Pakistan’s Discrimination Against Gilgit-Baltistan Invokes Mass Protests

Gilgit-Balistan protests

Those residing in Gilgit-Baltistan and other parts of Kashmir under the control of Pakistan have carried out mass protests in freezing temperatures since late December. As a result, normal life has come to a complete standstill. The Awami Action Committee (AAC) are leading the protests that have spread across the region and have a list of demands that underscores the exploitation that the people of Gilgit-Baltistan face.

The demands of the protests’ organizers concern the economic, social, and political needs of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB). They include the restoration of subsidized wheat prices at the 2022 level, the suspension of the Finance Act 2022, the withdrawal of various taxes, the replacement of the Gilgit-Baltistan assembly with a Constituent Assembly, the provision of free electricity from its own Diamer Bhasha dam, the cancelation of all mining leases given to non-locals and the provision of land ownership rights to locals, amongst others.

“Wheat, taxes and autonomy demands fuel strongest anti-Pakistan movement yet,” according to Tara Kartha, a researcher at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

Locals from the region have used the “#GBWantAutonomy” hashtag on social media platform X to express their requests from the government of Pakistan. Ijaz Shigri, an activist, wrote:

“We do not rule over our lands. No legislation for us in our assembly. Our taxes are not spent on our development. We do not own our mining and minerals. GBWantAutonomy.”

Fatma Nur wrote on X on January 20:

“Skardu is witnessing the largest protest in #GilgitBaltistan history, with millions braving the bitter cold for 25 days..

“No wheat, No electricity, No Rights;

“Testament to the oppressed and deprived life they are living in so-called Azad Kashmir!”

The newspaper Dawn further reported:

“Shops, business centers, restaurants, and trade activities remained suspended; inter-district and inter-provincial transportation remained close…

“Addressing the protesters, Ehsan Ali, the chief organizer of ACC, said that for the last seven decades, constitutional and legal rights for GB have been denied. He said successive governments in Islamabad failed to provide the due share of GB.

“Mr. Ali said the demand is not only the withdrawal of the subsidized wheat price hike but also other genuine issues that couldn’t be solved in many decades.”

The modern state of Pakistan was created through the 1947 British partition of India. Gilgit-Baltistan, also known as the Northern Areas, is a region controlled by Pakistan and has been the subject of a dispute between India and Pakistan since 1947.

After Pakistan orchestrated an invasion of the former Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and carried out massacres against non-Muslims there in 1947, the state of J&K legally acceded to India by signing the “instrument of accession”. According to this instrument, the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir, which also includes Gilgit-Baltistan, is part of India.

Pakistan, however, has continued to militarily occupy a portion of the state, which is now known as Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) and the Northern Areas or Gilgit-Baltistan.

The Gilgit-Baltistan region, whose capital is Muzaffarabad, today makes up the majority of the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. According to the Hindu American Foundation,

“Pakistan refused to comply with the requirements of United Nations Security Council Resolution 47 and withdraw its military forces from the state, a necessary precondition before any plebiscite could be held. Since Pakistan never withdrew its military, it rendered the possibility of a plebiscite moot.

“In PoK, the Pakistani government has failed to provide basic rights and democratic representation to the Kashmiri people. Moreover, local Kashmiris are discriminated against, while Pakistanis are given preferential treatment.”

Kriti M. Shah, a researcher on India and Pakistan, notes the lack of Gilgit-Baltistan’s official status in Pakistan’s constitution. The policies of Pakistan’s government have violated GB residents such as economic exploitation, deliberately creating ethnic and sectarian tensions and forced demographic changes.

Gilgit Baltistan’s status is not mentioned in Pakistan’s Constitution. Although they are part of the larger state of J&K and the classified Karachi Agreement of 1949 recognized that the region is part of the much smaller ‘AJK [Azzad Jammu Kashmir]’, the writ of Muzaffarabad has never been allowed to be implemented in the region. Despite numerous attempts by successive governments in Muzaffarabad to acquire administrative control over Gilgit-Baltistan, its petitions, resolutions, and pleas have been ignored.

“The Pakistan government, challenging the Supreme Court ruling in the Al-Jehad Trust case of 1993, stated that even the Supreme Court of Pakistan has no jurisdiction over the Northern Areas. Given its lack of constitutional status, Gilgit Baltistan does not have even a façade of self-governance. Unlike the other part of PoJK [Pakistan occupied Jammu Kashmir], Gilgit Baltistan continues to be governed by the federal government [of Pakistan].”

Gilgit-Baltistan has historically comprised ethnic and sectarian groups who are currently minorities in Pakistan. Those are Shia Muslims, Ismailis, and Noor Bakshis. However, Pakistan’s policies have provoked sectarian and ethnic discord. Shah explains:

“While the indigenous peoples of the region share common ethnic, linguistic, social and cultural ties with each other, the Pakistani state has over the decades provoked and fueled inter-ethnic strife to serve its own larger security interests. Indeed, sectarian consciousness in Gilgit Baltistan is a post-1947 phenomenon – a consequence of state apathy and desire to demolish the pluralistic nature of society. Furthermore, impoverished parents, having little choice because of lack of educational facilities, have often had to put their children in madaris where there is a possibility of them getting exposed to religious extremism.”

The Hindu American Foundation explains how during the partition the demands of the Muslim League led to millions of Hindus and Sikhs fleeing from West Pakistan (modern Pakistan) and East Pakistan (Bangladesh) for India.

“Consequently, the number of Hindus in Pakistan declined from 15% in 1947 to 2% in 1951, 1.6% in 1998, and decreased by an additional 0.19% by 2017. Pakistan’s widespread violation of the human rights of religious and ethnic minorities includes Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Ahmaddiya Muslims, Shia Muslims, Baloch, Pashtun, and Sindhis.”

Just like other parts that are controlled by Pakistan, Gilgit-Baltistan has also undergone significant demographic changes at the hands of the government of Pakistan since 1947.

Pakistan settled Sunnis from other parts of the country in the region to dilute the Shia dominance of Gilgit-Baltistan, notes Shah.

“The government has also sponsored the settlement of a greater number of non-locals in the areas, which has damaged the social fabric and further created religious feuds and permanent rifts between communities in the region. The political vacuum in the region has promoted ethnic and religious narratives against each other; in turn, this has overshadowed people’s demands for genuine political and social economic rights.

“There are reports that as of January 2001, the old population ratio of 1:4 (non-locals to locals) has changed to 3:4. Areas which were once dominated by Shia, such as Skardu and Gilgit, continue to witness an increase in non-Shia population.”

As Abdul Hamid Khan, Chairman of the Balawaristan National Front (BNF) argues:

“‘The Pakistani administration has been involved in efforts to alter the demographic profile of Pakistan-occupied Gilgit Baltistan, reducing the indigenous people to a minority. In the Gilgit and Skardu areas, large tracts of land have been allotted to non-locals. Other outsiders have purchased substantial stretches of land since they are economically better off than the locals. The rapid induction of Punjabi and Pashtun outsiders has created a sense of acute insecurity among the locals.'”

All these factors, and particularly Gilgit-Baltistan’s constitutional ambiguity, have facilitated Pakistan’s economic exploitation of the region. Pakistan’s refusal to heed the will of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan along with its systematic discrimination and other human rights abuses appear to be the cause of the ongoing mass protests.

Since its 1947 founding, the actions of the State of Pakistan have led to instability, human rights violations, and violence in the region. The historic mass protests in Gilgit-Baltistan deserve to get more media coverage. Along with the protests, Pakistan’s founding phase, its regional policies and what should be done regarding the country within international law to improve the stability in the region should also be further publicly discussed.

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