Seminar on Gilgit-Baltistan, in House of Commons

On March 31st 2011, The Democracy Forum, in association with Tony Baldry MP, Varinder Singh MP and Baroness Sheila Flather, hosted a seminar on Gilgit-Baltistan in the House of Commons. The seminar was held in Committee Room 18 and was attended by about 40 people.

The speakers were: Victoria Schofield, author of Kashmir in Conflict – Dr Robert Bradnock, Senior Research Fellow at King’s College,London – Senge Hasnan Sering, President of The Institute for Gilgit-Baltistan Studies (based inWashingtonDC) and a member of The Gilgit-Baltistan National Congress – and Dr Shabir Choudhry, Head of the Diplomatic Section of the Kashmir National Party.

The seminar opened with a brief introduction and welcome by Baroness Flather, followed by the first speaker, author Victoria Schofield. She began by expressing her deep interest and first-hand experience of theKashmirissue and her desire to see its resolution. She gave a brief description of Gilgit-Baltistan’s geography and history and asked the key question: ‘What has Gilgit-Baltistan got to do withKashmir?’ The answer, she suggested, was a common history of conquest and, bearing in mind the fact that the region was a part of Kashmir, she went on to discuss the consequences of not handing back control of the Gilgit Agency to the Maharaja in 1947 as well as the plebiscite that took place in the region and the suspension of Gilgit-Baltistan’s constitutional position.

Ms Schofield also drew attention to the current status of Gilgit-Baltistan in relation toKashmirand the ongoing movement for independence by the Balawaristan National Front. She ended by questioning the official position of the Pakistan Government on the issue of Gilgit-Baltistan and the problems of its legitimacy.

The next speaker was Dr Robert Bradnock of King’s College, London, who told the audience that he intended to address the issue of Gilgit-Baltistan indirectly rather than directly, in terms of its relationship with Jammu & Kashmir. His talk centred around the Chatham House surveys recorded in Kashmir: Paths to Peace, which were conducted on both sides of the LoC, with the purpose of establishing current attitudes to theKashmir question, the way in which Kashmiris conceptualise the issue of Jammu & Kashmir, and alternative scenarios for resolving the conflict.

Dr Bradnock offered a brief background history to the border problems between India and Pakistan before outlining the individual points of the survey, including the indigenous peoples personal attitudes to the Kashmir dispute, the main problems facing the people of both Jammu & Kashmir and Azad Kashmir, attitudes to the political process and the LoC, and options for the political future of the region, including the possible options of joining India, joining Pakistan, or independence. A total of 3775 people from all parts of the divided state were polled and the results were surprisingly divided.

Answers to such questions, said Dr Bradnock, depended heavily on the specific region in which the respondents lived, with, for example, only 43 per cent of people in J & K as a whole voting for independence, but 75-95 per cent in the Kashmir Valley voting for this option; and 1 per cent of people in the whole of AJK voting to join India compared with 80 per cent of people in Kargil. Of the complete sampling it emerged that the majority of the people were against any sort of union withPakistan.

One key question asked by the survey was whether going to war would help to achieve a solution to the conflict, to which fewer than 3 per cent in the Valley of Kashmir responded ‘yes’, as compared to 23 per cent in J & K as a whole. But the tragic consequences of the dispute in J & K, such as killings and other human rights abuses, showed that a continuation of the status quo was not an option for anyone, warned Dr Bradnock.

Senge Hasnan Sering, President of the Institute for Gilgit Baltistan Studies, described Gilgit-Baltistan as a region where the natives are still denied the right to travel across the LoC towards Ladakh andKashmir. He called the LoC the ‘Berlin Wall of Asia’ and spoke of how the current situation in the region affects the residents of areas such as Kargil, Nubra, Sham and the Chorbat valleys, as the majority of them live as ‘internally displaced persons’ or IDPs. The people of Gultari and Shingo-Shigar, he stated, have become the worst victims of the closure of the LoC, which has also led to an absence of opportunities for trade and tourism. The 2010 annual report of the International Human Rights Observer (IHRO) states that 80 per cent of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan now face food shortages and lack regular access to firewood, clean energy, health and educational facilities, clean drinking water and adequate means of transportation and communication, while more than half of the population lives below the poverty line, with the per capita annual income of Gilgit-Baltistan being just one-quarter of Pakistan’s national average. AsPakistanstruggles with its own economic downfall, it is inIslamabad’s best interests, proposed Mr Sering, to empower the natives; yet at the same time, the local politicians should discard the old tradition of relying onIslamabad’s handouts for their short-term survival. Currently, the annual developmental budget of Gilgit-Baltistan is less than one billion rupees, which fails to meet the needs of the locals. But opening the LoC for trade and eco-tourism would help generate several billions of rupees, thereby creating opportunities for thousands of educated but jobless youth.

According to Mr Sering, the billion-strong population ofIndiacould use this route to access markets and resources inCentral Asia, thereby turning Gilgit-Baltistan into a functioning transit and trade hub. It would also benefit the locals with cheaper Indian commodities currently available to the Ladakhis. He stressed that economic and commercial interdependency across the LoC could help to develop mutual respect and tolerance, bring the people closer, and help reduce political tension to resolveKashmir’s problem.

Mr Sering also spoke of the region’s unique and diverse languages, some of which are on the verge of extinction due to Urdu becoming a mandatory language andPakistan’s ‘criminalisation’ of local dialects as ‘unIslamic’. These repressive measures byPakistanwas undermining age old culture in the region.

 

He finished by requesting UK MPs and think-tanks to press for Pakistan to restore travel between Gilgit-Baltistan and Ladakh, at which point Baroness Flather intervened to ask if any representative of the Pakistan High Commission was in attendance. Despite having been invited, no Pakistani spokesperson was present nor was there any Pakistani media representative.

Dr Shabir Choudhry began by addressing the Chair and audience, and thanking Ajit Sat-Bhambra and The Democracy Forum for arranging the seminar and offering him an opportunity to express his views on this important topic. The widow of the infamous Major Brown, leader of the Gilgit Scouts who had defied the law by refusing to hand control of Gilgit Baltistan to the ruler ofKashmiras was required by the Boundary Commission, was present and Dr Choudhry apologised to her in advance for the criticisms he made of that mutiny.

Referring to a talk he had given on the topic of the Mangla Dam, Dr Choudhry said that a political culture has arisen over the years which overlooked what successive Pakistani governments have done and continue to do to the Kashmiris, but which sought to ‘actively and forcefully’ compel them to criticise India in order to get a ‘certificate’ of loyalty’ to the cause of the people of Jammu and Kashmir. Any Kashmiri under Pakistani rule who does not have this ‘stamp of loyalty’ is economically deprived and politically excluded or persecuted.

Since Gilgit-Baltistan was ‘illegally occupied’ by Pakistan, claimed Dr Choudhry, he did not know ‘how to criticise India for what Pakistan and China are doing’ in the region, though he speculated that he could condemn India for having a contradictory policy on Gilgit-Baltistan, and for remaining a ‘silent spectator’ to the oppression of its people.

Dr Choudhry also referred to Gilgit-Baltistan’s great strategic importance and natural resources, and their part in causing it to be separated from the rest of the State, before offering a brief history of the region and the role played by William Alexander Brown, known as Major Brown, in the Gilgit Rebellion and in ensuring that Gilgit-Baltistan remained under Pakistani control.

‘This region, as we all know, is legally part of the former Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir,’ he claimed. ‘Pakistanhas ruled this region with an iron fist and deprived people of their fundamental rights.’

Dr Choudhry also spoke of a delegation sent by the Kashmir National Party to Pakistani Administered Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, and of a survey they had conducted, which ‘reconfirmed’ that the people of Gilgit-Baltistan were not happy under Pakistani rule. They were treated as a colonised people and their resources plundered, and in this regard, insisted Dr Choudhry, the government ofChinawas helpingPakistan. The Government of Pakistan and their proxies, in trying to makeChinaa part of the Kashmir dispute, risked further endangering the stability of Gilgit-Baltistan andSouth Asia.

 

China has its own agenda, said Dr Choudhry, not only related to Gilgit-Baltistan but stretching far beyond the shores of Gawadar; and this is where China and India could be in direct competition with each other for markets and energy resources.

In conclusion, Dr Choudhry warned that those forces which had planned the Tribal Invasion and the Gilgit Rebellion to cut off Gilhit-Baltistan from the rest of the State were back in action, with the aim of draggingChinaand other powers into the region.

After the speeches, questions from the floor revolved around water resources in Indian- and Pakistan-administered J & K, the Indus Waters Treaty of 1960, and future problems that might arise concerning abstraction of water throughout the region, as well as China’s burgeoning interest in it. Access to water, its storage and use would be big issues affecting future peace and stability in the region, suggested one questioner, and the panel offered the view that water shortages would be likely to increase due to increasing population sizes, other demographic shifts and J&K’s entanglement in the dispute between India and Pakistan. Dr Choudhry made further mention of dam-building and its effects on water access and political relations.

One questioner asked about the control of trade along theKarakoram Highway, while another brought up the status and role of the Kashmiri diaspora in the various surveys, and someone else asked about the phenomenon of the Taliban as a policy tool ofIslamabad, and the disenfranchisement of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. Poet Chaman Lal Chaman was among the audience, and he asked a question about the education of girls in the region and the literacy rate among girls and women. While the panel agreed that it was alarmingly low, Mr Sering replied that the matter had less to do with female rights than with a general lack of human rights for local people.

After posing a question of her own regarding the treatment of women in Gilgit-Baltistan and drawing the audience’s attention to the need for investment inKashmir, Baroness Flather rounded off by thanking the speakers and organisers of the seminar.