Kashmir: Protests intensify in Gilgit-Baltistan over land grabbing and heavy taxes

Jammu & Kashmir POK - Pakistan Occupied Kashmir

Pakistan’s powerful military establishment continues to exert coercive claims over the land and resources of poor regions of Balochistan province and Gilgit-Baltistan (GB). The port city of Gwadar in Balochistan and several cities and villages in GB are witnessing mass protests over Pakistani state’s discriminatory policies against the local population. While people of Gwadar are demanding freedom from security check posts, illegal fishing by foreign trawlers, and hassle-free trade with Iran, residents of the GB region are facing coercive land-grabbing, severe power outages and wheat shortages. It is noteworthy that the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) passes through both Gwadar and GB. As a result, the military establishment keeps a very close watch on every development in these regions and does not allow the mainstream media to report on local protests. However, that has not stopped several human rights activists to report on the grim situation in the region. They have claimed that the growing Chinese pressure on Pakistan’s government and security agencies has further deteriorated situation in Gwadar and GB.
The Pamir Times tweeted on December 30 about the ongoing protests in Gilgit-Baltistan: “Massive protest demonstrations held in different parts of #Gilgit-#Baltistan yesterday against the “Khalsa Sarkar” colonial law, imposition of taxes and the wheat and power crisis.” Local traders and members of various political and social organizations observed a shutters-down strike on December 28 in different parts of Gilgit-Baltistan, keeping markets closed and vehicles off the roads. Most of these demonstrations were held in Skardu, Gilgit, Hunza and Ghizer, and reportedly attended by a large crowd despite freezing temperatures. There have been regular protests in GB to highlight the ‘state-backed’ land grabbing issue. The draconian practice has intensified since GB became the CPEC ‘gateway’ in 2014.
Pakistan has been openly misusing the ‘Khalsa Sarkar’ laws for land grabbing purposes in GB. The law says that the federal government could claim ‘ownership of barren or uncultivated land’ in GB, even if it was collectively owned by the local community. Furthermore, the Army dictator-ruler General Zia-ul-Haq imposed the 1978–80 ‘Northern Areas Nautore Rules’ to dispossess the residents of Gilgit-Baltistan of their “ancestral lands without paying compensation.” As a result, people of GB are unable to use the land they originally owned for grazing, cultivation, or construction.
According to a Human Rights Commission of Pakistan fact-finding report of 2022, the Khalsa Sarkar system violated international human rights standards, including the ‘UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples’, which protects indigenous peoples’ “rights to their collective biocultural heritage as a whole, including traditional knowledge and resources, territories, and cultural and spiritual values and customary laws.” Interestingly, local opposition leaders in the so-called Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA) moved a resolution to annul the Khalsa Sarkar laws in November 2021. Expectedly, neither the bill nor the resolution had been sanctioned by the legislature “due to differences among legislators.” The resolution termed the Khalsa Sarkar (state land) Rules 1978 as “unconstitutional, unlawful and against Islamic principles,” and demanded its immediate abolition.
Several protests have taken place since November 2021, however, the military establishment, in cahoots with the civilian leadership, continues to call the shots and not allowing any changes in the laws. Importantly, this law is also benefiting the land mafia and powerful local businessmen, who are associated with different mainstream political parties in Pakistan. Moreover, the illegal influx of ‘outsiders’ has significantly changed the local demography in GB, which was once an absolutely Shia/Ismaili majority region. Over the years, many Sunni hardliners from different provinces have been deliberately shifted to GB. For their economic sustenance in GB, the Khalsa Sarkar rules come handy to grab local lands and use it to earn their livelihoods.
The forceful appropriation of land and natural resources by state institutions and external business enterprises in the guise of development projects, preservation of national parks and public interest schemes has created deep resentment among local communities in GB. Residents fear that they could soon become a ‘minority’ in their own land if the influx and settlement of outsiders remains deliberate and unregulated. Despite being a gateway to CPEC, local communities in GB are not included in the federal government’s decision-making bodies on regional projects—such as the construction of roads and dams. The region feels politically powerless in absence of a parliamentary seat because GB is not a full-fledged province yet, despite several attempts of making it one in the recent past.
Moreover, GB is facing an unprecedented power crisis with daily 18-22 hours long load-shedding. Ironically, GB is a water-rich region, Islamabad had never cared to build dams to generate electricity for the local consumption. Another problem confronting GB is massive wheat shortage. It has been reported that the wheat flour has almost vanished from local markets in GB as the “federal government had curtailed supply to the region.” Lastly, GB traders are continuing to protest against the “Gilgit-Baltistan Revenue Authority Bill 2022,” which was passed in October 2022 and imposed new taxes on 135 items. All these factors have deepened GB’s sense of political and economic alienation.