This month is important to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, who celebrate the rebellion of the Gilgit Scouts against Dogra rulers that paved the way for annexation to Pakistan 65 years ago. However, many now question the decision to allow Pakistan control over the disputed region.
Given the situation, there is a concerted increase and sense of urgency for the number of people who demand GB’s separation from Pakistan. Much as the Quebecois, Catalonians and Scots who recently engaged in a national dialogue to weigh the question of secession, many in Gilgit Baltistan too seek self-determination and a democratic framework within which to exist. However, unlike the orderly manner in which Canada, Spain and the United Kingdom conducted their referendums, Pakistan’s response to local demand has been sedition charges, life imprisonments, torture and death. One of the tools used against the local political activists is the recently passed Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), which many see as the reincarnation of a British-era law called the Frontier Crimes Regulation. On September 26, 12 political activists of Gilgit-Baltistan, the Hunza 12 were fined and given life in prison under the ATA. Prominent among them are Babajan, Hunzai and Iftikhar Hussain who were detained for allegedly instigating a demonstration in support of internally displaced people of the Hunza Valley.
Babajan is a local leader who takes a vocal position against corruption in natural resource management, sectarianism, extra-judicial killings, state-sponsored disappearances and illegal settlements in the region. Iftikhar Hussain is a key member of the Karakoram National Movement, the largest party in the region and one whose membership has suffered state sponsored killings. It is not the first time these activists have been targeted. Two years ago in 2012, Babajan, Iftikhar and several others were abducted by intelligence agency personnel and jailed for over a year. During that time they were tortured, including the removal of fingernails and a beating which led to kidney damage for Babajan.
Locals are protesting the use of the ATA to target political activists. Authorities have charged an additional nine leaders with sedition for speaking out on behalf of the Hunza 12, bringing the total number of political activists facing sedition to over 200 individuals. It is ironic that the people of Gilgit Baltistan are not granted citizenship rights, yet can be charged with sedition by the state. Sheikh Shabbir Hussain, a leader of the Peoples Action Committee (AAC) from Hunza-Nagar district states:
“Pakistan has no legal basis to introduce laws in Gilgit-Baltistan given the disputed status of the region. To do so with the introduction of such draconian laws is twice an injustice to GB’s people. Rulers intend laws like the ATA to weaken a society and keep it gripped in fear to the point where they don’t dare demand basic rights. This is a legacy and tool of colonialism to control and oppress a people. Only under a colonial regime may police carrying out extra-judicial killings [and] receive awards and promotions while the people speaking out for displaced and deprived fellows are jailed and tortured.”
Manzoor Parwana, chairperson of the Gilgit Baltistan United Movement, condemned the arrests, saying:
“The continued oppression and introduction of draconian laws has turned Gilgit-Baltistan into a land untethered from international rule of law. Illegal settlements and land encroachment is changing the local ethnic and religious demography. Illegal voting by Pakistanis in regional elections has marginalized locals. Illegal settlers have become the long arm of the state apparatus to undermine the voice and rights of locals. The military’s highhandedness has emboldened real terrorist groups to gain hold and spread their agenda in Gilgit-Baltistan. A vicious cycle of economic dependency has been created where locals are forced to live on hand outs and grants. Babajan is being punished for speaking about these issues.”
Babajan has subsequently earned international attention, touching off protests for his support across Europe, Asia and the United States. Locals are calling him the Bhagat Singh and the Nelson Mandela of Gilgit Baltistan. A prominent Pakistani attorney, Asma Jahangir, has announced she will represent him moving forward. She said, “Political leaders of Gilgit Baltistan are abducted and declared terrorist for speaking out for basic rights.” Moreover, the Asian Human Rights Commission and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) have appealed to Pakistan’s government to reconsider the Hunza 12 decision. Zahra Yusuf of the HRCP suggests that raising a voice for political prisoners in GB is a challenge due to its disputed state. Chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights, Afrasiab Khattack, denounced the use of false charges against political workers and demanded the dismissal of the regional chief secretary.
The ATA is an attempt to redefine political workers and protestors as terrorists. It diminishes the magnitude of the operation of true terrorists, who’s calculated bombings and killings across the country are carried out with impunity. The support and training received by terrorists from the military is well known, as is the existence of madrassas and militant training camps across Pakistan. The pro-military cleric Molana Samiul-Haque – who operates feeder madrassas across the country – publically claims to have more than fifty thousand fighters in training to promote terrorist activity. Recently a terrorist group in Quetta held a public celebration of the bombing of a Shia-Hazara neighborhood that killed 110 people in 2013. As the police looked on, the terrorists raised Pakistani military flags and shouted slogans of allegiance to the state and military. Incidents like these exemplify not just Pakistan’s failure to disrupt terrorist networks, but a state apparatus working to protect certain strains of terrorist activity that can be used to its advantage.
Pakistan’s current policy of suppressing the organized political activity of minority groups by branding them as terrorists demonstrates a distortion of justice for the people of GB. It further creates a smokescreen which diminishes the extent of the terrorist infrastructure growing across the country. Despite pressure from the international community and an alleged campaign to disrupt the terrorist network, the country continues to head further toward chaos and instability. To ensure national security, the suppression of minorities should be replaced with the establishment of constitutional rights to unify the country against the larger growing danger of violent extremism.
Senge H. Sering comes from Gilgit-Baltistan and currently runs the Washington D.C. based Institute for Gilgit Baltistan Studies.