On February 5, Kashmir Day was observed across Pakistan to mark the unfulfilled freedom struggle going on in Kashmir. It was also commemorated on either side of the divide that separates Pakistani- and Indian-administered portions of the disputed Kashmir territory.
On the same day, protests were organized in Gilgit-Baltistan against the Pakistani state’s violations in the region. While local media hushed the protests, similar to its blackout of the Pashtun Tahaffuz Movement, there has been a nationalist movement brewing in Gilgit-Baltistan as the locals stand up against continued denial of their basic human rights.
The locals’ long pent up sentiments spilled over in May last year, when the then-Pakistan Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi announced the Gilgit-Baltistan Reforms Order 2018 in front of the GB Assembly. Police had to be summoned, with tear gas being fired to contain the protesters, several of whom were injured as a result.
Despite coming nine years after the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order 2009, last year’s Reforms Order still left GB at the mercy of the Pakistani prime minister’s veto, practically reaffirming Islamabad’s arbitrary control over the region.
It was in the aftermath of the 2009 Governance Order that the region was finally named Gilgit-Baltistan in accordance with the locals’ wishes, having previously been known simply as the “Northern Areas.” The Governance Order further allowed GB to have its own legislative assembly for the first time.
Gilgit-Baltistan remains an unfinished business of the Indo-Pak Partition, with the region being dragged into the Kashmir dispute between the two states owing to it being a part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir in 1947.
In 1949, the Karachi Agreement was signed between the Pakistani government and the government of Pakistan-administered Kashmir, known locally as Azad (meaning “free”) Jammu and Kashmir, maintaining AJK’s control over what is now GB.
Despite having de facto control over Gilgit-Baltistan since 1949, Pakistan hadn’t given the locals any representation until the 2009 ordinance. And despite having attained that, GB wasn’t given any control over its own resources in the Reforms Order, 2018 prompting nationalist protests among the locals.
The GB Reforms Order was announced amid local pressure for recognition, prompting a movement to declare Gilgit-Baltistan Pakistan’s fifth province. Among those pressuring Islamabad to resolve the status of GB is Beijing, which now has its own stake in the region in the shape of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which enters Pakistan through the Gilgit-Baltistan region.
India has condemned CPEC and questioned its legality given that it passes through a region New Delhi claims as its own, one which remains part of a disputed territory. Meanwhile, separatists in Indian-administered Kashmir have warned Islamabad against the constitutional mainstreaming of Gilgit-Baltistan, saying that such a move would be a “betrayal of Kashmir.”
Stuck between Chinese pressure to address the status of Gilgit-Baltistan and its own position on Kashmir, Islamabad has failed to address the locals’ grievances. The Gilgit-Baltistan Reforms Order 2018 reflected this indecisiveness, and Islamabad’s refusal to let go of its autocratic rule over the region.
Last month, the Supreme Court of Pakistan sanctioned the limbo for Gilgit-Baltistan after ruling that “no change can be made” in its status, which remains subject to the pending plebiscite that would determine the future of Kashmir.
While the country’s apex court did announce that the Supreme Court’s jurisdictions extend to the Gilgit-Baltistan region, and maintained that the state should uphold fundamental rights of the people of GB “as enjoyed by the people of any other province,” the fact remains that the locals’ primary demand remains unaddressed.
“The Supreme Court’s verdict will clear the political fog and help locals determine a unified direction and come up with reasonable demands and expectations,” said Senge Hasnan Sering, the president of the Washington-based Institute for Gilgit-Baltistan Studies, while talking to The Diplomat.
“The verdict could persuade Islamabad to offer both AJK and GB similar uniform political and administrative set up. This could also encourage the people of GB to participate in conversations on Kashmir and claim their due stake,” he added.
Frustration at not being given any participation in conversations that determine their own future is resulting in a growing movement, reveals Gilgit Baltistan Awareness Forum (GBAF), a local rights group.
“The people of Gilgit-Baltistan are facing an identical crisis. They are depressed, deprived of their identity, and helpless,” a member of the GBAF told The Diplomat.
“[While people of] Gilgit-Baltistan are struggling to merge their region with Pakistan constitutionally, the state of Pakistan has not yet taken any measures for the satisfaction of [the locals],” the GBAF member added. “This is one reason people wanted to show their anger, their hopelessness, which turned into huge demonstration and protests [last year] in big cities Lahore, Karachi, Islamabad, Gilgit, and Skardu as well.”
“People of Gilgit-Baltistan are the main stakeholders, but they were not asked even once about their wish and desire – that’s why the youth, students, including united opposition alliance, came out on the roads.”
The GB locals are also perturbed by the fact that despite similar constitutional status GB does not have the same rights as Azad Kashmir. The Awami Action Committee (AAC), an alliance of political groups from GB, demands that a law be passed by the Parliament to underline the administrative rights in GB, along the lines of those laid out in AJK.
“There is a significant difference between the administrative structure in Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. There is a state setup in Azad Kashmir, while Gilgit-Baltistan is still being run through ordinances. The locals are asking: why can’t a similar setup be given to Gilgit-Baltistan?” asked AAC central leader Sultan Raees while talking to The Diplomat.
“Following the Supreme Court’s order GB needs to be given the same rights as others in the disputed territory. The Parliament needs to underline these rights through the GB Assembly, via an act of assembly, which should be implemented.”
AAC has further demanded that since GB is a disputed territory, the CPEC agreement be amended to include the territory as a third party.
“This would ensure that those protesting against CPEC internationally would have no grounds for their protests. Unfortunately, GB hasn’t been included as a stakeholder, and everything is being finalized bilaterally between Pakistan and China,” Raees said.
Senge Hasnan Sering notes that China, in its border agreement with Pakistan, acknowledges GB as part of Kashmir.
“Yet, we have the example of China building the Karakorum Highway through GB in 1982 despite India’s objection in the United Nations. So far, portion of CPEC within GB is nothing more than a wider KKH with an added number of tunnels and bridges. However, China building economic or industrial zones in Gilgit-Baltistan will invite opposition from not only India but also from the USA and the Kashmiri leadership, who are apprehensive of growing Chinese influence there,” he said.
While the vast majority of the dispute engulfing GB is international, what further adds to its status as a geopolitical loophole for Pakistan is the region’s dealing with the rest of the country. This is exemplified by the concerns shared by the stakeholders over the construction of the Diamer-Bhasha Dam.
Locals say that an unnecessary conflict was created by attaching the Bhasha region, which is in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, to Diamer in Gilgit-Baltistan. There are concerns that most of the infrastructural benefits are being given to Bhasha, while the water runs through Diamer.
“Will the dam translate into financial compensation and royalty for the people of Gilgit Baltistan? No,” said Sering. “GB has to be part of the federation of Pakistan to obtain rights under the NFC award. However, it is possible that Islamabad would try to compensate the land owners and politicians.”