The Skardu Protests: Could Jammu and Kashmir Reunify?

September 06, 2023 Rajat Ganguly

The question is particularly significant given what has been unfolding in Pakistan-occupied Gilgit-Baltistan in northern Jammu and Kashmir over the past few days.

Last week, a massive protest by the area's Shia population broke out after the authorities arrested a Shia cleric under Pakistan's draconian blasphemy laws that were recently reinforced and made even more stringent. Over the past six days, massive crowds have gathered in Skardu and threatened the Pakistan government that unless their leader is immediately released unharmed, they will start marching towards Kargil with the intention of merging the regions, illegally occupied by Pakistan since the 1947-48 India-Pakistan war, with India. The authorities have responded with a massive deployment of troops and as of now neither side seems to be willing to back down.

The Gilgit-Baltistan protests have come when Pakistan is reeling from several crises. Since earlier this year, the Pakistani military has been involved in a border war with neighboring Afghanistan, controlled by their once-upon-a-time ally and proxy, the Taliban. The border war was precipitated after the Afghan Taliban regime refused to take punitive action against their blood brothers, the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, or the Pakistani Taliban), which has been involved in a civil war with the Pakistani forces in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and parts of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan provinces. The TTP wants to introduce hard-line Islamist rule in Pakistan in line with the Taliban model in Afghanistan, and they seem to be in no mood to compromise with the Pakistan government and the Pakistan Army. The internal security scenario is further complicated by insurgency-counterinsurgency violence in Baluchistan. In recent days, the Baluch Liberation Army (BLA), the leading Baluch insurgent organization fighting for Baluch independence, has attacked and killed Pakistani Army officials and several Chinese nationals who were part of the construction crew for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project. Beijing was furious and read the riot act to the Pakistan government and the Pakistan Army. To make matters worse, the strength of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) seems to be growing, and in recent times the ISKP has carried out suicide terror attacks on several Shia mosques in Pakistan thus driving a further wedge between the Shia and Sunni communities. The Pakistani government's recent decision to reinforce the draconian blasphemy laws in the face of threats by Islamist organizations has further worsened the plight of other minorities, most notably the Christians and the Hindus. Forceful abductions of Hindu underage girls, followed by their conversion to Islam and marriage with Muslim men much older in age, is now a regular occurrence in Pakistan!

Politically, too, Pakistan seems to be a rudderless ship. The country is under a caretaker government at present as national elections are to be held in February 2024. But there are no guarantees that the 2024 national elections will throw up a stable and capable government. Former Prime Minister Imran Khan, a vocal critic of the all-powerful Pakistan Army and its main sponsor, the United States, was forcibly removed from office and then arrested and put in jail. A lower court then convicted Khan on dubious corruption charges and sentenced him to a three-year jail term and disqualification from fighting elections for five years. Although the Islamabad High Court has since “suspended” Khan’s conviction and ordered his release on bail, he has yet to be released from Attock prison where he has been confined since his conviction. It is yet unclear if Imran Khan will be able to contest the 2024 national elections. His successor as Prime Minister, Shahbaz Sharif, has bitterly criticized the decision by the Islamabad High Court and pointed out that Khan’s conviction has only been “suspended” by the Court and that Khan has not been fully “acquitted” of the corruption charges. Imran Khan’s foreign minister, Shah Mahmood Qureshi, and several other members of his government have also been arrested recently along with several prominent intellectuals, critics, and human rights lawyers. It will be probably very difficult for Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party to do well in the 2024 election and capture power.

The growing problems being faced by the PTI do not, however, mean smooth sailing for Pakistan’s other two main political parties, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). PML-N’s support base is mainly in Punjab, where it is expected to do well. But it is by no means certain that the party will do equally well in the provinces, particularly in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (where the PTI has a large following) and Sindh (where the PPP is expected to do well). There is also uncertainty regarding who might lead the PML-N if it is returned to power. Shahbaz Sharif, who was Prime Minister until recently when he stepped down to hand over charge to a caretaker government leading up to the 2024 elections, is not a very popular leader with a mass following. His government’s management of the economy was also inept and his relations with the Army Chief, General Asim Munir, were fraught at times. His elder brother, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, may return as prime minister, but that also may not be a panacea for the myriad problems faced by Pakistan. The PPP’s support base is in Sindh, where it is expected to do well. But it may face problems in other provinces most notably in the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The PPP also lacks a charismatic leader face. Bilawal Bhutto, who served as Foreign Minister, under the last coalition government, is hardly prime ministerial material, and he may not (almost certainly will not) be the preferred candidate of the real power behind the throne, the Pakistani Army and its Chief, General Asim Munir. Therefore, a hung national assembly and an unstable and ineffective coalition government may be the order of the day, which will allow the Army to wield power and playoff political factions against each other.

Unstable politics and ineffective governance may further magnify the deep economic and financial troubles faced by Pakistan. Earlier this year, Sri Lanka faced a situation of economic meltdown, causing violent riots to break out in the streets and forcing the Gotabaya Rajapakse government to relinquish power. Pakistan is not too far away from a similar economic meltdown. Foreign exchange reserves are just around US$8 billion, and that too with the latest International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout and emergency loans from China and Saudi Arabia. The Pakistani currency is trading below Rs300 per US$1 and there is no saying how far it may fall yet. On top of this, the inflation rate has hit stratospheric levels and the country is facing acute fuel and food shortages. In a nutshell, the economy is close to breaking point. But to make a mockery of this economic and financial crisis, in the last budget, the military’s allocation was increased by a whopping 16 percent! Something will have to give, and pretty soon.

Which brings me back to the protests in Gilgit-Baltistan. The region has been under Pakistan’s illegal occupation since the 1947-48 India-Pakistan war over the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. This war was ended by a United Nations (UN) brokered cease-fire agreement, which came into effect on 1 January 1949. The Cease-Fire Line (CFL) placed the regions of Jammu, Ladakh, and the Valley or Vale under India’s control, while Pakistan controlled the regions of Gilgit, Baltistan, and a sliver of the western parts of the Valley and Jammu which Islamabad calls “Azad (Free) Kashmir”. Since 1949, both India and Pakistan have tried to integrate the regions of Jammu and Kashmir under their control into their states. A watershed moment in this regard came on 5 August 2019 when the Narendra Modi government in India abrogated Art.370 and Art.35A, which granted substantial autonomy to Jammu and Kashmir state within India. The Modi government also converted the state of Jammu and Kashmir into two “Union Territories” to be governed directly by the Centre. The Modi government offered several reasons for this decision: the provisions were temporary under the Indian Constitution; removal of the provisions was necessary to tackle insurgency, foster national integration, and bring real grassroots democracy to the region; removal of the provisions and direct central rule was required to kickstart the region’s development and deliver social justice to people by allowing the central government to apply the entirety of India’s legal framework and codes to Jammu and Kashmir. In the four years since the abrogation of Art.370 and Art.35A, and in spite of the COVID-19-induced lockdowns and economic turmoils, the decision of the Modi government seems to be bearing fruits: insurgency violence and stone-pelting incidents have come down drastically which has improved the security situation on the ground; local elections have empowered a new class of grassroots decision makers who are now directly involved in development planning and governance; and new investments particularly focused on infrastructure building such as roads, railway, airports, schools, malls, public places, etc., have been prioritized leading to a rise in living conditions. The turnaround has been spectacular, as endorsed by the record number of tourists who visited Jammu and Kashmir in the summer of 2023. The Modi government has also successfully held important G-20 meetings in Jammu and Kashmir with foreign diplomats and officials this year.

To the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, it must be glaringly apparent that they are part of a “failing state” with all the concomitant economic and political problems while their Kashmiri brethren in India begin to enjoy a higher quality of life brought about by India’s economic success and the resoluteness of the Modi government. Hence, the slogans raised in Gilgit-Baltistan that the people will begin to march towards Kargil with the intention of merging the regions with India are not surprising in the least. In fact, what is surprising is that it has not happened before even though regular skirmishes between the local people and the Pakistani Army have been reported over the past few years!

Where will this all lead to? It is hard to make predictions in politics. But given what we have seen over the past few days, this crisis may escalate over the coming days. And if it does, where will it lead Pakistan and India? Could Pakistan lose its grip over its portion of Jammu and Kashmir? Could it lead to another war between India and Pakistan? Only Father Time will be able to answer these and other associated questions. But one thing we can be certain of: as conditions in the Indian side of Jammu and Kashmir improve and people start to enjoy a far better quality of life, it will breed similar sentiments to the one demonstrated by the protesters in Skardu in the Pakistan-controlled parts of Jammu and Kashmir. And the more that happens, the more will be the groundswell of popular sentiments for Jammu and Kashmir’s reunification.

About the Author:

Rajat Ganguly is the Editor-in-Chief of Journal of Asian Security & International Affairs


The article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the organisation.

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