Protests for the release of Baba Jan, Iftikhar Karbalai, Aleem and the other activists imprisoned in the Gahkuch jail are held regularly, but this year the sit-in seemingly turned out to be bigger and longer
Once again, protests were staged in Hunza valley and other parts of Gilgit-Baltistan for the release of political activist, Baba Jan and 14 others arrested in August 2011 and serving life imprisonment awarded to them by an anti-terrorism court.
The peaceful protests ended after six days when the Gilgit-Baltistan administration, after talks with the protest leaders, gave an assurance that the prisoners would be released in about one-and-a-half month.
Baba Jan and the others were charged with burning government property during riots that erupted after a climate-induced landslide that hit Attabad on January 4, 2010, and formed a 23 kilometre-long lake blocking the Hunza river and submerging three villages upstream in Gojal. The protestors were demanding compensation for the affected and condemning the government’s alleged inaction in the wake of the incident. The landslide killed 19 people, caused injuries to many others and rendered about 500 villagers homeless.
The latest protest, which began in Hunza’s main town, Aliabad, and spread to certain other parts of the vast geopolitically sensitive Gilgit-Baltistan region, could be linked to the forthcoming election for the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly as Baba Jan’s Awami Workers Party (AWP) and supporters would have wanted him out of the prison to take part in the polls. It was also a time for political activism by raising issues that could influence the outcome of the election.
The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government and the opposition parties as well as the military have held consultations for granting provisional provincial status to Gilgit-Baltistan after the election to the Legislative Assembly. In fact, there seems to be a broad understanding on implementing this proposal, but granting Gilgit-Baltistan the status of Pakistan’s fifth province before the polls would have put the PTI in an advantageous position at the expense of the opposition parties, which opposed the move at this stage by calling it as an attempt at pre-poll rigging. Moreover, caution was advocated so that the decision on such a sensitive issue doesn’t harm Pakistan’s position on the Kashmir dispute.
India has already raised objection to Pakistan’s decision to hold the election in Gilgit-Baltistan by arguing that it was illegally and forcibly occupied. It also criticised Islamabad for intending to make Gilgit-Baltistan a separate province. The Indian media has been giving wide coverage to the protests. However, there is no support for the Indian position in Gilgit-Baltistan. The views of the Azad Jammu and Kashmir government and political parties would also have to be kept in mind owing to their reservations on the issue.
Pakistan justifiably rejected the Indian stance and argued that it has no locus standi on the issue of the election in Gilgit-Baltistan. It knows well that India is reacting to Pakistan’s consistent opposition to New Delhi’s unilateral and forcible move on August 5, 2019, in violation of UN resolutions to change the special status of Indian-occupied Jammu and Kashmir by scrapping Articles 370 and 35-A of its constitution.
Gilgit-Baltistan has assumed great importance as it is the entry-point for the Beijing-sponsored China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which Islamabad has described as a game-changer for the country.
The election for the 24 seats of the Legislative Assembly would be held on November 15 after having been postponed from August 18 due to the severity of the Covid-19 pandemic at the time. The announcement was made by President Dr Arif Alvi. The assembly completed its five-year term on June 24.
Baba Jan is a progressive politician ready to highlight the demands and aspirations of his people. A petition for his release was also signed at the international level by left-wing intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali and the late David Graeber.
The semi-autonomous region bordering China was ruled by Mian Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) with Hafiz Hafeezur Rahman as the chief minister after winning the June 2015 election. Normally the political parties in power at the federal level manage to win the elections in Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir as the electorate expect the ruling party to be better able to resolve their problems and to serve them better. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the PML-N have already announced their candidates while Prime Minister Imran Khan-led PTI and other parties, including the Shia and Sunni religious parties that didn’t do well in the previous polls, are currently busy finalising their lists of contestants.
Baba Jan, Iftikhar Karbalai, Aleem and the other activists are imprisoned in the Gahkuch jail. Protests for their release are held regularly, but this year the protest sit-in seemingly turned out to be bigger and longer. Several women too participated in the protests. They included Baba Jan’s sister Nazreen who spoke at the meeting to convey her mother’s message as to why her son was in custody. The protestors had pledged not to leave until the prisoners were freed. They dispersed after securing an assurance from the government that the prisoners would be released in due course of time. The government needs to release the political activists as promised or even earlier because a failure to do so will further vitiate the atmosphere. Besides, people raising a voice for their rights ought not to be treated harshly and sentencing to life imprisonments provided they abide by the law.
His supporters says Baba Jan wasn’t present when the violence took place in August 2010, but he was implicated on false charges and convicted by the anti-terrorism court. They say the riots were actually triggered when a police officer shot dead a father and his son. The truth, they say, will be known once the judicial inquiry report regarding the incident is made public. They are also demanding early hearing of the review petitions of the convicts pending for the last three years.
Though the protestors called for boycott of the upcoming election to the Legislative Assembly and local lawyers showed solidarity with Baba Jan and the other imprisoned activists, the call is unlikely to have an impact across Gilgit-Baltistan. The polls would go ahead as planned, though the turnout may be affected in Baba Jan’s native Hunza valley in case he isn’t freed before the election or is not allowed to contest. He has contested local election once from prison in the past and was placed second.
Baba Jan is a progressive politician ready to highlight the demands and aspirations of his people. A petition for his release was also signed at the international level by left-wing intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali and the late David Graeber. Several human rights organisations have also demanded his release.
The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. He can be reached at [email protected]com