Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Baltistan

Baltistan is situated at the northern end of pre-partition Kashmir. It is linked to Tibet and Ladakh in language although its population adopted Islam in the 14th century CE. The Dogras led by Zorawar Singh annexed it in 1840 and united it with Kashmir. The Maharaja leased the territory to the British in 1935 to help them spy on Xinjiang and Afghanistan. The land was returned to the Maharaja in 1947. A local uprising backed by Pakhtun irregulars ensured that Baltistan acceded to Pakistan later that year. Pakistan occupied about 10,000 square miles of Balti territory although it ceded 2,500 square miles to China in 1963. India captured the Kargil district in 1971. Pakistan retains control of the other two districts in Baltistan i.e. Skardu and Ganche. The indigenous inhabitants speak an archaic form of Tibetan. The area purportedly has a population of 400,000 though the number is difficult to verify in the absence of a proper census.

The Iranian revolution in 1979 inspired Shi'ite radicalism in Baltistan. Teheran financed Shi'ite organizations. The Tehrik-e-Jaffria was in the forefront of Shi'ite militancy given the lack of economic opportunity and investment in a remote, arid and harsh landscape. The Zia-ul-Haq administration settled Sunni Muslims from the North West Frontier Province in the territory to neutralize this. The Sipaha-e-Sahaba, the Sunni extremist organization was built up to counter Shi'ite militancy. There was a proliferation of hard-line Sunni Madrassahs. The Shi'ite population reportedly declined from 85% in 1948 to 53% today. This statistic is hard to verify in the absence of census figures.

There were sectarian riots in Baltistan in 1988. Outside gangs terrorized the local Shi'ite population. Zia despatched then Brigadier Pervez Musharraf to suppress the unrest with brutal force. Many perished in the violence. Some allege that Balti airforce personnel might have had a role in the subsequent plane blast that killed Zia 10 days later. Regardless, the ISI continued to sponsor Lashkar-e-Toiba and Hizbul Mujahadeen bases in Baltistan to foment unrest in Indian-held Kashmir.

Ethno-sectarian tensions continue to simmer with Baltistan. The movement for independence or far reaching autonomy is not irrelevant. The Baltistan Student Federation boycotted the 50th anniversary of Pakistan in 1997. There were riots in June, 2004 over the Government's school curriculum viewed as anti-Shi'ite. Sunni extremists in turn attacked the Ismaili Agha Khan Foundation in December, 2004. This triggered sectarian violence in January, 2005. There were reports of more unrest in October, 2005 and January, 2006 with several being killed.

The Baltis demanded the right to be represented in the Pakistani legislature, one that is currently denied to them given the legal ambiguity of that region. The Pakistani constitutions of 1956, 1962, 1972 and 1973 make no reference to Baltistan or Gilgit. The Balti do not have the right to vote in national elections. They unsuccessfully filed action in the Supreme Court to win the fundamental rights accorded to Pakistani citizens. All in all, this is a region that remains disaffected and marginalized from the Punjabi mainstream.

Indian policy makers will need to highlight human rights in Baltistan and Gilgit in international fora. They should support Balti dissidents to neutralize the Wahabi fundamentalist groups operating in the area. A link with Iran might be useful here in light of the Pakistani sponsorship of terror in Indian-held Kashmir since 1989.

5 comments:

Jaffna said...

Addenda: I just learnt that the Baltis in Kargil, India are listed as a scheduled tribe entitled to reservations and welfare measures. Interesting contrast to their co-ethnics across the border that do not have the basic right to vote for the national legislature.

libertarian said...

Jaffna, excellent information. It's also a reminder that life for the Baltis was not always like it is today. More importantly, it need not be that way in the future.

Jaffna said...

Libetarian,

Quite right. I dream of the day that the historic trade routes between Skardu, Yarkand (East Turkestan aka Xinjiang), Leh and Srinagar are restored. The line of control had vivisected the Himalayan "silk route" and undermined Baltistan's role as the interstice between the Indo-Iranian and Tibetan worlds.

Red said...

On an unrelated issue Balitstani cuisine is brilliant

Anonymous said...

Red, indeed there are several Balti restaurants in Birmingham. The Kebabs are out of this world.

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