Beyond wheat: a cry for justice in Gilgit-Baltistan

Wheat subsidy issue

In this comment piece, Punjrush delves deep into the protests in Gilgit-Baltistan, highlighting the multifaceted grievances of the region’s people beyond mere economic concerns. Based on firsthand interviews with protesters in Gilgit-Baltistan, Islamabad, and Karachi, she captures the true essence of the protests, the spirit of unity and resilience among the protesters.

By Punjrush

The recent protests for wheat subsidy and other basic rights within and outside Gilgit-Baltistan have once again brought to the fore the rising discontentment and sense of deprivation among the inhabitants of the remote and rugged mountainous region. The voices of over two million people have long been drowned out by the echoes of their majestic surroundings, nestled amidst the towering peaks of the Himalayas, Karakoram, and Hindukush ranges.

These events also highlighted the resolute spirit, frustration, and resilience of the people who braved the chilly weather and continued their peaceful protest sit-in in Gilgit and Skardu and suspended it for 21 days after the assurances from the regional government that their demands would be met.

Organised under the banner of the Gilgit-Baltistan Awami Action Committee (GBAAC), a conglomerate of progressive and nationalist parties, trade bodies, and students, the protests were also held across Pakistan. Despite facing arrests and government crackdowns, the protests persisted for over a month. It was not the first protest. A similar movement was organised in 2014 for the same issues.

For decades, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan have grappled with a host of challenges, ranging from colonisation, and political marginalization to economic deprivation and demographic change. Despite being a region of immense strategic and ecological importance, the inhabitants of Gilgit-Baltistan have been denied basic rights and freedoms.

Furthermore, economic exploitation and resource plundering have further exacerbated the plight of the people. Rich in natural resources such as minerals, water, and hydroelectric potential, Gilgit-Baltistan has been subject to exploitation by external actors, leaving the local population impoverished and disenfranchised.

In the face of these challenges, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan refuse to be silenced. From peaceful protests to grassroots movements, they continue to demand justice, equality, and recognition of their rights.

The root causes of discontent

The Pakistani authorities have utterly failed to fulfil their responsibilities of providing subsidized essential items to disputed territories like Gilgit-Baltistan as mandated by the United Nations Commission of India and Pakistan (UNCIP). Instead of the promised 35 items, only wheat remains on the list, and even that has been subject to cuts in quantity and quality. The reduction from 9 kilograms per person per month to 4 kilograms, coupled with unprecedented price hikes, has exacerbated the already challenging situation for the majority of the residents. Furthermore, the quality of the wheat provided is poor, making it barely edible.

The situation was made worse by recent government actions, where wheat sacks were eliminated from the grocery list, and instead, the government started paying a lump sum of Rs8 million to Gilgit-Baltistan without considering the essential provision of flour. This change from receiving wheat to receiving paper money has worsened the situation, turning it completely upside down.

The severity of the crisis regarding wheat subsidies illustrates how successive governments in Gilgit and Islamabad have failed to address the pressing needs of the population and have worsened the situation which has boiled into protests and also broader demands for justice and representation in the region.

Azhar Uddin, a student, and activist from Gilgit-Baltistan, spoke about the origins and escalation of the protests in the region. According to him, the protests initially began in Skardu and Yasin, persisting for a month without any response from the government. This lack of government action prompted the AAC to intensify the movement by organizing a march to Gilgit.

Although the protest in Skardu remained localized, when it spread to Gilgit-Baltistan, it gained significant momentum. As thousands of people from Hunza and Nager districts joined the main protest, the government announced its agreement to the wheat subsidy terms in the region. Consequently, some of the protesters from Nager returned home, but the protesters in Gilgit including those from Ghizer, Hunza, and other areas, continued their protest contending that subsidy was not the only issue they were facing.

On February 4 the regional government issued a statement, assuring the AAC that their demands would be met. This assurance led to a temporary truce, with the protesters agreeing to halt demonstrations for the time being. However, they have made it clear that if their demands are not fulfilled within the specified timeframe, they will resume their protests after 21 days.

This event underscores the importance of dialogue and negotiation in addressing the grievances of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. It highlights the power of collective action and advocacy in holding authorities accountable and pressing for change. However, it also underscores the ongoing challenges and uncertainties facing the region, particularly regarding its political future and autonomy.

Azhar emphasized that while the wheat subsidy is a critical issue, it is not the sole concern driving the protests. The protesters have articulated a comprehensive set of demands encapsulated in a 15-point charter, indicating that their grievances extend beyond economic concerns to broader issues of governance, representation, and autonomy.

The simmering discontentment in Gilgit-Baltistan is not just wheat subsidy; it goes beyond immediate economic grievances to address deeper issues of governance and dispossessing them of their land and resources. Despite boasting a remarkable literacy rate of over 60%, the region’s citizens feel marginalized and disenfranchised, with limited control over their own lives and resources.

One of the key grievances is the lack of representation in key administrative positions. The decision about the region is often made by top bureaucrats such as the Chief Secretary from outside the area, particularly from Punjab and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. This disconnect between decision-makers and the local populace exacerbates feelings of alienation and frustration, as decisions may not fully consider the unique cultural nuances and needs of Gilgit-Baltistan.

This sense of being governed from afar, without adequate representation or agency, fuels a desire for self-determination among the people particularly the educated youth of Gilgit-Baltistan. They aspire to be masters of their destiny and to have a greater say in the governance and management of their region.

“There is an urgent need for measures for addressing not just immediate economic concerns but also deeper issues of political empowerment and self-rule to address the grievances of the region’s citizens truly.”

Azhar highlighted the multifaceted nature of the grievances driving the protests in Gilgit-Baltistan including the controversial Gilgit-Baltistan Finance Act 2023, which imposes taxes on the region despite its disputed status.

He mentioned the severity of the electricity crisis in Gilgit-Baltistan where residents experience prolonged loadshedding. They receive only one hour of electricity a day. There is an urgent need for infrastructure improvements and equitable distribution of resources within the region.

Additionally, the protesters demand representation in the National Finance Commission (NFC) Award and greater control over the profits generated from tourism, border trade, and dam projects within Gilgit-Baltistan. They seek to ensure that these revenues benefit the local population rather than being siphoned off to the central government.

Azhar also mentioned the issue of land ownership in Gilgit-Baltistan, where barren lands have been allotted in the name of the ‘Khalsa sarkar’ (state-owned land), depriving locals of their collective ownership under the garb of a controversial ‘land reforms act.

Furthermore, he criticized the ineffectiveness of the Gilgit-Baltistan Assembly, labeling it as a “dummy assembly” incapable of legislating on important subjects and addressing pressing issues. He advocated for the establishment of a constituent assembly, an independent judicial system, and greater autonomy and decision-making power for the people of Gilgit-Baltistan.

Another student in Karachi underscored the issue of gender inequality and the lack of educational opportunities for women in Gilgit-Baltistan. Despite boasting a relatively high literacy rate of 60%, women in the region are still compelled to leave their homes and communities to pursue higher education due to the absence of functional technical, chemical, or medical universities within Gilgit-Baltistan itself.

This highlights systemic challenges that hinder women’s access to education and opportunities for professional advancement within their region. The necessity for women to relocate for education not only disrupts familial and community ties but also perpetuates gender disparities in access to higher education and career prospects.

The student’s question also prompts reflection on the broader educational infrastructure and investment issues in Gilgit-Baltistan. The lack of specialized educational institutions within the region not only limits opportunities for women but also impedes overall development and human capital formation.

The student emphasized the need for increased investment in educational infrastructure, particularly institutions that cater to the diverse educational needs of the population. Addressing these gaps is crucial for promoting gender equality, empowering women, and fostering inclusive development in Gilgit-Baltistan.

Another student in Karachi highlighted the exemplary unity among the protesters in Gilgit-Baltistan. Despite belonging to different schools of thought and ethnic backgrounds, the protesters came together with a message of harmony and unity. They emphasized their shared commitment to advocating for their rights peacefully and inclusively.

“We never gave out the message of hate but love, and unity”, he said.

This unity sends a powerful message to the world, the ruling elite, and the bureaucracy, that the people of Gilgit-Baltistan are not divided by sectarianism or ethnicity but are united in their pursuit of justice and empowerment.

It also challenges the stereotypes and misconceptions about the region and its people. “We just don’t gather for dance; we are educated and aware of our political rights as well and we will speak out for these rights,” he insisted.

“We want to maintain peace between Shias, Sunnis, and Islmailis and we stand united.”

However, he also acknowledged the harsh reality facing the protesters. Despite their peaceful demonstrations and calls for change, they are facing repression and persecution from authorities, with arrests and charges being increasingly common. This situation reflects the challenges and risks of advocating for rights and justice in a context where dissent is often met with harsh crackdowns.

The rulers and the proponents of neoliberal development must realise that development cannot be measured solely by economic indicators but must also prioritize respect, representation, and empowerment of communities. They should listen to the voices and aspirations of the people, acknowledging their agency in shaping their destinies.

The demands

The list of demands provides a comprehensive overview of the protesters’ grievances and aspirations. Each demand signifies the broader desire for justice, representation, and autonomy within the region. The salient features of the charter of demands are as follows:

— Freeze wheat subsidy at 2022 rates. ensuring affordable access to wheat is a fundamental necessity for the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, and freezing the subsidy at previous rates is aimed at mitigating the economic burden on the population.

— Cancel Gilgit-Baltistan Finance Act 2023 and end all taxes. The cancellation of this act and the cessation of taxes seek to alleviate financial burdens on the residents of the region.

— End chronic electricity crisis and increase power generation. Addressing the power crisis is crucial for improving living conditions and stimulating economic growth in Gilgit-Baltistan.

— Sign an agreement with the federal government to secure substantial financial shares in the NFC Award for GB to support development initiatives in Gilgit-Baltistan.

— Accept ownership of locals over collective uncultivated land to utilize resources for their benefit and promote economic autonomy.

— Replace the GB Assembly with a constituent assembly to enhance democratic representation and decision-making powers within Gilgit-Baltistan.

— Providing free electricity from the Diamer-Bhasha Dam along with increased royalty; ensures equitable distribution of resources and benefits derived from natural assets.

— Cancel mineral exploration leases given to non-locals and prioritize the interests of locals in resource extraction and economic activities, promoting indigenous ownership and control over natural resources.

— Declare tourism and transportation as industries to stimulate economic growth, job creation, and infrastructure development in Gilgit-Baltistan.

— Construct Shounter Tunnel to improve connectivity and promote tourism, thereby boosting the local economy.

— Restore ancient trade routes and roads, build the Shounter Tunnel to enhance connectivity, facilitate trade, and stimulate economic activity within the region.

— Construct medical, engineering, and technical colleges; enhance access to quality education and foster human capital development within Gilgit-Baltistan.

— Establish a university for women to improve gender equality and access to higher education for women, promoting social empowerment and economic participation.

— Award contracts of mega projects under PSDP to local contractors and ensure that development projects benefit the local economy.

— Encourage public transport by making NATCO profitable to foster economic growth and stability, while also ensuring efficient wheat supply chains.

Overall, these demands reflect a multifaceted approach to addressing the economic, social, and political challenges facing Gilgit-Baltistan. They highlight the aspirations of the people for greater autonomy, representation, and economic development within the region.

Punjrush hails from Gilgit-Baltistan and is a graduate of Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad. She is a Gender Expert and social worker currently engaged with Mahwari Justice. With a focus on women’s issues, feminism in Pakistan, reproductive health, and socio-political matters in Gilgit-Baltistan, Punjrush’s work encompasses a wide range of critical topics.

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