Pakistan and India have fought three wars over Kashmir since gaining independence in 1947. But alongside better-known sites of conflict – in the states of Jammu and Kashmir – the troubles of neighbouring Gilgit-Baltistan are invariably overlooked.
Sometimes described as the ‘Roof of the World’, Gilgit-Baltistan borders China, Afghanistan and India, and offers some of the most rugged terrain on the planet.
Its two million inhabitants are agitating for more rights. Governed as a federally controlled territory of Pakistan since 1948, it is run by officials directly appointed by Pakistan’s president. Much like Puerto Rico, it is neither a full state with powers of self-rule, nor an independent nation.
Local leaders want to be accepted into Pakistan as an official province. At least then the region would be granted a provincial assembly with power to legislate.
But it suits many parties to keep Gilgit-Baltistan in limbo. For its part, India sees the region as part of Kashmir, illegally captured by Pakistan. With this in mind, Kashmiri activists who oppose Indian control are actively seeking to block Gilgit-Baltistan – an area five times as large as the states of Jammu and Kashmir – from being absorbed into Pakistan. They know that this would prompt India to claim Kashmir by way of compensation.
The complex political manoeuvring leaves the people of Gilgit-Baltistan short-changed. Locals are dependent on an uninterested federal government and enjoy no constitutional protections.
Despite a ‘self rule’ agreement in 2009 that created a locally elected legislative assembly, the body lacks real power. Judges, who are appointed by the Pakistani president, are not locals and often unqualified to pass judgement, according to Baba Jan, a prominent activist. ‘We will be controlled by Pakistan until the Kashmir issue is resolved,’ he says.
Its indeterminate status makes it difficult for the region to develop or respond to emergencies. A major flood in 2010 left thousands homeless and 25,000 cut off from the outside world. Officials promised each displaced family $6,000 in compensation, but two years later, had not delivered.
Long-standing tensions flared last August, when Pakistani police killed two protesters in a crowd demanding compensation. The murders triggered widespread riots and more than 100 people, including Baba Jan, were charged for crimes ranging from arson and rioting to treason.
As Pakistan’s Supreme Court has no jurisdiction in the region, locals are vulnerable to abuse. Jan was released a year later after an outcry, but a special ‘anti-terrorism’ court sentenced five remaining protesters to 10 years in prison.