Ittehad Chowk Dharna in Gilgit postponed, after some gains and many promises!

GILGIT: For the last three weeks, thousands of people were protesting in Gilgit city’s Ittehad Chowk area, demanding fulfilment of a 15-points charter of demands.

Led by Awami Action Committee, a coalition of various civil society organizations, trade and transport associations, and political parties, the Dharna (Sit-in) went through various phases before coming to an end, albeit temporarily, today.

Dharna in Baltistan

Large numbers of people attending the Dharna in Skardu on January 5, 2024. Pamir Times photo

The Dharna (sit-in) was not confined to Ittehad Chowk. The Baltistan Coordination Committee led a 35-days long Dharna at Yadgar-e-Shuhada in Skardu. For over a month, thousands of protesters gathered every day to peacefully register their protests.

Dharna in Nagar

Dharna at Harespu Das, Nagar on January 26. Pamir Times photo

Locals from various parts of Nagar district gathered at the district headquarters in Harespu Das to demand restoration of subsidy on wheat. The Dharna continued for seven days, attended by thousands of people. The Dharna in Nagar was led by the “Nagar Supreme Council”.

Sheikh Mirza Ali, a prominent leader of the Dharna in Nagar, had said that they would march to an “Unknown Location” in Gilgit. However, the rally was called off midway, after the wheat subsidy was restored.

Dharna in Yasin (Ghizer) 

Protesters also gathered routinely for weeks in Yasin Valley, Ghizer, to show solidarity with the Dharnas in Skardu and Gilgit, and to press the government to accpet the demands.

Protests in Hunza

Protest demonstrations were also held on several occasions in different parts of Hunza, including Aliabad. One of the protests in Hunza was attended by women in large numbers. It was one of the very few, if any, protest demonstrattions attended by women.

Protest Demonstration in Chilas

Protest demonstrations were also held in Chilas to demand ‘equitable’ distribution of wheat based on the recently conducted “Digital Census.”

The Demands

On top of the list of the charter of demands was reversal of wheat subsidy reduction, followed by annulment of the “Finance Act 2023” which imposed many new taxes in Gilgit-Baltistan. Other demands included acceptance of local ownership of all unirrigated and baren lands. Another important demand was the formation of a “constituent assembly” in Gilgit-Baltistan, which the protesters demanded, should replace the current Gilgit-Baltistan Assembly, and be authorized to make a constitution for Gilgit-Baltistan.

Link: Charter of Demands

Government’s Response

After dragging its feet initially, the regional government started caving in, as charged rallies, on foot and in thousands of vehicles, started moving towards Gilgit from neighboring districts, including Nagar, Hunza and Ghizer.

Under pressure from the protesters, the first demand was accepted on January 29, and a notification was issued to withdraw the reduction in wheat subsidy. Triumphant protesters from Nagar district returned to their homes, after the demand was met. The Dharna, underway in Skardu for over a month, also concluded after the first demand was met.

Special Assistant to the Chief Minister on Information, Eiman Shah, Home Minister Shams Lone, and GB Assembly member Fateh Ullah Khan were actively involved from the government side, conducting press conferences and leading negotiations. Other leaders, including the Chief Minister and Governor, remained invisible or absent from Gilgit-Baltistan.

During one of the press conferences, the Home Minister accused the protesters of being “foreign funded”, a comment which drew sharp criticism online. AAC leaders challenged the Minister to present evidence of the allegations or get ready to face litigation.

The government tried separate negotiations with the protesters in Baltistan and Nagar, to dissuade them from joining the main Dharna at Ittehad Chowk in Gilgit.

Shutters-Down and Wheel Jam Strike

This is how Gilgit Bazar looked like during the strike. Pamir Times photo

For two days, markets remained closed throughout the region and traffic was off the roads after the Awami Action Committee appealed to the masses for a Shutter-Down and Wheels-Jam strike.

Dharna Continued

Despite the end of Dharna and march in Nagar and Baltistan, the Ittehad Chowk sitin continued. At this point, it was thought that the Dharna at Gilgit would come to an end. But rallies kept coming from neighboring districts, as thousands continued to protest at Ittehad Chowk.

“Final Round Negotiations”

After various rounds of negotiations between the Awami Action Committee and the government, the second major demand, withholding of new taxes imposed in the “Finance Act 2023” was also accepted, while promises were made to address other issues, including demands that only the federal government can address.

Copy of the handwritten agreement/announcement signed by both parties

Ministers from the GB government addressed a press conference sharing details of the negotiations and the demands that were met. It was also said that a working group will be formed to pursue the remaining 13 points.

A hand-written agreement, signed by AAC leaders and the ministers, outlines details of negotiations.

Final Day

Some of the Dharna’s organizers posing for a photograph at Ittehad Chowk

Leaders of the Awami Action Committee included Ehsan Ali Advocate, Faizan Mir, Faqir Shah, Sultan Madad, Kausar Hussain, Baba Jan, Aslam Inqalabi, BNF’s Nawaz Khan Naji, and many others, said that per the agreement, they were postponing their Dharna to give the government 3 weeks (21) days to make progress on the other demands.

Speaking at the concluding Dharna, the AAC leadership said that they will resume the agitation if the government failed to honor the agreement.

Law and Order Situation

Throughou the many weeks of massive protest demonstrations there was no law and order situation anywhere. Police and other forces were on alert, but there was no use of force against the protesters throughout the region.

Community Participation 

Locals of Gilgit city opened their houses and places of worship to host, shelter and feed, protesters from across the region. Many groups of local religious and other civil society organizations cooked meal and fed the protesters for days.

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