Stark Comparison: Repressed Gilgit-Baltistan and free Jammu-Kashmir
Polling for the District Development Council (DDC) elections in the Union Territory (UT) of Jammu and Kashmir commenced on 28 November. The first phase witnessed nearly 7 lakh voters casting their ballot in 43 constituencies of the UT (25 in Kashmir and 18 in Jammu) to decide the fate of 296 candidates in the fray. Voting for the elections will conclude on December, 19 and counting of votes will be held on 22 December. These elections will also fill up vacant seats of 1,088 Sarpanch and over 12,000 Panch positions of the UT Panchayats and some vacancies in the Urban Local Bodies.
The candidates represent all political parties operative in the UT with some local parties contesting the polls under a loosely knit amalgam called the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD). Overall it is a great exercise in democracy intrinsic to the Indian model of governance.
DDC is a new concept introduced on October, 17, by the Government of India by amending the Jammu and Kashmir Panchayati Raj Act, 1989 and J&K Panchayati Raj Rules, 1996. Its objective is to strengthen grassroots democracy and the Panchayati Raj system by replacing the bureaucratic District Planning and Development Boards (DDBs) with the DDCs. In the new dispensation the planning process will be handled directly by the elected representatives of the people. While the DDBs functioned under a cabinet minister, the DDC will be headed by the local Member of Parliament as chairman and other local elected representatives as members. The Councils will oversee the functions of the Panchayats and the Block Development Councils.
The first reports emanating from Kashmir show people lined up in large numbers to exercise their right to vote in a safe and secure environment. The build-up to the election has been on a politically sound wicket with intensive poll campaigning by all candidates as is the practice in all democracies.
While the people of Jammu and Kashmir are moving forward in exercise of their constitutionally guaranteed right to democracy and freedom, those living in Gilgit-Baltistan are involved in an existential battle against their feudal masters in the federal Government of Pakistan.
A sham of an election was held in Gilgit-Baltistan on November, 15, for the bigger sham of democracy that has been put in place in the form of the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly. Such sham elections are held in Gilgit-Baltistan every five years and invariably the party in power in the federal structure wins the same through blatant rigging.
This time was no different. Of the 24 seats in contention the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) won three and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) won two. Imran Khan’s Pashtun Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), that does not have the capability of winning a single seat anywhere in Pakistan let alone Gilgit-Baltistan, secured 10 seats which constitutes the maximum number. Seven seats went to independent candidates who will ultimately align with the PTI to create the requisite majority required to loot the region with impunity.
Dissent in Gilgit-Baltistan became visible much before the holding of the elections with people protesting the conduct of the same on the premise of their being “illegal.” It is so since Gilgit-Baltistan does not accept the suzerainty of Pakistan. It is a disputed territory under forcible occupation of Pakistan. The people look upon the Legislative Assembly as an imposition upon them for a higher design of unlawfully amalgamating the region into Pakistan as its fifth province.
The PPP and PML-N have alleged blatant rigging and called for protests. More importantly, the people of the region are no longer ready to take things lying down. They are coming out in large numbers to protest against the arbitrary manner in which they are being treated. They are out in all areas, mainly Gilgit, Skardu, Ghanche, Kharmang and Shiger among others, giving vent to their frustration with massive protest marches. Some cases of violence leading to destruction of property and vehicles have also been reported which is very unfortunate since these people are known to be peace loving and docile.
The protests this time have been far more intense and widespread than ever before indicating the high level of agitation being felt by the people which propels them into fighting for their rights openly against a regime that is known to resort to brutal reprisals.
As expected, Imran Khan has rejected all claims of rigging and has shown a tearing hurry to carry out the swearing-in and get the sham of an assembly going. He has plunged the region into a political crisis by refusing the acknowledge the dissatisfaction of the people. There cannot be a bigger example of travesty of justice and democratic norms than this.
If the violence continues the federal government will resort to its time tested methodology of suppressing it with military might. The Pakistan Army has been ruling Gilgit-Baltistan with an iron hand. Innocent people are picked up by the “establishment” in the middle of the night, imprisoned without giving a reason and tortured; most disappear altogether. Such incidents spread a pall of fear among the people.
Such acts by the Pakistan Army are in stark comparison with the Indian army in Jammu and Kashmir that makes special efforts to protect the people from terrorist violence and alongside goes out of its way to ameliorate the suffering of the common man in administrative terms through its welfare initiatives; there is a close bond between the people and the army in Jammu Kashmir.
There is a need to free people of Gilgit-Baltistan from the shackles of repression and give them an opportunity to enjoy the fruits of democracy and freedom as the people of J&K and Ladakh enjoy. It is their right since they are legally a part of India and under forcible occupation of Pakistan. The world needs to take cognisance of the ground realities and ensure that justice prevails.