Baba Jan and the new wave of reprisal against the people of ‘Azad Kashmir’
On 12 February 2018, renowned nationalist leader from Gilgit, Baba Jan was moved from Gahkuch Jail to Gilgit Hospital under high security cover after he suffered a heart attack.
Baba Jan and 11 of his comrades-in-arms are serving 40 years (double life sentences) in Gahkuch Jail in Pakistan-administered and Gilgit Baltistan. Baba Jan shot to fame when he began to organize protest meetings against the multinationals that were conducting geological surveys of the Valley of Hunza in order to extract minerals.
Gilgit Baltistan is a disputed part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir and is administered by Pakistan. In January 2010, heavy rains led to a massive landslide that blocked the passage of the Hunza River in Hunza resulting in the formation of an artificial lake at Attabad. Twenty people died as numerous villages were wiped out due to the landside and the consequent lake formation. Baba Jan began a campaign for the allocation of compensation to the families of the deceased as well as for the affected known as ‘Attabad Affectees’.
Despite efforts by Baba Jan, the local government of Gilgit Baltistan did not pay any attention to the misery of the displaced and the families of the dead.
Further, overflowing of the Hunza River caused further loss of life and property. 19 people died, bringing the total deaths to 39. More than 100 houses were swept away. During the early period of the disaster the local government had promised to measure the damage and pay compensation to those who were affected but nothing has done so far.
Using public transport, Baba Jan travelled for more than 80 hours to Rawalpindi, Lahore and Karachi holding press conferences and meeting with left-wing organisations to highlight the plight of the affected people of Attabad.
After one year in August 2011 more than 200 families took out a peaceful protest and blocked the main highway at Aliabad that connected Gilgit Baltistan with Pakistan. In order to disperse the crowd, the Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP), Babar Ali ordered his troops to open fire on the protestors that resulted in the death of father-son duo.
This caused huge anger and uproar in the Valley of Hunza and in wider Gilgit Baltistan. After four days of rioting, a First Information Report was registered against the police officer.
Later it was found that the FIR was bogus and that no arrests were made. Instead, the police arrested Baba Jan and his four comrades and charged them under the Terrorism Act for rioting. At the time of the protest that claimed the lives of a father and his son, Baba Jan was out of the city.
While in jail Baba Jan became involved in creating solidarity among the Shia and Sunni prisoners who were segregated from one another. Due to his efforts to establish class solidarity among the Shia and Sunni prisoners, Baba Jan along with his four other comrades were brutally tortured in the prison. They were denied any medical attention or treatment. Meanwhile, the DSP was promoted and made the Superintendent of Police.
The news of the torture of Baba Jan and his comrades caused a massive string of protests and in October 2012, the administration was forced to release Baba Jan and his four comrades on bail. The case continued and in September 2014, Baba Jan and 12 other comrades were charged and sentenced to 40 years imprisonment.
Baba Jan and 12 of his comrades-in-arms have been languishing in Gahkuch Jail ever since. They hail from working-class and landless farmer families with humble economic means. No Left organization in Pakistan has taken the campaign to free Baba Jan and his comrades’ seriously and only occasional lip service is paid.
In 1846, the Dogra Maharaja incorporated Gilgit into the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. At the time, Maharaja helped to establish an army to safeguard the region from invaders. This army was known as the Gilgit Scots.
After the bloody partition that divided the living body of the Indian sub-continent into India and Pakistan, 562 princely states were given an open choice to decide whether they want to secede to India or Pakistan or to remain independent. The State of Jammu and Kashmir decided to remain independent and a Stand Still agreement was signed between the government of Maharaja Harri Singh and Pakistan. Comes the fateful day of 22 October 1947, the Pakistani Army with the help of the tribes of the north launched a surprise attack on the sovereign State of Jammu and Kashmir thus facilitating an uprising in the province of Gilgit.
Since then, Gilgit Baltistan has been kept under the tight control of the Pakistani civil and military administration that has denied the region any infrastructural development or equal citizenship rights. Any dissent is met with brutal reprisal.
On the same day when Baba Jan was being transferred from Gahkuch jail to hospital under high security, another civil and human rights activist from Gilgit Advocate, Ehsan Ali was accused of blasphemy and an arrest was made in the middle of the night after a raid was conducted at his house. No arrest warrant was produced at the time of arrest.
Mr. Ali is a socialist, president of the bar council of the Gilgit Appellate Court. He was one of the leaders of the 2017 mass movement that erupted in Gilgit after the Pakistani Government decided to abolish the subsidy on food for Gilgit Baltistan and to introduce barbaric taxes. Taxes were to be levied on domestic poultry and cows and on families who had more the five family members in the household! The movement was so powerful that the Pakistani Government had to back down.
This is the first time that separatist sentiments have begun to run high among the Muslim population of the region. There is growing concern over the conduct of the ruling elite of Gilgit which conveniently has become junior partners in the plunder of the natural resources of the Himalayan region and which openly is advocating the merger of the disputed territory of Gilgit Baltistan as the fifth province of the with the Pakistani federation.
The people of Azad Kashmir have been kept separate from the people of Gilgit Baltistan by a design. Muzafarabad, the capital of Pakistani Jammu Kashmir (PAJK) should be two hours’ drive from Gilgit via Astor Road. However, the road remains in ruins and no transport travels between the two cities. People who want to visit Muzafarabad have to take a 14-hour journey from Gilgit to Islamabad and then use bus service to get to Muzafarabad. For the past 70 years, the people of the state thus have purposely been kept divided.
Since March 16 2018 when there was an anti-war peace march in Madharpur in PAJK that claimed the life of Naeem Bhatt, the people of PAJK are faced with a new wave of political victimisation. A vicious witch hunt of political activists is underway as I write these lines and many PAJK political activists and students have gone in hiding due to fear of arrest.
The struggle for social justice and human rights in PAJK continues as they helplessly watch their brethren in Indian Administered Jammu Kashmir being persecuted and harassed by the Indian security forces who are protected from prosecution of their heinous crimes by a Armed Forces Special Powers Act and by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), (National Volunteer Organization) sponsored public front the fascist Hindu Ekta Munch (Hindu Unity Forum).
As Baba Jan recovers from his cardiac ailment and has been shifted back to Gahkuch Jail, the people of Kotli in PAJK are bracing for acts of vengeance from the Pakistani establishment for embracing the hope for peace.
The writer is from Mirpur and is the Chairman of Tehreek e Itefaq e Rai (Movement for Concensus). He can be reached at [email protected]