Time for PoJK to reunite with India?
In October last year, India's Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said that India's northward development journey had just begun and would end only when "we... reached the remaining parts of (POK) Gilgit-Baltistan", illegally occupied by Pakistan since 1947.
Perhaps, residents of Pakistan-occupied Jammu and Kashmir (PoJK) heard his remarks.
Plagued by food and wheat shortages, power outages and well-known government apathy, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan have been protesting for quite some time. The world outside knows of this through videos and blogs on social media which have gone viral in the last few months. The latest instance is of a video from the region, that shows, a huge rally in Gilgit-Baltistan, where people are seen demanding the re-opening of the Kargil Road and reunion with their fellow Baltis in the Kargil district of the Union Territory of Ladakh in India.
More recently, former Prime Minister Raja Farooq Haider of so-called "Azad Jammu and Kashmir" and PML-N leader, warned against alleged land grabbing in Gilgit-Baltistan and called for "restoration of the state subject rule (SSR)". He made this demand in the context of mass demonstrations in Gilgit-Baltistan under the banner of the Awami Action Committee, an alliance of various political, religious and trade associations, against electricity shortages, reduction in the wheat quota, taxation, and alleged land grabbing by the state.
Protests have been going on in the region at the end of 2022 and the beginning of 2023.
Various issues, like the restoration of subsidies on wheat and other food items, load-shedding, illegal land occupation, and the exploitation of the natural resources of the region have been raised by the residents.
A report from Pakistan's vernacular media outlet Baad-e-Shimal (Urdu) highlighted the protests due to overload shedding, flour crisis and ownership of Khalsa Sarkar land. These protests over concerns raised by the Baltistan residents have been intensifying, the report claims, adding that Pakistan's military establishment continues to exert coercive claims over the land and resources of the area. Angry with discriminative policies of the Pakistan government that had been exploiting the region for several decades, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan are now demanding a reunion with India.
In a video that has gone viral on several social media platforms, a huge rally in Gilgit-Baltistan can be seen demanding the reopening of the Kargil Road and reunion with their fellow Baltis in the Kargil district of Ladakh in India.
Earlier in December last year, local traders and members of various political and social organisations observed a shutters-down strike (December 28) in different parts of Gilgit-Baltistan, with markets closed and vehicles off the roads.
These demonstrations have been held in Skardu, Gilgit, Hunza, and Ghizer. The locals have also been protesting at the open misuse of 'Khalsa Sarkar' laws for land-grabbing in Gilgit-Baltistan by the Army and Federal Government. The law states that the federal government in Islamabad can claim "ownership of barren or uncultivated land" in Gilgit-Baltistan, even if it was collectively owned by the local community.
Pamir Times tweeted on December 30: "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."
The Chairman of National Equality Party, Jammu-Kashmir Gilgit-Baltistan and Ladakh said: "Ppl of #GilgitBaltistan protest for the 8th consecutive day at Yaadgaar #Skardu against #Pakistan on the issues of illegal land occupation, cutting subsidies, increasing electricity prices, black laws & imposing unfair taxes. #Pakistani govt & media have closed their eyes & ears."
Dawn newspaper editorially reports (January 9, 2023) that protests held across the region have united the region's geographically and religiously diverse communities, as well as supporters of different political parties. Further, traders' bodies in the northern region have also backed the demonstrations. The regions ambiguous constitutional status, as well as the lack of infrastructure compared to the rest of Pakistan, makes this region's plight unique. The protesters are not in favour of the GB Revenue Authority Bill, and have serious reservations about the state taking over land in the region that they say belongs to the people. The state has been acquiring land in GB for CPEC as well as other projects.
Former PM Farooq Haider, while addressing (January 9) a public meeting in Hajira sub-division of Poonch district recently, called for the protection of the rights of the local people. "I want to ask the government of Pakistan not to evict the people of Gilgit-Baltistan from the Khalsa (Crown's) land they have been living on since the times of Dogra rule," he said.
A Human Rights Commission of Pakistan report states that the "Khalsa Sarkar" system violates international human rights standards, including the "UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples", which protects indigenous peoples' "rights to their collective bio-cultural heritage as a whole, including, traditional knowledge and resources, territories, and cultural and spiritual values and customary laws".
Haider emphasised that Gilgit-Baltistan should be given an official set-up on the pattern of so-called AJK "so as to make good of its deprivations of the past more than seven decades"." He also took strong exception to the AJK government, by saying that there did not exist anything by the name of government in the territory. There is thus a very strong narrative developing in PoJK towards disillusionment of people of the region with Pakistan. Despite being under the Pakistani jackboot for over 70 years, Islamabad has done little to give the people of PoJK any rights and development. This is the primary reason for people of the region protesting against Pakistan and more recently seeking re-unification with India.