M. Hasnain is a leading activist and ideologue from Baltistan, in Pakistan-Administered Kashmir. He is deeply involved in Baltistan’s movement for self-determination. In this interview he talks about the situation in his homeland and prospects for peace in Jammu and Kashmir.
Q: Could you tell us something about yourself, your background, your work and your involvement in the Baltistan issue?
My name is M. Hasnain. I was born and raised in Baltistan. I did a degree in engineering from Pakistan and then left for England to get a masters degree in Development Studies. I got involved with promoting Balti culture human rights advocacy work in the late 1990s. I have helped promote an indigenous script (called Yige, which is similar to the Ladakhi script) in Baltistan. With the help of the Tibet Society, Australia, and the Tibet Foundation London, I initiated cultural enhancement programmes in the region and received tremendous support from the local people, including from those associated with religious groups. In collaboration with the Baltistan Cultural Foundation, I helped produce the first primary book in Balti, the local Ladakhi sub-dialect, the lingua franca of Baltistan. I have also been involved in research on Balti history, culture and politics as well as human rights violations in Baltistan and other related issues. I have served as a member of the guidance council for Baltistan Students Federation.
Q: Could you tell us something about the geographical location and ethnic
and sectarian composition of Baltistan? What cultural ties does it share with Ladakh?
Baltistan is one of the six regions of undivided Jammu and Kashmir. It is bordered by Gilgit in the west, Ladakh in the east, the Kashmir Valley in the south and Tibet in the north. A majority of the people of Baltistan (around 93%) have Ladakhi / Tibetan ancestry. About 65% of the total population is Shia, 30% is Sufi Nurbakshi (a Sufi order found only in Ladakh and Baltistan) and the rest 5% are Sunnis and followers of the Ahl-i-Hadith. People of Baltistan and Ladakh speak a similar language, follow similar customs and traditions and look similar in appearance as both communities are a mixture of Tibetan and Indian races like Mons and Dards.
Ladakh and Baltistan remained under the Central Tibetan dynasty for a long time. After the 11th Century CE, local dynasties like the Rmakpons and Namgyals emerged and ruled Ladakh and Baltistan, extending their sway from Chitral in the west to Purang in the east. The ethnic and cultural bonding between Baltistan and Ladakh deepened during the Dogra period (1842-1948), as the Dogras consolidated both regions into one province called the Ladakh Wazarat. Under the administrative umbrella of the State of Jammu of Kashmir, Baltistan constituted the western part of the Wazarat, and remained so for 106 years. The union of Ladakh and Baltistan within one administrative setup was based on the fact that both regions have a similar culture.
Within the unified Jammu and Kashmir, Ladakh Wazarat was the largest province, exceeding the total area of Kashmir province by six times. The province was divided into Leh, Kargil and Skardo districts. Skardo, the capital of Baltistan, was the winter capital of the province while Leh, the capital of central Ladakh, was the summer capital. The people of the province had political representation in the Council of Maharaja. Among the four members nominated from Ladakh Wazarat by Maharaja Hari Singh, two were Buddhists from Leh district, while Gyalpo Fateh Ali Khan of Skardo and Kacho Ahmed Ali Khan from Kargil district were Muslim representatives. The Dogra Regime, though composed of mainly Hindu Rajputs, introduced state subject rule to protect the socio-political and economic interests of the native Muslim and Buddhist populations by allowing only local ownership of land. The provincial set-up further enabled strengthening trade and socio-economic links along with cultural development. Roads and bridges were constructed and a postal system was set up, thereby accelerating communication between the various valleys of the province and bringing people even closer.
The tragic partition of Ladakh Wazarat in 1948 led to separation of Ladakh and Baltistan. Baltistan was later annexed by Pakistan and incorporated into the Northern Areas (NAs) of J&K under Pakistani occupation. So we can safely say that from 5th Century CE onwards, regions of Ladakh and Baltistan have remained as part of same administrative unit up until 1948, when J&K was partitioned between India and Pakistan.
Q: How do the Baltistanis look at the current political conflict in Kashmir?
People of Baltistan are denied the right to represent the region in an official capacity whenever conferences are convened to discuss J&K issue. Technically, people of Baltistan are not considered as citizens of Pakistan. Being State Subjects of J&K, they demand that they should receive a status equal to other State Subjects, like those living in Muzaffarabad or Srinagar and Kargil. They would like to contribute to end the 60 year-old dispute between the two nuclear powers of South Asia. They believe that the J&K conflict has divided Baltis and Ladakhis on both sides of the LOC, the Berlin Wall of South Asia. We desire to give our input that will help unification of Baltistan with Indian Ladakh. Our culture, economy and political development suffers as the J&K imbroglio prolongs. The people of Baltistan desire this conflict to end so that unification of Ladakh and Baltistan could be materialized and political autonomy could be granted to local people.
Q: How does the average Baltistani look at Pakistan and India and envisage the future political status of Baltistan?
Most Baltis desires a peaceful relationship developing between India and Pakistan. They desire that borders should be open and trade should restart between Ladakh and Baltistan. Our four traditional trade routes that lead towards Ladakh are currently closed. Currently, we are dependent on a single road that leads to Pakistan. When this vital link to rest of Pakistan closes due to avalanches or rains, Baltistan remains cut off from rest of the world and the local economy suffers. People of Baltistan request the leadership of Pakistan to accept the proposals sent by Indian government to open the Kargil-Skardo road and allow Baltis on both sides of LOC to be united.
If peace prevails, it will bring prosperity to Baltistan. We desire to see both countries becoming friends and solving all disputes peacefully. There is a growing support among Baltis to enhance relations with Ladakh. Based on similar culture and language and geographical proximity, we desire to be unified with Ladakh. We desire a set up where both Ladakh and Baltistan have socio-economic autonomy and the right to make their own decisions in the best interest of the region. We desire to be part of a nation which is peace loving, prosperous and a strong democracy that will help promote a pluralistic society and harmony among different communities of the region.
Q: How, in your view, has Pakistan treated Baltistan? How would you compare this with how the Baltis and Buddhists in Ladakh/Kargil have been treated by the Indian state?
I have heard that people in Leh and Kargil, both Buddhists and Muslims, have religious and economic freedom. A careful analysis will show that Baltis in Kargil have far more cultural, religious and political freedom compared to Baltis in Pakistani control. They receive government support to promote their cultural identity which is very inspiring. Indian Balti Muslims I have talked to express pride in being Indian, which reflects on how they are treated there. Further, they have economic autonomy through a local autonomous development council. Their language and script is promoted by Indian government, something that the people of Baltistan can only dream of.
Although Pakistan considers Baltistan as part of the disputed State of J&K, the region is denied similar political, judicial and administrative rights granted to other parts of the State like Azad Kashmir. The forceful separation of the Ladakh Wazarat has directly impacted on Baltistan, since Baltis and Ladakhis are now deprived of an administrative province controlled locally. Provincial status granted before 1947 by the Hindu Rulers of J&K has been denied for the last fifty-eight years to Baltistan. Pakistan has damaged our indigenous socio-political institutions which evolved over thousands of years, and this has left a political vacuum and weakened the community. Administrators in key offices of the police, civil service and judiciary are imported from Pakistan. Similarly, the judiciary in the Northern Areas lacks autonomy. Access to the Provincial High Courts, appellant courts or the Federal Supreme Court of Pakistan is denied to the locals. The judicial system in the Northern Areas is not linked to the Federal Supreme Court, which means that Baltis are only subject to the military tribunals.
The regional council (NALC) lacks the authority to legislate. The Chief Executive of the Northern Areas, a non-local federal figure, finalizes decisions on all political legislation. Part of disputed J&K, Baltistan is denied the right to vote in national elections. While citizens of Pakistan experience elections, Baltis are mere spectators in the entire electoral process. To this date, the locals remain without representation in the national or provincial assemblies. Today, residents of Ladakh and Indian J&K enjoy far better political and socio-economic benefits compared to Baltis. Pakistan’s Foreign Office refuses to grant basic political rights to the people of Baltistan, considering this to be a weakening of Pakistan’s claim to Kashmir in international forums. Lack of political resources and repressive control by the central government is a deterrent to the growth of a mass political movement potent enough to pursue self-rule.
Along with denial of socio-political rights to Baltis, the Pakistani government also terminated State Subject Rule (SSR). The SSR, which was designed and enforced by the Dogra Regime to protect the socio-economic rights of the citizens of J&K, was abolished in the 1960s in Baltistan. The termination of the rule, still enforced in other parts of J&K, helped the Pakistani establishment to try to permanently change the regional demography and settle non-Baltis into the region. With the passage of time, well-off settlers have increased their political influence in the region. This shift hurts the region as the unskilled and illiterate masses of Baltistan once again experience virtual slavery. The resulting preferential hiring of non-locals for jobs further threatens the local economy. The move will affect the historical balance of ethnic and religious groups co-existing peacefully in the region. The true color of local culture and religious characteristics of the region will fade away with the passage of time, causing an identity crisis among the locals and tearing the social fabric of Baltistan.
Among other uncertainties, the construction of the Skardo-Katsura Dam is a significant cause of anxiety for Baltis. Pakistan intends to build the dam for agricultural and electricity generation purposes, primarily benefiting Punjab province. The environmental and cultural impact of this project are immense. The project will fulfill the government’s designs to change the regional demography, as Baltistan’s politico-commercial centre, Skardo, and Shigar, the grain basket of Baltistan, will be submerged completely. The project will submerge more than two-thirds of the habitable parts of Baltistan. The dam will submerge famous Buddhist and Bon archeological sites, historical sites, large tracts of cultivated land and the much of the communications infrastructure.
The federal and Sindh governments also intend to liquefy glaciers in the Baltistan and Gilgit regions, as water capacity in existing dams has decreased and Pakistani farmers face water shortages. Implementation of this idea will cause an ecological genocide and is a tactic to depopulate both regions. Local people believe that the government of Pakistan has no right to construct dams in Baltistan and Gilgit as these regions are not part of Pakistan.
Q: What about economic conditions in Baltistan?
An ancient thriving civilization; Baltistan is now one of the most poverty stricken areas of Pakistan. Alarmingly low literacy, absence of industries and paved roads, lack of energy sources and job opportunities have forced thousands to leave the region in the quest for livelihood. Dependency on the government of Pakistan is deeper than ever, and the once hardworking and skillful Baltis are reduced to beggars and dependent on federal rationing. The per capita income is less than one-third of the national standard. On an average, each person in Baltistan earns 42 American cents per day and the majority of earnings come from temporary or seasonal work. Income earned during the summers is used to secure provision of fuel to face the winter cold (thirty percent of the average income of a person is spent on purchase of wood and kerosene oil), leaving little disposable income. In order to sustain the ever-shrinking household economy, parents are compelled to send their children to graze cattle and collect wood rather than to school, thus depriving children the right to education. In the last 58 years, no technical, scientific or medical institutions have been built in Baltistan. Government school buildings and health centres are non-existent in several valleys. In many villages, students sit outdoors for classes during the harsh winter months. Government health centres fare no better than the educational institutions. In many villages, peons and sweepers of health centers perform the duties of doctors and pharmacists in the absence of skilled professionals. The majority of dispensaries and hospitals lack adequate medical supplies and surgical equipment. Patients are forced to travel hundreds of miles to Gilgit and Islamabad to get treatment for common ailments.
Baltistan’s economy has been unstable since the 1948 border closing with Ladakh. During the months when border skirmishes between India and Pakistan escalate, economic activities grind to a halt. Further, the restriction on tourism in the border valleys, where more than half of the population of Baltistan lives, has drastically impacted on the local economy. Until the closure of the Indo-Pak border, trade was a vital form of livelihood and second only to farming. Historical trade routes, used by Baltis for several thousand years, open only towards India. Closure of these trade routes has restricted the free movement of Baltis and devastated the local economy. On the other hand, there is only one road that links Baltistan with Pakistan through Gilgit. The road was built in the 1980s and until then, the only form of transportation to Pakistan was by air. Whenever seasonal avalanches and landslides obstruct this vital road, goods and supplies from Pakistan are prevented from arriving in Baltistan for many weeks. During road blockages, commodities become so expensive that government starts rationing and many often go hungry. Further, the road is not passable during Shia-Wahhabi skirmishes. Extremist Wahhabis, who target Shias, block traffic and slaughter Baltis traveling to Pakistan.
Gultari and Shingo-Shigar valleys of Baltistan have been worst hit by the border closure between Ladakh and Baltistan. Before partition of Ladakh Wazarat, these valleys were part of the Kargil district. Geographical confines limit the access of 11,000 residents of these valleys to Skardo or Gilgit during seven months of winter. A road leading to Kargil town is the only year-around access to markets, health and education facilities as well as job opportunities for the people of Gultari and Shingo-Shigar. Fifty-eight years have passed and they are still waiting for Pakistan to allow them free travel across the border. During the summer season, when mountain passes open, it takes 13 hours to reach Skardo and 17 hours to Gilgit. This is the coldest habitable region of Baltistan where life is at its worst in the winters. During winters, as snow restricts movement, ailing patients are left in the hand of God to die. In a nut shell, the residents are left with only two options: to either abandon their homeland and become refugees in Skardo town, or be allowed to join Kargil district on the other side of the Line of Control (LOC), thereby accessing year-round social and economic benefits.
The border closure has also separated thousands of families of Ladakh and Baltistan and Pakistan continues to deny the right to the family members to travel across the border. Thousands of divided families await reunion by the opening of the Skardo-Kargil and Nubra-Chorbat roads. Sixty thousand people from the border valleys face displacement and forced re-location and are currently living under inhospitable conditions. Although the Indian government has put forth a proposal to open the Kargil-Skardo route, Pakistan refuses to comply. On the other hand, Kashmiris are now allowed to cross into Pakistan from other parts of the State.
Q: Being cut off from the rest of Ladakh and being under Pakistani rule for more than half a century, how has Baltistani culture been transformed?
Along with economic deprivation, socio-cultural insecurities and identity theft also pose a great threat to the survival of the people of Baltistan. People of Baltistan and Ladakh, who share so much in terms of ethnicity and culture, are separated, which is an anathema for this peace-loving nation. Te lack of interaction with their ethnic brethren across the border has obstructed the development of Balti cultural identity and language. The Baltis believe that local language and culture is being suppressed by the Pakistani government to weaken the ties of Baltistan and Ladakh. Pakistan suppresses the development of the indigenous script, ‘Yigay’. To date, the Balti language (a sister dialect of Ladakhi) is not taught in the local schools, even at the primary level. Similarly, handloom specialists, traditional capmakers, shoemakers and woodcraft specialists are abandoning their profession as the indigenous cottage industry fails to receive government patronage. Dancers, singers, and musicians also await a similar destiny while struggling to find alternative sources of income. Balti traditional sports like archery and polo have lost patronage in many valleys. The majority of the Baltis believe that only unification with Ladakh can restore the cultural patronage and development of their local language. They also desire to preserve their ancient culture and language which is essential to promote local identity.
Q: How significant are the cultural, ethnic and linguistic ties between Ladakhis and Baltistanis today, more than half a century after Partition?
Centuries old Tibetan, Islamic and Indian influences have shaped the Balti culture into its modern form, which is also shared by many people of Ladakh. Popular Balti religion is a blend of Tibetan, Sufi, Indian and Shaman rituals, which is unique in a conservative Islamic environment like that of Pakistan. The people of Ladakh and Baltistan share a common language, religion and customs. Baltis are proud of their ancient past and of possessing a script of their own, which is similar to Ladakhi script. Five decades have passed since 1947 and the Baltis, including two generations born after the partition of Baltistan and Ladakh, still identify strongly with the people of Ladakh.
The rich folklore and literary heritage of the Baltis; their poetry, proverbs, myths, epics, sagas, folk dances, wedding rituals, songs, festivals like Losar and Mephang, sports like polo and daphang (archery), architecture and cottage industry are evidence of a shared Ladakhi identity and heritage. The age-old traditions of Buddhist and animistic origin are discernible in the local culture. Many elements of the ancient supernatural belief systems, especially many traditions connected with agricultural practices, are still followed with subdued reverence.
Q: How has the massive presence of Pakistani troops in Baltistan impacted on the way in which Baltist feel about Pakistan?
The permanent presence of Pakistani army, intelligence agency personnel and paramilitary in Baltistan increases social instability and anxiety for locals. The soldiers’ immunity from criminal prosecution is a cause of fear for locals who do not feel safe within their own homeland. The lack of freedom to lead private lives has forced many families to leave the region, causing a brain drain, demographic change and replacing locals with non-locals in the workforce.
Locals feel like living in a jail. Job profiles and personal portfolios are collected for all governmental and non-governmental workers by the secret service agencies. Locals live in fear as the inquisitive eyes of the secret service spy on them. The ISI regularly intercepts postal and electronic mail. Phone lines are tapped. Secret services pressurise local media to induct their agents as journalists. These so-called ‘reporters’ hide the extra-judicial activities of the ISI, Pakistani army and police. Intelligence agents disguised as barbers, cobblers, sweepers and shopkeepers spy on local residents. The secret service interrogates natives who associate with foreigners and tourists and videotape such encounters. Agents intrude upon political and religious gatherings and tape conversations. Religious sermons of Shia and Sufi-Nurbakhshi Imams are taped and reported to ISI headquarters on a regular basis.
Secret service agents employed in offices instigate ethnic and religious conflicts between Shinas, Baltis, Shias, Sunnis and Nurbakhshis. The Pakistani army uses Shia-Wahhabi riots as an excuse to transfer key posts in the departments of health, education and infrastructure development to army brigadiers, further expanding military authority. Army officers influence the induction, transfer and termination process of government employees, thereby bringing the entire workforce under complete military extortion. Armed forces and secret service agencies control the land, natural resources and means of livelihood of Baltistan. They occupy government buildings constructed for civil use. In many cases, militant Jehadis use the houses to run their operations.
The ISI stations hundreds of Wahhabi-militants in Baltistan and Gilgit. They intimidate local people whom they deem subversive and look for confrontations. They act like conquerors going about cleansing this ‘part of Pakistan’ of ‘Shia infidels.’ In August 1999, Wahhabi-militants attacked an old widow in Skardo and shot her in the leg. The incident led to the imposition of curfew in Skardo for three days following clashes between local youth and militants.
The armed forces harass locals and roam at large under the protection of the Pakistani civil authority and police. On August 8, 2003, four secret service agents tortured a taxi driver from Skardo who refused to give them a ride. The driver was detained in a local jail without charge and later released at the protest of town residents. The police refused to register the crimes and protected the interests of ISI agents.The police and ISI personnel treat locals like slaves and expect them to tolerate brutality as their destiny. It is a common routine for authorities to detain people without charge until substantial protest is registered. Locals, including women, children and the elderly, are assaulted in open view of other villagers to induce fear and shame. Those without any social or political influence remain behind bars for indefinite periods of time. The authorities collect bribes on a regular basis from villagers. Villagers bring fuel-wood, yak butter, dried fruits, and meat to the police, who act as divine authority in this remote valley. Those who fail to pay are subject to insult, assault and detention.
Q: What about religious freedom in Baltistan, given that most Baltis are Shias living in a Sunni-majority state?
Parallel to cultural oppression, the Pakistani regime does not allow the Baltis to practice their faith without interference, develop faith-based educational courses for local institutions or develop connections with people of the same faith and practices across the LOC. There appears to be a clear intention on part of the Pakistani establishment to attack Shia Islamic beliefs and practices through the school curriculum. Contrary to Shia traditions, Islamic topics based on extremist Wahhabi beliefs are taught in schools. Parents complain that teachers instruct Shia students to perform prayers replicating the Wahhabi manner. Such forced indoctrination of children at a young age discourages enlightened and modern strains of Islam and encourages religious extremism.
Communities in Baltistan sleep uneasy knowing that Pakistani secret service agencies are intent on converting religious minorities like the Nurbakhshis to the Wahhabi militant faith. Wahhabi religious organizations supported by Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI, the notorious Pakistani secret service agency) persuade poor parents to send their male children to Talibanized schools and Jehadi centers. In 2002, two Nurbakhshi boys fled Afghan Jehadi camps and came back to Baltistan. These boys, along with several others, were first taken to a Wahhabi school in Punjab, where they were converted and received military training. While in Afghanistan, the Taliban caught the boys performing Nurbakhshi religious rituals in secret and labeled them Shias. The militants locked up the boys, determined to shoot them. During the night, they fled and spent weeks lost in the Hindukush Mountains before arriving in Baltistan, where they exhibited the mental and physical torture inflicted on them.
Pakistan’s armed forces and Jehadi militants are insensitive to the culture of Baltistan. Their disregard for Shia religious customs threatens peaceful survival of locals. In 1998, when Shias and Sufis were mourning the massacre of the family of Prophet Muhammad during the annual Muharram ritual, Pakistan army officers mocked the procession and started playing cricket in the vicinity. The refusal by the officers to stop the game led to clash with locals, injuring many and damaging the Pakistani army garrison. In Gamba Skardo, the army forcefully obstructed a religious procession. The situation led to mass agitation when women mourners threw stones at the army and forced them to withdraw.
Under these circumstances, the Baltis believe that religious persecution and systemic erosion of religious freedom under Pakistani occupation is parallel to Chinese persecution of Tibetans. Those who are aware of the socio-economic and political conditions in Tibet must realize that human rights violations in Baltistan are alarmingly severe. Before Baltistan becomes like Tibet, international community must pressure Pakistani armed and civilian forces to withdraw, while returning local administration to the Baltis and granting self rule.
Q: How do you see inter-sectarian relations in Baltistan today? How have they changed in recent decades? What have been the factors for this change?
What forces of resistance have come up to face this challenge?
Like any part of Pakistan, sectarianism has hit Baltistan and damaged the peaceful social atmosphere. Recently, Shias and Wahhabis clashed in Gilgit and Baltistan and much damage was done to local economy and society due to the communal polarization. However, the local leadership has done well to settle the conflicts and normalcy is coming back to Baltistan. Few years ago, intermarriages among Shia and Sunni communities were common. Today, it is hardly practiced. Sunnis have radicalized too. Participation of Sunnis during Muharram processions is almost obsolete now. Further, arrival of both financial support and religious ideologies from Iran and Saudi Arabia has further segregated the communities. Talibanization of Pakistani society is worsening the situation. Joblessness and enforced illiteracy leads to easy victimization of the society.
Religious strife does not allow Baltis to promote a unified cause for self rule and government agencies know and use this well. The nationalist movement in Baltistan tries to bring together all Baltis on the basis of ethnicity, common language and culture. However, religious skirmishes damage such efforts.
Q: How do you see the role of the agencies of the Pakistani establishment in attacks on Shias in Baltistan in recent years?
Massacres of Shias and Sufis is today a major threat to Baltistan’s identity, security and economy. Top Shia religious leaders, lawyers, technocrats and government officials are under constant threat from religious extremist groups like Sipaha-i Sahaba, Lashkar-i Jhanghvi and Jaish-i Muhammad. It is in this general atmosphere that the 1988 massacre of Shias occurred. It is widely believed that militant groups received the endorsement of the Pakistani Army under the command of General Ziaul Haque, the Martial Law Administrator and President of Pakistan (Ziaul Haque is often called ‘Butcher of Gilgit-Baltistan’). In May of 1988, militants attacked Gilgit and killed thousands of people. Seven villages were burned to the ground, women raped and children slaughtered in the three-week episode. The incident continued without interference under the eye of the Pakistani army and police. Shouting notorious Wahhabi religious slogans such as ‘Ek Shia Maaro, Jannat Mein Ghar Banao (‘Kill a Shia and Secure a Quick Ticket to Paradise)’, tribal militants from NWFP attacked heavily-populated Shia villages and slaughtered everything they found alive including livestock. The militants were well informed about the location of and access routes to Shia villages. The genocide was committed through sophisticated bureaucratic organization and involved military and technological planning to exterminate people in the largest Shia region under Pakistani occupation.
In Gilgit, schools and medical centres were burned and shops were looted. Fruit trees, timber forests and wheat and maize crops were set on fire. Militants destroyed 25 Shia mosques and Imambargahs and burned copies of the Quran and other religious books. After burning down Gilgit, militants moved trucks, jeeps and heavy weapons towards Baltistan. However, Balti armed fighters burned down the bridge connecting Baltistan with Pakistan to protect the region. The bravery of the Baltis forced the militants to retreat, leaving thousands of bodies behind. The organized manner of the genocide suggests that assailants had well-established communication links with Wahhabi groups of Gilgit and the ISI.
The genocide against a religious minority was an attempt by authorities to change the regional demography and reduce the Shia population while promoting the settlement of Wahhabis from Punjab and NWFP. The UNO Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defines genocide as, ‘acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.’ This definition clearly applies to the atrocities committed against the people of Baltistan and Gilgit.
Government officials and army deny involvement in this incident. It is hard to believe that twelve thousand tribal militants traveled approximately four hundred miles past several military checkpoints on Karakoram Highway (KKH) for several days without notice. The militants brought hundreds of trucks full of heavy machinery with them. They were equipped with sophisticated navigational system. They used loudspeakers to invite others to join the so-called ‘Jehad’ against infidel Shias. On the way, hundreds of Wahhabis from Mansehra, Kohistan, Swat, Besham and Chilas districts joined them. When the militia arrived in Gilgit, eyewitnesses report the militants exceeded twenty thousand in number. The genocide continued for three weeks while government officials watched. Survivors accuse the government of failing to punish a single assailant. No cases were registered against the tribal militants who devastated the region. For several months, affected families resided in temporary tents without proper health and sanitation facilities. Even though the government witnessed the massacres, it was slow to respond to the humanitarian crisis in the aftermath. Victims who complained and staged demonstrations were harassed and jailed. After all that, the way Pakistani regime justifies its innocence is shocking for the people of Baltistan and Gilgit.
The genocide of the Shias took another twist recently when the top Shia leader of Gilgit region, Agha Ziauddin Rizvi, was murdered on January 7, 2005 by Pakistani Wahhabi militants. Rizvi was a proponent of self-rule for Baltistan and Gilgit. The assassination triggered a wave of violence and curfew was imposed in both Gilgit and Baltistan. Since then communal riots have taken at least 100 lives, and hundreds wounded. The incident is reminiscent of the riots of 1993, when twenty local Shias were slaughtered. The curfew lasted for more than six months.
Following the massacre, two thousand women blocked highway to protest the continuous Shia slaughter in Pakistan. More than 50,000 protestors took to the streets in Gilgit and Baltistan. The incident gave the current regime an excuse to beef up security and bring thousands of men of the Frontier Constabulary, Khyber Rifles and Chitral Scouts to the area. The soldiers have built permanent hideouts in the streets. Security forces have erected barricades and barbed wires at all exit and entry points within the town limits of Skardo and Gilgit.
The local media complains that Wahhabi religious leaders threaten journalists to discourage reporting of killings of Shias. Since the people of Baltistan and Gilgit have no representation in the Parliament or the Senate of Pakistan, a parliamentarian from Punjab, Khwaja Saad Rafik, forwarded a motion in the National Assembly of Pakistan on the request of leaders of Gilgit and condemned the massacre of Shias in Pakistan. In the last two decades, thousands of Shia lawyers, doctors, engineers, religious leaders, politicians and businessmen have been victim of target-killing is horrifying.
Police and armed forces tortured and detained local Shia youth who took part in spontaneous demonstrations after the death of Agha Zia. In total, 280 protesting Shia activists were arrested in Baltistan and Gilgit while more than one thousand Shias were arrested in Pakistan. Fifteen protestors were transferred to DHQ hospital in Skardo after receiving serious injuries by physical torture by police and secret services. The detainees reported that at night, when room temperature dropped below 14 degrees Celsius, police officers filled detention cells with cold water. With fans turned on at full speed, prisoners were made to stand naked for the whole night. They were kept handcuffed and beaten by sticks and leather straps. All these torture tactics continued for several days. The torture led to kidney failures for some of the detainees. Insults about the Shia religion were shouted by the interrogators to humiliate the detainees. Given that Baltis have lost their culture, political rights and identity in Pakistan, the massacre of Shias is another attempt to erase local identity.
For the peace-loving locals, even showing hatred towards one’s neighbor is considered disrespect to local traditions. But the introduction of so-called jehadi culture by ISI-sponsored terrorist groups has caused radicalization of tolerant and peaceful Sufi-Shias of Baltistan, leading to a social disorder. An influx of Pathan settlers led to the introduction of drugs and weapons. Today, thousands of native residents are addicted to hashish and heroine. Weapons and drug smugglers have become millionaires overnight.
The late Kalon Mehdi of Khibchung Skardo, who has the honor of being the only Balti Law graduate from Aligarh University, India, once said, “Unification with Ladakh and Kashmir brought culture and civilization to Baltistan. Nowadays, we receive drugs, Kalashnikov and Wahhabism as a gift for opting for Pakistan.” The monthly Herald reported in April 2005 that after the Shia-Wahhabi riots, “Sell your Cow and Buy a Kalashnikov” became the slogan of young Wahhabi groups of Gilgit, who ask for donations to buy weapons to exterminate Shias. The local administration completely ignores these incidents. The only beneficiaries are the Wahhabi weapon smugglers. Despite having hundreds of police and army checkpoints along Karakoram Highway, these weapon smugglers manage to have free access to the region, which is a mystery for the locals.
In addition to weapons and drugs smuggling, nowadays the Karakoram Highway is also used for murdering Shias of Baltistan and Gilgit. The militants attack and murder Shias of Baltistan and Gilgit, who travel by road to Pakistan. Passengers boarding public transportation with identity cards issued from Baltistan are especially targeted. On July 3, 2004, Wahhabi militants attacked the bus and murdered three Shias while critically injuring seven others. In February 2005, extremist Wahhabis shot at a bus traveling from Islamabad to Baltistan and injured three Shia passengers. On April 23, 2005, terrorists intercepted another public bus carrying passengers from Skardo to Islamabad. They made the passengers show identity cards, then separated two Shia Baltis and killed them. The incident led to more than ten thousand mourners defying the curfew and demonstrating on the roads of Skardo. In a similar incident on July 18, 2005, five passengers were shot dead and fifteen injured near Chilas as militants opened gunfire on a bus traveling from Gilgit to Islamabad. The local transportation network has halted as dozens of public vehicles have been attacked. The Northern Areas administration sacked 72 bus drivers of Northern Areas Transport Corporation (NATCO) on February 9, 2005, for refusing to drive public buses through Wahhabi-majority areas. The drivers, most of whom are Shias, feared attacks on vehicles by Wahhabis.
Attacks on public transport on the highway have created hardships for students, patients and people traveling to find employment, as weather-dependent and air travel is very expensive. Locals accuse Pathan immigrants of harboring militants and orchestrating attacks on Shias. Locals believe that the Wahhabi settlers work as informants of ISI and collaborate with extremist elements in NWFP to carry out attacks. They establish communication networks with assailants who are then informed about bus departure schedules and the number of Shia passengers onboard. As long as Baltistan remains under the occupation of Pakistan, this sort of social degradation will continue and local values of peace, tolerance and unity among different communities will be compromised.
Another form of human rights violations, committed by the police, ISI and the army against the people of Baltistan [and other parts of POK], is sexual assault on women. Unfortunately, majority of the physical molestation cases remain hidden due to intimidation of victims and their relatives by law enforcement agencies. The police refuse to register the few cases reported by relatives and villagers. This hides evidence and protects the culprits who are rarely prosecuted or punished.
Most army garrisons in Baltistan are situated amidst local residential areas and villages, allowing foreign elements to interfere with local life. Soldiers disrespect local socio-cultural and religious customs. They intrude into residential quarters where women observe ‘Hijab’. In 2001, the Frontier Constabulary (FC) intruded upon a residential area in Skardo. Residents asked the FC to leave the area to show respect to women in Hijab. FC refused and a clash ensued leading to six sustained injuries. In February 2005, FC stationed in Thsongdus entered a refugee camp and molested women. As the public gathered in protest, FC fired shots into the air and retreated. Public demonstrations led by religious leaders finally persuaded officials to remove FC camps from the area. However, the police refused to register a case against the FC for attacking and molesting refugees of the Kargil war. In Tarkati, villagers killed three Punjabi soldiers who raped a local woman. In another incident, Amin, a resident of Kharmang killed an army officer who raped his daughter. Police refused to register or investigate the rape case and instead jailed Amin on charges of murder. Amin was tortured to death in jail. Today, police officers responsible for Amin’s death roam free along with those who raped his daughter. Similarly, a widow of a Kargil war martyr was sexually assaulted and physically tortured by a secret service agent. Villagers caught the assailant red-handed; however, police pressured the villagers to not press charges against the culprit. In another incident, two soldiers stabbed a local girl from Gangche district in an attempt to rape her as she grazed cattle. The soldiers, using a dagger to cut her clothes and slashed open her abdomen. In another account, a resident of Skardo killed an army officer when the officer intruded into his house to rape his daughter.
The villagers of Gupis valley of Gilgit demonstrated against secret agents for the kidnapping of a local girl. Three villagers were shot dead by the FC during the demonstration. Police took no action against the FC for the murders. On a different occasion, secret agents kidnapped two girls from Gulmati village of Gilgit. Villagers demonstrated and filed cases against the culprits. However, the local court released the kidnappers and declared them innocent. Another case was filed in Gilgit police station when agency personnel abducted and molested two orphaned sisters of a local Shia soldier in January 1999. Government law enforcement agencies sided with the culprits and denied justice to the victims. In another incident, sixteen-year-old Muhammad Amin was arrested from Gilgit for suspicions of theft and drug trafficking. Police officials sodomized the boy for several weeks. The suspect was later found innocent. This incident shows that while the real drug dealers – Pathan and Punjabi settlers – roam free as State guests, innocent people like Muhammad Amin are victimized by State-sponsored sex predators.
The Kargil War was another crime committed by Pakistan against the people of Baltistan and Gilgit. In May 1999, Pakistan waged a war on India and used Baltistan as the launching pad. Baltis consider the war as an attempted genocide against an ethnic minority. Pakistani government pushed thousands of people into a senseless war and used three thousand NLI soldiers (Northern Light Infantry, predominantly composed of Shia soldiers) as cannon fodder. Ex-PM, Nawaz Sharif, who called the Kargil war a disaster bigger than the wars of 1948, 1965 or 1971, admitted that 3,000 NLI soldiers perished in the Kargil war. The war primarily impacted Baltis and Ladakhis on both sides of the border. The war damaged the local economy and caused forced displacement to thousands of people. Although Pakistan claims that local militants (Mujahideen) infiltrated into Indian territory, in reality the infiltrators were regular NLI soldiers. In order to perpetuate the myth, Pakistani officials refused to accept the dead bodies of NLI soldiers from India. Several hundred martyrs killed on Pakistani soil were left in the battlefield to decay and vultures as officials refused to recognize them as Pakistani soldiers. Officials returned the corpses of NLI martyrs in tracksuits and civilian clothes to make them appear as Mujahideen. They deprived martyrs of an honorable State funeral to hide facts.
The case of the NLI soldiers illustrates the story of Baltis who were denied human rights in their lifetime and then denied the rights of the dead to a proper burial. Relatives and villagers assumed the responsibility to bury the corpses which were delivered at midnight to hide them from the media. No government official, either civil or military, attended these funerals. The Pakistani authorities intimidated the family members of the martyrs to avoid media reporters. As Pakistan refused to accept NLI soldiers’ corpses from India, the people of Ladakh and the Indian authorities assumed the responsibility to bury them. Mothers and widows sobbed when they learned that Pakistan refused to accept the bodies of their sons and husbands from India. The father of Shaheed Mohammad Hussain of Baltistan states, “My son lost his life for this country. I am still waiting for his dead body. I request that the army officials accept the body of my son from India and declare him an NLI soldier rather than a Mujahideen. He should be buried with military honor. It is an outrage for me and the martyr that army officials are praising Mujahideen while my son and thousands like him of the NLI gave their lives for Pakistan.”
The permanent presence of armed forces in Baltistan destroys local environmental traditions which became further exacerbated during the Kargil war. The military build-up leads to intensive exploitation of vegetation and wildlife. Careless disposal of military toxins and used weapons impacts on the environment. The Byarsa (Deosai) region is one of the most sensitive ecological areas in the world, where the Pakistani armed forces and heavy machinery greatly threaten the fragile environment. Endangered wild animals like ibex, markhor, Himalayan bears, snow leopard and marmots are hunted indiscriminately by the armed forces. This rapid depletion creates a resource vacuum for locals that will be felt for many years to come. Without fear of punishment, army helicopters and vehicles transport trophy heads of endangered animals to the drawing rooms of officers. Trade in snow leopard skins and musk occurs without obstruction. Such type of destruction will only stop after a prompt withdrawal of Pakistani troops from the soil of Baltistan.
Another form of human rights violation is lack of freedom of expression. Despite the fact that human rights violations and acts of crime continuously happen against the people of Baltistan, the national and international media is denied access to such reports. The censorship of the local print media restricts Baltis, as well as the entire population of Pakistan, from knowing the political and ethno-cultural persecution in this remote region. Radio Skardo is under strict supervision of military censors and exclusively voices government propaganda. Under these circumstances, national media outlets like State radio and television lack the will to report on the plight of the Baltis. The President of the Council of Pakistan Newspaper Editors (CPNE), Arif Nizami, admitted that government directed the media to censor reports on Balochistan, Baltistan and Gilgit. He reacted by stating, “…Professionalism and constitutional rights call for reporting facts as they are. Reporting on Sui and Northern Areas can not be stopped.” Similarly, representatives of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists state, “Pakistani press is under strict censorship and during military operation in the Northern Areas, reporters were barred from releasing news [regarding Shia massacres].”
Journalists face brutal repression from government agencies when they promote professional reporting. The daily Dawn reported eleven attacks on media persons between January and April 2005. Abduction and physical assault of journalists and political activists is common. On November 21, 2001, a militant attacked and injured a journalist in Gilgit. The militants also attacked the house of the president of the Gilgit Press Club for reporting on the Shia massacres. On March 3, 2005, a hand grenade was hurled at the house of Khurshid Ahmed, the correspondent of daily Khabrain in Gilgit. Ahmed was targeted for condemning terrorism sponsored by the ISI and criticizing secret service agencies for harboring Islamist militants. On July 24, 2005, Ahmed’s house was once again damaged by three homemade bombs. The Senior Vice-President of the Skardo Press Club and correspondent for daily Jang and Geo TV was physically assaulted and tortured by an army major in Skardo on March 20, 2005. He was covering an indoor event of a non-profit organization. In May 2005, a journalist from Skardo contributing articles on human rights violations in Baltistan for a leading Pakistani newsmagazine was abducted, blindfolded, and taken to an ISI cell in Islamabad. The assailants seized his credit cards, automobile and money. They physically tortured him and threatened to hurt his family if he continued writing about the Shia massacres in Baltistan and Gilgit. The incident compelled him to quit his job. On October 17, 2000, the Deputy Commissioner of District Skardo banned the weekly K-2, one of four major newspapers covering Baltistan, for ‘promoting anti-Pakistani feelings’. On November 2, 2000, Gilgit police arrested 24 journalists who were protesting the proscription of the weekly “K-2”. On November 4, 2004, the publisher of Kargil Magazine was arrested and charged for supporting the autonomy of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and demanding inclusion of Shia beliefs in the school curricula. Police tortured him along with other journalists and political activists. Sources believe that magazine was banned for publishing an article called “The Independent State of Baltistan and Gilgit on the World Map” and disclosing information on extra judicial killings by police. Unless censorship is removed from media reporting and Pakistani forces withdraw from Baltistan, locals will continue to undergo similar torture and humiliation.
Q: Which groups have taken up the cause of self-rule for Baltistan? What is the sort of support that they enjoy?
There are several small groups active for the freedom of Baltistan and Gilgit. Some of these groups are Gilgit Baltistan United Movement (GBUM), Baltistan National Movement (BNM), Baltistan Students Federation (BSF), Ladakh Baltistan People’s Party, Karakoram National Movement (KNM), Balawaristan National Front (BNF) etc. Each party has its influence in the region (Baltistan or Gilgit) where it originated. Parties like GBUM, BNF claim support in both regions. All these parties are evolving slowly, as a mass movement for liberation of Baltistan and Gilgit started only during the era of General Ziaul Haque, in the 1980s. Some of these parties have support of elected members of the Northern Areas Legislative Council. However, these parties have very limited freedom to propagate their message and promote their cause. A constant fear of arrests and torture by police and ISI personnel limits their activities.
Tahir Hussain, member of Baltistan Students Federation (BSF), and four other leaders were arrested by the ISI from BSF office in Skardo. They were taken to the police station and kept in a special ISI cell. They were beaten and tortured. They were subjected to electric shocks. Tahir’s back was cut by knives and chemicals were applied to the cuts which caused him infection. After two weeks, he was released on bail. In 1987, Tahir sought asylum in Canada after receiving death threats from ISI. Other activists detained by Pakistani administration narrate similar stories of torture and humiliation. On August 14, 1997, twenty political activists of KNM and BNF were arrested in Gilgit for commemorating Pakistan Independence Day as the ‘Day of Occupation’. They were tortured by police and several detainees report fractures and permanent hearing loss. In 1999, thirty political activists of BNF from Gilgit region were arrested for observing Pakistan Independence Day as ‘Black Day’. In another incident, police tortured to death a political activist of the Ghizer Students Organization. To date, more than a hundred political activists are detained and tortured on treason charges.
Q: Do you see any perceptible difference between the older and younger generation of Baltistanis in their attitude vis-a-vis Pakistan and India?
Absolutely. The younger generation tend to weigh different options when thinking in terms of J&K dispute. They analyze the pros and cons when thinking about the future of Baltistan. They talk in terms of economic benefits, social development, cultural promotion and religious freedom and security. They seek to interact with Baltis and Ladakhis on the other side of border through letters, emails and phone calls and this helps them understand the bigger picture. The older generation, especially those who experienced partition of India and heard of Dogra brutality from their forefathers have different opinion vis-a-vis Baltistan’s political future. Most old folks have outdated perceptions about India. However, the Shia massacres of 1988 and Kargil War have also compelled them to think practically.
Q: How has the ongoing struggle in Indian-administered Kashmir impacted on Baltistanis’ attitudes towards India?
People of Baltistan condemn brutal actions of armed forces against the civilians of J&K. However, they are equally skeptical about the growing Wahhabi movement in Indian J&K and see the need to counter such movements. People of Baltistan desire an end to militancy and normalcy in the J&K. They desire that Sufi culture of Kashmir should be preserved and for that militancy and dominance of the society by Wahhabi culture should come to an end. Pakistani media promotes India as an occupying force in J&K and 25 years of propaganda has affected minds of largely illiterate and simple Baltis. However, enhanced interaction with Baltis and Ladakhis on the Indian side is changing the perception now, especially among the youth.
Q: What is the level of support that Pakistani jihadist organisations enjoy among the Baltistanis?
Very few Baltis support Jehadi movement and the organizations. Most of the supporters among the Baltis are Sunnis / Ahl-i Hadith, who are around 5% of the total population of Baltistan. People of Baltistan desire for normalcy to prevail and an end to conflicts.
Q: What do you see as a realistic solution to the conflict over Jammu and Kashmir.
A solution that will allow the divided ethnic groups to rejoin and reunify within one administrative set up. A solution that will end religious extremism in J&K and help promote pluralistic ideas. A complete end to militancy and human rights abuses on both sides of the border. A solution that will promote secular values and equal rights for all ethnic groups. A win-win solution for all. A solution that does not envisage destruction and permanent division of ethnic minorities of J&K for the sake of the people of Kashmir Valley. A solution which will help give economic, religious, cultural and political autonomy to all ethnic groups. An absolute autonomy which is inevitable for the development of a viable society.
M. Hasnain can be contacted on [email protected]
Some of his articles on Baltistan can be accessed on www.ladakhtimes.com