, 2018, the Supreme Court restored the Gilgit Baltistan Order 2018, suspending the decision of the Supreme Appellate Court of Gilgit-Baltistan. A three-member Supreme Court Bench, headed by the then Chief Justice of Pakistan Mian Saqib Nisar heard the appeal moved by the Federal Government. Chief Justice Nisar observed, “The government needs to ensure that the people of Gilgit Baltistan have the same respect and rights as all others.”
Despite the various Federal initiatives, the situation on the ground remained unchanged. This has been highlighted time and again. Most recently, on December 9, 2021, Jammu Kashmir Awami Workers Party chairperson Nisar Shah Advocate declared,
The constitutional status of PoK (Pakistan occupied Kashmir) and Gilgit-Baltistan is still of colonial nature, where people have no rights and even control on their own resources. The whole system is being controlled by the Federal Government. The assemblies and rulers of both regions are powerless. The whole power is at the hands of the lent officers imposed from Pakistan. No one from state subject has to contest election or to get a job without signing the affidavit of affiliation of Pakistan. People lack economic, political, social rights and freedom of expression.
After the recent developments, there is some support in Gilgit-Baltistan for the proposal to grant provisional-provincial status, in the hope that this may help locals. Stating that Gilgit-Baltistan is entering the national mainstream for the first time, Syed Sohail Abbas Shah, Advisor Board of Revenue, Law & Prosecution, Gilgit Baltistan, thus argued,
As long as the word 'provisional' remains with our province, the whole region will be exempt from taxes, wheat subsidy will be maintained and we will get all the benefits that the people of other parts of the country will get.
However, there is strong opposition to the move as well, among those who see cynicism underpinning Islamabad designs. Amjad Ayub Mirza, a human rights activist from Pakistan occupied Jammu Kashmir (PoJK) currently living in exile in the United Kingdom wrote, on February 26, 2022,
Gilgit-Baltistan and her dry port of Sost at the Pak-China border right up to the seaport of Gwadar in Balochistan are key to China's economic expansionist design. The militant insurgency in Balochistan has brought the China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor (CPEC) to a standstill. A massive military operation allegedly supervised by the Chinese PLA (People's Liberation Army) is underway to crush Baloch rebels. It is in this backdrop that China has been exerting pressure on the Pakistan government to make sure that CPEC is made foolproof in Gilgit-Baltistan. Pakistan's solution is to make PoGB (Pakistan occupied Gilgit-Baltistan) into its 5th province and take full control of the administrative matters along with intensifying its plunder of our natural resources. Under the current circumstances granting mining licenses to non-residents in PoGB has become a great cause for concern for locals who have been protesting for months and demand cancellation of any mining licenses issued to aliens. This hampers the loot of natural resources of Gilgit-Baltistan by Chinese companies, most of which are state-owned. By incorporating PoGB into Pakistan's federal set up it will become possible to impose direct rule from Islamabad and anyone could be granted a mining license. Another aspect of Pakistan's attempt to incorporate PoGB into Pakistan stems from China's need to gain access to clean water from our glaciers… China's major rivers Yangtze and Yellow River are polluted hence they cannot be used for manufacturing semiconductors. Semiconductors are used extensively in mobile phones, cars, fighter jets, satellites and even naval ships. Hence whoever will dominate the manufacture of semiconductors in the world market will rule the digital world. 'Chinese strategists were interested in Shaksgam Valley, which is home to over 242 glaciers'. It is, therefore, important for China to control the waters flowing into PoGB.
Further, highlighting the loot of the Gilgit-Baltistan people, other speakers at the December 9, 2021, Conference claimed that there were no benefits for local people from the projects being developed in the area. They further claimed that their resources were being plundered and alleged their voices were suppressed if they demanded their rights.
Indeed, hundreds of political workers, social activists and religious leaders from Gilgit-Baltistan have been put under a ‘watch list’ in the name of terrorism. Most recently, in June 2021, a total of 36 people from Gilgit-Baltistan were added in the National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) Schedule IV (proscribed persons) data. These included former member of Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly, Didar Ali; incumbent legislator, Ghulam Shehzad, a former nationalist leader and current Pakistan People’s Party member; and prominent clerics, like Sheikh Mirza Ali, Sheikh Bilal Summairi and Agha Syed Ali Rizvi. A majority of the people listed were from Gilgit District. According to NACTA, actions taken against people listed under Scheduled 4 include a passport embargo, freezing of bank accounts, ban on financial support, loans and credit cards, and an arms license embargo. Meanwhile, protests demanding the release of political leaders like Manzoor Parwana and Hasnain Ramal continue.
Despite the charade of local endorsement of the joint resolution by the Gilgit Baltistan Assembly, protests against the Government have become a routine. According to an October 21, 2021, report, a large number of people comprising members of a regional political party, Awami Action Committee, and rights activists gathered in Gilgit to oppose the Federal Government’s design of expanding its political control over the region under the garb of the provisional-provincial status.
Gilgit-Baltistan provides China a gateway to Pakistan, as it is the only area in Pakistan that shares a border with China. The region also shares borders with Afghanistan, and is consequently strategically important for China. Also, China is in the process of investing in several projects in Gilgit-Baltistan under the CPEC project, including the Moqpondass Special Economic Zone, about 40 kilometers from Gilgit city. However, none of these projects have benefited the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, who, in fact, continue to lack basic facilities such as food sufficiency and adequate electricity supply to deal with the harsh winters. The unemployment rate is very high and, according to a report published in Dawn on January 23, 2021,
The main reason for this is lack of awareness, poverty and an inadequate education system. According to a report, each year nearly 5,000 students graduate from GB (Gilgit-Baltistan). Unfortunately, no more than 500 of them are able to secure jobs.
People of the region have also realized the Chinses vested interest in the region and have been opposing Chinese projects vehemently. Anti-CPEC protests are regular feature. On January 15, 2021, massive protests erupted in the region over the Chinese move to build a 33-kilometer road. Amjad Ayub Mirza noted, "China is now building a road from Yarkand (China) of 33 km (kilometers) wide enough to bring its artillery, military and personnel. Things are gearing up in a precarious way, but PoJK people have risen up to the occasion. There will be more protests in PoJK."
Moreover, on January 11, 2022, the Gilgit-Baltistan-based Awami Action Committee protested in Skardu against repeated and prolonged power shedding and a crisis of food items. The protestors claimed that the Governments (of Pakistan and Gilgit-Baltistan) had failed to deliver even the basic necessities of life to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan.
According to a January 28, 2022, report, people in Gilgit-Baltistan held a protest against forced land acquisition by the Pakistani Army in village Nopura, Gilgit. The protestors threw stones at Army personnel and chanted anti-Army slogans. A February 15, 2022, report stated that people in Nasirabad, Hunza, Islamabad, and Karachi held demonstrations against the grabbing of mineral resources and lands in different districts of Gilgit-Baltistan, mainly in Hunza. On November 24, 2021, opposition members in the Gilgit-Baltistan Assembly protested the ‘blocking’ of the vote on a resolution demanding the repeal of Khalsa Sarkar (state land) laws. The resolution declared that Khalsa Sarkarlaws, which were applicable in all the districts of Gilgit-Baltistan, were against the Constitution of Pakistan and Islamic principles and Gilgit-Baltistan people’s right to property had been usurped for many decades under the law implemented since 1979.
Meanwhile, the threat or terrorism persists. Nisar Shah Advocate stated, “they are under threat of a growing influence of religious fanatics and an emergence of Afghanistan-like situation in the region.” He added that religious extremist organizations are regrouping in PoK and some parts of Gilgit-Baltistan, and warned that if the state did not change its present narrative and soft corner towards religious extremist organisations, this would fuel more extremism in the region.
Jamil Maqsood, Secretary Foreign Affairs Committee, United Kashmir People's National Party, asserted on February 20, 2022, “without liberation of PoJK and Gilgit Baltistan from the yoke of Pakistan, it is impossible to control the menace of terrorism.”
Significantly, on July 7, 2021, a video surfaced in which the ‘second-in-command’ of Mujahideen Gilgit-Baltistan and Kohistan, Habib ur Rehman, and his accomplices were seen holding an ‘open court’ at the polo ground at Babusar Top in Diamer District. The ‘court’ went on through the day with heavily armed Islamist terrorists taking turns to address the locals. Senior police officials of Gilgit-Baltistan confirmed that Maulvi Abdul Hameed was the leader of the group. The group has anointed itself as the authority in Gilgit-Baltistan. Habib ur Rehman was involved in the killing of 11 persons, including 10 foreign mountaineers, at Nanga Parbat on June 23, 2013. Though he was arrested, he managed to escape from Gilgit Jail in 2015.
Though no terrorism-related fatality has taken place in Gilgit-Baltistan since July 28, 2020 – when five Counter-Terrorism Department personnel were killed and another five were injured during an exchange of fire with terrorists at Rohnai Muhallah, Chilas town, Diamer District – it is useful to recall that, since March 6, 2000, when the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) started compiling data on conflicts in Pakistan, the region has accounted for a total of 175 fatalities, including 118 civilians, 31 Security Force (SF) personnel and 26 terrorists. A high of 60 fatalities, including 52 civilians and eight SF personnel, was recorded in 2005. Further, of 81 banned terrorist formations in Pakistan, several operate out of and in the PoK region. The prominent among these include the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM), the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), the Ahl-e-Sunnat-wal-Jamaat (ASWJ) the front organisation of the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), and the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ).
As expected, instead of taking measures to deal with the emerging security challenges and other problems faced by the people in the region, Islamabad is engaged in accelerating the process of its ‘final annexation’ of Gilgit-Baltistan. The suffering of the people of the region is likely to continue, indeed, intensify.