- The protests for wheat subsidy have now snowballed into a much larger movement with a sea of people marching from all districts of GB to join the main protest sites, Ittehad Chowk and Yadgar-i-Shuhuda in Gilgit and Baltistan.
- The biggest protest in the history of GB is currently going on in the region in which millions of people from all districts (Diamer, Ghizer, Astore, Shigar, Ghanche, Kharmang, Hunza, Chilas and Nagar) are participating.
- Slogans like Hai Haq Hamara Khudmuktari (Autonomy is our right) reverberated through the air in the protest sites.
- Leaders known for their integrity and commitment like Comrade Babajan are leading the protests from the front in Gilgit.
- The government is trying to divide the protestors on sectarian lines by inserting religio-Political leadership into the movement.
- The protestors are unmoved and are saying that they will continue their protest in Gilgit at sub-zero temperatures in this harsh weather, until their 15-point charter of demands is fully met.
- In the meanwhile, the Chalo Gilgit movement is catching the attention of the people and popular sentiments are hardening in favour of meeting all the 15 demands they are making on the State.
Gilgit Baltistan has been denied fundamental rights for a long time and the peace-loving people in the terrain are without any kind of constitutional identity even after years of protest.
The biggest protest in the history of GB is currently going on in the region in which millions of people from all districts (Diamer, Ghizer, Astore, Shigar, Ghanche, Kharmang, Hunza, Chilas and Nagar) are participating.
The protest gained momentum after months of protest when the Awami Action Committee (ACC) called for a complete shutter down and wheel-jam strike across the ten districts on 26 and 27 January 2024.
Slogans like Hai Haq Hamara Khudmuktari (Autonomy is our right) reverberated through the air in the protest sites. An elderly man from Yasin reportedly 90 years died at the protest site in Gilgit due to the extreme sub-zero temperatures at the protest site.
The protests also spread to the capital of the country Islamabad where residents of GB gathered outside Islamabad Press Club shouting slogans like Pani Hamara Dam Tumhara, Na Manzoor; Dharti Hamari, Kabza tumhara, Na Manzoor (Our water, your dam, we reject, our land your occupation, we reject) directly challenging the central government and demanding their share of rights.
After unprecedented and intense protests across Gilgit-Baltistan, the Government of Gilgit-Baltistan shared a notification1 reversing the previous reduction of subsidy on wheat. However, the protestors and Awami Action Committee (ACC) have rejected the notification terming it a hurried step (brought overnight) by the government to silence the voice of the people. In fact, the protests for wheat subsidy have now snowballed into a much larger movement with a sea of people marching from all districts of GB to join the main protest sites, Ittehad Chowk and Yadgar-i-Shuhuda in Gilgit and Baltistan. An elderly man, reportedly 90 years old, from Yasin died at the protest site in Gilgit because of the extreme sub-zero temperature.
The ACC has declared that the protest will continue until all 15 of its charters of demands2 are met. These demands include: (i) freeze wheat subsidy at 2022 rates and commitment to provide each person with 9 kilograms of wheat per month; (ii) cancel GB Finance Act 2023 and end all taxes imposed in GB (no taxation without representation); (iii) end artificially created power crisis in the region and increase electricity production; (iv) sign an agreement with the federal government on the lines of the “National Finance Commission (NFC)” to get financial resources for GB; (v) accept ownership of locals over all uncultivated and barren land through the GB reform Bill; (vi) replace GB Assembly with a Constituent Assembly; (vii) provide free electricity to GB from Diamer-Bhasha Dam and give 80 per cent royalty to GB in lieu of Water Users Rights & Net Hydel profits; (viii) cancel all mining leases given to non-locals and award the leases to locals of GB; (ix) declare Tourism and Transportation as Industries in GB; (x) construct Shounter Tunnel to promote tourism in GB; (xi) construct medical and engineering colleges in GB; (xii) establish a University for Women in GB; (xiii) restore all ancient trade routes and roads of GB; (xiv) award PSPD contracts to local contractors in GB; and finally, (xv) make Northern Areas Transport Corporation (NATCO) (estd. 1974) profitable by giving it transportation contract for wheat supply.
Fearing the spread of the protest, the GB government has established a Cabinet Committee to address the demands of the ongoing protests. In a recent social media post3, the Information Department, Gilgit-Baltistan, stated that "the Committee will engage all stakeholders across Gilgit-Baltistan from political, religious, social, and business communities, seeking input and viable options on issues and demands." The statement also notes that the GB government recognizes "the need for policy-level decisions on actionable matters within the legal framework and financial resources." How the negotiations between the ACC and the government committee will pan out, remains to be seen. But according to reports, the ACC has decided to send second tier leaders to talk to the cabinet committee and that the leaders like Babajan have decided not to go to these offices and advocated instead that the protests should be intensified.
It has to be noted that this time the protests are different and there is a unity and coordination among all the districts from Astore to Chilas; people are coming out on the roads to join the protests. People from border villages like Kharmang and near Siachen are marching towards Gilgit and Skardu. Leaders known for their integrity and commitment like Comrade Babajan are leading the protests from the front in Gilgit.
In the last few months, there has been an attempt by the government to divide the protestors on sectarian lines by inserting religio-political leadership into the movement. The Hussainiya Supreme Council from Nagar was brought in to convince the people of Nagar to return from Gilgit as the government had taken decision to restore the wheat subsidy. But the youth are appealing to the people to stop following them. People now believe that these religious clerks are planted and are being used strategically to neutralize public sentiment.
According to latest reports, protesters from Jalalabad, Haramosh, and Puniyal joined the sit-in at Ittehad Chowk, Gilgit. A massive protest took place in Chilas on 30 January 2024 with a shutter-down strike. Those entering Gilgit City from different districts are expressing their solidarity with the AAC, stating that they align with the committee's objectives, and they will continue their protest in Gilgit until their 15-point charter of demands is fully met.
People of GB are challenging colonialism, its oppression, and its destruction of ecology and denial of basic rights at sub-zero temperatures in this harsh weather. They are talking about the exploitation of resources and government offices of the region by the people of mainland for example from Punjab, while snatching the rights of the local residents.
It has to be noted that for the past few years, the federal government has been taking unilateral decision for the region that have resulted in widespread protests. These decisions have been met with mass protests. GB, due to its disputed status and widespread poverty, was granted subsidy in the 1970s by the then Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, who initiated reforms in the region. The subsidies were for the prices of wheat, oil, PIA tickets, and some other essential items. Gradually, all subsidies were taken back, except on wheat.4
The people of the region are ready for a long haul and warning the government not to turn this region into a conflict site like Balochistan. They are saying that despite many tactics and conspiracies, the GB people would continue their struggle till the acceptance of all their demands.
The ACC has started consultations for Chalo Gilgit movement and it is expected that very soon convoys will also leave from Skardu towards Gilgit, starting a new phase of the protests. Experts believe that the call by the protesters to march towards Gilgit on must be taken seriously. The delay will only lead them to adopt a hard-line position. They have already started calling for the dissolution of the present coalition government.
The committee has warned that if the 15 demands are not accepted, the situation will deteriorate. Although there is a complete blackout of these protests in the media of Pakistan, except few reports in Dawn and some independent Vlogs. However, the social media is abuzz with videos of these protests and the hashtag Autonomy for GB is trending right now. The movement is likely to continue providing an opportunity for militant groups like TTP and Islamic State-Khorasan Province to fish in troubled waters. People in this terrain have started looking favourably towards India and even raised pro-India slogans in recent months. The more they are disillusioned with Pakistan the more they are likely to exercise their option for autonomy and even independence! All this is likely to pose critical challenges for the Pakistani state in future.
2. What are the 15 demands of the Awami Action Committee? Pamir Times, 27 January 2024.
3. GB Government forms Cabinet Committee for Protest Demands, Ibex Media Network, 30 January 2024.