Jammu and Kashmir - Protests in Gilgit-Baltistan
Since April 15, 2014, the Awami Action Committee (AAC), an umbrella group of 22 different religious, political and nationalist parties, had organized unprecedented protests in Gilgit-Baltistan on a number of local issues, especially the withdrawal of subsidy on wheat.
YadgarChowk in Skardu and GarhiBagh in Gilgit have been the main centres of protests with thousands of people gathering there. Though not a Tahrir or Shahbagh Square, the size of the demonstrations were unprecedented and historic for the area.
After 12 days of continuous protests and sit-ins, the AAC conditionally called off (April 26) the agitation after successful negotiations with a government committee in Islamabad.
As per the agreement, the government will notify the reduction in price of wheat, which was one of the nine demands. If the government did not notify the reduction, the agitation would re-commence.
What made the government back down in the face of the protests was the worry that the AAC rallies continued to draw huge crowds and unite people from different sects. By April 26, the movement had entered its 12th day but protesters' enthusiasm remained as high as it was initially.
The government was equally concerned that in Chilas, the protesters had blocked the Karakoram Highway that connected Gilgit-Baltistan with the rest of the country since April 19 in compliance with instructions issued by the AAC. Protesters refused to allow traffic to pass despite the CM's appeal to them via telephone.
The first casualty of the agitation was Chief Secretary Mohammad Younus Dagha, who was fired since he was the person who signed the order ending the wheat subsidy. But the change was only cosmetic since the decision was political and not administrative. It did not satisfy the agitators.
Earlier, the agitation had gathered momentum. A long march towards Gilgit was announced by AAC on Sunday, April 20 which gave authorities 48 hours to restore the wheat price from the current Rs14 to Rs 8 per kg. With the government failing to act, people poured into Gilgit from all over the region on April 22. According to one report, at least 3,000 people reached Gilgit from Diamer. Similarly, convoys from Ghizer, Baltistan, Hunza-Nagar and Astorealso joined the nearly 15,000 protesters who had set up a protest camp at Ghari Bagh, Gilgit the epicenter of the protests.
In Skardu, the crowd at Yadgar Chowk continued to swell as more than 30,000 people turned up on both April 23 and 24.
What helped the government initially was the apathy of the Pak media, especially TV. There was hardly any media coverage of the initial protests. There was some local print media coverage whichgradually expanded as the agitation continued.
Despite the Pak media ignoring the protests, word got out through the social media about developments in Gilgit-Baltistan. This forced mainstream political parties from Pakistan to get into the act. As the PPP's Punjab secretary general Tanvir Ashraf Kaira said on April 23, "The issue of wheat subsidy for the people of Gilgit-Baltistan has been left to fester too long. The government must do something about it as soon as possible."
The Gilgit-Baltistan Students Federation (GBSF) Lahore held a demonstration in front of Lahore Press Club on April 24 to demand the restoration of the wheat subsidy. They also demanded the restoration of Kargil-Ladakh Road for the provision of better transport facilities to the people of the area.
The Majlis Wahdatul Muslimeen also set up a protest camp in front of the Lahore Press Club to highlight the issue of Gilgit-Baltistan.
In the UK, an organization called the Jammu Kashmir National Independence Alliance (JKNIA) presented a memo to the Pak Consulate in Bradford endorsing the AAC's 'charter of demands.'
Perhaps for the first time, the normally pro-Pakistan Kashmiri Diaspora in the UK openly criticized the "arrogant" attitude of the Pak establishment for ignoring the just demands of the AAC and "to observe and note colonial practices employed by your administration towards the people of Gilgit-Baltistan."
Though the protests have been conditionally suspended, they clearly demonstrate a sense of increasing alienation among the local populace. While the main reason for the agitation was the sharp increase in the price of wheat pursuant to the withdrawal of the subsidy, the protests went beyond this and were gradually morphing into a protest against the very system of administration that treated the area as a colony.
What the protestors have to guard against is the efforts of the administration to beak their new-found sectarian unity. That the AAC is aware of this is apparent from the statement of is Maulana Khalil Qasmi as he led the joint prayers for AAC members "Let us pray this unity stays and we succeed in achieving our goals.
The civil society in Gilgit-Baltistan has tasted victory, the first time since 1947. They have demonstrated unity and unitedly have forced an unwilling administration to pay heed to their demands and concede them. It is to be hoped that through such unity, the civil society would continue to press ahead for proper constitutional status and human rights for the area and the people.
(Posted on 28-04-2014)
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