By Manzoor Ahmed
Under the pretext of foiling of “India-inspired“ protests, the security forces have launched a massive crackdown on the people of Gilgit Baltistan who are protesting against the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Pakistan Army has created a special division to oversee the security of the corridor which cuts through the pristine Gilgit Baltistan mountains, uprooting large stretches of ancient forests, despoiling streams and rivers, damaging meadows and farm lands and forcing local communities to migrate from their traditional moorings to newer areas.
The latest round of crackdown comes after people of Gilgit Baltistan have been in the recent past voicing their protests more openly, and loudly, at the CPEC destruction. What has riled the local people that for all the wanton destruction the Chinese project is bringing down on their home, there is no benefit in return for them. The highway is more for the container traffic that will connect the western provinces of China to the port of Gwadar, and for the Pakistani goods traffic coming from the industrial hubs of Punjab to China. The hydroelectric projects coming up in the mountains is for Punjab and Sindh, with little share going to other provinces.
The federal government in Islamabad is anxious that if the protests by the people of Gilgit Baltistan were to gather steam in the months ahead, it could stoke a chain of protests across the Chinese project. The Chinese are naturally worried and have cautioned their partners. Both ends of the project are in troubled areas—the corridor begins in Gilgit Baltistan and ends at the restive Balochistan, a province which has been on the boil for decades now.
Balochistan has been a cauldron of violence since independence with successive civilian and military rulers used heavily armed offensive measures to quell public sentiments. Thousands of local Baloch have been killed, many more detained illegally, tortured and then killed and scores remain in the category of “disappeared“. There is a slow fuse of a war going on in Balochistan with a minority Baloch people holding on, against all forms of repression, to the powerful military and the civilian leadership.
This is a war which is not going to end so easily. Although Pakistanis have been assuring their Chinese counterparts that once the corridor was completed, the protests would die out. Nothing could be farther from the truth. A look at the history of Balochistan conflict would prove that. In fact, the Chinese project is likely to further exacerbate the anguished and bruised feelings of the local communities who view the project as another attempt to subjugate them through a new method. For the Baloch, the Chinese project is a nightmare, a serious threat to their struggle for autonomy, their fight to preserve their culture, tradition and `kaum`. So even if pushed to the wall, which they have often been, there is unlikely to be any let of in the protests. The Chinese project could well become the new target.
The situation is not so serious in Gilgit Baltistan. The people of Gilgit Baltistan have so far not been opposed to the Chinese project, believing that the project would bring prosperity to the deprived region, give jobs to the young people, trigger economic development and bring better education and health facilities to the remote areas. This was what was promised to them by the leaders in Islamabad.
But as the project progressed, they began to realise that the promises and assurances were merely to hoodwink them. There is no hardly anything for them in the project. Once the army set up a special division with 9000 soldiers and 6000 para-military personnel to provide security to the Chinese companies and workers, it dawned on the local communities that their home and hearth was being mortgaged to the Chinese by the leaders in Punjab.
The first round of protests that erupted last year was against this betrayal. The Pakistani leadership responded with massive arrests and repression. Any one who protested was billed as a traitor or a separatist and detained. More than 500 persons were arrested. When people came out in protesting against these arrests, they too were beaten up and locked up. It was during these protests that the people of Gilgit Baltistan began to smell something different—that along with the project would come the military and their peaceful home would soon turn into a militarised zone.
This realisation sparked a demand for roll back of the Chinese project and withdrawal of the military. The establishment responded with even more repression and charged the protesters with sedition. This has only created more anger and dissidence among the people of Gilgit Baltistan. The latest round of arrests and detention show that the security forces are getting cagey about the increased anti-China sentiments in Gilgit Baltistan. Scores who were detained have been locked up for “anti-state“ activities. Pakistan also knows that Gilgit Baltistan remains a disputed territory and it has no constitutional, and moral, right to impose its will on the people. There is growing apprehension that that this gathering anger among the people of Gilgit Baltistan could prove to be a spoiler for the ambitious Chinese project.