Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Peter Boyle - Mass protests sweep Pakistani-occupied Gilgit Baltistan | Green Left Weekly

A powerful popular protest is sweeping through the Pakistani-occupied disputed territory of Gilgit Baltistan. Since April 15, an indefinite sit-in strike (dharna) has been waged, uniting for the first time groups from a range of political and religious backgrounds against the removal of a longstanding wheat subsidy. On April 22 protesters will converge in a "long march" on Gilgit, the territory’s capital to surround the offices of local puppet government authority.
Syed Asad Hasan, a progressive journalist in Gilgit Baltistan told Green Left Weekly in an exclusive interview that the new protest movement had gathered so much support, that even Pakistan’s major opposition parties have come under pressure to declare their support. A central protest leader, Advocate Ahsan Ali, informed him that people will come from all the districts to "convert Gadi Bagh [the main square in Gilgit] into a new Tahrir Square".
So what is the background to this protest? During the British colonial era, Gilgit Baltistan was occupied by the British-backed feudal ruler of Kashmir but Pakistan has occupied the territory since 1948. “In 1972 under the Shimla Pact between India and Pakistan, the former prime minister of Pakistan Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto gave the subsidy on wheat to Gilgit Baltistan because India was giving such a subsidy to Indian occupied Kashmir already. Moreover, according to the conventions of UNO Pakistan is bound to provide subsidies to this disputed area," Hasan explained. “The ordinary people, most of whom are very poor and depend on the subsidy, believe the subsidy is their right.
“In order to put pressure against government’s action, the Jauhar Ali Khan Memorial Society (named after a nationalist leader of the 1950s) called all parties’ conference in which all religious, social, and political and student organisations were present. After a long debate they formed the Gilgit Baltistan Awami Action Committee to fight for the rights of people. The first item on the committee’s agenda was the reinstatement of the wheat subsidy.
“As the people of Gilgit Baltistan demonstrated that the AWC had the popular mandate, the committee, gradually increased the charter of demands to include the removal of tax, load shedding, fees in hospital and reinstatement of the subsidy on transportation which had been removed earlier. “The AWC is calling for the removal of taxes because according to international law, there should be no taxation without representation. As an occupied territory Gilgit Baltistan is exempt from all type of taxes but government has imposed taxes on people of Gilgit Baltistan illegally.”
Hasan explained that “according to some political activists Pakistan has removed the wheat subsidy in under pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). However, as Gilgit Baltistan is a disputed territory it is exempt from all these laws.” He also agreed that a significant part of the wheat subsidy had been diverted through government corruption. But added: “First of all the people should be aware of their rights in the context of a disputed territory, secondly they should support the action committee’s struggle to get their rights in full.”
When negotiations with government failed, the action committee launched the sit in protest which are still going on throughout Gilgit Baltistan. A local news publication, the Pamir Times, said this is the longest protest in the territory’s history. It reported that Gilgit's shops and roads had been closed for two days by the strike.
Farooq Tariq, the general secretary of the left-wing Pakistani party, the Awami Workers Party, told Green Left that his organisation strongly supported the protest and that one of its leaders, Baba Jan (who was previously jailed and tortured in Gilgit Baltistan), was playing a leading role the movement... read  more and see photos