“As of today, we have no constitutional rights, because we are not citizens of Pakistan,” says Senge Sering, Director of the Washington DC-based Institute of Gilgit-Baltistan Studies.

In a speech on Thursday organised here by the Observers Research Foundation’s Chennai Chapter, Sering, who hails from Gilgit-Baltistan, the northernmost territory administered by Pakistan, spoke about how the locals are being subjugated, and their rights and resources taken away by the Pakistan-China combine.

Gilgit-Baltistan, often known as G-B, came under Pakistan’s control after the country seized it in 1947, is a region of about half a million people, predominantly Shia Muslims. The region is rich in mineral and water resources, which are being systematically plundered by Pakistan.

Sering said that Pakistan would let China mine resources. All the equipment and personnel would come from China and commission would go to Pakistan. The locals would get nothing. Worse, sometimes the place would be environmentally affected — for example, Chinese copper mining in the Gindai valley affected the local glacier. When the locals protested, the Pakistani authorities branded them as ‘terrorists’ and jailed them.

Nil compensation

“China has literally a blank cheque,” Sering said. The celebrated China-Pakistan Economic Corridor passes through G-B, but the locals get no compensation for lands taken away.

While G-B has its own government set up — an Assembly and a Chief Minister, neither has any powers; the real powers vest with the Council, which is filled with Pakistanis.

The police apparatus is mostly from Pakistan. When Pakistan’s National Accountability Bureau — an autonomous, federal body ostensibly meant to check corruption, but effectively keeps an eye on politicians on behalf of the army — wanted to open an office in G-B, it took over the only centre in the region for the handicapped.

“They are so ruthless,” Sering said. The move sparked some protests by persons who use wheel-chairs. When the local Law Minister spoke in their favour, a Pakistani soldier grabbed the Minister by the scruff of his neck and led him away. The minister later complained to the Chief Minister about the incident, but the CM said nothing could be done about it. That is “how helpless and marginalised our people are.”

The Chinese built a hydro electric dam in G-B but no compensation was given for the displaced. Land confiscation is common, Sering said.

Worst of all is families divided because of the closure of the Skardu-Kargil road. The Baltis come from Tibet and the families are spread over the Ladakh-G-B region, but the road linking the Indian and PoK part is closed. Sering observed that while Pakistan keeps the Wagah border and the Kartarpur corridor open, it does keeps the Skardu-Kargil road closed — an example of how badly it treats the people of G-B.

Sering spoke of the human rights violations in the region, where protesters are proscribed. If the protesters are not jailed their movement is restricted, they lose jobs; many are on ‘exit control list’, which means they can’t leave the country. Sering himself is on the list. “If I go back to my country, I can’t ever leave it,” he said. Apart from these, there is systematic persecution on religious grounds, because G-B is mostly Shias, while Pakistan is predominantly of Sunni Muslims.

India’s help sought

Sering said that since India claims G-B to be its own, it should help the region. He pointed out that India’s stature in the world is high, as evidenced by the fact that after Balakot bombings no country supported Pakistan. Now is the time for India to start claiming G-B. India should not miss this opportunity, he said, adding wryly that “India is known for missing opportunities.”

“The way it can be done is by establishing a relationship with G-B,” he said. The people of G-B look at the developments in Ladakh, such as the establishment of a Hill Council, and hope to be a part of India.

“Help G-B, help us enjoy the same constitutional rights as Ladakh,” Sering said.