Granting provincial status to GB

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Original inhabitants smell rat in Pakistan’s latest move

By: Amjad Hussain

Pakistani authorities have finalised a law to award provisional provincial status to strategically located Gilgit-Baltistan. According to a report published in Pakistan’s leading English Daily, Dawn, under the proposed law by the Ministry of Law and Justice, the Supreme Appellate Court (SAC) of Gilgit-Baltistan may be abolished and the region’s election commission is likely to be merged with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP).

While the Pakistan government is trying to sell its decision to the populace is a great favour to the people of the region, the decision has failed to amuse or enthuse the people of Gilgit-Baltistan – reasons being many.

The region was part of princely state of Jammu and Kashmir and was occupied by Pakistan in 1947. At that time the Shia Muslims comprised 80 per cent of the population in the region. However, today the community has been reduced to less than 50 per cent.

Successive Pakistani governments ensured this demographic change by abolishing state subject law. By doing so, Pakistani governments made the region a playground for Punjabis who dominate Pakistan polity. The respective governments instigated Shia-Sunni conflict by using Punjabi Muslims who settled in the region post abolition of state subject laws. Shia population was and, in fact, is constantly being oppressed.

It is in this backdrop that the Shia population is skeptical about Pakistan’s decision of granting provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan. Already under persecution, this populace fears further exploitation at the hands of Punjabis.

An area of 72,496 sq. Kms, five times more than that of PoJK with a population of approx. 1.8 million, Gilgit Baltistan has been under illegal occupation of Pakistan since 1947. Under Karachi Agreement (April 28, 1949), the PoJK govt. under duress ceded the control of G-B to Pakistan, which not only separated Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B) from PoJK but also gifted Sakshgam Valley (area of 5,180 sq. kms.) to China in 1963.

Pakistan government’s latest decision is also to be seen in the backdrop of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor initiative. The project, aimed at renewing the China’s historic trade routes in the coastal countries of south-east Asia, Eurasian mainland and big sweeps of the Indian Ocean could have lasting consequences for China’s geopolitical and economic interests in the region. However, India’s constant claim over GB makes China uncomfortable and that is why the Chinese government is forcing Pakistan to grant the region provincial status so that it could carry out its project without any interference.

Political analysts opine that while China is already establishing its own ‘sphere of influence’ in the Gilgit Baltistan region, this, however, is being done at the cost of the environment, impacting local livelihoods and changing demographic structures while Pakistan, the country it calls its iron brother, acting as a vassal state, surrenders its much fought sovereign character to a culturally alien neighbour.

Interestingly, on one hand, Pakistani government continues shedding tears over, what it claims the human rights violation committed by India in Jammu and Kashmir and, on the other hand, it has deprived the natives of GB of all basic rights. Voices of dissent are being forcibly crushed and the original inhabitants of the region are directly being ruled by Punjabi elite.

Pakistani armed forces have pushed in Sunni settlers and encouraged sectarian conflict in a bid to coerce the Shia residents of the region. In May 1988, Sunni tribals from the North Western Frontier Province (renamed as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) were allowed to rampage around Gilgit, killing more than 150 people before the police stepped in.

Such episodes of violence have been repeated since. These tensions were enhanced after the opening of the Karakoram Highway, as it led to Sunni settlers from the NWFP and Punjab setting up businesses in Gilgit and altering its sectarian balance.

All the violence has led to a powerful nationalist movement, demanding self rule and independence calling the region “Balawaristan”.

The leaders of the nationalist movement accuse Pakistan of looting Gilgit Baltistan of its land and resources without giving anything in return. The voices raised in favour of basic rights are silenced by intimidation, arrest and imprisonment. In this backdrop, the Pakistan’s decision of annexing the region as a province is undoubtedly going to worsen the lives and economy of the original inhabitants of GB.

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