On December 14, about two dozen prominent Pakistani policy experts, scholars and activists gathered in Washington D.C. to attend a workshop titled “Pakistan after the election”. The moot was organized by Ambassador Hussain Haqqani and Dr. M. Taqi under the banner of the South Asians Against Terrorism and For Human Rights (SAATH).
SAATH has emerged at a time when the military establishment which rules Pakistan in cahoots with the extremists has endangered the very ethnic and religious weave of the federation. In this context, SAATH platform has embarked on a mission to facilitate an alternative political narrative to help safeguard the ideals of pluralism, secularism, gender equality, the rights of ethnic and religious groups, and fundamental legal and constitutional frameworks.
The participants discussed a wide range of issues during the two-day event. The salient among them were the military-led enforced disappearances of the activists, the shrinking space for freedom of speech, [i] the judicial and military overreach weakening the democratic institutions, the growth of extremism and religious attacks on minorities, the military operations in the tribal areas and Balochistan, the construction of the mega dams and impact on the indigenous communities, and the plight of the people of the disputed territories of “Azad” Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan.[ii] The participants showed concern over terms of agreement of China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which lack transparency and a scope for open debate.
The participants, most of whom are movers and shakers and policy experts in Pakistan, truly upheld the vision of SAATH to stand with the marginalized and voiceless while discussing issues of the neglected territories like Gilgit Baltistan. They made earnest effort to cater to the needs and demands of the indigenous people of Gilgit Baltistan rather than imposing their individual preferences regarding Pakistan’s relationship with Gilgit Baltistan.
It was first of its kind high-level conference which asked Pakistani regime to end policy of illegal demographic changes and settlements in Gilgit Baltistan. It was also the first of its kind international gathering to demand an inquiry into Gilgit’s Shia massacre of 1988 when the Jihadi marauders attacked Gilgit Baltistan with the support of the Pakistani military. The massacre that lasted for sixteen days ended only after the local Shias threatened to call India for help.
The conference-resolution on Gilgit Baltistan and “Azad” Kashmir is attached below for reader’s benefit.
· This Forum makes note of the disturbing fact that GB’s precarious constitutional status has been reiterated by the Supreme Court of Pakistan as well as the Spokesperson of the Foreign Office by declaring it ‘part of Kashmir’ and ‘disputed area’. Therefore, the Forum demands that it is high time that the constitutional rights of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan should be given to them on the model of the Pakistan administered Kashmir as an interim arrangement ensuring enhanced autonomy and self-governance in the real sense of word.
· This Forum demands that people-to-people contact should be initiated in Kashmir and GB on the lines of the recent Kartarpur Corridor in Punjab. In this regard, the forum demands that Kargil-Skardu, Astore-Gurez and Nubra-Chorbat Roads should be opened for civilian movement.
· This Forum makes a strong demand that an independent inquiry commission be constituted to investigate the notorious Gilgit Massacre of Shia Muslims in 1988. The report of which should be published and made available for the parliament and the citizens.
· All political activists and human rights defenders of Gilgit Baltistan must be immediately released and trumped up cases on sedition charges and under the Anti-Terror Act must be annulled.
The timing of the conference is significant since it happened after the US government declared Pakistan a country of particular concern (CPC) for supporting religious terrorism and persecution of religious minorities and the lesser Muslims like Hazaras and Ahmadis. This decision tarnishing the international image of the country has added to the woes of officials in Islamabad who will soon be meeting with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) that has placed Pakistan on its grey list for terror-financing and money laundering. In this regard, one could look at SAATH as a potential vehicle and a bridge to help Pakistan find corrective course to avoid sanctions and international isolation.
SAATH has presented itself as a hope for the progressive Pakistanis who believe in co-existence and equal share in the governance for different religious communities and ethnic nations. On this matter, a sustained support from the international community and the democratic elements within Pakistan is vital for SAATH to play a larger role.