Gilgit-Baltistan: Progressive marginalization

Ajit Kumar Singh

At least two soldiers and two women were killed in a suicide explosion in the Smagal area of Darel Valley in the Diamer District of the Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) region in Pakistan administered Kashmir (PaK) on March 17, 2016. Acting on an intelligence tipoff, Security Forces (SFs) had laid siege to the house of a ‘commander’ of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)’s Diamer faction, identified as Hazrat Noor. An unnamed security official disclosed, “The terrorist blew himself up to avoid arrest. Besides his wife and daughter, two soldiers were also killed in the blast.” The slain militant also reportedly had opened fire at the Forces before blowing himself up.

In another incident on the same day, an exchange of fire between SFs and militants in the Gayyal village area of Tarel Valley in Diamer District resulted in five fatalities. Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR), the media wing of the Pakistan Army, stated, “Three wanted terrorists were killed by security forces in a successful IBO [intelligence-based operation] in Tarel Valley in Gayyal Village near Chillas in Gilgit-Baltistan today. Two security personnel also embraced shahadat (martyrdom) in the exchange of fire.”

The last militancy-related fatality in GB had been recorded on February 26, 2015. Four prisoners at the Gilgit District Jail had made a jailbreak attempt on that day, during which two inmates had managed to escape while one prisoner was shot dead and another was injured. Those escaping included Habib-ur-Rehman, the prime accused in the June 23, 2013, Nanga Parbat base camp attack, in which 10 foreign tourists-cum-mountaineers were among 11 persons killed, when militants wearing paramilitary uniforms had attacked a base camp of the Nanga Parbat mountain in the Bonar area of Diamer District. One Pakistani woman guide was also killed in the incident. Later, on August 6, 2013, terrorists had killed Diamer District Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP), Muhammad Hilal Khan, and two Army officers, Colonel Ghulam Mustafa and Captain Ashfaq Aziz, in an ambush at Rohni in the Chilas District of GB. The officials were involved in the investigation of the Nanga Parbat case and were returning after a meeting in Diamer. Hazrat Noor, who blew himself up on March 17, 2016, was also an accused in the Nanga Parbat base camp attack. Though no further details were available about militants killed in the second incident on March 17, 2106, reports indicate that they were also part of the group that had attacked the Nanga Parbat base camp.

Significantly, on March 15, 2016, Pakistan Chief of Army Staff General Raheel Sharif had confirmed the death sentences awarded to another 13 terrorists who were involved in committing heinous offences relating to terrorism, including the killing of foreign tourists at Nanga Parbat. The militant who was awarded death sentence for Nanga Parbat case was Irfan Ullah, an active TTP cadre. He had reportedly admitted his offences before a Magistrate and the trial Court.

Meanwhile, through 2015, GB remained free of militancy-related violence, apart from the February 26, 2015, jail break in which one militant was killed. However, the second region of PaK, ‘Azad Jammu Kashmir’ (AJK), recorded two civilian deaths in 2015. At least two children, identified as Muhammad Moheed and Shabana Bibi, were killed while two others were injured when a ‘toy bomb’ [an IED disguised as a toy] exploded at Kharal Maldialan near Bagh in the Muzaffarabad District of AJK.

In 2014, PaK had recorded three fatalities and several injuries (all civilians in the GB region) when an explosion ripped through a passenger van on the Aalam Bridge on Karakoram Highway, near the Haramosh area of Skardu District on October 2, 2014.

As in 2013 and 2014, incidents of sectarian violence remained absent through 2015. GB had witnessed a large scale and orchestrated sectarian offensive in 2012, which had resulted in the death of 27 civilians.

Meanwhile, camps of terror groups operating out of Pakistan and targeting Indian and Afghan interests continue to flourish in the region. Despite intense international pressure, Islamabad continues to support at least 17 terror camps in PaK. Significantly, the Prime Minister of AJK, Chaudhry Abdul Majeed, declared on November 17, 2015, the region was the “base camp of Kashmir liberation struggle.”

Despite the very low level of terrorism-linked violence in the region as compared to the rest of Pakistan through 2015 as well as in earlier years, the Federal Government continues to pump military Forces into the area. In a letter to United Nations Secretary General (UNSG) Ban Ki Moon, dated March 14, 2016, Balawaristan National Front (BNF) Chairman Abdul Hamid Khan observed: “…Pakistan has drastically increased the quantum of its Forces by manifolds (sic)… China and Pakistan also plan to construct Railway lines under these high mountains, to facilitate the movement of their military Forces to further prolong the suppressive reigns (sic) on this region and beyond…” BNF was formed on July 30, 1992, as an umbrella body for political groups in the PaK region articulating popular aspirations.

Significantly, the GB Government on February 17, 2016, announced the allocation of a substantial piece of land to the Pakistan Army in Diamer District to set up its headquarters in the region. The site is situated in Thak Das, a barren piece of land near Chilas, where a brigade (5,000 personnel) of the newly raised Special Security Division (SSD) will be stationed. Declaring the aim of the SFs headquartered in Thak Das, Diamer District Deputy Commissioner Usman Ahmad stated, “The Army will make its headquarters in Thak Das, and this will help provide security to CPEC installations.” The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) intended to link China’s underdeveloped far-western region to Pakistan’s Gwadar deep-sea port on the Arabian Sea via PaK through a massive and complex network of roads, railways, business zones, energy schemes and pipeline.

The declared aim of the new headquarters, however, is far from reality. The situation in GB does not warrant any increase in the deployment of the military. Indeed, GB Chief Minister Hafeezur Rahman, while inviting foreign tourists to visit GB, observed on March 12, 2016, that GB is “one of the world’s most peaceful regions that offer spectacular sites to visitors”. Thus, BNF Chairman Abdul Hamid Khan claimed, Islamabad was trying to further increase its troop presence in the region to suppress the ‘genuine demands’ of the people. In his letter to the UNSG, BNF Chairman Abdul Hamid Khan wrote:

BNF appeals to UNSC [United Nations Security Council], UN as well as all UN affiliated Human Rights Organizations on behalf of the 2 million indigenous people of Gilgit Baltistan, to persuade the Pakistani regime to stop the torture of peaceful political leaders, to give them the right of free speech… BNF appeals to the UNSC, UN, and the EU [European Union] to put pressure on China and Pakistan to end the occupation of Gilgit Baltistan and to abandon the so-called CPEC by following their obligations under UN resolutions. The UN should also ask Pakistan to end its illegal occupation of Chitral and Shenaki Kohistan, allowing the local people to rule their Motherland as their birth right.”

This heavy military presence also helps Islamabad secure the terror camps operating under its aegis from any possible future attack from its ‘adversaries’.

Significantly, on June 8, 2015, Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA) elections were conducted across the region under the supervision of the Pakistan Army. According to official results, Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) emerged as the single largest party after winning 15 of 23 seats. The Islami Tehreek Pakistan (ITP) and Majlis-e-Wahdat-e-Muslimeen (MWM) won two seats each, while Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and BNF secured one seat each. PPP won the last elections as well, completing a five-year term in office. On December 13, 2014, an Interim Government was set up with a 12-member Caretaker Cabinet to conduct elections.

The latest round of elections was widely acknowledged to be a farce. Local as well national political parties alleged that there was large scale riggings. PTI Chairman Imran Khan, while rejecting the election results, stated on June 9, 2015, that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had followed his decade-old habit of installing his own umpires. Earlier, on June 2, 2015, reacting to the elections in GB, the Indian Government, which has its stated position that “the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir which includes the regions of Gilgit and Baltistan is an integral part of India”, had observed that the electoral process was an attempt by Pakistan to “camouflage its forcible and illegal occupation” of the regions. “We are concerned at the continued efforts by Pakistan to deny the people of the region their political rights, and the efforts being made to absorb these territories. The fact that a Federal Minister of Pakistan is also the ‘Governor of Gilgit Baltistan’ speaks for itself,” the official spokesperson in India’s Ministry of External Affairs Vikas Swarup noted.

Ruled under the Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self-Governance) Order 2009, passed on September 9, 2009, GB is administratively divided into two divisions, Gilgit and Baltistan. Unlike AJK, GB had no legal existence or protection till the passage of the September 2009 order. It is still excluded from any constitutional status, despite clear directives from the Supreme Court of Pakistan, resulting in the denial of constitutional rights and protection to the population.

Not surprisingly, according to September 29, 2015, video report, people in large numbers in several areas of PaK, including Muzaffarabad, Gilgit and Kotli, were seen protesting against the Pakistani establishment, demanding freedom, raising pro-India slogans, and asking for jobs and other rights. The Pakistan military, according to the video, was using brutal force to suppress their voices. Referring to the video, Jitendra Singh, Minister of State in India’s Prime Minister Office (PMO) observed, “This is nothing new in PoK. There has been unrest in the region. People are being oppressed. Pakistan has been holding sham elections in the region.”

An October 2, 2015, report quoted Senge Hasnan Sering of the Institute for Gilgit Baltistan Studies, based in Washington, DC., stating, “We are under a silent invasion from China. We are staring at ethnic cleansing: Pakistan since the late 1990s has already effected the settlement of around 3.5 lakh Urdu-speaking Sunni Muslims in GB which makes for nearly a fifth of the population now. They also run terror camps here. China is into a lot of projects here from mining to highway-making and a huge number of Chinese workers have also settled here.”

Despite decades of military subjugation, demographic engineering, and the ceding of some territories and influence to China, Islamabad has failed to win the support of the people of GB. Its further militarization of the region perpetuates a strategy of indiscriminate use of force to silence local voices, even as local populations are progressively marginalized.

Ajit Kumar Singh is a Research Fellow at Institute for Conflict Management

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