“People of Gilgit-Baltistan have no political voice in India and that needs to change”
Senge Sering, Founder, Institute for Gilgit-Baltistan Studies
Senge Sering was born in the village Yulskil in district Shigar, Gilgit-Baltistan. Shigar’s Union Council is called Gulabpur, named after the Dogra Maharaja, Gulab Singh. Shigar is home to K-2, the second tallest peak in the world and the longest glaciers outside the north and south poles on the globe. Shigar borders Xinjiang province of China in the north. It used to be a popular post on the old silk route connecting India with Central Asia. This is the neglected region of Pakistan-Occupied-Jammu-Kashmir (POJK) called Gilgit-Baltistan, illegally occupied and illegitimately governed by Pakistan. There are some voices who consistently speak for the rights of people from Gilgit-Baltistan areas and consistently expose the excesses and atrocities committed by Pakistan on the common masses, Senge Sering is one of them.
After completing his Engineering, Senge pursued his Masters in development studies from the University of East Anglia, UK. He has dedicated his life to the promotion of rural development, cultural renaissance, and local land and political rights through the Washington DC-based Institute for Gilgit Baltistan Studies (IGBS).
The Institute for Gilgit-Baltistan Studies is a think tank, which conducts research and organises seminars to raise awareness about demilitarisation, political and judicial autonomy, genuine democracy, religious and cultural freedom, and the elimination of terrorism with a firm commitment to the protection and promotion of all human rights, especially of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. Since its inception in 2010, the Institute has established partnerships with the United Nations, the US Congress, the British and the European Parliament as well as with global think tanks and academic institutions. Through an email interview to Organiser, Senge Sering shared his thoughts on the legal dimensions, and social-political issues pertaining to Gilgit-Baltistan and his expectations from Bharat. Excerpts:
Even though Gilgit-Baltistan is not a legal part of Pakistan, there are talks about Pakistan granting constitutional rights to Gilgit Baltistan any time soon by recognising it a province in the federal structure.
Gilgit-Baltistan is not a legal part of Pakistan. It is an occupied territory. It is an integral part of the Indian State of Jammu & Kashmir. Pakistan governs Gilgit-Baltistan through an ad-hoc unconstitutional setup. However, the locals demand that Islamabad grant Gilgit Baltistan its constitution and a chance to manage its affairs. At the moment, I do not see that emerging.
It is claimed that the people of Gilgit-Baltistan desire to establish their territory as the fifth province of Pakistan? Is it legally possible?
Gilgit-Baltistan’s population is close to one and a half million and this number exclude almost half a million natives who reside outside Gilgit Baltistan. Over two hundred thousand Baltis live and work in Karachi making it the largest Balti city in the world. So it is natural for locals to have a diverse opinion on socio-economic and political issues — those who lack the understanding of ‘Kashmir-issue’ talk about becoming a province of Pakistan.
Outsiders now own most of the retail businesses in urban centres in Gilgit and Skardu. All the earnings from tourism and trophy hunting go to the coffers in Islamabad. Locals have no right to earn from transit routes that generate millions of dollars’ worth of commerce between Pakistan, China and Central Asian Republics as Pakistan’s military has exclusive control over the highway transit incomeIt is a fact that today’s generation is well aware of the nature of Kashmir conflict and the relationship of Gilgit-Baltistan with Jammu & Kashmir and therefore the demand of the fifth province for Gilgit-Baltistan is fast declining. The transformation in the local perceptions can be gauged from the fact that now the youth consider those politicians and religious leaders uninformed or dishonest who call themselves Pakistani. A large number of youths now ask Pakistani bureaucrats to withdraw from Gilgit-Baltistan and many political groups ask Pakistani military to hand over security to the United Nations.
Locals know that India and Pakistan are nowhere near solving the Kashmir issue, therefore right now, a vast majority of the local people wish for a temporary Constitutional set up like an AJK-type structure with a provisional constitution with state subject rule that could help govern the region until the final decision on the Jammu & Kashmir issue.
Islamabad treat Gilgit-Baltistan like a colony with no voting rights and a toothless assembly. How do locals cope with the situation daily?
Pakistan administrative model for Gilgit-Baltistan is colonial. Pakistani rulers treat the natives of Gilgit-Baltistan like subjects of a fief from the 17th century. The primary focus of Pakistani rulers is to change local ethnic and religious demography to settle matters in their favour. Also, anti-Shia pogroms have restricted religious freedom for locals. Pakistan’s policy of cultural assimilation impact local cultures and languages and have brought them to the verge of extinction. After 71 years, locals are still waiting for their languages to be taught in schools and this lack of recognition of local identity has damaged social fabric.
Today all policy and management related jobs in Gilgit go to Pakistanis who work as long arms of the military to control locals with an iron fist. There is no industry in Gilgit-Baltistan. On the one hand, there is a ban imposed on the natives to extract and sell their mineral wealth while at the same time, the Chinese, Pakistanis and other foreigners are granted a free hand to extract local minerals without a limit. Most of these raw materials end up in China and locals do not get compensation at all. More than half of the water that Pakistanis use comes from Gilgit-Baltistan, yet locals have no right to claim earnings, compensation or royalty over their water resources like rivers and dams. Even with this much abundance, locals have no access to clean water in neighbourhoods despite owning an immense wealth of glaciers, rivers and lakes. This often leads to protests and rallies regularly. For instance, on April 23, the security personnel assaulted the women and charged several activists for terrorism for asking for clean drinking water in Skardu.
Outsiders now own most of the retail businesses in urban centres in Gilgit and Skardu. All the earnings from tourism and trophy hunting go to the coffers in Islamabad. Locals have no right to earn from transit routes that generate millions of dollars’ worth of commerce between Pakistan, China and Central Asian Republics as Pakistan’s military has exclusive control over the highway transit income. Locals have no right to claim a share in earnings on duties and border customs as it is in direct control of Pakistan’s military. People who lost land to the Karakorum Highway and CPEC are still waiting for compensation.
After seven decades, locals are still waiting for the first technical, medical or engineering college to be established. Pakistan wants locals to remain dependent on its charity and handouts. Locals feel suffocated and live in constant fear and despair.
China has complete control over the local telecom sector and manages the surveillance on locals. Those who speak or protest are treated like terrorists and incarcerated and tortured. People feel sandwiched and suffocated as there is only one road, the Karakorum Highway that opens towards either Pakistan or China and both are seen as oppressors. Those who demand the opening of roads towards India or Afghanistan are considered traitors and charged for terrorism or sedition and tortured. A well-known leader, Haider Shah Rizvi lost his life to the Kargil Road campaign.
Pakistani and Chinese governments occupy and manage all strategically located swaths of lands including the vast tracks of pastures and forests and these lands have been taken away from locals at force and free of cost. China is expanding its influence in the region in the name of CPEC and the day is not far when the Gilgit city will be managed and owned by the Chinese like Urumqi in Xinjiang.
Pakistan inflicts a step-motherly treatment on the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. Do locals compare their region with Ladakh when it comes to socio-economic benefits? How do locals see India?
A majority of the locals appreciate India for granting Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh a constitutional set up, the citizenship rights, representation in the parliament and control over their resources. Now after realising this, even the pro-Pakistani political parties are demanding that Pakistan should grant Gilgit-Baltistan a constitutional set up that is currently functional in Indian Jammu & Kashmir. More and more people in Gilgit-Baltistan now believe that Ladakh is better off with India than Pakistan. More and more people in Gilgit-Baltistan now realise that they are Indian citizens and Pakistan has no legal means to grant them citizenship. More and more people in Gilgit-Baltistan now understand that the letter of accession that made Jammu & Kashmir a part of India was a binding document and the UN resolution asking for a plebiscite is a non-binding document. More and more people in Gilgit-Baltistan now know that Pakistan has to withdraw from Gilgit-Baltistan and POJK for the Kashmir issue to move to a logical conclusion. Perceptions are changing and rationality is occupying the minds of the locals.
Pakistani and Chinese governments occupy and manage all strategically located swaths of lands including the vast tracks of pastures and forests and these lands have been taken away from locals at force and free of cost. China is expanding its influence in the region in the name of CPEC and the day is not far when the Gilgit city will be managed and owned by the Chinese like Urumqi in XinjiangPakistan runs Gilgit-Baltistan with ordinances and has established a separate set up for the region. Does that affect its relationship with India and J&K?
Gilgit-Baltistan order of 2009 and 2018 expose Pakistan’s unconstitutional relationship with Gilgit-Baltistan. It exposes Pakistan’s soft underbelly. The world now realises that Pakistan’s physical link to its only ally, China is through a territory that belongs to India, and this is a very significant change. The ordinances prove that Gilgit-Baltistan lies outside Pakistan’s legislative institutions and the Constitution and PAK rulers have no legal authority over Gilgit-Baltistan. It also shows that the people of Gilgit-Baltistan are not Pakistani citizens.
The unconstitutional ordinances enable Pakistan to control Gilgit-Baltistan with an iron fist and benefit from its resources and transit route to China without involving the locals at management level and without sharing an adequate portion of revenue with them. It enables Pakistan to violate State Subject Rule and settle Pakistanis in Gilgit-Baltistan to change the ethnic and religious demography. India needs to raise these issues at international forums to limit China’s access to Gilgit-Baltistan.
Pakistan has used sectarianism to weaken the people of Gilgit-Baltistan where locals are in a perpetual state of warfare and at each other’s throat. Do you agree?
Using ethnicity and religion is an old colonial tactic to divide and rule the natives and distract masses from the real issues like resource management, constitutional deprivation, cultural identity and adequate availability of services. It is a colonial strategy to keep the people and the region under control when both cannot be owned or managed legally. Existence of a Shia-majority territory on China’s border, especially when Pakistan’s dependence on China is increasing, and Iran and India have become defence partners is worrisome for Pakistan and this fear feeds the hands that kill the Shias.
Sectarianism also helps polarise society and enhance recruitment opportunities for the Jihad factory, which is the most profitable business of Pakistan’s military establishment.
India needs to raise these issues at international forums to limit China’s access to Gilgit-BaltistanTechnically, Gilgit-Baltistan is part of India. What should be India’s future role to counter the illegal claim made by Pakistan?
Pakistan continues to link Gilgit-Baltistan with Jammu & Kashmir and calls it a disputed territory. On the other hand, India claims Gilgit-Baltistan as an integral part of India and the locals as its citizens. So the next logical step for India is to grant the people of Gilgit Baltistan all political rights that the rest of Indians enjoy including representation in the parliament and Jammu & Kashmir legislative bodies. Narratives will evolve with real actions.
Historically, why India could not create the positive narrative about Gilgit-Baltistan despite the legal claim?
The previous regimes of India ignored Gilgit-Baltistan to please the leaders in the Kashmir Valley. One must know that both the Kashmiris and Pakistani Government want this dispute to remain Valley-centric and unfortunately the previous Indian regimes obliged them. Pakistan benefits from the Kashmir dispute by labelling it as a religious issue. A Valley-centric approach, therefore, feeds into this narrative and I request the current Indian regime to engage representatives from Jammu, Ladakh and Gilgit-Baltistan to bring out the truth to the world that Jammu Kashmir is religiously and racially very diverse and Kashmiris have no monopoly on the issue.
Gilgit-Baltistan is linked to Kashmir dispute. What do locals expect from India in this regard?
Gilgit-Baltistan is part and parcel of Jammu & Kashmir and therefore an equal stakeholder. India should establish a direct relationship with the leaders of Gilgit-Baltistan and offer them a space on the Indian political table. People of Gilgit-Baltistan have no political voice in India and that needs to change. Educational scholarships, treatment in health institutes, seats in the parliament, and Jammu & Kashmir legislative bodies are some of the major demands of the locals of Gilgit-Baltistan. India should continue to expose China, so Gilgit-Baltistan does not turn into another Tibet or Xinjiang. India should push for Kargil Road as tens of thousands of divided families, as well as the local commerce, suffer due to this closure.