More than 600 thousand people in Gilgit-Baltistan will elect their new assembly on June 8. Pakistan’s ruling party, PML-N of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is the front runner in the race for the 24-member house. Surprisingly even before the first ballot has been cast, the opposition is accusing the PML-N of indulging in systematic rigging.
The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) which had won the 2009 election faced the same charge. Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf (PTI), which is in the forefront of the campaign against rigging, is accused of rigging the local bodies election held in May-end in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, where it is the ruling party. KP is to the west of Gilgit-Baltistan
Jamaat-e-Islami, JuI (Fazlur Rahman), Majlis Wahadat-e-Muslims, Tehrik-e-Islami-Pakistan and Muttahida Quami Movement (MQM) are the other main contenders amongst the fourteen parties. The powerful Shia Ulema council is in the fray under the banner of Tehrik-e-Islam, while Quaid Muslim League has boycotted the elections. In all, 289 candidates are contesting. All Pakistan Muslim League (APML) of former military dictator Pervez Musharraf has challenged the legality of the latest ballot in the Islamabad high court.
For outside observers, the G-B election is a part of the farce that the military-dominated Pakistan enacts in its quest for democracy. For its part, India sees the election as a part of the process of Pakistan’s forcible occupation of the region. And within Pakistan, there are demands for greater autonomy, if not the status of the fifth province, for Gilgit-Baltistan, which was earlier known as Northern Areas.
India’s objection has surprised many observers because India has not been very vocal about happenings in Gilgit-Baltistan which was occupied by Pakistan in 1947. India has concentrated on what is known as Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK) which constitutes about a third of the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
India has been forced into focusing on Gilgit-Baltistan because of increasing Chinese presence and activities in the region, which is adjacent to China’s Muslim-dominated Xinjiang region. The increased Chinese presence in the area cannot provide comfort to New Delhi.
Within China, there has been unease over the rising nationalistic aspirations among the Muslims of Western China and their anger against Beijing for denying them their fundamental right to practice their religion. China feels that the religious extremists in Xinjiang find shelter in Pakistan. That is used as an excuse for the presence of its security forces in Gilgit-Baltistan. Pakistan has no choice but to accept it, though it is embarrassed by the fact that it’s ‘all weather’ friend too suspects its claim to fight terrorism in all its forms.
China built a highway that linked Kashgar in China with Gilgit some years ago. But now it is going to step up infrastructure building activity in Gilgit-Baltistan in a big way. One of these ventures is the so-called Silk Road project, strategically important for China, as part of an overall $46 billion investment in Pakistan.
There is reason to believe that the Chinese presence in Gilgit-Baltistan will be strengthened in coming months as the Chinese initiative on reviving the ‘silk road’ begins to unroll. The Chinese will bring their own men – skilled and semi-skilled workers – to execute the project. This will surely include armed personnel belonging to the People’s Liberation Army to provide security cover to the Chinese work force.
As early as 1963, Pakistan had ceded over 2000 sq km area adjacent to Gilgit-Baltistan to China. China quickly absorbed the Aksai Chin area into its territory rejecting objections from India. Before 1963 Pakistan used to protest to China about showing what it called its territory as part of China in official Chinese maps.
But things changed quickly when first, Pakistan voted at the UN for admission of China, and then in October 1962 started negotiations for handing over a part of area in the Gilgit region to China. It is not without significance that it coincided with the time when China had invaded India. The agreement for the transfer of land to China was signed in March 1963.
In 2010, Selig Harrison of the Centre for International Policy, an American expert on South Asia, created quite a flutter in diplomatic circles by talking of a large Chinese presence in the Gilgit region. A large contingent of construction workers, engineers and communication experts from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had descended on Gilgit. The speculation was that Pakistan had handed over the administration of the region to China.
BENEFIT UNLIKELY FOR G-B FROM BALLOT
The people of Gilgit-Baltistan are unlikely to benefit much from the June 8 poll because it will not end the proxy rule of Islamabad-Rawalpindi combine. Apart from their backwardness, one of the basic concerns of the people has been denial of their fundamental rights. They live in a region that has an ambiguous status in the Pakistani political system. Gilgit-Baltistan is neither described as a part of the Pakistan-occupied Kashmir nor a province of Pakistan. For all practical purposes it is a colony of Pakistan.
The real power vests in Islamabad-Rawalpindi where the elected local leaders from Gilgit-Baltistan have to frequently rush, to take orders from their Pakistani bosses. The area has a governor, who happens to be a federal minister – Minister of Kashmir Affairs.
Pakistan took control of Gilgit-Baltistan soon after British India’s partition, with the help of its army which had invaded Jammu and Kashmir, dressed as tribals. The Pakistani invasion took the modest security force of the then Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, Hari Singh, by surprise. The Pakistanis did achieve success initially, but after the arrival of the Indian army, on request from the Maharaja, the Pakistani army men dressed as tribal people beat a hasty retreat. They could not realise their dream of capturing the whole of Jammu and Kashmir. And it remains a sore point; from the Army chief to Prime Minister, everyone who matters in Pakistan considers Kashmir annexation as the unfinished agenda.
For many years, the Gilgit-Baltistan area was known as Northern Areas. In 2009, the nomenclature Gilgit-Baltistan was restored.
The area has rich natural beauty and mineral and hydel resources. But it has remained economically backward and neglected, as are all parts of Pakistan except the dominant Punjab province.
Even as the people of Gilgit-Baltistan fight for development and rights, an increasing worry for them has been the inroads made by the extremist elements into the region. Until about the 1970s, the Shia-majority region was known to be peaceful. First Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and then Zia-ul-Haq, the dictator wedded to Islamisation of Pakistan, injected sectarian politics into the region.
About 70 per cent of the people in Gilgit-Baltistan are Shias. But over the years, an effort has been made by successive governments in Islamabad to alter the demographic map of the region. Sunni extremists, many of them enjoying the backing of the Pakistani army have been active in the region and are carrying out their agenda of death and destruction while sowing seeds of sectarian divide.
The Shia-Sunni clash, so rampant in Pakistan, has reached Gilgit-Baltistan. About two years ago, 16 Shias from the region were killed by Sunni extremists after they were forced out of a bus. The cold-blooded murder of 10 foreign tourists in Nanga Parbat, one of the main tourist attractions in the region, has sounded the death knell of the tourism industry. The polls are not going to change the situation.