People of Gilgit Baltistan, a unique mixture of ethnic mountain communities, are today living as slaves of the Punjabi-run, military-dominated Pakistan. These simple mountain folk do not have anything in common with the large majority of the Pakistanis. They are not linked by any cultural or historical links. The only thing which connects these people with the mainland Pakistanis is religion and that too is in shreds with sectarian militant groups trying to subjugate the Shia-dominated region.
All these years Gilgit Baltistan has been more or less a slave colony of the Punjabi rulers in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. This is the most poorest of the regions in Pakistan, perhaps a little better than Balochistan where another group of indigenous people have been struggling for their rights for over six decades now. The people of Gilgit Baltistan have been less vocal, less violent but have been reeling under gross discrimination from Islamabad.
Whenever the people of this mountainous region have raised their voice, the state has responded with brutal measures. There have been numerous cases of abductions and killings of rebellious voices in the region. Earlier, it was the military and its notorious intelligence wing, ISI, which has been humiliating, harassing and torturing those who dared to raise their voice. The case of Manzoor Parwana is noteworthy. His main thrust during the speech was that Pakistan had no business to be in Gilgit Baltistan. It has no sovereign rights over the region and therefore must withdraw its troops and citizens. He said Pakistan was violating international laws and UN resolutions on Gilgit Baltistan. Pakistan’s occupation of the region exposed its double stands on the Kashmir issue. While it wants the international community to support its claim over Kashmir, Pakistan is silent on its occupation of Gilgit Baltistan. Not surprising, Pakistani authorities have kept Parwana behind bars illegally—that is no charesheet has filed and no trial is on although he is charged with sedition and anti-national activities.
Parwana is not the only one who is suffering at the hands of Pakistani authorities. There are countless others who remain incarcerated without trial and many others who have been silenced by threats and repressive measures. But the use of the blunt state instrument is not the only way the Pakistani state has been suppressing the people of Gilgit Baltistan. It has unleashed the forces of extremism and terror on the region to keep the people silent.
The most prominent instrument of Pakistani state has been the Ahl-e-Sunnat-wal-Jamaat (ASWJ), the front organisation of the Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), a rabidly anti-Shia group which has been killing Shias for several years now. Its armed wing, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, allied to al Qaeda, has been targeting in cities like Karachi, Quetta and Peshawar for several decades now. These groups have become emboldened and remain safe because of the patronage they enjoy from the political leaders and the military. These groups have a strong presence in the region, all with the blessings of the stae with the sole motive of ensuring that the region remains a Sunni dominated area and not a Shia dominated one which it has been and continues to be.
Gilgit Baltistan is in fact Pakistan’s only Shia-majority area and the Punjabi-ruled Islamabad has been indulging in demographic engineering for long. Sunnis from Pakistan occupied Kashmir and Punjab have been encouraged with money and concessions to set up house and shop in the region. Sunni groups have been allowed to operate without any check from the region. Text books have been doctored to erase the local cultural and religious beliefs and traditions, replacing the liberal interpretation of the religious teachings with more radical Sunni texts. The local people had raised hue and cry over this sectarian move but were forced to fall in line by repressive measures.Protesters were shot at, jailed and threatened.
Otherwise a beautiful and peace part of the grand Himalayas, Gilgit Baltistan for some years have been witnessing a spike in sectarian violence.Since 2000, according to partial data collected of sectarian violence, at least 115 have been killed in such violence. There have been additional killings in the last 15 years. The problem has been so acute that in May 2012, the Gilgit Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA) enacted an unprecedented Code of Conduct (CoC) to contain the ‘sectarian menace’. Ironically, two months later, in August 2012, 25 Shias were killed at the mountain pass, Babusar Top, which connects Gilgit Baltistan with the rest of Pakistan.
More than the sectarian killings, it is the expansion of extremist and terrorist groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammad which has been alarming. These groups have been allowed to set up their recruitment and training centres in the peaceful valleys of this region. As a result there are several terrorist training camps in the area. Even Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan has set up its base in the region and is carrying out its training and terrorist activities from its sanctuary in the region.
Recently, Pakistan conducted a fraudulent election in the area to prove that the area was part of the country, leaving the people of the region angry and helpless. The international community, including the UN, which takes undue interest in the political process in Afghanistan, has remained silent to this act of repression on the people of Gilgit Baltistan. The US, otherwise a champion of democracy all over the world, has also been a mute spectator to this blatant assassination of the aspirations and political rights of the people of Gilgit Baltistan. The UN must not delay any more in stepping into the scene and help the people of Gilgit Baltistan from Pakistan’s repressive measures.