By Nosheen Ali
In his August 27th NYTimes article “China’s Discreet Hold on Pakistan’s Northern Borderlands” and a subsequent rejoinder published on September 9, Selig Harrison paints an astoundingly imaginative picture of Gilgit-Baltistan. He claims that this region is witnessing a creeping Chinese occupation at the hands of 7,000-11,000 soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army, as well as a simmering local rebellion against Chinese and Pakistani control. Here are the facts.
Gilgit-Baltistan is a Pakistan-governed territory bordering China, and is internationally considered as part of disputed Kashmir. In the 1970s, Chinese laborers and engineers had worked with Pakistan’s Frontier Works Organization to build the Karakoram Highway (KKH) – a high-mountain road that connects China, Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistan, and is described in the region as the eighth wonder of the world. Like the rest of Pakistan, Gilgit-Baltistan has recently suffered severe devastation as a result of natural disasters, and the KKH has been damaged at many points. The Chinese, who had already been working on expanding the KKH over the last few years, are now active in repairing and rebuilding the road. This work is being undertaken by the China Road and Bridge Corporation.
The NYTimes article portrays this construction activity as a military maneuver by the Chinese army, even suggesting that tunnels created as part of a proposed gas pipeline in the region can be used for storing missiles. This is an exercise in sheer myth-making, and both the Chinese and Pakistani governments have issued statements to this effect. Perpetuating such fear-mongering narratives is particularly deplorable at a time when Pakistan is faced with the worst natural disaster in its history, with over twenty million people in urgent need of humanitarian relief. As if the reductive image of a nuclear-armed Pakistan in the throes of Taliban militancy is not enough of an impediment to the flow of aid, Mr. Harrison now adds “de facto Chinese control” of Gilgit-Baltistan to the mix and openly suggests that Pakistan cannot be a trusted US ally under these circumstances.
His assertion that local activists are revolting against an imaginary PLA presence is equally misguided. Activists in Gilgit-Baltistan have in fact reprimanded the Pakistani government for not involving the Chinese earlier in relief work, due to the latter’s stronger technical competency. More generally, ordinary people in Gilgit-Baltistan respect the Chinese laborers for their efforts, and favor stronger economic ties with China.
Perhaps most shocking is Mr. Harrison’s critique of Pakistani policies in the territories of Kashmir it governs, as compared to his praise for supposedly democratic elections and free media in Indian-ruled Kashmir. While Pakistan undoubtedly suppresses the parts of Kashmir under its control – and local activists rightly contest this suppression – there is simply no comparison between the state of militarization and misery in Indian Kashmir as compared to its Pakistani counterpart. Mr. Harrison fails to mention the brutalities of the 500,000 Indian soldiers that occupy Indian-ruled Kashmir, and the incidents of rape, disappearances, civilian killings, and Abu-Gharaib style parading of naked Kashmiris that have occurred there in the recent past. He also fails to mention that the PPP government in Pakistan passed the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order last year, which introduced several positive reforms in Gilgit-Baltistan such as the establishment of an elected local assembly as well as a public service commission.
If Mr. Harrison were to visit Gilgit-Baltistan, he would surely be disappointed in the extent to which the realities on the ground contradict his views. He would also be surprised at the perceptiveness of local activists, on whose behalf he so strongly speaks. Political activists in Gilgit-Baltistan remember well the Great Game between Britain and Russia in the late 19th century, in which small Central Asian states were used as a playing ground and specious claims about people and places deployed for justifying imperial interests. They have no trouble seeing the obvious – that the NYTimes report is motivated by a sense of competitiveness against China, instead of a real concern with the political conditions in Kashmir. It is such disingenuous reporting that makes Pakistanis suspicious of American interests, which in turn affects their views on the U.S. and hinders the possibilities of US-Pakistan collaboration.
Nosheen Ali is a development sociologist, and a visiting scholar in the Center for South Asia Studies at University of California, Berkeley.
Also published by Express Tribune.