March, 25 2002
The Times of India
INSIDE THE NORTHERN AREAS - I
Gilgit leaders deny they’re Indian agents
By Siddharth Varadarajan
GILGIT: Being a nationalist in this region is to lay yourself open to the charge of being an Indian agent. Despite this, there is no shortage of groups speaking of self-determination for Gilgit-Baltistan. ‘‘Ten years ago’’, said a local journalist, ‘‘nobody here wanted to hear the name ‘Kashmir’, everybody was for merger with Pakistan. Today, the mood has changed to one of self-determination rather than merger’’.
Among the most prominent nationalist groups are the Balawaristan National Front of Nawaz Khan Naji, the Karakoram National Movement of Chaudhry Mohammed Iqbal, the Gharib Avaam Quami Movement of Inayatullah Shumali, the MQP of Maj Shah, the Gilgit- Baltistan Thinkers Forum of Col Wajahat Hassan Khan and the Baltistan Students Federation, which uses the old Tibetan-Buddhist symbol of auspiciousness, the swastika, on its flag.Together with the regional wings of Pakistan-based parties like the Muslim League, PPP and even Jamaat-e-Islami, these groups have established the Gilgit-Baltistan National Alliance (GBNA) around the minimum slogan of self-rule.
Some GBNA constituents favour the Northern Areas becoming Pakistan’s fifth province, others want merger with AJK, while the nationalists stress self-determination. ‘‘Gilgit-Baltistan is a nation and it should be given national rights,’’ Naji told The Times of India. ‘‘Our people should have the right to choose whether they want to be with Pakistan, India, independent or whatever.’’ If Pakistan were ‘‘unilaterally to incorporate Gilgit-Baltistan as a province’’, says Naji, his party would fight this tooth and nail.
‘‘Neither I nor my descendants will ever accept India,’’ says Maj Shah, ‘‘so if Pakistan won’t accept us, we have no option but independence’’.All the nationalists this correspondent spoke to say the Pakistani authorities routinely accuse them of being R&AW agents. Several have been charged with sedition. ‘‘My argument is very simple,’’ says Maj Shah, who has been fighting a sedition case for several years. ‘‘When you are not prepared to consider me a part of Pakistan, against whom am I being seditious?’’
Despite such arguments, legal harassment continues. Two years ago, the authorities banned the weekly K-2, at the time the only independent newspaper in the region, because it carried a news report about the nationalists observing Pakistan’s independence day of August 14, 2000, as yaum-e-siyah or ‘black day’’. Though the ban was lifted last year, the paper has to tread carefully. Naqqara editor Ali Mardan says that though the strength of the nationalists remains untested, their influence has grown tremendously in the past decade. ‘‘I remember Naji’s first rally 12 years ago,’’ he says. ‘‘There were just 35 people and half of them were speakers.’’ But in the rally Naji held in the centre of Gilgit on November 1 last year, ‘‘there were more than 2,000 people despite the pouring rain’’.
Naji, an intense, welcoming man in his 40s, is self-deprecatory when asked about popular support. ‘‘All I can say is that when Nawaz Sharif was arrested by the military, no one protested. Here, at least 200 people were prepared to court arrest when I was jailed.’’If Pakistan is in control, he notes, obviously people will not speak against Pakistan. ‘‘But if the peoples’ views are ascertained through some independent agency such as the UN, who is to say what they would choose?’’