Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Gilgit-Baltistan: The forgotten Kashmir

By: Sushant Singh

In an interview last week, head of Indian army's Northern Command said that there are 1,000-1,500 Chinese soldiers "looking at some dams and bridges in the Northern Areas". The region is strategically important as the Karakoram Highway linking China to Pakistan passes through it. Although Northern Areas is a part of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, they are not part of the so-called 'Azad Kashmir'. While most Indians are ignorant of the status of the Northern Areas, Kashmiri youth are no better informed. In a survey conducted by IRIIS among Kashmiri urban youth last year, 58 per cent respondents didn't know the status of Northern Areas. In fact, no one can get that answer right because Northern Areas has a very ambiguous status.

Strategic territory: Gilgit Baltistan, previously known as the Northern
Areas, is under the direct control of Islamabad, but distinct from the
Pakistan-occupied 'Azad Kashmir'

After Pakistan government enacted the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order in August 2009, Northern Areas came to be formally known as Gilgit-Baltistan. The region now has an elected assembly and a council headed by the Prime Minister of Pakistan. This council wields all the powers and controls, the resources and revenue accrued from the region. In any case, the so-called regional government is under the overall control of the federal ministry of the Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan in Islamabad.

But Gilgit-Baltistan or Northern Areas do not find any mention in the Pakistani constitution: it is neither independent nor does it have a provincial status. This huge territory, more than six times the size of 'Azad Kashmir' and part of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, has been under Pakistan's control since November 4, 1947 when the British Commander of Gilgit Scouts, Major Brown declared accession to Pakistan. The region was then named 'The Northern Areas of Pakistan' and put under the direct control of Islamabad, distinct from the Pakistan-occupied 'Azad Kashmir'.

The inhabitants of the region believe that their unique ethno-cultural and religious identity has been threatened after their annexation to Pakistan. First, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, in the 1970s, abrogated the State Subject Rule -- the law that until then protected the local demographic composition -- to facilitate Pakistani Sunnis to acquire land and settle in the region. This single order damaged the social fabric and provoked sectarian feuds that continue to simmer till this day.

Later, the ethnic composition of the region was tampered with by the Zia-ul-Haq-sponsored anti-Shia forces; the number of Shias in this region have since reduced drastically. Pakistani establishment-led Shia-Sunni and Shia-Nurbakshi riots caused extreme socio-political polarisation in Skardu in the early 1980s. But a permanent trust deficit was created in May 1988 when tribal Lashkars, after receiving a nod of approval from General Zia, abducted local women and massacred thousands of Shias in Gilgit.

In the recent years, many Taliban who escaped from Swat and adjoining areas have found shelter among Sunni extremists in Gilgit. More than 300 suspected terrorists were expelled from Gilgit in October 2008, highlighting fears that the Taliban has a strong presence in the region. The massacre of Shia pilgrims in Kohistan in February this year, while they were on their way back to Gilgit-Baltistan, points to the dangers of Talibanisation. At least 16 Shias were identified, forced to disembark from the bus and brutally shot to death in Kohistan by the Sunni extremist group, Jundallah.

The situation, exacerbated by growing involvement of China and exploitation of this natural resource-rich region by Islamabad, has given rise to some nationalist groups. Claiming to represent an 'oppressed people' owing to sectarianism, intolerance, poverty, terrorist camps and exploitation of resources, groups such as the Balawaristan National Front have explicitly defined their goal as 'freedom from Pakistan's illegal occupation.'

India can no longer be oblivious to continued Pakistani designs to alter the unique ethno-nationalist and religious character of a territory that legally belongs to India. Along with the government, Indian civil society groups need to highlight the violation of the basic human rights of the population of Gilgit-Baltistan, who are de jure citizens of India. After all, the parliamentary resolution of 1994 had reaffirmed that the region is a "part of the State of Jammu and Kashmir, which is an integral part of India by virtue of its accession to it in 1947."

Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review


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