“What makes us think critically when we know the consequences [are] really harsh in this country,” says a political worker who wanted me to highlight the case of Advocate Ehsan Ali who was arrested from his residence in Gilgit last week for sharing a Facebook post (and has since been released on bail).
It was believed that the post did not sit well with some religious groups who reportedly persuaded the authorities to take this extreme step. However, there were countless attempts to deny the fact that such demands were made by religious leaders who consider Ehsan to be a symbol of interfaith harmony in Gilgit-Baltistan.
Advocate Ehsan Ali is one of the region’s most vocal rights activists and has been a key player in the resistance movements against the violation of human rights, including the extrajudicial incarceration of those who are considered to be voices of dissent in Gilgit-Baltistan. He has also extended political and legal support for political prisoners such as the progressive political leader Baba Jan, who is serving a life sentence in jail for his bravery in exposing police atrocities against those who were affected by the Attabad disaster in Hunza.
In 2010, the police had killed a father and son during a peaceful political protest that was held in solidarity with the Attabad victims in Aliabad Hunza. Baba Jan and some of his comrades were arrested for their alleged involvement in acts of arson and plundering public property in Hunza in the aftermath of police action against protesters. Ironically, Baba Jan was not present on the scene. It was later alleged that he fomented the violence even though the police shootout had turned a peaceful rally into a violent mob.
Advocate Ehsan Ali fought Baba Jan’s case and was able to highlight the cause of progressive other political workers in the national and international media. Advocate Ehsan Ali, the Awami Workers Party and local nationalist groups were able to internationalise the issues about the plight and victimisation of political workers of Gilgit-Baltistan. Ehsan’s other contributions include his ability to promote interfaith dialogue and help reduce sectarianism in Gilgit city.
Many were surprised to learn that a symbol of interfaith harmony in Gilgit-Baltistan was arrested on the charges of instigating sectarian violence. As the president of the Gilgit Bar Association, a close associate of the late Asma Jahangir and a secular and progressive political leader, Ehsan Ali posed a challenge to the monopoly of the state in an under-represented region of Pakistan. In a region embroiled in sectarian violence, a sane state must promote sectarian harmony that is symbolised by people like Ehsan Ali and Baba Jan. The decision to arrest Ehsan and the silence of GB government shows that our polity is bereft of reason.
There have been reports about the infiltration of religious extremist groups to sabotage CPEC through sectarian violence. The government of Gilgit-Baltistan has failed to demonstrate courage to stand up against an inflated bureaucracy and a powerful establishment.
There is no sense of justice, freedom, empowerment and representation among the political forces that want to promote an anti-sectarian and truly democratic form of political governance. Contrary to the government’s claims to take action against anti-state elements, it has turned out to be an anti-people state. While external enemies may conspire to sabotage CPEC, it seems that our inept and myopic ruling class has facilitated these elements by instilling a sense of deprivation among its own citizens.
Gilgit-Baltistan is one of the most politically sensitive regions of Pakistan. It is, therefore, vital to develop the region to help address the grievances of its people. No political party welcomed the arrest of Advocate Ehsan Ali and his political associates and even religio-political parties had rejected the charges against him. As a result, people have started to raise questions about who has created this crisis in Gilgit-Baltistan.
There is a visible sense of deprivation in a region that has one of the highest literacy rates in the country. Despite the miseries of extrajudicial treatment inflicted upon the people of this region, there has never been an anti-state uprising – except when locals have taken to the streets to demand their legitimate political, economic and constitutional rights.
For 70 years, the Gilgit-Baltistan has been in a state of political limbo that is intractably linked to the Kashmir dispute. It wouldn’t be a violation of any international laws, national policies or foreign policy initiatives if the people of this region are given their due share in the economic, political and constitutional affairs of Pakistan. This will not weaken the political claim of Pakistan over Kashmir. In fact, it will strengthen its international stance and result in public buy-ins vis-a-vis the dispute among GB’s residents.
The conventional political tactics of control, coercion and oppression are not going to help the state build a broad-based consensus over Kashmir. On both sides of the political divide, the people of Kashmir have suffered significantly. India has deployed 0.7 million troops to maintain illegitimate control over the people of the valley. Kashmiris are also not being treated with dignity in Pakistan.
Gilgit-Baltistan has not witnessed any reciprocity from the government of Pakistan. The people of the region have been pushed to the margins and there appears to be a continuation of the colonial mode of governance through indirect rule. Inept bureaucrats, who are mostly appointed through the federal government, have facilitated the real instruments of control and an overly centralised local council has fuelled indirect rule in the presence of a spineless local legislative assembly.
Last week, I had opportunity to participate in a seminar on the status of Gilgit-Baltistan at the National Press Club Islamabad. The speakers were able to put forth some valid recommendations for the political mainstreaming of Gilgit-Baltistan. There was a consensus among all political parties – including the PPP, the PML-N and the PTI – that the region must be accorded the same political, economic and constitutional rights enjoyed by the other four provinces.
Experts and political leaders were able to set the context for a national narrative on the political mainstreaming of Gilgit-Baltistan. There are reports that both the Kashmir and GB councils will be abolished and all powers will be transferred to the local legislative assembly. This is a welcome step that will help address the political grievances of Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan’s people.
However, a great deal needs to be done to bring these areas at par with the four provinces of Pakistan. These regions can eventually become the fifth and sixth provinces of Pakistan and their disputed status does not stand in the way of pursuing this option. There are no legal, constitutional or political complications to obstruct this path – unless we are stopped by an old-fashioned, security-focused interpretation of our national issues.
People like Advocate Ehsan Ali and his political comrades must continue to speak out to ensure a better future for their people because they provide hope and motivation to our youth who are in search of an identity in a nation-state.
While there is a price to be paid for talking sense in this country, the poor have proved that they value those who speak for their rights. The turnout at Asma Jahangir’s funeral showed how much admiration she had earned. The people of Gilgit-Baltistan admire heroes like Advocate Ehsan and Baba Jan. The sacrifices that these heroes have rendered to ensure the supremacy of the law will not go to waste.
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.