Thu. Sep 29th, 2022

A historical dispute

Afzal Shigri

THE district of Chilas in Gilgit-Baltistan shares a border with KP’s Kohistan district. The people across the divide are linked by tribal, linguistic and cultural bonds. They have lived for centuries in the isolated valleys governed by local maliks and a rudimentary system of elected bodies.

Suspicious of outsiders and fiercely independent, the small tribes have remained embroiled in blood feuds, with clashes revolving around tribal rivalries, honour and land disputes, mostly over grazing and water rights.

There is a history of stronger neighbours and outsiders attacking these areas to subjugate the populace and impose suzerainty. For instance, the British attacked and integrated Chilas and adjoining areas into Gilgit Agency. In 1947, as in other areas of GB, the local maliks and jirgas opted for Pakistan. The people had to fight a long-drawn battle with the regular army of Jammu and Kashmir state for joining Pakistan along with other parts of GB.

The fair settlement of border tensions with KP is a test case that is being monitored by the people of GB.

The governor of the Frontier province was appointed agent of the federal government for GB. In 1950, the administration of GB was transferred to the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs. At that time, the area of Kohistan on the left bank of the Indus was unilaterally made part of the Frontier province. While a large area of GB was being integrated into another province, the federation was oblivious to this development and their stance on the Kashmir dispute and its effect on a possible plebiscite on Jammu and Kashmir.

According to Prof Ahmad Hasan Dani, historically, the area right up to Jalkot in Indus Kohistan was part of Gilgit Agency. His claim is based on two documents, namely a letter from S.M. Fraser, resident in Kashmir to the chief commissioner, Peshawar, in 1913 that the Jalkotis were part of Gilgit Agency. This position is further confirmed in a letter, dated Jan 12, 1928 from the resident in Kashmir to the Survey of India, wherein he wrote that the un-administered area, ie Darel, Tangir, Kandia (Killi), Jalkot, Sazin, Shatial and Harban fell within Gilgit Agency.

The people of GB did not raise any voice against the transfer of a large tract of land of Kohistan district to Frontier province in 1950. There was, however, a local dispute between the people of Thor (GB) and Harban (KP) for grazing rights on a stretch of land located on the newly created boundary of GB and KP that resulted in frequent armed clashes.

However, in 1950 the people from both areas held a jirga that settled the boundary dispute through a written agreement. According to this decision, the land up to Bhasha stream was given to the people from Thor. It was in 1960 that the Survey of Pakistan, without taking into consideration this settlement, showed the area up to Basri as part of Kohistan. The people of Harban now use this survey report as evidence in their favour.

The prospect of huge compensation for land acquisition to situate the Diamer-Bhasha dam has complicated this local border dispute. The people of Harban immediately filed a claim for land on both sides of the Karakoram Highway up to 8km. They followed it up by detaining cattle belonging to the Thor people and also set ablaze the cattle sheds at Khanda Nala that had been in their use for centuries.

There is yet another aspect to the dispute wherein the complicity of the government of KP is suspected. According to the design of Diamer-Bhasha dam, the power generation turbine, will be located in the area being claimed by Harban. Generally, official opinion is that since GB is not a province, it is not entitled to any net profit on hydel power, as per Article 161(2) of the Constitution. They base this opinion on the fact that AJK was also not given any part of net profit on hydel power generation from Mangla Dam.

Due to the failure of the government to settle the matter in 2014, the situation deteriorated into an open armed clash in which five people died. Later on, a boundary commission was established. Reportedly, the commission has finalised its report but due to heightened tensions, has not made it public. However, recently there has been a positive development whereby the two tribes, through the efforts of the local notables, forgave each other for the loss of life.

The most unfortunate aspect is the complete apathy of the federal government that has allowed the situation to deteriorate. Recently, due to this local dispute the KKH was blocked by armed locals from Harban, while their rivals also came out in big numbers. After the settlement of blood disputes, an uneasy peace exists. But due to the estimated compensation of disputed land to the tune of Rs8 billion, settlement is not going to be easy.

The people of GB are not prepared to capitulate this time, as they feel they got an unfair deal when a large chunk of land was given to KP in 1950. There is also another parallel dispute of the Shandur pass, formerly part of Ghizer and now under KP’s control. They fear that as in the case of Mangla Dam, GB will also be denied the net hydel profit from the Diamer-Bhasha dam.

The fair settlement of the border dispute is a test case that is being monitored by the people of GB. In case they are short-changed again, the reaction is likely to be very vocal and possibly violent, even spilling over into other areas of the region. The government, therefore, should not consider it a localised dispute, but rather one that will engulf the entire area and endanger CPEC.

The only viable option seems to be full compensation of the entire disputed area to both parties so that this issue is settled once and for all and assurances given through a binding treaty with GB for a share in net hydel power profits from the Diamer-Bhasha dam.

The writer, a former IGP Sindh, belongs to Gilgit-Baltistan. This article was originally published by DAWN. 

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