Kashmir: Gilgit Baltistan; an endless wait for rights

Jammu & Kashmir POK - Pakistan Occupied Kashmir

By Afzal Ali Shigri

LAST December, the Gilgit-Baltistan government made a significant decision to increase the subsidised price of wheat. The tradition of providing essential items at subsidised rates to this remote region can be traced back to the era of Dogra rule, persisting post-liberation. Subsidised rates essentially aimed at offsetting the added expenses incurred in transporting goods to GB, owing to its rugged terrain.

The PPP in 1973 allowed a subsidised rate of Rs42 for 100 kilograms of wheat while withdrawing minor subsidies on other items. To give additional relief to the locals, it abolished land revenue and begar (free manpower for visits of state functionaries), denotifying all the rules and regulations of the former Kashmir state.

The federal government provides funding for subsidies, and as the population increased, so did the financial impact. To alleviate some of this burden, the federal government periodically adjusted the subsidised rates of wheat. At the initially fixed rate of Rs42 for 100 kg in 1973, the first increase occurred in 1976, when the price was raised to Rs50. Subsequently, it was fixed at Rs250 in 1980. Over the years, prices increased eight times, reaching the last revision from Rs2,000 to Rs3,600 per 100 kg in 2023. This substantial hike, amidst rising monthly prices of essential items and the withdrawal of health insurance card benefits, sparked widespread discontent. Against this substantial increase in the subsidised price, there were continuous protests, but the government remained unyielding, dismissing smaller protests.

The Awami Action Committee (AAC), a proactive common platform, initiated protests in Baltistan. It evolved into a massive sit-in that paralysed Skardu and Gilgit, the main commercial areas. The GB government, perhaps underestimating the determination of the locals, assumed the protest would dissipate in the harsh cold. However, as news spread to the other valleys, people from every small town converged on Skardu, stretching out to Gilgit town, as residents from the rest of the region — namely Gilgit and Chilas — joined in large numbers and reached Gilgit city, where the sit-in that was started in Skardu continued.

The single-point protest evolved into a 15-point charter of demands, comprehensively addressing the deprivations faced by this strategically vital yet neglected region. The most important demand centred on securing constitutional rights for the locals, as all other points flow from this fundamental question that the government of Pakistan tethered to the Kashmir dispute. Labelling this region as disputed, it governed the region directly, instead of through elected representatives of the area.

The wheat subsidy issue acted as a trigger for a broader,
more fundamental 15-point charter of demands.

In the unforgiving winter, the sit-in persisted for over 30 days, forcing the government to ultimately withdraw the wheat price increase. The crowd dispersed peacefully with the resolve to restart the protests if the other demands were not considered seriously and resolved in consultation with all stakeholders. Fortunately, the demand for a reduction in subsidised wheat prices was led by the peaceful AAC platform. In such vocal and desperate situations, large crowds, if led astray, can turn violent with tragic consequences. One can note food shortages and high prices before the French Revolution in 1789 in this regard.

After GB’s liberation, its simple and trusting locals witnessed Pakistani officials taking charge, raised the flag and presumed integration with Pakistan. Unbeknownst to them, the infamous Karachi Agreement of 1949 had transpired, wherein the Kashmiri leadership, deeming the area a financial burden, handed over its administration to Pakistan without securing any guarantees for the rights of the people, and sealing their fate in a constitutional limbo that continues to this day.

Due to continued demands of the local population and litigation, the most significant change occurred in 2009, when the PPP introduced an order, influenced by a Supreme Court judgement, aimed at granting GB full provincial status with an elected legislative assembly. However, in response to the strong demand for full constitutional rights, in the guise of an improvement of this order, the PML-N government issued a revised 2018 order that effectively rolled back the limited empowerment granted in 2009.

During a hearing of a petition on the subject, a full bench of the Supreme Court mandated the reversal of this law and instructed the implementation of the 2019 draft governance order, developed by the government under the court’s guidance, within 15 days. Unfortunately, the execution of this order faced obstacles from the PTI government, which filed a revision petition on flimsy grounds that remains pending. Consequently, the region continues to be governed by the discarded and flawed 2018 order, delaying the realisation of the intended constitutional rights.

A glimmer of hope emerged when a bill by the Balochistan Awami Party was introduced in parliament to amend the Constitution to grant provisional provincial status to the region. The draft amendment was forwarded to the regional government, led by the PTI. Despite two existing resolutions advocating provincial status, the regional government formed a committee, which was nothing more than a ploy to undermine the proposal.

GB residents are increasingly growing disillusioned. The wheat subsidy issue acted as a trigger for a broader, more fundamental 15-point charter of demands, representing profound dissatisfaction. Although the temporary resolution of the wheat price problem provided some respite, it also laid bare the depth of the public sentiment. Encouraged by the community’s reaction and the multitude of ongoing challenges impacting their daily existence, local leaders are preparing to mobilise post-Eid.

These demonstrations, combined with the toxic political climate on the national stage, runs the risk of sparking extensive unrest. The region’s undefined status poses a grave threat, potentially compromising crucial infrastructural projects like the CPEC. This negligence not only imperils GB but also undermines the stability of the federation.

It is imperative to heed the lessons of history, where the spark of bread riots in France ignited a revolution. It’s time for a resolute departure from outdated policies and a commitment to address the long-standing grievances of the people.

The writer, a former IGP, Sindh, belongs to Gilgit-Baltistan.__dawn.com.pk