CPEC: A political “Game Changer” for Gilgit Baltistan? | by Siddhartha Garoo
A two day economic seminar titled “China Pakistan Economic Corridor Harbinger of Prosperity” was held at a fancy hotel in Gilgit Baltistan and presided by none other than General Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s much loved Chief of Army Staff; senior federal ministers of PML(N) government and the Chief Minister of Gilgit Baltistan A lot of taxpayer’s money was spent and grand preparations were made in organizing this great sarkari pomp and show.
And yet despite such a high profile nature of the so called “seminar”, the entire event, which was supposed to showcase the “benefits” of the much hyped CPEC project for the region of Gilgit Baltistan (GB) and express the “gratitude” of the people of GB for being part of what is hailed as an economic “game changer” for entire Pakistan ended up turning into a government managed PR exercise that had no intention of connecting with the local population of GB or taking them on board regarding the implementation of the project or its benefits. The whole exercise seemed more geared towards intimidating and suppressing any local political and civil society opposition within GB to the said project and to “warn” neighbouring India, that come what may, the CPEC would go on “at any cost”, which is premised on the belief that currently India’s entire international policy and governance decisions are based only on one thing and that is to “stop CPEC at any cost” and beyond this the state of India has no other work to do. And connecting these two dots is the newly emerged Pakistani state narrative that anyone who raises questions on CPEC is supporter of India ( called “Indian /RAW agent” ) and enemy of the state of Pakistan for which melodramatic words like “qaum ka gaddar” etc. are used.
The problem with the Chinese funded CPEC project is immense mystery in which the entire project is shrouded. Beyond the generalities of where the project will pass through and general estimates of the amount of expenditure to be divided between creating and improving “communication infrastructure” and “energy infrastructure” in different parts of Pakistan, not much information is publically available on individual infrastructure and power projects and therefore no proper and informed critique can be done by Pakistani public or experts on various aspects of CPEC project. For example a lion share of the Chinese investment of roughly $46 billion or an amount of approximately $33 billion is to be spent in creating “power infrastructure”, which could solve Pakistan’s chronic power shortage. However, no environment impact studies or cost feasibility studies have been shared with the public regarding the vast majority of power projects, which are supposed to be run on burning coal (something that will pollute the environment and which is now being discouraged all over the world) or regarding the cost of production of per unit of electricity for the Pakistani consumers. The whole back stage work on the CPEC project seem to be geared more on hiding than informing the public, which is further sugar coated by nationalistic and patriotic jingoism, so that Pakistani tax payers and infrastructure, power and environment experts find it difficult to ask questions.
Unlike other provinces of Pakistan, the “region” of Gilgit Baltistan (it is still not a constitutional province of Pakistan) has different and unique social, political and geographical connections with the CPEC project.
“If there is no GB, then there is no CPEC”
To begin with, let’s be clear that if there is no Gilgit Baltistan, then there is no CPEC. Geographically, the “region” of Gilgit Baltistan is the mainland Pakistan’s only land border with China. Except for GB, no other province of Pakistan shares a land boundary with China. Had it not been the decision of the elders of former “Gilgit Agency” to merge their region, whose independence they won solely by themselves by fighting the Dogra rule, with the newly created state of Pakistan, the Islamic republic of Pakistan would not have inherited this land of “high mountains” ( also called “Balwaristan”) and thereby its access to China, which today is the state of Pakistan’s only dependable international ally in a hopelessly isolated Pakistan.
Unfortunately for the people of Gilgit Baltistan, the virtues of being part of the Islamic republic of Pakistan have not exactly been mutually beneficial. The deliberate policy of entangling former “Northern Areas”, with the so called “Kashmir dispute” not only created 70 long years of political uncertainty for the region but also a lifelong humiliation for its people, who continue to have no political representation in Pakistan’s parliament and whose fate is effectively ruled (currently) by an ethnic Punjabi politician under a “Federal Ministry of Kashmir” appointed by Islamabad.
The CPEC has in particular thrown some unique problems for the “region” of Gilgit Baltistan, which are related primarily to its “neo-colonial” style arrangement with the state of Pakistan and its entanglement with the so called “Kashmir dispute”. The CPEC’s footprints in GB are technically on an internationally “disputed territory” and that makes this part of the CPEC project particularly sensitive as per international legal norms and thereby jeopardising any Chinese investment on the project. The state of Pakistan’s mad obsession as well as compulsion to involve itself with affairs of Kashmir valley means that the chances of formal incorporation of the “region” of Gilgit Baltistan as constitutional part of the state of Pakistan are as good as being impossible.
“The young and restless Gilgit Baltistan”
But the Gilgit Baltistan of today is not that of the earlier times, when the region for most part of its existence within Pakistan was known as “Northern Areas”, which silently and meekly accepted the loot, plunder and dismemberment of its territory and resources by whoever was sitting in Islamabad. A huge chunk of the sacred land of Gilgit Baltistan was “gifted” to China for “strategic reasons”, sectarian massacres were carried out in large parts of the “region” and voices that opposed state oppression of human rights of the people of GB were framed under fake charges and thrown in prison like the legendary leader of GB, comrade Baba Jan.
However today in 2016, a younger generation has come of age, that has decided not to take the subservience of the state of Pakistan quietly. Unlike their forefathers, this younger generation of internet savvy young men and women that include students, commentators, journalists, artists and common man and woman of Gilgit Baltistan, has grown tired and restless of their hopeless existence within the state of Pakistan. And the shenanigans around CPEC are proving to be the last straw in the patience of the intelligentsia and civil society of Gilgit Baltistan.
“Recent Kashmir unrest and changing “geo politics”
The events of last few months, especially after the recent unrest in Kashmir valley that arose after Indian security forces killed a young Kashmiri separatist militant, with huge following has unwittingly had a profound impact on an otherwise ignored “region” of Gilgit Baltistan.
In a shift of diplomatic policy, Indian Prime Minister openly named “Gilgit” during his Indian Independence Day speech, thanking people of GB for what he described as their “support” to India. Now, it can be debated if the people of Gilgit did actually showed their support to India or was it a tactical move on the part of India to counter state of Pakistan’s continuing support to violent activities in Kashmir valley, but what however remains un-debated is the ferocity with which the region of “Gilgit Baltistan” caught the imagination of not just the state of India but also its people. There has been a growing interest among wider sections of net savvy Indians to learn about this “region”, which technically remains part of India and for which there are still seat reserved in Jammu and Kashmir’s state assembly. The author of this article has seen that the interest is not just on the “strategic importance” of the region of Gilgit Baltistan” but also the region’s natural beauty and its ethnic diversity, with which most Indians were as ignored as most Pakistanis thinking all GBians to be “Kashmiris”. There is a huge cultural curiosity taking shape in India towards Gilgit Baltistan, which many Indians are discovering for the first time.
The recent explosion of interest from India has however only complicated the problems and sufferings of the people of Gilgit Baltistan, where majority of people are not known to have any special preference for India. A large majority of the people of GB would prefer the resolution of the ambiguity of their “neo-colonial” style arrangement with the state of Pakistan but the patience of both the nationalists of GB and vast majority of its “federalists” (a term used for pro-Pakistani GBians) is weaning off. The sinking feeling that their fate, which is linked to an unsolvable Kashmir dispute, is creating restlessness among all sections of GBians.
“CPEC brings unity among people of GB”
But the fact that has really brought virtually all communities, religious groups and followers of different political ideologies in Gilgit Baltistan is the CPEC and the shabby treatment that the “region” and the people of GB have got in the execution of this controversial project at the hands of the state of Pakistan.
Whatever little facts that are emerging out of the implementation of CPEC show that the “region” of GB has got the worst of the deal among all provinces / regions of Pakistan. To begin with none of the representatives, including the elected members of the so called “assembly of Giglit Baltistan” were involved in consultation process over the review of the CPEC project. And when voices were raised over this exclusion of the Gilgit Baltistan to have its say in the project, the local government of the Gilgit Baltistan, which belongs to the same party as that of the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, clamped down heavily on the political opposition in one of the most undemocratic and unconstitutional manner even from Pakistan’s own very low democratic standards.
Two very senior leaders of “Awami Action Committee”, an umbrella organization of all political and religious organizations of Gilgit Baltistan were arrested and booked under fake and fraudulent charges, accusing them of effectively being “traitor” and “Indian / enemy agents”. Their fault was only this that they chose to protest against the local elected rudderless government of Gilgit Baltistan over discrimination against the people of GB and exclusion of the “region” of GB in any say relating to CPEC on the day that happened to be India’s Independence day. The local government used this as an excuse to arrest these leaders, accusing them of working on behest of India to what they called “sabotage the CPEC project”. Those political leaders still remain jailed and wait prosecution under notorious “anti terror laws”.
It is however emerging that India / RAW had nothing to do with the whole unnecessary and harsh clampdown and it was more to do with the well thought of act of deliberately silencing any opposition whatsoever to any voice that raises any question over CPEC, which has now been integrated with the national Pakistani narrative of being “patriotic” and is the new definition of being “mohebbe watan Pakistani”.
The whole tamasha of arrest turned out to be a precursor to silencing political voices of opposition before the two day “seminar” in an expensive hotel in Gilgit, which was totally devoid of local people participation and was strictly stage managed with the help of sycophant local government and Islamabad’s pay rolled media. The whole sarkari tamasha was held under close doors where speakers including Pakistan’s most powerful man, General Raheel Sharif hardly addressed the concerns of the region of the people of Gilgit Baltistan focusing more on jingoisms and anti-India threats. There was nothing said to address why GB still remains an unconstitutional province. There was nothing mentioned as to why GB has got literally no investment out of China’s $46 billion investment. Except for using phrases like “great opportunity”, “lot of employment” etc. etc., no detailed reports on specifics was shared by anyone from the civil society of Gilgit Baltistan. And in a rather shameless and incompetency showing gesture, it was indirectly proclaimed that CPEC will include, China developing Gilgit Baltistan like China has “developed” its Xinjiang province across the border from Gilgit Baltistan raising many questions if that means uprooting native ethnic population of Uyghur Muslims and replacing them with outsider Han Chinese. Now who is the native Uyghur and who is outsider in the context of Gilgit Baltistan is a fact known to everyone.
Lastly having said all above, the author of this article feels that Gilgit Baltistan has now entered an interesting phase in its last 70 year history under the administration of Pakistan, where one thing is certain, whether it is the fast changing “geo politics”, a new and resurgent younger generation of GB, more access to non-propaganda information through internet, it is no longer possible for the state of Pakistan to ignore the people or the region of Gilgit Baltistan.
Published in Passu Times English – 3rd September, 2016