THE ongoing popular protests that have roiled Gilgit-Baltistan over the past 10 days are reflective of the growing sense of alienation the region’s people are beginning to feel. Thousands have taken to the streets in various towns of GB, with major sit-ins taking place in Gilgit and Skardu. The ostensible trigger for the protests was the recent withdrawal of the wheat subsidy, which has sent prices of the essential food item spiralling in the underdeveloped region. However, the demonstrations, organised under the banner of the Awami Action Committee, an umbrella group bringing together over 20 political, religious and nationalist parties, are about more than just the price of wheat. The protesters have issued a charter of nine demands, which range from reduction in the prices of other basic items to bringing down load-shedding. The demonstrations are also being seen as a manifestation of popular frustration with the regional government for alleged corruption, especially in the GB education department, where jobs were reportedly doled out through questionable means. It is also noteworthy that protests have cut across sectarian and sub-regional lines, as both the Shia and Sunni communities are participating and people from all districts in the region are marching for their demands.
Though steps had been taken to give GB greater rights during the Musharraf regime and the last PPP government — especially increased autonomy for the region — the protests indicate that Islamabad still considers Gilgit-Baltistan a remote locale not at par with the rest of Pakistan. The major reason for the region remaining in limbo is its historical link to the Kashmir dispute. However, ensuring that the fundamental rights of the people are respected should not have to wait for the resolution of the Kashmir question. While giving the region an elected legislature was a major step forward, democratic goals will not be realised until the regional government is transparent, autonomous and responsive to the demands of the people. Both the GB government and Islamabad — which only awoke to the crisis several days after the protests started — must look into the protesters’ legitimate demands in the short term while in the long term, more must be done to ensure that the local people enjoy the same rights that others in Pakistan are supposed to.