Mass protests sweep Pakistani-occupied Gilgit Baltistan (UPDATED)

April 24, 2014
Photo by Syed Asad Hasan.

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 will converge in a "long march" on Gilgit, the territory’s capital to surround the offices of local puppet government authority.

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, Advocate Ahsan Ali, informed him that people will come from all the districts to "convert Gadi Bagh [the main square in Gilgit] into a new Tahrir Square".

BREAKING NEWS (APRIL 25): According to Syed Asad Hasan, Green Left Weekly's on-the-spot informant in Gilgit, after the 10th day of the sit-in strike that has brought the occupied territory of Gilgit Baltistan to a stop, the Pakistani government has agreed to reverse the removal of the wheat subsidy. However, the Awami Action Coalition has decided to continue the sit-in strike until the rest of its nine-point charter of demands is addressed.

1. Restoration and fixation of the wheat price for a 100kg sack at 820 rupees.

2. Restoration of subsidies on oil and other edibles, as well as the PIA fares which have been withdrawn by the government.

3. Provision of free health services and medicines in all government hospitals and halting of the fees being charged at the hospitals for the last couple of years.

4. An end to the movement of gems and minerals. No awarding exploration and mining lease to non-local companies.

5. Acceptance of the demands of the Diamer-Bhasha Dam affectees.

6. An end to back-door hiring in all public sector organizations and establishing meritocratic and transparent hiring.

7. An end to load-shedding and reactivation of the non-functional power houses.

8. Withdrawing all taxes imposed on the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, under the “No Taxation Without Representation” principle.

9. Resolving the border disputes of Gilgit-Baltistan and protecting the region’s borders.

UPDATE (APRIL 24): Syed Asad Hasan, Green Left Weekly's on-the-spot informant in Gilgit shares a strong frustration felt by the thousands still occupying the city's Gadi Bagh square:

“Throughout today some ten thousand people would have taken part in the sit in. The sit in has been going since April 15 and there is another big occupation going on in the city of Skardu. Yet there has been no Pakistani TV coverage of this protest. And very little other media coverage.

“The Chief Secretary Mohammad Younus Dagha, the head of the local government bureaucracy, has been fired as he was the person who signed the order to end the wheat subsidy. But this part of a pass-the-blame game that the Pakistani federal government and the local puppet government of Gilgit Baltistan are continuing to play.

“The people are shaking the authorities but they are trying to keep this quiet. But the protesters spirit is very strong and the occupation is continuing.”

However, the left-wing Awami Workers Party, has organised solidarity rallies in Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi and other cities.

A local media website, Pamir Times, reported that the Awami Action Committee had dispatched a three member delegation to Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan for talks with federal government. But time is fast running out and the Awami Action Committee has threatened to take the protest to an undefined “new stage” on after prayers on Friday April 25.

The crowd in Gadi Bagh square, Gilgit on April 24. Photo by Progressive Youth Front Gilgit Baltistan.

UPDATE (APRIL 23): Green Left Weekly's on-the-spot informant in Gilgit, journalist Syed Asad Hasan, says that 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, 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, Hasan said. And the word was that more protesters were still travelling from other districts. Shopkeepers kept their shops shut in sympathy, 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 told Green Left's informant: "If government fail 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 the 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 last night (see photo above), 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.

More than a thousand protesters stayed overnight in the square.

So what is the background to this protest?

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.

“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 Pakistani party, the Awami Workers Party, told Green Left 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.

Hunza Nagar leader Baba Jan addressing protesters camping overnight in Gadi Bagh, Gilgit on April 22. Photo by Syed Asad Hasan.

Protesters in Gadi Bagh applauding speech by Baba Jan on April 22. Photo by Syed Asad Hasan.

Muhammad Farooq, Internatonal Human Rights Observer Gilgit Baltistan addressing the crowd in Gilgit on April 15 at the start of the sit-in strike. Photo by Syed Asad Hasan.

Safdar Ali, a senior leader of the Balawaristan National Front (BNF) addressing the crowd in Gilgit on April 15 at the start of the sit-in strike. Photo by Syed Asad Hasan.

Ejzul Haque from the Jauhur Ali Khan Memorial Society addressing the crowd in Gilgit on April 15 at the start of the sit-in strike. Photo by Syed Asad Hasan.

Baba Jan, a popular leader of the struggle who was jailed and tortured by Pakistani authorities until 2013, leads a April 19 protest rally in Aliabad, Hunza Valley, in support of the charter of demands of the Awami Action Committee. This photo and those below from PYF Gilgit Baltistan Facebook page.

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