By Peter Boyle
24 April 2014
A powerful popular protest is sweeping through the Pakistani-occupied disputed territory of Gilgit Baltistan. Since April 15, an indefinite sit-in strike (dharna) has been waged, uniting for the first time groups from a range of political and religious backgrounds against the removal of a longstanding wheat subsidy. On April 22 protesters converged in a "long march" on Gilgit, the territory’s capital to surround the offices of local puppet government authority.
During the British colonial era, Gilgit Baltistan was occupied by the British-backed feudal ruler of Kashmir but Pakistan has occupied the territory since 1948. Syed Asad Hasan, a progressive journalist in Gilgit Baltistan, told Green Left Weekly in an exclusive interview that the new protest movement had gathered so much support that even Pakistan’s major opposition parties have come under pressure to declare their support. A central protest leader, Ahsan Ali, advocate, informed him [on April 21] that people would come from all the districts to "convert Gadi Bagh [the main square in Gilgit] into a new Tahrir Square".
So what is the background to this protest?
“In 1972 under the Shimla Pact between India and Pakistan, the former prime minister of Pakistan Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto gave the subsidy on wheat to Gilgit Baltistan because India was giving such a subsidy to Indian occupied Kashmir already. Moreover, according to the conventions of UNO Pakistan is bound to provide subsidies to this disputed area," Hasan explained.
“The ordinary people, most of whom are very poor and depend on the subsidy, believe the subsidy is their right.
“In order to put pressure against government’s action, the Jauhar Ali Khan Memorial Society (named after a nationalist leader of the 1950s) called all parties’ conference in which all religious, social, and political and student organisations were present. After a long debate they formed the Gilgit Baltistan Awami Action Committee to fight for the rights of people. The first item on the committee’s agenda was the reinstatement of the wheat subsidy.
“As the people of Gilgit Baltistan demonstrated that the AWC had the popular mandate, the committee, gradually increased the charter of demands to include the removal of tax, load shedding, fees in hospital and reinstatement of the subsidy on transportation which had been removed earlier.
“The AWC is calling for the removal of taxes because according to international law, there should be no taxation without representation. As an occupied territory Gilgit Baltistan is exempt from all type of taxes but government has imposed taxes on people of Gilgit Baltistan illegally.”
Hasan explained that “according to some political activists Pakistan has removed the wheat subsidy under pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). However, as Gilgit Baltistan is a disputed territory it is exempt from all these laws.”
He also agreed that a significant part of the wheat subsidy had been diverted through government corruption. But added: “First of all the people should be aware of their rights in the context of a disputed territory, secondly they should support the action committee’s struggle to get their rights in full.”
When negotiations with government failed, the action committee launched the sit in protest which are still going on throughout Gilgit Baltistan.
A local news publication, the Pamir Times, said this is the longest protest in the territory’s history. It reported that Gilgit's shops and roads had been closed for two days by the strike.
Farooq Tariq, the general secretary of the left-wing Awami Workers Party, told this scribe that his organisation strongly supported the protest and that one of its leaders, Baba Jan (who was previously jailed and tortured in Gilgit Baltistan), was playing a leading role the movement.
According to journalist Syed Asad Hasan, following the failure of the local government to restore the wheat subsidy by the end of the 48-hour deadline given by the Awami Action Committee (AAC), contingents of protesters from various districts began to arrive in the territory's capital on the morning of April 22.
One of the largest contingents was from Hunza Nagar valley and it was led into the city by their popular leader Baba Jan. The crowd in the city's main square, Gadi Bagh swelled over the day to about 2,000, Hasan said. And the word was that more protesters were still travelling from other districts. Shopkeepers kept their shops shut, without any external pressure. A delegation of the Gilgit Baltistan Democratic Alliance, a nationalist group led by Amanullah Khan, also joined the sit in.
A member of the executive of the Awami Action Committee, Ejaz Ul Haq said: "If government fails to provide subsidies we will dismiss the local puppet assembly and form a people's assembly. The puppet ministers force us to do so."
Ejaz added that even after the people had conducted a sit in for eight days, the government was not considering the real issues of the indigenous people of Gilgit Baltistan. "Now we have only one way: We must struggle to get rid of these so-called leaders and save our people from their cruelty."
Later that day, the local government sent a delegation to beg the protesters to end the sit in and give them more time to try to restore the wheat subsidy. However, the Awami Action Committee decided to continue the protest.
In a fiery speech to the protesters, Baba Jan said that the protest was about much more than the wheat subsidies now. He warned that if the government did not accept the committee's charter of demands then the women and children in Hunza Nagar will block the strategic Karakoram Highway that connects the territory to China.
(By arrangement with Green Left Weekly: https://www.greenleft.org.au/)