Interview - from 2002
'Treated By Pakistan As Virtual Slaves'
While we may hear about PoK, the so-called 'Azad Kashmir', every now and then, what do we know about the other, larger part of J&K, the Northern Areas?
Abdul Hamid Khan is the Chairman of the Balawaristan National Front, an organization struggling for the independence of Gilgit Baltistan, which he considers to be under the illegal occupation of Pakistan. He spoke to Yoginder Sikand on issues related to the Kashmir question and the quest of his own people for independence from Pakistan
Yoginder Sikand: Could you tell us something about the idea of Balawaristan and the aims of the Balawaristan National Front?
Abdul Hamid Khan: Balawaristan is a term which we use to refer to that area of the former state of Jammu & Kashmir which is now under the illegal occupation of Pakistan, consisting of Gilgit Baltistan. It has an area of 28000 square miles (in contrast to the rest of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, which comprises only 4000 sq miles).
Pakistan has illegally ceded some 2500 square miles of the territory of Balawaristan to China in the Shoomshall Hunza area. Balawaristan has a population of some two million, consisting of Shi'as, Sunnis, Isma'ilis and Nur Bakhshis. The Balawaristan National Front (BNF) was been established on July 30th, 1992. To free Balawaristan and its people from the occupation of Pakistan and make it as an independent country is the only aim of our party.
The party has presented a manifesto for a sovereign and independent Republic of Balawaristan for the people of this region are treated by Pakistan as virtual slaves and have been deprived of all basic human rights. Pakistan's occupation of our territory is not legal according to international or any other law.
Do you think your ideas have a strong appeal among the people of your area?
Unless an election or referendum is held in our region under an impartial authority such as the United Nations we cannot measure the degree of support that we enjoy. Yet, many people in Balawaristan seek freedom from Pakistan, of that there can be no doubt. In fact, our people are increasingly veering round to the idea of independence. The growing entry of Pakistani forces as well as terrorists into Balawaristan is ample proof of the fact that the Pakistani state is now facing a serious threat from nationalist groups like the BNF.
How has the involvement of Wahhabi-style Islamists impacted on inter-communal relations in Balwaristan?
A: This is difficult and dangerous question to answer, because of the Wahhabi terrorists' presence in many parts of the world, and in South Asia, in particular. I would like to elucidate my own experience. I had migrated from my native village (Bahrkohlti) of Yasen valley to Gilgit town in 1967.
At that time there was no sectarian problem at all, and one was not supposed to talk about sectarian differences. The majority of the population of Gilgit consisted of Shi'as, and Barelwi Sunni Muslims, who believe in revering the Pirs, the Sufi saints. Barelwis would freely attend Shi'a religious gatherings (majlis) and processions (julus) during the holy month of Muharram in Gilgit. There were a few Pathan Wahhabi traders and smugglers in the area, but, being only a small minority, they lacked the courage to promote sectarian strife.
But then, from Bhutto's rule onwards, sectarianism began growing, sponsored by the Pakistani state to quash growing demands for freedom for Balawaristan. Bhutto's government encouraged the Pakistani Pathan and other Wahhabis to strengthen themselves and create sectarian instability by providing them access to funds. This saw a further boost when Zia took over Pakistan in the name of Islam. Zia managed to get vast amounts of funds from Saudi Arabia, America and Europe, which were used, among other things, to strengthen Pakistani Wahhabism and marginalize the more tolerant Barelvi tradition.
Zia appointed Wahhabi fundamentalists to high ranks in the Pakistani Army and the civil administration. He also attacked the Shi'as of Balawaristan and made (Pakistan Occupied Gilgit Baltistan) it possible for Afghan and Pakistani Wahhabis to attack and kill innocent Shi'as. Benazir Bhutto, Nawaz Sharif and Musharraf, all have consistently supported of Wahhabi fundamentalism by following the guidance of ISI and instructions of Pakistan Army.
In your proposed independent state of Balawaristan, you include Ladakh and Kargil as well, which are currently under Indian administration. Do you seriously believe that the Buddhists of Ladakh and other non-Muslim communities would be willing to join you in an independent state?
Before the treacherous occupation of our land by Pakistan, inter-communal relations in our region were exemplary, even during Sikh and Dogra rule. The Gilgiti Muslims have close historical, cultural and even racial bonds with the Kalash of Chitral, who are the last remaining non-Muslim group in our region. Pakistan has damaged the ancient heritage of Kalash by making all efforts to convert them to Wahhabi fundamentalism by force and by use of Saudi funds.
The Ladakhis and Kargilis are our brethren and we share much the same culture. We have great respect for our Buddhist brothers of Ladakh, because we have historical and cultural relations with Ladakh and Tibet. We know that because of Pakistani fundamentalism and because the so-called Azad Kashmir is actually even more badly enslaved than the Indian-held Kashmir, no Ladakhi Buddhist in his right mind would ever consider joining us as long as we remain under Pakistani occupation.
But if and when we gain our freedom from Pakistan it is quite possible that the Ladakhi Buddhists and the Kargilis would join us as we are essentially the same people.