Gilgit and Xinjiang: Two tales of modern colonialism

Pakistan started colonising G-B in 1949 and as a first step, bifurcated the portion of J&K in its occupation to create two entities that it calls, Azad Kashmir (AJK) and the Northern Areas (Nas).

Senge H Sering

Islamabad schemes to illegally annex Gilgit Baltistan (G-B), which is a constitutional part of India’s Union Territory of Ladakh. The move is aimed at employing Pakistan’s geo-strategic relevance to legitimise China’s onslaught and domination in the Indian Ocean.

Before India’s Partition, Gilgit and Baltistan were districts of the State of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Pakistan, not happy with J&K acceding to India, orchestrated the infamous Datta Khel military operation, which resulted in the incarceration of Governor of Gilgit and an onslaught on Baltistan. India’s retaliation to Pakistan’s invasion scaled into a full-fledged war, which ended in 1948 after Prime Minister Nehru took the issue to the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The Council in a resolution asked Pakistan to withdraw from the invaded territories. Despite agreeing to the resolution, Pakistan continues to occupy G-B and hold its people hostage.

Consistent with the previous claims, the Indian Parliament passed a unanimous resolution in 1994 reminding Pakistan to vacate G-B. The lack of physical control over G-B did not stop New Delhi from declaring locals as Indian citizens and granting them a representation in the legislature. Recently on August 5, 2019, G-B became a part of Ladakh after the Indian Parliament adopted the Jammu Kashmir Reorganisation Act and partitioned J&K to give birth to the Union Territory of Ladakh. The bifurcation of J&K neither changed India’s external borders nor diluted its claim on the territories occupied by Pakistan and China.

Pakistan administers G-B without a constitutional framework and denies the locals the fundamental rights. The absence of a democratic set-up causing socio-economic and political logjam has compelled locals to demand for Pakistan’s withdrawal, and these voices have become louder since Ladakh attained constitutional autonomy and a better scope for development at the national level.

Pakistan started colonising G-B in 1949 and as a first step, bifurcated the portion of J&K in its occupation to create two entities that it calls, Azad Kashmir (AJK) and the Northern Areas (NAs). AJK was mostly made of the parts of Jammu province while NAs included the G-B districts. This unconstitutional measure placed G-B under Islamabad’s direct control and extended Pakistan’s frontiers to Chinese-occupied Xinjiang.

One can find many similarities between the natives of G-B and the Uighurs of Xinjiang as both territories are victims of enslavement. The Freedom House report of 2019 states that like Xinjiang, G-B also suffers from government-led demographic engineering. Today one can locate large Pakistani settlements in areas such as Sakwar, Manawar, Pari Bangla, Baseen, Juglote, Konodas, Sikarkoyi, Ghizer, Shardo and Diamer. The settlers have turned natives into a minority in their capital Gilgit. These settlements appeared after Prime Minister Zulfiqar Bhutto abrogated Kashmir’s land ownership act, also known as State Subject Rule (SSR), and opened the floodgate for ordinary Pakistani’s to acquire residency in G-B.

To one’s dismay, Prime Minister Imran Khan, who is a self-declared advocate of Kashmir’s land rights movement, also owns property in G-B. Many Pakistani military officials, bureaucrats and parliamentarians including General Pervez Musharraf, General Abbas, General Hameed Gul and Senator Talha Mehmood have obtained large tracts of land in G-B. Pakistani tycoons such as Jehangur Tareen and Malik Ryaz plan heavy investment in the local tourism industry. The local administration or judiciary lacks the authority to control or reverse such violations of SSR, which has intensified conflicts between the locals and outsiders. Demographic engineering and state-led genocide has reduced the local Shia population ration from 68 per cent ot 41 per cent. Pakistani Sunni settlers target Shia villages situated along the Karakoram Highway to secure the China-built conduit, now popularly known as CPEC. Like in Xinjiang, such moves in G-B have come at the cost of local linguistic base and cultural identity.

Like the Pakistanis, hundreds of Chinese have acquired permanent residency in Gilgit to establish businesses. China is the biggest beneficiary of removal of SSR as it enables her to build roads and rails, dams, industrial and economic zones and harvest local gems, minerals and forest resources. China plans to import electricity to Xinjiang from the Diamer dam which will be built by submerging seventy miles of G-B’s fertile land. Diamer dam, as part of China’s OPEC, is the main vehicle of rapid interventions in G-B creating resource management disputes and environmental catastrophe.

Like Xinjiang, G-B faces an economic genocide as the locals remain at the mercy of Pakistani bureaucrats who control means of production and revenue. They work as long arms of the ruling establishment to siphon off earnings worth billions of dollars from customs and cross-border transit, trophy hunting, tourism, and mineral and gemstone production, and these are routinely transferred to coffers in Islamabad. Mr Fida Nashad, the special of G-B Assembly states that Islamabad bans locals from mineral exploration to give advantage to the outsiders including the Chinese who lease mineral-rich mountain ranges of G-B. Local minister for mining and tourism echoes his words, by claiming that Islamabad issued 300 such leases without his knowledge.

The irony of Pakistan committing gross rights violations in G-B while promising a bright future to the Kashmiris fails to die on locals. One should question Pakistan’s loyalty to the Kashmiris since a violator of SSR in G-B cannot be the protector of Kashmiri lands. Pakistan, which orchestrates Shia genocide in G-B is not a credible champion of the cause of Muslim rights in India. Likewise, Pakistan which refuses people of G-B a voice during discussions on Kashmir sounds insincere when raising voice for Kashmir’s self-determination. Pakistan, which lets the people of G-B suffer without basic rights and employs unconstitutional methods to create entities such as AJK and NAs has no room to ridicule India for amending Kashmir’s constitution to empower the minority groups.

Pakistan’s demands for freedom of movement for Kashmiris rings hollow since it denies the people of G-B the birth right to travel across the Line of Control to meet their separated relatives in Ladakh. Pakistani politicians deliver firebrand speeches on economic decline in Kashmir without realising how Islamabad chokes the economic lifeline of G-B by shutting historic trade corridors with Ladakh and Afghanistan. They lambast India for denying religious freedom to Kashmiris without noticing how Islamabad refuses the Buddhists of Ladakh the right of religious pilgrimage in G-B.

They advocate for freedom of speech and political activity in Kashmir while ignoring the plight of activists of G-B who remain incarcerated for speaking for land rights and due share in CPEC. Hundreds of activists have been declared traitors and terrorists and give life term for opposing local marginalisation. Such activists are also banned from leaving their home districts or holding passports and bank accounts. Many of them have lost jobs and experience asset confiscation. As China vows to support Pakistan’s case of Kashmir in the UN Security Council, the people of G-B question China’s sincerity in wake of Beijing occupying the valleys of Aksai-chin, Shaksgam and Raskam, which belong to J&K. The people of G-B also condemn Pakistan for abandoning the Uighur women who are married to residents of G-B and currently locked up in concentration camps in Xinjiang.

Pakistan, which is quick at exposing India on Kashmir, condones its ally China on genocide of Uighur Muslims and land thievery in Xinjiang. The self-declared citadel of Islam remains mum when chinese officials beat Muslim women for wearing Hijab, or burn Qurans and raze mosques and cemeteries in Xinjiang, or force Muslims to eat pork and break religious fast during the Holy month of Ramadhan, or force members of clery to shave beards and dance in the mosques. The so-called champion of Muslim Umma also overlooks the fact that China incarcerates a million Uighurs in torture camps and separates Uighur children from parents for re-learning purpose and decrees mass-scale rape of Uighur women to change Xinjiang’s racial makeup.

As China plans to build military ports at Gawadar, Jiwani, Sonmiani, Pasni and Ormara; an absolute control over G-B is vital to sustain these facilities to eventually dominate the Indian Ocean. In recent months, global leaders including the US Secretary of State have criticised China for interfering in areas with contested sovereignty like G-B . The USA thinks that China’s involvement in G-B at a massive scale complicates Kashmir and turns the dispute into Beijing’s favour. International condemnation is compelling China to persuade Pakistan to undertake constitutional measures to extend sovereignty over G-B and AJK to counter criticism on resource exploitation and troop placement.

Beijing’s designs to treat G-B as Pakistan’s internal matter become evident when the Chinese state media refers to the Indian territory as the northern province of Pakistan. Both countries have declared Kashgar and Gilgit as sister cities to coordinate strategic affairs and now plan to declare G-B and Xinjiang as sister provinces. Chinese officials often invite the chief ministers of G-B as part of Pakistan’s delegations visiting Beijing. The fact that Islamabad is reportedly amending G-B Government Ordinance and the constitution of AJK to expedite allotment of state land to the Chinese corporations proves Pakistan’s commitment to China’s rise. Islamabad is also modifying election rules in AJK and G-B to help elect representatives who support China’s involvement in local affairs. The Prime Minister of AJK Raja Farooq claims that Pakistan plans to abrogate the offices of the Prime Ministers and President of AJK with an aim to officially annex the State.

Helping China dominate the world is Pakistan’s priority and G-B is the lynchpin to China’s push even as it comes at a heavy cost to locals. Pakistan is undertaking constitutional measures to lay down a governance structure in G-B and AJK that will legalise resource appropriation, and displacement of locals to accommodate Chinese settlements. Contrary to general perception, this structure will not delegate authority to locals but rather subdue them, and in the name of shared sovereignty will muffle international criticism against CPEC.

Pakistan accepting China’s role in G-B is the first step to formally acknowledging China’s legitimate presence in the Indian Ocean. Western world should refrain from accepting reforms in G-B which are masked as mainstreaming regional empowerment but in reality disenfranchises locals. Seventy years ago, UNSC curtailed Pakistan’s expansionism by seeking its withdrawal from G-B and now, it must take similar measures to overturn Chinese imperialism.

Senge H Sering is a Washington DC-based researcher and human rights activist born in Pakistan-occupied Gilgit-Baltistan. He runs the Institute of Gilgit Baltistan Studies in Washington.

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