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Gilgit-Baltistan: The AQ Khan Proliferation Highway—Part VII

(To be read along with “Gilgit-Baltistan: The AQ Khan Proliferation Highway” — Part I , Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI)

Before the Agra summit of July 14-16, 2001, between Atal Behari Vajpayee, the then Indian Prime Minister, and Pervez Musharraf, the latter had held a series of consultations with political and religious leaders of Pakistan, including Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK), on his negotiating strategy at Agra. Significantly, he did not invite any representative from the NA for these consultations.

2. Reliable source reports indicated that his decision not to invite anyone from the NA was due to the fact that Gilgit was in a serious state of unrest for a fortnight from the last week of June,2001, due to protests from Sunni organisations over the decision of the local administration to introduce different text-books in the schools for the Shias, who are in a majority in Gilgit, and the Sunnis. Embarrassed by the outbreak of the violence before the summit, the Pakistani authorities stopped all movements between Gilgit and the rest of Pakistan and imposed strict censorship on the publication of the details of the incidents in Gilgit.

3.The riots in Gilgit started on June 23,2001, when there were clashes between the workers of the extremist Sunni organisation Sipah Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and law enforcing agencies following the arrests of some SSP leaders, who demanded that Shia students should study the same books as were prescribed for Sunni students by the Sunni Ulema and not separate books approved by the Shia clergy.

4.The Sunni traders started a shutter down strike in protest against the arrests of the central Khateeb and Ameer Tanzeem-e-Ahle-Sunnah-al-Jamat, Maulana Nisar Ahmed, and the President of the Gilgit branch of the SSP,Himayat-ullah, along with other religious scholars on the night of June 22.

5.To disperse rioting SSP members, the police first baton charged and when the SSP cadres retaliated by pelting stones, they fired tear-gas shells intermittently for nearly two hours, which resulted in a large number of casualties. A curfew was imposed and para-military forces were deployed to enforce it.

6.Thousands of protesting activists of the Ahle Sunnah blocked the roads in Gilgit City and Kohistan to prevent the movement of reinforcements, which were then rushed to the affected areas by helicopters. The Army then forcibly removed the demonstrators from the roads and used bulldozers to remove the barricades erected by them.

7.Subsequently, about 500 activists of the SSP surrounded the Gilgit City Police Station, demanded the release of the arrested Sunni leaders and defied an one-hour ultimatum to disperse issued by the Army.Brig.Zahid Mubashir, the Station Commander at Gilgit, then rushed to the Police Station and tried unsuccessfully to persuade the demonstrators to disperse. Later, he withdrew the Army to the barracks and let the local Police handle the inflamed situattion.

8. Meanwhile,another crowd of demonstrators led by Maulana Luqman Hakim, leader of the local unit of the Jamaat-ul-Ulema Islam (JUI), and two members of the Northern Areas Council Sumbal Shah and Saif ur Rehman Khan surrounded the local airfield and refused to allow any aircraft to land or take off. They demanded the transfer of Muhammad Ali Shahzad, a Shia, who was the Deputy Commissioner of Gilgit, for allegedly permitting the Shias to have their own text-books.

9.The Army cut off all telephone communications inside the NA as well as between the NA and the rest of Pakistan. Despite this, the news of the demonstrations spread to the rest of the NA resulting in demonstrations in other areas too and also in the Kohistan District of the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). The demonstrating mobs blocked the Karakoram Highway at many points.

10.Musharraf thereupon rushed Abbas Sarfaraz Khan, his Minister in charge of the POK and NA Affairs, to Gilgit to take control of the situation. Normalcy could be restored only by the first week of July.

11.The unrest was mainly directed against the Shia officers of the local Administration.There were no attacks by the Sunnis on the Shia civilian population. Long before the unrest, the “Dawn” of Karachi had reported as follows:

“Though outwardly calm, the Northern Areas of Pakistan are simmering with a crisis that has all the ingredients of boiling over the rim: the over 2 million people of the Northern Areas spread over an area of 72,500 sq km are politically unrepresented in Pakistan and thus facing obvious neglect as all the governments have linked their fate to the resolution of the Kashmir dispute. This discontent and anger, if not appeased, can erupt into a national crisis with far reaching consequences.

“The region classified as ‘Northern Areas’ comprises five districts: Gilgit, Diamir, Baltistan, Ghizer and Ghanche. It had voluntarily acceded to Pakistan on Nov 1, 1948, liberating itself from the Dogra Raj. Yet, Islamabad considers it to be a disputed territory and links its future to that of Kashmir. The people of this area have neither been granted any civil, human and constitutional rights, nor do they have due representation in the legislature.

“The area has always been governed directly from Islamabad through an appointed Chief Secretary, armed with the Frontier Crime Regulation (FCR) laws. Although there is an elected Northern Areas Council to regulate its local affairs, the locals believe it to be just a ‘rubber stamp’. Besides the Chief Secretary and a Minister for Northern Areas and Kashmir Affairs and his six officers, who sit in Islamabad, the area has no other legal representation. All these people are non-locals, including the Judicial Commissioner against whose judgements there is no right to appeal.

“Fifty-three years down the line and exposed to an era of digital communication, the people of the Northern Areas are getting restless. Though committed to the denominators of Pakistan’s security and integrity, they have started questioning Islamabad’s policy of keeping them unrepresented and backward till Kashmir’s fate has been determined. Their demand makes sense as even the internationally accepted disputed territory of Kashmir has an assembly and an independent legal status.

“The feeling of alienation among the inhabitants of these areas is growing as Islamabad continues to turn a blind eye to their misery; they feel the government is trying to solve the Kashmir issue at their expense. The frequent protest demonstrations and various efforts by the locals in an attempt to attract the attention of Islamabad are too obvious a distress signal to ignore. Rallies marking ‘day of deprivation’ are held in many pockets across Gilgit and Baltistan.

“In May 1999, the Supreme Court of Pakistan in a landmark judgment ruled: “The NA are a disputed territory and the Government of Pakistan has no claim over it.” In the same breath, the apex court asked the Federal Government to grant the region its due status within the next “six months”. Nothing has come of it so far. The rift is taking its toll on the region in the form of grave national and international consequences.

“The unrepresented status of the NA has resulted in its alienation from the national mainstream, causing deprivation and socio-economic backwardness. Strategically located, this serene and beautiful region is among the most poverty-ridden parts of the country. Lacking a strong socio-economic infrastructure, the region is not developed. Despite strong nationalistic feelings among the people of the NA, they would like to enter into a legal and constitutional arrangement with Pakistan. The Northern Areas are as important to us as Kashmir; and this fact should be recognized by the authorities.

“On the international front, the indecisive status of the NA is a source of embarrassment. It hinders the development work. The pending Basha Dam, the gold mining project of the Australians and other such projects are examples of how the donors shy away from the region owing to its lack of constitutional and legal status.

“Similarly, tourism has failed to get a boost for which even the essential infrastructure is missing. “It is ironic that the world is more worried about the falling trees; they are sad that our white leopard are vanishing day by day; the dead bodies of our Markhor frightens them; they are going all out to preserve our ecosystem. But nobody ever thinks of the people of this land,” says Raja Hussain Khan Maqpoon, Editor of Gilgit-Baltistan’s weekly newspaper K2.

“While it is true that this area has some of the finest wildlife in the world which is in urgent need of protection, the fact that the people living here are facing abject poverty cannot be ignored for long. Much as they would like to preserve their heritage, it is becoming very difficult for them to cooperate with the concerned agencies in the face of non-existent basic facilities such as electricity, drinking water and elementary health care. Remoteness has added to their misery.

“Gilgit and Baltistan, which lie to the north of India, were part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) before 1947. In order to distinguish them from the valley proper, Jammu and Ladakh regions, they used to be called the Northern Areas of Jammu and Kashmir. After the 1948 war over Kashmir, the Government of Pakistan issued a proclamation on April 28, 1949, separating the Northern Areas of J&K from Azad Kashmir and placing them under the administration of the Federal Government under the name of Northern Areas of Pakistan.

“Since then time has stood still for the locals owing to total neglect by successive regimes in Islamabad. For almost five decades, the area has been under virtual Martial Law. Under the Frontier Crime Regulations, framed by the British during the colonial days, every resident of the area has to report to the local police station once a month and all movements from one village to another have to be reported to the police station.

“Frustration arising out of unemployment is forcing the youth to come out on the streets. As they have no access to courts they never receive any redress. Lack of educational institutions has practically closed all avenues of government jobs, thus negating their chances for upliftment. Money earmarked for development projects often end up in wrong places, so the economy is mainly dependent on agriculture. But like feudalism everywhere, most of the land is owned by a privileged few with no respite to the common man.

“Hunza is a comparative exception. A high level of missionary movement and the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme has brought about a unique mix of modern education in the most primitive of places. Then, the border town of Sost, just below the Khunjerab Pass, also does well by the trade of electronic goods with China.

“However, it is time Islamabad played its cards with prudence and foresight. Cruising along the international front with Kashmir is fine, but it should not be done at the cost of the Northern Areas. They should be granted their due status and rights, to which they were entitled at the time they acceded to Pakistan.”

Shaheen Sardar Ali, a prominent lawyer of the Peshawar bar, has co-authored a book titled “Indigenous Peoples and Ethnic Minorities of Pakistan” (Curzon Press) on the mess created by the ideological principle that only religion was the basis of nationhood. She attributes the ethnic and linguistic troubles of Pakistan to the blindly monistic claim that if one is a Muslim one can’t be a Sindhi, Balochi, or Kashmiri etc and draws attention to the following facts:

“It is Article 21 of the 1974 Interim Constitution Act passed by the 48-member Azad Jammu and Kashmir unicameral assembly in 1974 which tells us how ‘azad’ is Azad Kashmir although the leader of the majority in the House is called Prime Minister unlike his counterpart in Held Kashmir. The article explained the role played by the Government of Pakistan in the affairs of Azad Jammu and Kashmir. It is in fact the Azad Jammu and Kashmir Council based in Islamabad which runs Azad Kashmir. The Prime Minister of Pakistan is its Chairman and a Secretary of the Ministry for Kashmir Affairs actually runs the territory on a daily basis. The Council has Azad Kashmiri members, including the President and Prime Minister, but it is the Prime Minister (of Pakistan) who orders everyone around. His power derives from the fact that he gives Azad Kashmir its annual budget and can actually dismiss the government of the state if the fancy takes him.

“Azad Kashmir has a High Court, but all appeals against its decisions lie in the Supreme Court of Pakistan, which makes sure that nothing is adjudicated in the state contrary to the policy of the Federal Government. One example of this came in the shape of cases in 1993 and 1995 ( Malik Muhammad Miskeen and Others vs. Government of Pakistan, through Secretary Kashmir Affairs and Northern Affairs Division, Islamabad and Others [PLD AJ&K] and Federation of Pakistan vs. Malik Muhammad Miskeen and Eight Others [PLD SC]). In 1949, Pakistan decided to take over the administration of the Gilgit-Baltistan territory which is legally a part of Azad Kashmir. It concluded an agreement with the Government in Muzaffarabad and simply delinked it from Azad Kashmir to call it the Northern Areas. Later on, when it (Islamabad) sorted out its frontier with China, some of this territory was ceded to China with the proviso that the settlement was subject to the final solution of the Kashmir dispute. The cases at the Azad Kashmir High Court challenged the authority of the Federal Government to take away the Northern Areas and wanted the territory returned to the administration of Muzaffarabad.

“It is understandable that the High Court found for the petitioner. The Azad Kashmir Government was hardly sovereign to sign an equal treaty with Pakistan. On the other hand, Pakistan admitted that the Northern Areas were a part of the state. The Court ordered that Gilgit-Baltistan be returned to Azad Kashmir, whereafter Islamabad went to the Supreme Court in Islamabad in appeal. Here the case was decided on political grounds, the Federal Government strangely taking the position that the case was not based on legality but politics.”

The book concludes:”The judgement became the cause of serious concern for the Governments of Pakistan and Azad Jammu & Kashmir and they appealed to the Supreme Court. The contention that the Northern Areas formed historically part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir was not – indeed could not – be denied by either Government. That the Northern Areas were being looked after by the Pakistan government administratively by virtue of the 1949 agreement between the two governments was not disputed either. The arguments at the Supreme Court were mainly confined to technicalities of the petition. The Government of Pakistan contended that the issues raised were basically political in nature and hence not amenable to discussion and judgement before a court of law. It was further argued that the High Court of Azad Jammu & Kashmir lacked jurisdiction in this matter as it could not issue a writ to the Government of Pakistan. In short the Supreme Court overturned the judgement handed down by the High Court of the state without going into the substantive details of the case.”

Other points to emerge from the book and other comments in Pakistan were: “And how has the Government of Pakistan acquitted itself of the responsibility of administering the Northern Areas or the region of Gilgit-Baltistan? Here too the Northern Areas Council has no independence and is run by the same Ministry that runs Azad Kashmir. What a politically unsteady Islamabad has done to the Northern Areas is clear, if you study the developments in the region since 1988 when the first big sectarian killings occurred there. The book modestly states that the ulema began to be given more importance than the people, which caused the Islamised administration of Islamabad to retreat before the rising Sunni storm against the two communities (Shias and Ismailis) that formed the majority in Gilgit-Baltistan. Gilgit joined the other centres of Shia concentration in Pakistan, like Jhang and Parachinar, when its population were brutalised by the Deobandi assault, carrying a clear stamp of anti-Shia Afghanistan. The Aga Khan Foundation projects in Gilgit were attacked and bombed while Shia-Sunni marriages were stopped by force by the warrior priests. ”

12.While the Government of Pakistan has, since 1975, allowed at least a façade of democracy and autonomy to Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK), it has kept the NA under tight federal control, imposing an iron curtain in the area. The reasons are its strategic location adjoining China and the clandestine use of the Karakoram Highway for the movement of Chinese nuclear material and missiles.

13.The “Washington Times” carried two reports on August 6 and 7,2001, stating as follows:

  1. The China National Machinery & Equipment Import & Export Corporation sent a dozen shipments of missile components to Pakistan since November,2000, and a US spy satellite detected the latest shipment as it arrived by truck at the mountainous Chinese-Pakistani border May 1,2001. The company supplied components for Pakistan’s Shaheen-1 and Shaheen-2 missile programmes. The consignments were sent by ship and truck.

  2. The missile components were being used for the production of the Shaheen-1, which has an estimated range of 465 miles, and the development of the Shaheen-2, which US intelligence agencies think would have a range of up to 1,240 miles.

14.In a statement issued at Beijing on August 8,2001,the China National Machinery and Equipment Import and Export Corporation (CMEC) claimed that it had never exported or provided missile components to Pakistan. It contended that the CMEC’s business scope was mainly confined to the contracting of international engineering projects, and export of machinery and electrical products and complete plants. Since its founding, the CMEC had always operated strictly within the bounds of law and the business scope approved by the state and had never exported or provided any military equipment, arms or related components to Pakistan or any other country, it claimed further. It added that the CMEC had never used trucks as a means of transportation for cross-border exports.

15.Refuting the “Washington Times” report on August 9,2001, a spokesperson of the Chinese Foreign Office claimed that China had all along been implementing its non-proliferation policy in a serious, earnest and responsible approach and accused some newspapers in the US of frequently spreading “irresponsible and totally unfounded rumours” and slanders of China engaging in proliferation, which was entirely driven by “ulterior motives.”

16.She added that the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery vehicles had an impact on international peace and security, and all countries had the obligation to strictly observe the relevant international legal instruments. “If any country adopts a selective approach to these legal instruments, it will only undermine the international non-proliferation efforts. It is even more inadvisable to spread irresponsible remarks based on so-called `intelligence’ that is fabricated out of thin air in an attempt to exert pressure on other countries.”

17.In the past, Pakistan had been receiving its clandestine missile consignments from North Korea by sea. Since the appointment of Richard Armitage as Deputy Secretary of State in the Bush Administration, Pakistan and North Korea were worried because in a paper on US policy options towards North Korea submitted to the US House of Representatives on March 4,1999, Armitage had, inter alia, recommended as follows: “Should diplomacy fail, the United States would have to consider two alternative courses, neither of which is attractive. One is to live with and deter a nuclear North Korea armed with delivery systems, with all its implications for the region. The other is preemption, with the attendant uncertainties. Strengthened deterrence and containment. This would involve a more ready and robust posture, including a willingness to interdict North Korean missile exports on the high seas. Our posture in the wake of a failure of diplomacy would position the United States and its allies to enforce ‘red lines.’ Preemption. We recognize the dangers and difficulties associated with this option. To be considered, any such initiative must be based on precise knowledge of facilities, assessment of probable success, and clear understanding with our allies of the risks.”

18.During the visit of the then Chinese Prime Minister Zhu Rongji to Pakistan in May,2001, Islamabad had taken up with China the question of allowing future missile consignments from North Korea to come to Pakistan by road via China and the NA and, according to reliable sources in the NA, this started happening thereafter.

19. After his return from the Agra summit, Musharraf visited the NA in August,2001. His visit came in the wake of the reports carried by the “Washington Times” about the detection by the US intelligence of a convoy of trucks carrying Chinese missile components by the Karakoram Highway. The Pakistani military junta had taken considerable precautions to prevent detection of the truck movements by not associating any of the officials of the NA Administration, particularly the Shias, with the arrangements for the movement. In view of this, both Islamabad and Beijing were surprised and embarrassed by the US media reports that US intelligence had detected the truck movements. Pakistani officials claimed that even if US satellites had detected the trucks, they could not have known that the consignments contained missile components. They, therefore, reportedly felt that there must have been leakage to the CIA from one of the Pakistani officials associated with the movement. Moreover, following past US detection of the storage of the earlier missiles/components in Sargoda, the military junta had drawn up alternate plans for storage in Gilgit in the hope that there would be less possibility of detection there by the CIA. Before Musharraf’s arrival in the NA, Lt.Gen. Jamshed Gulzar, then Corps Commander, 10 Corps based in Rawalpindi, had visited the NA to enquire into the leakage jointly with the Force Commander, NA, Lt-Gen Muhammad Safdar. Measures for tightening up security in the NA was one of the subjects which figured during the discussions of Musharraf in Gilgit in which apart from senior military officers, Abbas Sarfaraz, Musharraf’s Minister for Kashmir and NA Affairs, who was also the Chief Executive of the NA, also participated.

20.In the NA, Musharraf had discussions with the officials of the NA Administration on the law and order situation in the wake of the riots by the Sunnis in June, 2001. He also addressed the NA Council, which had only powers of a local body and was not a full-fledged Assembly with legislative powers. He promised to consider suggestions for upgrading it as a full-fledged Legislative Assembly. At the same time, he made it clear that in view of the strategic importance of the area, the NA could not have a President and a Prime Minister as in POK, but would continue to be directly administered from Islamabad by the Ministry of Kashmir and NA Affairs, with the Minister in charge acting as the Chief Executive of the NA.

21.Musharraf declined to receive representatives of local Shia organisations, who wanted to present a memorandum reiterating their demand for the conversion of the NA into a separate Karakoram province, with the new province having the same powers as the other provinces of Pakistan. The Shias’ demand for a sepate province is strongly opposed by the Sunnis of the POK, the Sunni component of the NA population and by the Sunni organisations of Pakistan.

22.The NA does not have a separate budget of its own. Its budget is incorporated in the budget of the Federal Government. After the Kargil conflict of 1999, the Federal Government, on the advice of the Army, embarked upon a plan for the improvement of road communications in the NA. The Federal Government allocated Rs 600 million for the construction of roads in the area.

23.There is no truckable road between Gilgit and Chitral, which is mainly accessible from Afghanistan along the Kunar River. A jeepable track was developed after 1950 between Dir and Darosh passing over the 3118 meter high Lowari Pass. However, it is open for only six months during the summer. The Lowari Pass remains blocked by snow during the rest of the year. During this period, the only way of reaching Chitral is either by the Pakistan International Airways (PIA)’s Fokkar flights or through Afghan territory via the Bajaur Agency.

24.In 1975, an attempt to connect Chitral with the rest of Pakistan was made when work on an 8 km long tunnel under the Lowari Pass was started by the Lowari Tunnel Organisation, an army engineers’ organisation, but they could not succeed in constructing the tunnel and the work was abandoned in 1977.

25.The Musharraf Government drew up in 2001 plans for the construction of a 24 -feet wide truckable road between Gilgit and Chitral as follows:

  1. Chitral to Mastuj (100 km):Already metalled for about 80 kms up to Buni. The remaining portion was to be metalled.

  2. Mastuj-Shandur: (42 km ): There was a jeepable track over the 3734m high Shandur top, which is the boundary between the NWFP and the NA. The elevation varies from 2280m in Mastuj to 3734 m at Shandur, which would be the highest point on this proposed road.

  3. Shandur- Pingal( 62 km):There was a jeepable track along the Ghizar river in Ghizar District. The jeep track descends from a height of 3734m to 2185 m at Pingal.

  4. Pingal-Gahkuch (40 km): There was a jeepable track along the Ghizar river. Gahkuch is the headquarters of Ghizar District. It descends from a height of 2185 m to 1870 m at Gahkuch.

  5. Gahkuch-Gilgit (77 km): A road already existed, which was to be metalled. The elevation at Gilgit is 1454m.

26.The Astore Valley and the Deosai plains used to provide the oldest route connecting Gilgit with Srinagar via the Burzil Pass and Skardu through Chotta Deosai and Sadpara. In 2001 a project was undertaken to connect Thelichi with Skardu via Chilum and Deosai to provide a shorter route between Astore and Skardu. The project was to be implemented as follows:

  1. Thelechi-Chilum (94 kms): It was to be 24 ft wide with 12 ft metalled. The elevation of the road rises from about 1250 m at Thelechi to 3400m at Chilum.

  2. Chilum to Deosai Plains ( 53 km): This section spans the Deosai. An existing track was to be widened. Its elevation is around 4500 m and it remains under snow for about four to five months in a year.

  3. Deosai Plains to Sadpara(29 km):Will be 24 feet wide. The elevation descends from the Deosai Plains (4500m) to 2600 m at Sadpara.

  4. Sadpara to Skardu (10km): This section will be 24 ft wide with 12 ft metalled. The elevation is around 2500 m. The area is snow bound for about two to three months in a year.

26.During his visit to the NA —- his third since he assumed power in October,1999— Musharraf inaugurated work on these projects. There were unconfirmed reports that the Pakistani Army had sought the assistance of North Korean army engineers for the construction of the Lowari tunnel. (21-9-09)

To be continued.

(The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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