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Islam and Human Rights ( 14 Oct 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Gilgit-Baltistan: Ties with Jammu & Kashmir, historical and contemporary

On September 22, 2010, a conference titled “Human Rights Violations in Pakistan” was held at the United Nations Human Rights Council. Senge Sering, representing Gilgit Baltistan National Congress, presented his paper titled “situation in Gilgit Baltistan in the context of Kashmir issue”. Below is the text of his presentation


September 22, 2010

Palais de Nations, Geneva (United Nations Human Rights Council)

 Situation in Gilgit-Baltistan in the Context of Kashmir Issue

Senge Hasnan Sering,

Director, Gilgit Baltistan National Congress (GBNC)


This article will help understand relationship of Gilgit-Baltistan with Kashmir in both historical and contemporary context. The inhabitants of Gilgit-Baltistan have historically established cultural and commercial links with those living in Kashmir and Ladakh even before the Maharajas of Jammu-Kashmir brought Gilgit-Baltistan under their sway. Historical records state that the Mons of north India used Kashmir as a platform to introduce Hinduism and Buddhism in Gilgit-Baltistan. In the same manner, Nurbaxshi and Shia forms of Islam also arrived in Gilgit-Baltistan from Kashmir. The Nurbaxshi order of Sufism is unique in South Asia and during earlier times, it was only prevalent in Kashmir valley, Baltistan and Ladakh. When Mirza Gorgan of Xinjiang conquered Kashmir, he massacred thousands of Kashmiris professing Nurbaxshi faith and forced them to escape to the valleys of Gilgit-Baltistan and Ladakh. Those who survived the genocide were forced to convert to a more puritanical form of Islam. Today, one can find followers of Nurbaxshi faith in the valleys of Nubra, Dras, Chorbat, Khapulo, Shigar, Thale, Hushe, Saltoro and Sermik. On the other hand, the Shia preachers who arrived from Kashmir found relatively greater freedom and as a result, were able to convert the predominant population of Gilgit-Baltistan to their sect. Even today, Shias and Nurbaxshis of Gilgit-Baltistan adhere to Kashmiri practices especially while performing certain mourning rituals during the sacred month of Muharram.

 Skardo, Astore, Shigar and Gilgit valleys have several Kashmiri settlements, inhabited by the artisans who helped build Sufi Khankahs and royal palaces and forts. These Kashmiris added uniqueness to the native Tibetan infrastructures. They introduced their dress code and cuisine in the valleys they settled, and natives of Gilgit-Baltistan adopted their traditions readily. Today, one can find the women in Skardo and Shigar, for instance, wearing Kashmiri shirts with korabu. Similarly, the men of Astore wear Kashmiri firan during winters. Kashmiri kangiri is also used by men to conserve body heat during the winters. Handicrafts, including female head gears and ornaments of Baltistan have also borrowed elements from Kashmiri jewelry. Similarly, some wedding ceremonies in Skardo are Kashmiri in origin.

 The linguistic and ethnic connections between the people of Chitral, Gilgit and Kashmir on one hand and Baltistan and Ladakh on the other has occurred due to interactions and migrations spread over thousands of years. Anthropologists place the Kashmiris, Khowars of Chitral, and Shins and Yashkuns of Gilgit under one ethnic category called Dardic. Due to affinity, the languages spoken by these groups are also called Dardic, and Shina of Gilgit and Kashmiri are often called sister-languages. In the same way, Balti of Baltistan is a sub-dialect of Ladakhi, which is a language spoken in the Ladakh region of Indian Kashmir.

 The cultural relationship was a product of centuries old commercial links that traders of Gilgit-Baltistan established with those in Jammu-Kashmir, Tibet and north India. Then, historical trade routes of Gilgit-Baltistan opened towards Indian Kashmir, Ladakh, Central Asia and Tibet rather than towards Pakistan. It was not agriculture but trade which sustained livelihoods of the inhabitants of Gilgit-Baltistan for centuries. As trade and commerce continued uninterrupted, it enabled thousands of inhabitants of Gilgit-Baltistan to travel and settle in Kashmir as well as in other Indian towns like Simla, Dalhousie, Dharamsala, Missouri, Nainital, Kulu, Chamba and so forth. It was these regular interactions which shaped up societies and civilizations in the rugged valleys of Gilgit-Baltistan and enabled ethnic and cultural blending. Closure of these routes has now created permanent impoverishment in Gilgit-Baltistan. It was only after 1978, when Karakoram Highway was built, and natives of Gilgit-Baltistan initiated trade with Pakistanis. One can deduce from these facts that compared to Pakistan, Gilgit-Baltistan is naturally connected with Kashmir, Ladakh, Tibet and Central Asia.

 Politically, Gilgit-Baltistan was part of the State of Jammu even before the British "sold" Kashmir to the Dogra Maharajas. Once Kashmir Valley became part of the Dogra State, Gilgit was placed under the province of Kashmir, while Baltistan and Ladakh continued as part of Jammu province. Baltistan and Ladakh were then merged by the Dogras into one administrative unit called Ladakh Wazarat. Like the famous Darbar Move between Delhi and Simla or between Srinagar and Jammu, the administrators of Ladakh Wazarat conducted darbar move between Skardo and Leh. Skardo was then the winter capital of Ladakh and the city enjoyed this status for more than 108 years.

 On the other hand, Gilgit was declared a separate Wazarat with a governor stationed in Gilgit town. Although Pakistan claims that the entire Gilgit-Baltistan region was a leased agency; the reality is that Baltistan was never leased even for one day to the British. Even within Gilgit region, Gilgit Tehsil, Gilgit Wazarat (Astore), Ghizer, Chilas, tribal areas of Darel-Tangir, and Hunza and Nagar never became part of the leased territory. Hence, less than one-third of Gilgit region was actually leased to the British which they called the Gilgit Agency. The British agreed to hoist the flag of Maharaja on the offices of the leased territory. Maharaja also kept his military forces and police in the leased area along with the British forces. It was Maharaja and not the British officers who exercised the right to issue mining contracts in the Gilgit Agency. Maharaja continued to use his currency as the legal tender in the leased area and continued to receive political representation from Gilgit in the Council of Maharaja based at Srinagar. Even the State Subject Rule remained functional in the leased agency, which denied outsiders the right to acquire land in Gilgit-Baltistan and hence preserved indigenous demography.

 The autonomous status of Gilgit-Baltistan within Princely State of Jammu & Kashmir was terminated after Pakistan occupied the region in 1947 and imposed a political agent. Pakistani rulers have since then managed Gilgit-Baltistan without any constitutional cover and rule the region through ad hoc presidential ordinances like the one promulgated by President Zardari in September of 2009. Pakistan has failed to annex Gilgit-Baltistan since the region is part of the former Princely State of Jammu-Kashmir and hence a disputed territory claimed by India as its integral part. Although Pakistani constitutions have gone through numerous amendments, yet, no amendment has been made to the Article 1 to declare Gilgit-Baltistan as part of the country. These realities force one to believe that Pakistani presence in Gilgit-Baltistan through its security forces and illegal settlers has contributed towards political and constitutional uncertainty, thereby prolonging the impasse on Kashmir.

 Several events which have occurred in the last six decades compel one to believe that Gilgit-Baltistan is very much a legitimate stakeholder viz. a viz. Kashmir issue. For instance, the United Nations Commission on India and Pakistan (UNCIP) had asked Pakistan to withdraw from Gilgit-Baltistan through its resolutions of 1948 and 1949, proving the connection of this region with Kashmir issue. The United Nations Security Council resolutions also emphasized upon similar historical facts. All these resolutions have refused to accept Pakistan’s locus standi in the region and termed Pakistan an aggressor and intruder in Gilgit-Baltistan. Similarly, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan continue to lack representation in political and judicial institutions of Pakistan precisely because of her connection with Kashmir issue. It is Gilgit-Baltistan’s connection with Kashmir issue which has enabled UNO to station observers in the region. Further, Pakistani Supreme Court and High Court of Punjab in their several verdicts have also declared Gilgit-Baltistan linked to the Kashmir issue and hence a disputed territory.

 The fact that Pakistan signed Karachi Agreement with leaders of ‘Azad’ Kashmir in 1949, although without the participation or consent of the natives of Gilgit-Baltistan, to acquire direct control of Gilgit-Baltistan also shows connection of this region with the Kashmir issue. Similarly, due to Gilgit-Baltistan’s attachment to the Kashmir issue, Pakistan had to sign a provisional agreement with China to demarcate the border of Gilgit-Baltistan and Xinjiang. The fact that the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs rules Gilgit-Baltistan also leads to the conclusion that the region is part of former Princely State of Jammu & Kashmir and contested by India. It is the disputed nature of Gilgit-Baltistan that even today the region lacks representation in the Council of Common Interests (CCI), National Economic Commission (NEC), National Finance Commission (NFC), National Hydroelectric Board (NHEB) and Indus River System Authority (IRSA). In the same manner, owing to Gilgit-Baltistan’s disputed nature and Indian objection, the World Bank recently refused a loan to Pakistan to build Diamer dam in Gilgit-Baltistan. Likewise, Pakistan’s Minister of Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan Affairs, Arbab Alamgir Khan, has recently stated that the people of Gilgit-Baltistan will not receive royalty over Diamer Dam from Islamabad, since the region is linked to Kashmir dispute and therefore not part of Pakistan.

 While the people in both Indian and Pakistani Punjab enjoy cross-border cultural and commercial links, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan and Ladakh are denied similar interchanges in the name of Kashmir issue. To date, the Line of Control remains closed disrupting trade along Kargil-Skardo and Astore-Srinagar roads. This has hurt livelihoods of the natives; obstructed the development of local cultures and languages, and refused the right of contact to thousands of divided family members.

 Having said that, one fails to find any use of repeating these historical facts, if the natives would have to continue experiencing deprivation at the hands of Pakistani oppressors while the international community fails to persuade Pakistan to withdraw from the region and pay attention to the genuine needs and demands of the natives of Gilgit-Baltistan. 

 Till date, these facts have failed to result in the right of self determination for the people of Gilgit-Baltistan which Pakistan proposes for the natives of Kashmir valley. Gilgit-Baltistan’s connection with Kashmir issue has failed to translate into reinstatement of State Subject Rule and resumption of cross-LOC trade and commerce for the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. This connection with Kashmir issue has failed to result in the withdrawal of more than fifty thousand Pakistani forces and around one hundred thousand illegal settlers from Gilgit-Baltistan, which could have helped grant the natives control over their land and resources.

 However, these ideas can become a reality only after all nationalist forces of Pakistan occupied Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan put a unified struggle against Pakistani occupiers. All Parties National Alliance (APNA) and Gilgit-Baltistan Democratic Alliance (GBDA) are two suitable platforms to pursue such rights and for all these dreams to come true, Gilgit Baltistan National Congress has joined hands with nationalist forces to continue the struggle with all its sincerity, conviction and integrity.