Getting to know G-B

Ghazi Salahuddin

When we reflect on sectarian strife in Pakistan, some atrocities committed in Gilgit-Baltistan stand out, along with terrorist attacks on the Hazara community in Quetta. It seems so outrageous and even unreal that this should happen in locations that are so serene and picturesque. After all, people living in high mountains and in remote valleys are historically very peaceful and open minded. So, what has changed in recent years in these otherwise blissful surroundings?

These were some of the thoughts I carried with me when I visited Gilgit-Baltistan about three weeks ago as a member of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s fact-finding mission. In that sense, it was not a touristic excursion to some of the most enchanting scenery in the world. A conscious effort was made to probe the state of affairs at a human level. And this became a very educative experience. There were many surprises revelations.

Earlier this year, I had mentioned in one of my columns a book about an adventurous journey to Baltistan by Irish author Dervla Murphy. She had spent an entire winter in ‘Little Tibet’, walking across the valleys with her six-year old daughter and, yes, a pony. The title of the book is: ‘Where the Indus is Young: Walking to Baltistan’. She had made this journey in the mid-1970s, before the marvel that is the Karakoram Highway had transformed the entire region.

Now I would only quote two sentences from her preface, written in July, 1975. She said: “Certainly the visitor is aware of no stifling conservative theocratic presence in Pakistan, which feels considerably less religion-conscious than the officially secular India”. She was willing “to vouch that even the most powerful Pakistani mullahs have far less influence than the average Irish Catholic bishop”.

Take this just as an aside, to underline the changes that have afflicted the Pakistani society and there is a specific reference to Gilgit-Baltistan. Still, one high point of our visit was something entirely novel and very recent. In all my travels, there has hardly been anything like the Attabad Lake, formed in January 2010 when a mountain moved. You see, mountains do move and trigger a natural phenomenon of great awe and wonder.

In some ways, the deep blue lake formed when the waters of the Hunza River were blocked by a massive landslide is an appropriate representation of the mysteries that are embedded in the region. We crossed it in a small speedboat to meet a group of displaced persons in Gulmit. It stretches now to about 16 kilometres and this means that it is slowly being drained. It was truly a memorable encounter.

But taking in the beauty of the place was just a distraction because the mission necessitated interaction with different sections of the people in some selected areas of what is only a de facto part of Pakistan. It is a disputed territory, appended to the Kashmir issue. It does not also possess the same status as Azad Jammu Kashmir. It is now being administered under the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Government Order of 2009. Formerly classified as ‘Northern Areas’, the region does not have a constitutional status.

This ‘national question’ has caused widespread anguish and every conversation was launched with this lament that the inhabitants of the region are not the legitimate citizens of Pakistan – or of any country. Some observers felt that this long-standing grievance could bolster a nationalist movement that is at present in a nascent stage. Others believe that the emerging sentiments would be dominated by the sectarian divide. Next year’s elections to the G-B Legislative Assembly – the present one is led by the PPP – are likely to offer some clarifications in this respect.

In the HRCP fact-finding mission, I had joined Roland Desouza, Hussain Naqi and Najam U-Din, with Israruddin as the G-B coordinator. We had extensive terms of reference, the focus being a review of the performance of the elected government and an assessment of the dominant concerns of the people. A report will eventually come. Here, I only have a few glimpses of a region that has an extraordinary geo-strategic significance. We have Kargil and Siachen as well as the border with China.

All you need to do to appreciate the political dynamics of the region is to look at the map. The stage is set for a great game, involving major powers. With reference to sectarian conflicts and incidents of terrorism, including that killing of nearly a dozen foreigners at the Diamir Base Camp of Nanga Parbat, the common explanation is that foreign elements are engaged in conspiracies.

I was aware of the diversity that exists in the region but its extent and implications would seem to be incomprehensible. With its two regions and seven districts, Gilgit-Baltistan has clusters of populations that exist in totally different worlds and eras. At one end of the spectrum, for instance, you have the inspiring examples of what the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme has achieved through grassroots development. Women have been empowered and their emancipation would be the envy of any urban enclave in this country. On the other end, primitive customs and values still prevail in some places.

One impression that has remained uppermost in my mind is that Gilgit-Baltistan is a treasure and its riches can transform Pakistan if it is properly developed and made safe for tourists. Its natural resources are incomparable. Its mineral wealth is yet to be properly explored. The possibilities are endless. But equally formidable are the barriers that exist, particularly relating to communication and access by air and road. Unable to get a flight back to Islamabad from Gilgit, we had to suffer the discomfort of spending almost 16 hours on the road.

This trip was instructive as the sections of the road that were under the Chinese supervision were in excellent condition but it was not the same wherever our own people were in charge. We had to stop briefly at places where the Chinese engineers were working with Pakistani labour. But for their facial expressions, it would be hard to set them apart.

Hence, it ultimately boils down to the quality of our human resources and the practices that are ingrained in our social behaviour. Our systems are rooted in corruption and inefficiency. We are gifted with stupendous bounties of nature. In contrast, we are impoverished in human terms. But it is also in Gilgit-Baltistan that we have examples of how everything can change with education and social mobilisation. Can we learn from these islands of human excellence that exist in high mountains?

Source: The News

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