Political persecution goes unabated in Gilgit-Baltistan. According to reports, Advocate Ehsan Ali, President of the Gilgit Baltistan Supreme Appellate Court Bar Association and ex-Chairman of Awami Action Committee (AAC) re-shared a photograph from a recent Iranian protests on social media on his Facebookpage in January (date not specified) 2018. The photograph, showing a woman protester sitting on a platform meant for prayer leaders in a mosque, had become a symbol of defiance of ordinary Iranians against the clerical regime in Iran. Soon after, fundamentalists started opposing the post calling it derogatory. Two FIRs (First Information Report) were filed on January 8, 2018, accusing Ali of “blasphemy” and also so making “fun of principal tenets of Islam”. The lawyer in the meantime (date not specified) removed the post, though there was hardly anything derogatory about the photo and also apologized to the people who found the post offensive and whose sentiments were hurt.
In spite of this, Ali was arrested from his home in Gilgit on February 12, 2018, and an Anti-Terrorism Court (ATC) in Gilgit sent the lawyer on judicial remand till February 26, 2018, under 295-A (Deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings or any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs), punishable for a term which may extend to 10 years.
Referring to the charges, Senior Advocate and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Gilgit Baltistan President Amjad Hussain told The Nation
The charges against our senior colleague Ehsan Ali are nothing but a ploy to silence voices demanding political and constitutional rights to the people of Gilgit Baltistan. Such actions will only add fuel to the fire.
Ali and his AAC have been at the forefront of ongoing protests in Gilgit Baltistan opposing the imposition of taxes by the Federal Government. For instance, in December 2017 massive marches of protestors from Skardu to Gilgit, chanting slogans such as Chalo-Chalo Gilgit Chalo (lets go to Gilgit) and Gunda Tax Namanzoor (Taxation by Bullies, Not acceptable) were reported. The protesters were demanding a quashing of taxes imposed by Islamabad in Gilgit Baltistan under the Tax Adaptation Act 2012.
Expectedly, protests broke out inside Gilgit Baltistan and elsewhere in Pakistan subsequent to Advocate Ali's arrest. “We stand united with the political activists of Gilgit Baltistan who have been detained because of their struggles for the rights of locals,” said an unnamed protestor. Another protestor stated, "People fighting for the basic human rights of the people in Gilgit Baltistan were declared traitors and are being harassed. We stand united with the political activists who have been detained."
The mounting pressure forced the judiciary to take a U-turn and Ali was released on bail on February 19, 2018. However, several people from Gilgit Baltistan continue to languish in Pakistani prisons, including political leader Baba Jan, who is serving a life sentence in prison for his alleged role in inciting violence in the region in 2010.
Revealing the bare truth about Government's oppressive mechanism in Gilgit Baltistan, Daily Times in its editorial titled Political Prisoners in Gilgit Baltistan wrote on February 19, 2018:
The authorities in Islamabad need to live up to their claims regarding equal treatment of Pakistani citizens regardless of their geographic location inside the country. The fact of the matter is that their approach towards many Pakistanis, in hitherto marginalised territories like Gilgit-Baltistan, remains no better than that of the colonial masters whose control over our state institutions ended several decades ago. Several political activists, led by the iconic Baba Jan, who had raised voice for those displaced in the Attabad lake fiasco, remain incarcerated on charges of terrorism. That our law enforcement apparatus can charge Gilgit Baltistan residents with terrorism for exercising civil liberties that the rest of us, in mainland Pakistan, take for granted should be a moment of shame for those representing the Pakistani public in Islamabad... Instead of trying to address the grievances of the region, the authorities continue with their undemocratic practices. The case against Advocate Ali needs to be annulled and he must be released immediately...
Amidst the continued harassment of people raising genuine concerns, the Federal Government decided to abolish the Gilgit Baltistan Council on February 15, 2018, “within a month”, according to Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi’s subsequent order. According to the decision, the powers currently exercised by the Gilgit Baltistan Council would be shifted to the Gilgit Baltistan Legislative Assembly. Gilgit Baltistan Council has the mandate to legislate on 55 subjects. The Gilgit Baltistan Council is an independent legislative body headed by the Prime Minister of Pakistan as its Chairman and was established in May 2010 under Article 33 of the Gilgit Baltistan (Empowerment and Self Governance) Order, 2010. The 55 subjects on which Gilgit Baltistan Council is mandated to legislate include the most significant elements of governance, including railways, development of industries, electricity and bulk water storage, tourism, taxes on income other than agricultural income, etc. The Gilgit Baltistan Council which has clearly defined executive and legislative powers, includes: the Prime Minister of Pakistan (who is the Chairman of the Gilgit Baltistan Council); Governor of Gilgit Baltistan (Vice Chairman of the Gilgit Baltistan Council); six members of the Gilgit Baltistan Council nominated by the PM from amongst Federal Ministers/Members of the Parliament; Federal Minister for Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit Baltistan (an ex officio Member and Minister-in-charge of the Gilgit Baltistan Council); Chief Minister of Gilgit Baltistan; six members elected by the Gilgit Baltistan Legislative Assembly in accordance with the system of proportional representation by means of a single transferable vote; Minister of State for Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan (an ex-officio non-voting member of the Gilgit Baltistan Council). The composition of Gilgit Baltistan Council is such that it was supposed to work as a direct link between Islamabad and Gilgit Baltistan Council, placing overwhelming administrative control in the Federal Government.
Reports indicate that the decision was taken following the recommendations in a Report submitted to the Federal Cabinet on January 3, 2018, seeking its approval to bring political reforms in Gilgit Baltistan. The Report recommended de-facto integration of Gilgit Baltistan with Pakistan but not a de-jure change, since that would affect the country’s principle position on Jammu Kashmir. It advised bringing the Gilgit Baltistan Legislative Assembly on a par with other provincial assemblies, and in the process advocated the disbanding of the Gilgit Baltistan Council.
The report was prepared by a nine-member constitutional committee headed by Sartaj Aziz — the then adviser to the Prime Minister on foreign affairs — and formed by the ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on October 29, 2015, to recommend steps to bring 'political and constitutional reforms' in Gilgit Baltistan.
Though the purported objective of the decision to abolish the Gilgit Baltistan Council was to 'empower the elected government' in Gilgit Baltistan, the fact of the matter is that the Gilgit Baltistan Council, which was established with much fan fare, had failed to perform its duty to bring development in the region. The following data on the Member Development Program is an illustration of the reality:
*The Gilgit Baltistan Council Secretariat started the Member Development Program to address the basic development needs of the people in year 2013. The objective of this program was to improve socio-economic development through execution of link roads and small village level schemes, such as drinking water, sanitation etc. Under this program, schemes are sponsored by the Members including the Minister-In-Charge, Gilgit Baltistan Council; the Governor, Gilgit Baltistan, being Vice Chairman; Chief Minister, Gilgit Baltistan; and six Elected Members of the Gilgit Baltistan Council.
Gilgit Baltistan is one of Pakistan's most backward regions, with several indicators of human development actually registering worsening trends. For instance, according to Gilgit Baltistan Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (GB-MICS, 2016-17) report prepared by Planning & Development Department Government of Gilgit-Baltistan in association with United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and released in September 2017,
… the infant mortality rate (IMR) has increased slightly from 71.0 per 1000 live births (data from PDHS 2012) [Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (PDHS) Health Survey 2012-13] to 73.5 per 1000 live births in 2016-17. Under-five mortality has also increased with almost three percentage points from 89 per 1000 live births (data from PDHS 2012) to 91.8 per 1000 live births; the highest rate being for the age cohort of 20-24 months… About two out of ten children under the age of five in GB are underweight (19.4%). Almost half of children under five (46.2%) are stunted or short for their age…
Meanwhile, according to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), Gilgit Baltistan did not account for any terrorism-related fatality through 2017. In 2016, two incidents were reported in which 10 people, including two civilians, four SF personnel, and an equal number of terrorists were killed. Gilgit Baltistan has recorded at least 81 terrorism-related fatalities (51 civilians, 13 SF personnel, and 17 militants) since 2011.
The 'peace' in the troubled region has been enforced since 1948 with the help of draconian laws and brutal military might. These two aspects have been given further prominence since the inception of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, which has faced strong opposition from local people. Though Islamabad claims the project would create employment opportunities for some 1.8 million people in Gilgit Baltistan, locals explicitly reject the claim. Amir Hussain, a political analyst from the Lower Hunza part of the region, observes,
The Chinese bring their own manpower wherever they go. For CPEC, they are likely to bring seven million Chinese workers to Pakistan. Around 400,000 of them will be working in Gilgit-Baltistan. How will the locals get jobs…? Forget about the jobs; the locals are actually losing their livelihood because of this project.
Echoing similar concerns, Yoana Barakova, a research analyst with the Amsterdam-based European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS), opined,
Gilgit Baltistan is already facing serious environmental problems in relation to climate change because of air and water pollution, inadequate waste disposal, natural resources depletion, deforestation, loss of biodiversity and glacier melting. A project like the China Pakistan Economic Corridor would produce a number of negative environmental and ecological impacts...
With opposition to CPEC and the administration’s policies and practices in the region, Islamabad had on May 9, 2016, placed nearly 140 persons in Gilgit Baltistan under Schedule-IV of the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA), 1997, purportedly to maintain ‘durable peace in the region’: “The imposition of the fourth schedule is a must to maintain law and order. The government will resist all political pressure.” Schedule-IV of ATA, 1997 deals with people who are not directly involved in terrorism activities, but whose affiliation with banned outfits or previous criminal record brings them ‘under suspicion’. They are kept under surveillance by the police to prevent the possibility of their involvement in any potential or future terrorist activity.
According to a Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS) 2016 Report, the Pakistan Army established the Special Security Division (SSD) in 2016. The report notes:
.. formation and functioning of different units of the SSD will vary in each province/region: in Balochistan, FC [Frontier Corps] will serve as the main tier, supported by army, police and Levies; in Sindh, Rangers will be the main tier force, supported by army and police; in Punjab, police will serve as main tier with support from army; in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, army will serve as main tier with the support from police; and in Gilgit-Baltistan, too, army will serve as the main tier and will be supported by local law enforcers...
Gilgit Baltistan has seen no local terrorism, and the occasional terrorist activities of the past have been executed by groups drawn from Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, suspected to be state proxies, and directed against the local people. With the exception of occasional and largely peaceful political demonstrations, there has been little unrest or violence in the region. Yet, the SSD norms have put Gilgit Baltistan at par with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, one of the most terror-afflicted regions of Pakistan. Islamabad continues to employ oppressive methods of administration in the region, and these have intensified with the strong local opposition to the CPEC projects. As CPEC gains momentum, such opposition is likely to escalate, and Islamabad, in turn, will likely get more brutal in its attempt to crush all voices of protest.