Gilgit-Baltistan's Ongoing Struggles: Protests, Perseverance, And A Path Forward

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Frustration over basic rights has boiled over in Gilgit-Baltistan, a disputed region administered by Pakistan, as residents protest rising wheat prices, subsidy cuts, and a lack of essential amenities. Political, religious, and social groups have joined the demonstrations, voicing their anger against issues like power outages, inflation, and limited access to vital services. This discontent isn’t new – residents have long expressed concerns over these deprivations, taking to the streets on multiple occasions.

Most recently, protests erupted in various districts, including Gilgit, Astor, Diamar, Ghizar, Hunza, Nagar, Skardu, Shagar, Kharmang, and Ghanche. Major roads like the Karakoram Highway, Skardu Road, and Ghazar Road remained deserted as residents joined the demonstrations. Organisers, like the Awami Action Committee, demand the government address their 15 grievances, including reversing the wheat price hike and subsidy cuts, as the only way to end the ongoing strike. This “Plan B” protest follows a month of demonstrations highlighting these crucial issues faced by the people of Gilgit-Baltistan.

Despite the Gilgit-Baltistan government’s rollback of the subsidized wheat price increase, the Awami Action Committee remains unsatisfied. They demand the fulfilment of all 15 demands, including subsidized wheat at 2022 levels, tax suspensions, and ensuring GB’s share of resources. Protests will continue until these demands are met, including land ownership rights, dam royalties, improved education, and electricity access. The committee views the government’s move as insufficient and emphasizes the need for a comprehensive solution addressing their broader concerns.

The movement has visibly overshadowed the ceremonies on the occasion Kashmir Solidarity day, which Pakistan observes every year, including in Pakistan-occupied territories such as Gilgit Baltistan.  For 30 years, Pakistan observed Kashmir Solidarity Day on February 5th, marking it with official ceremonies and a public holiday. Events were traditionally held in both Pakistan and its administered regions, highlighting solidarity with Kashmiris in Indian Kashmir. Overseas, protests targeted Indian embassies. However, the landscape has shifted. Srinagar’s development surpassing Muzaffarabad and Delhi outpacing Islamabad in all respects has increasingly reduced the significance of February 5th. Throughout 2023, protests in Pakistan-administered Kashmir focused on local issues like electricity bills and taxes. This year witnessed a shocking turn of events. The “Azad Jammu and Kashmir” movement announced a shutdown against Pakistan itself on February 5th. This unprecedented move against Islamabad, not India, exposes a potential shift in local sentiment.

Anticipated global protests are expected now to turn against Pakistan, exposing their past deceptions. Growing protests within Pakistan-administered Kashmir, with unpaid electricity bills and simmering resentment, highlight the challenges Pakistan faces. The demand for facilities similar to Indian-administered Kashmir reflects a potential defeat for the Pakistani narrative.

The Gilgit Baltistan region endures crippling power cuts, forcing residents to rely on generators or candles in remote areas. Successive governments are blamed for failing to address the long-standing energy crisis, with tourism promotion seen as an insufficient solution. Businesses, especially hotels, suffer from the outages, and access to healthcare and education is limited, highlighted by the lack of government facilities and even an MRI machine in the entire Baltistan region. Additional bureaucratic positions are plentiful, but essential roles like Patwari and police constables remain unfilled.

The wheat subsidy for Gilgit-Baltistan dates back to the 1970s when Prime Minister Bhutto created it to address the region’s poverty and disputed status. Though other subsidies ended, wheat remained affordable. However, recent protests in GB go beyond wheat. Residents demand an end to taxes, suspension of a recent finance act, better infrastructure, responsible resource use, and a share in national resources. These issues are not new, with similar protests happening in 2022 and 2023. The repetition reflects frustration with the federal government’s indifference to prospects of lasting solutions. The unrest is ignited also by the lack of representation in the national legislature, leading to resentment towards the new finance act seen as “taxation without representation.”

For centuries, villagers in Gilgit-Baltistan relied on customary land rights, but the Pakistani state claims ownership of any unclaimed land, creating conflict. Unresolved land issues and government inaction provoke discontent. Locals feel their voices are silenced, especially with the controversial Anti-Terrorism Act used against peaceful dissenters. This fear is amplified by cases like those against Baba Jan, who had been imprisoned for advocating for disaster relief.

Locals oppose such top-down decisions and demand a say in governance. They believe empowering the regional Assembly, instead of emasculating it, is crucial. Tensions are further heightened by a growing Shia population facing stricter blasphemy laws and attempts to change demographics.

These complex issues intertwine with resource exploitation. Even though Gilgit-Baltistan holds valuable mineral resources, the region remains impoverished. Despite promises of development through projects like the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, locals fear environmental damage and neglect. They resent the allocation of resources leading to development elsewhere while bringing them only exploitation.

Following discussions between government representatives and leaders of the Awami Action Committee, an agreement has been reached to address the committee’s demands. As reported by Daily K2, the Chief Minister of Gilgit Baltistan has been presented with these demands for resolution. Notably, the currently implemented taxes under the Finance Act 2023 have been suspended on the Chief Minister’s orders. No taxes will be applied until amendments are made to the act.

Furthermore, a statement following the meeting declared the government’s commitment to solving problems with the people’s support. In response, the negotiating committee announced a 21-day postponement of the planned sit-in protest, emphasizing that renewed protests will occur if the agreement is not implemented or delayed. He expressed hope that the government would uphold the agreement. The Public Action Committee undertook to keep protesters informed about the situation and developments, regularly communicating with them and representing their voices. In the wake of persistent grievances in Gilgit-Baltistan, the recent protests have spotlighted the region’s profound challenges, ranging from economic disparities to political disenfranchisement. The demonstrations, fuelled by frustrations over rising wheat prices and inadequate amenities, reveal a longstanding discontent. Despite the government’s partial concessions, the Awami Action Committee demands a comprehensive resolution, encompassing issues like land ownership, resource allocation, and representation. The movement’s impact extends beyond local concerns, eclipsing traditional observances like Kashmir Solidarity Day and indicating a potential shift in sentiments. The complex interplay of political, economic, and social issues underscores the need for a holistic approach to address the multifaceted challenges faced by the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. The recent agreement between the government and protest leaders offers a glimmer of hope, but sustained efforts are crucial to realize lasting solutions and build a foundation for inclusive governance.

Copyright Greekcitytimes 2024