Gilgit and Baltistan meeting

On 7 April 2010, Baroness Emma Nicholson of Winterbourne chaired a meeting on the proposed change of status to Gilgit and Baltistan, with its wider implications for the region and internationally. A wide-ranging audience of approximately 80 gathered for the debate, and three eminent speakers sat on the panel: Dr Shabir Choudhry, Director of the Kashmir National Party; Mohammed Sarwar, Chief Editor of The Nation; and Abdul Hamid Khan, Chairman of the Balawaristan National Front.

After a brief welcome by Baroness Nicholson, the proceedings opened with a speech by Dr Choudhry, who focused on various points, most notably human rights and self-governance within the Gilgit Baltistan area and the EU’s role in helping to promote them; the strategic, geographical and cultural importance of the region; its constitutional status as part of the former Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir; and the fact that the struggle for self-determination is not based on religious grounds.

Dr Choudhry was critical of Pakistan’s actions in signing the 1963 Pakistan-China Agreement, which ‘gifted away’ some 2200 square miles of Jammu and Kashmir to China, in the cause of initiating a ‘new era of friendship’ between the two nations, even though Pakistan acknowledged in this Agreement that it did not hold sovereignty over the region.  He also quoted the UNCIP Resolution of 13 August 1948, in which the Pakistan Government pledged to withdraw troops from the state, which would then be administered by local authorities under UNCIP surveillance.

Dr Choudhry asked his audience to consider the ethnic makeup of the Gilgit Baltistan region, which is home to seven tribal groups, nine different languages and various sub-sects of the Islamic faith – Shia, Sunni and Ismaili. He was at pains to stress that the struggle was not a religious one, and that no decision should be imposed in the name of religion.

Regarding the Supreme Court of Pakistan, Dr Choudhry referred to two significant judgments on the region of Gilgit Baltistan: one, that ‘no given part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir can decide on its own to join either Pakistan or India’; and two, that the Pakistani Government ‘should ensure that basic human rights and other political and administrative institutions are provided in the area’. He also recalled the Preamble to the Constitution of Pakistan (1973), which guaranteed fundamental rights and freedoms for all people, including minorities and ‘depressed classes’. But that was only ‘good on paper’, said Dr Choudhry, as ‘we know the government ofPakistanhas great experience in avoiding the implementation of Court orders’. This was especially evident, he said, in the Gilgit Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order of August 2009, in which the Pakistan Government issued a new package for the region without consulting any of its inhabitants. Thus many fear thatPakistanwill simply annexe the area, in the name of ‘empowering people’, as they did with the state of Chitral.

The next speaker was Mr Mohammed Sarwar, Chief Editor of The Nation, whose views were a little more ambivalent. He claimed that the Pakistani Government deserved ‘some credit’ for recognising the existence of Gilgit Baltistan and ‘moving to redress at least some of the local grievances against the system of governance and the delivery of justice’ in the region, whilst also conceding that the people of Gilgit Baltistan have no clear constitutional status, or the rights that would go with such status. But, he argued, although they deserve these rights, such a goal can only be achieved incrementally.

Mr Sarwar’s overall perspective was that the entireKashmirregion, including AJK and Gilgit Baltistan, should be a single unit whose status and administration should be decided only by the Kashmiri people themselves. Yet the issue could only be resolved through a three-way dialogue between these people,IndiaandPakistan. Without that, warned Mr Sarwar, relations betweenIndiaandPakistanwould remain strained, and stability in the area at constant risk.

Taking quite a different tack, Abdul Hamid Khan was very open in his condemnation ofPakistan, which he accused of trying to ‘hoodwink’ the world with a ‘facade of democratic rule’ since the regimes of General Yahya and Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. He denounced the recent ‘Fifth Package’ that Pakistan has devised for the Gilgit Baltistan region, claiming the ‘we, the people of Balawaristan, reject this new Pakistani package because [it] will create more deprivation, lack of justice and snatch our freedom.’ He also accusedPakistanof killing innocent demonstrators, and chargedChinawith creating serious political and environmental problems in the area by its lease of mines and construction of airstrips, railways and dams.

In addition, Mr Khan sent out a grave warning to the West, stating that the Pakistani Army’s ‘multipronged strategy’ of terrorism and fundamentalism in this disputed region threatens not only the lives and property of the indigenous people, but also places ‘the co-existence and tolerance of the world community on a dangerous level’.

Recognising that the people of Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan are ‘on the same disputed boat’, struggling against a common enemy, Mr Khan called for them to support each other, whilst still maintaining separate national identities and cultures, and accepting that unity can be achieved without enforced union.

To sum up, he made an impassioned appeal for theUK, EU and UN to apply pressure onChinaandPakistanto withdraw their forces from Gilgit Baltistan, allowing the people of the region to decide their own destiny by a free referendum. Only then, he said, could any future conflict be avoided on the wider world stage.

After the speakers had finished, questions and comments from the floor were vociferous, but often veered away from the matter in hand, especially with regard to the history ofKashmir. But Baroness Nicholson skilfully deflected less than relevant topics, calling for speakers to focus on current issues and steering the debate back on track. She also quoted extensively from her influential 2007 report onKashmir, which she prepared in her capacity as a Member of the European parliament.