Gilgit Baltistan wants end to Pakistani occupation, activist says
Mirza Abdul Salam, former Rawalpindi/Islamabad president of the Balawaristan National Student Organisation (BNSO), is now studying in Sydney. He is keen to do what he can to let the world know about the plight of his people in the remote nation of Gilgit Baltistan, which has been occupied by Pakistan since 1948. Before the independence and partition of India in 1947, Gilgit Baltistan was occupied by the British-supported feudal rulers of Kashmir. Bordering Pakistan, China, Afghanistan, and India, the area is claimed by both Pakistan and India.
However, Salam told Green Left Weekly the people of Balwaristan reject both these claims. “Gilgit Baltistan has a separate national identity. Gilgit Baltistan is not Kashmiri nor Pakistani. It was an independent state occupied by the Raja of Kashmir in the 19th century. “We are proud of the thousands-of-years-old civilisation of Baltistan. Our language, script, architecture, clothing, cuisine, festivals, dances and epic stories of Baltistan are unique.”
Salam said the United Nation allowed Pakistan to assume temporary control over Gilgit Baltistan. The UN stationed officials representing the UN Military Observer Group for India and Pakistan in both Gilgit and Skardu cities.
However, this has “turned into a permanent occupation and our people have been denied our self-determination”, Salam said. “This has had a bad impact on local culture, traditions, religion, language and our territory. The culture of Gilgit Baltistan [has been] largely destroyed and supplanted by the dominant Punjabi and Pathan culture which came with Pakistani occupation. “Pakistan has damaged our indigenous socio-political institutions which evolved over thousands of years, and this has left a political vacuum and weakened the community. “Administrators in all key offices of the police, civil service and judiciary are imported from Pakistan. Gilgit Baltistan is subject to the military tribunals [with wide repressive powers that are regularly abused] instead of the ordinary judicial system.”
Although Pakistan considers Gilgit Baltistan as part of the disputed State of Jammu and Kashmir, Salam said the region is denied even the political, judicial and administrative rights granted to other parts of that state, such as Azad Kashmir. The forceful separation of the Ladakh and Kargil has also directly impacted on Baltistan.
Along with denial of socio-political rights to Gilgit Baltistan, the Pakistani government also terminated State Subject Rule (SSR) under which no non-local can take up permanent residence and acquire property in Gilgit Baltistan. The SSR system has been abolished by the Pakistani government in Gilgit Baltistan. “The termination of SSR ― still enforced in other parts of the State of Jammu and Kashmir ― helped the Pakistani establishment's attempt to permanently change the regional demography and settle non-locals into the region. “With the passage of time, well-off settlers have increased their political influence in the region. This shift hurts the region as the unskilled and largely illiterate masses of Gilgit Baltistan once again are living in virtual slavery. “Preferential hiring of non-locals for jobs further threatens the local economy. “The move will affect the historical balance of ethnic and religious groups co-existing peacefully in the region.”
A rampantly corrupt de facto provincial government of Gilgit Baltistan, established by Pakistan in 2009, has divided the people of the region on the lines of sectarianism and ethnicity, Salam added. “Interference by Pakistani political and religious parties in the affairs of Gilgit Baltistan is further pushing the region into chaos and instability, depriving the 2 million people of their right to live in peace.” The plight of the people of Gilgit Baltistan came to the attention of many people around the world last year through an international campaign for the release of jailed popular local leader Baba Jan.
The campaign helped secure the release of Baba Jan, but other local leaders remain imprisoned. “Manzoor Parwana, chair of Gilgit Baltistan United Movement (GBUM), has been arrested for demanding withdrawal of Pakistani forces and supporting the refugees from Ladakh in the region, on July 31, 2010, in Gilgit. “Parwana was held during a concerted operation of the Pakistan Rangers, Khyber Rifles and secret service personnel on July 28 when he had just finished addressing the annual convention of BNSO in Gilgit. “He was arrested for expressing support for the refugees of Ladakh in Gilgit Baltistan who want opening of the Line of Control [the militarised border between Pakistani and Indian occupied Kashmir] and demanding reinstatement of State Subject Rule in the region, withdrawal of Pakistani security forces and basic human rights for the people. “Parwani was taken to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Centre at Sonikote Gilgit for interrogation. He was tortured and, while he has since been released, he will undoubtedly be framed in a fake case to malign the nationalist movement.”
Parwana was the editor and publisher of a weekly newspaper Kargil International, which was banned a few years ago when he published interviews of the Northern Light Infantry [local] soldiers used as mercenaries against India in the Kargil war with India in 1999. Salam said the longstanding demands of the people of Gilgit Baltistan were:
* For the UN Security Council to ensure genuine political, judicial, economic and cultural autonomy in Gilgit Baltistan as obligated under the UN resolution of January 5, 1949.
* Given that Pakistan has failed to ensure security in Gilgit Baltistan, the UN should station peace-keeping troops in the disputed region
* Pakistan must be asked to open traditional trade routes leading towards India and Tajikistan which can help sustain the local economy and provide alternate safe routes to travel as, currently, travel on the Karakoram Highway is too dangerous.
* The UN should ask Pakistan respect SSR and remove its citizens who have damaged the social fabric by spreading religious sectarianism in the region.
* The UN should demand Pakistan to withdraw the fake sedition cases and release all political prisoners.
* A UN commission must be sent to Gilgit Baltistan to assess gross human rights violations, killings, detentions and torture of political workers.