At the all-party conference in New Delhi, and later in his August 15 Independence Day address to the nation, the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, referred to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK). On both occasions, Modi also talked about human rights violations in Pakistan-occupied Balochistan. His statement came a day after Pakistan’s Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, dedicated his country’s Independence Day celebrations to the freedom of Kashmir from Indian rule.
PM Modi’s statement was well-received by Indian political parties including the Indian National Congress. The current Bangladesh government and former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai supported the statement, causing concern in Pakistan’s leadership circles. On Thursday, August 19, India announced a five-point agenda to resume talks with Pakistan, one of which proposes a discussion on the vacation of Pakistan’s illegal occupation of Gilgit-Baltistan and PoK.
Pakistan has responded to India’s approach with staged demonstrations in Gilgit-Baltistan and Balochistan condemning Modi. As expected, Gilgit-Baltistan’s assembly on Friday passed a resolution against the Indian Prime Minister’s statement. The president of Pakistan Peoples’ Party, Gilgit-Baltisan chapter, reiterated that despite systematic and widespread human rights violations and neglect, the majority of the people of this disputed region would still opt to become Pakistani citizens. In Skardu, teachers brought students as young as six-year-old to the streets to raise anti-India slogans, which points to state indoctrination against the neighbouring country. One government official, Shams Mir, while addressing a rally in Gilgit, vowed to turn the protesting children into suicide bombers against India.
Instead of building colleges and universities in Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan’s establishment keeps the region’s students ignorant by spreading myths and uses them as foot soldiers against India, USA and Afghanistan. Distorting the worldview of children is creating a damaged collective psyche with lasting implications for Gilgit-Baltistan and its neighbours. Equally responsible are the local teachers who promote the colonial policy of political indoctrination and incitement to violence, and squander the opportunity to educate students about the constitutional framework, or the lack thereof, which bars Gilgit-Baltistan from becoming a part of Pakistan.
It is telling that no locals organised a procession against the Pakistani establishment which repeatedly refuses to accept Gilgit-Baltistan as a part of the country. While Pakistani occupiers expect the people of Gilgit-Baltistan to spew venom against India, they shamelessly block basic constitutional rights enjoyed by the people of Ladakh, Kashmir and Jammu to the locals.
Our leadership could serve Gilgit-Baltistan and its people better by exposing Pakistan’s illegal occupation, as well the military and its apparatus of terror networks which have massacred thousands of people in the name of religion and burned our villages to alter local demography through force. Similarly, real patriotism would be to condemn and protest against Pakistani rulers for illegally transferring thousands of kilometres of Gilgit-Baltistan’s land to China which originally belongs to the Hunza and Shigar districts.
Pakistani media might not agree with this assessment, but the majority of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan would expect their elected representatives to expose the culprits in the government and military who incarcerate our youth for demanding rights, loot our natural resources, encroach upon our private lands to build the China-led economic corridor (CPEC), hurt local cultural identity and national character through a policy of assimilation and block our trade routes towards Ladakh to impose economic isolation and dependence. Such policies only expose the double standards of Pakistan’s rulers who routinely advocate better trade relations with India through Punjab.
The fact that the Indian Constitution recognises the people of Gilgit-Baltistan as its citizens is often lost in the continuing stalemate in Kashmir. The failure on the part of previous Indian governments to address this crucial reality and engage the people of Gilgit-Baltistan has in many ways led to the continued impasse in the region. The statement of PM Modi is in keeping with his constitutional duty as head of the government and provides a fresh opportunity to resolve a conflict that is holding back the entire region.
The international community must recognise that Pakistan’s interference in the engagement between the people of Gilgit-Baltistan and the Indian government and UN staff puts it in conflict with the UN mechanisms which it so often cites. UN resolutions call on Pakistan to withdraw from the occupied regions of Gilgit-Baltistan and Mirpur and Muzaffarabad (PoK) and India to engage with stakeholders, which must include the leadership of Gilgit-Baltistan. If India wants to see resolution on this long-standing regional issue, it must directly engage the people of Gilgit-Baltistan and implement confidence-building measures (CBMs) specific to Ladakh and Gilgit-Baltistan. At the same time, the activists of Gilgit-Baltistan should not hesitate from contacting the leadership in Jammu and Ladakh to iron out misunderstandings.
The people of Gilgit-Baltistan must realise that Modi is ending Gilgit-Baltistan’s long international isolation. The statement by itself does not show a policy change but Modi’s message is clear: Gilgit-Baltistan, Jammu, Ladakh and Kashmir are all equal stakeholders and the issue cannot be solved by focusing on Kashmir alone. It is a positive sign that India is advancing a policy to address the region’s constitutional question by bringing Gilgit-Baltistan on par with Kashmir at the negotiating table.