By Zafar Iqbal
Baba Jan Hunzai is an activist who was imprisoned and tortured for drawing attention to the plight of the victims of the Attabad Lake which burst out in January 2010 by floods and landslide into the Hunza River in Gilgit Baltistan. The disaster killed twenty people and displaced 6,000 persons.
For more than a year Baba Jan Hunzai and four fellow activists have languished in various jails of Gilgit Baltistan (GB) for raising the voice of victims of the Attabad tragedy which were ignored by the government. Instead of compensating the affectees, officials killed two protesters and imprisoned Baba Jan Hunzai and his four fellow activists under the Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA).
The incredible struggle of “the Hunza Five” for the rights of the victims of climate change echoed across the world naming Baba Jan as the ‘Che Guevara of Pakistani Youth’. He is Chief Organiser of the Progressive Youth Front (PYF) — an organ of the Labour Party Pakistan. Baba Jan Hunzai was released on bail a few weeks ago.
Here are the extracts from his detailed interview after the release:
The police officials have told the Senate’s Standing Committee on Human Rights that they have found anti-state material in your possession and that you are involved in anti-state activities. What are your comments on such charges?
For the last 64 years Gilgit Baltistan has been under the clutches of the greedy rulers of Islamabad. In this region there is no respect for basic human rights neither are there independent courts to provide justice to the victims. Incapable persons have been appointed in the so-called local courts and anti-terrorism courts. These allegations are totally absurd, baseless and against the facts. Indeed, I filed an application against the chief of police. I demanded that police officials involved in inflicting inhuman torture on me during my detention should be arrested and trialed. My stance has infuriated the high ups.
How could a person be involved in any alleged anti-state activities from the prison? It is a foul allegation. I am a political worker and have raised my voice for the rights of the poor masses and working class.
By leveling such fake charges they want silence the political forces. Through such shameful tactics the government wants to suppress the voice of the people. But we would not compromise on our principled stance. We are socialists and we have a commitment with our people and our cause.
How do you comment on your release from the prison?
First of all I am grateful to the human rights organizations, media and my comrades within the country and across the world who voiced their sincere voice for my release.
In reality, it is not an absolute freedom. I have been released on bail, so it is a temporary liberation. For me it is just a transition from a minor jail to the larger prison as the whole society is turned into a prison where injustice, poverty and inequality prevail.
Gilgit Baltistan is a colony of Islamabad’s rulers. It is a pasture that serves their interests. Our rulers are plundering our priceless resources like forests, minerals and tourists destinations. Income Tax and General Sales Tax go directly to Islamabad’s exchanger. In response, Islamabad has given our people poverty, illiteracy, joblessness and the curse of evil sectarianism.
People demand their rights from Islamabad; however, rather granting the basic rights to the people, Islamabad is transporting the gifts of dead bodies of innocent people for us. It is unacceptable.
In this era of science and technology there are no engineering and medical colleges or universities in our area. It is a big joke that government declared a Post–Graduate College as Karakoram University. Its fees are unaffordable for local students. In such circumstances, poor parents sell their lands and properties to educate their children. Furthermore, the situation of law and order in Gilgit Baltistan is becoming worse day by day where section 144 is imposed for 12 months, turning it into a prison for the inhabitants.
What is the latest situation of Attabad Lake and how are the victims living now?
In 2010 a massive landslide in the Hunza River blocked the natural stream of the river and formed an artificial lake- Attabad Lake. Then Pakistani Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira announced that the drainage of water would be completed within 45 days. Sadly, 45 months have passed and lake is still waiting for drainage. Recently, the engineers and environmentalists of the National Engineering Services Pakistan (NESPAK) have declared it very dangerous from the environmental perspective.
The survivors of Attabad Lake calamity have been demanding alternative lands and other related facilities because the blockade of Hunza River is submerging the valuable agricultural lands of people. It has also badly damaged the Karakoram Highway (KKH) which impacted the social and economic life in the area.
With the help of civil society and friends in Labour Party Pakistan I mobilized the public opinion to raise the plight of victims of Attabad disaster. For this act, authorities put me behind the bars for over 13 months.
How would you recall your memories of the prison?
After consultation with my comrades, I handed over myself to the authorities on September 8, 2011 where I was picked up by officials of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) who continued to inflict indescribable torture on me till 15 September. When the Labour Party and human rights groups protested over this brutal action they sent me back to the jail. In April 2012 two fingers of my hands were broken due to the torture. Perpetrators also shaved my head to shake my determination.
One of our fellow comrades suffered from continuous bleeding over 15 days. In the meanwhile my comrades Amir Khan and Iftekhar Hussain were shifted to an unnamed location for more intimidation and persecution. We had to survive six days and nights without any food. Because of such cruel treatment, I would like to describe these cells as the “infamous Guantanamo Bay”.
There are no medical facilities in the jails. The medical board has recommended the prison administration to transfer three prisoners to hospitals; however, authorities do not allow them even though the High Court has also issued orders to do so. One of the prisoners is suffering from cancer.
The prisoners are suffering from ruthless treatment. Government should urgently provide medical facilities to sick prisoners, and the paramilitary forces involved in the persecution must be put on trial. The culture of slavery and torture in the prisons should be stopped.
Recently Gilgit Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA) has passed a resolution which demands that GB should be annexed to Pakistan like a provincial unit. How do you view this development?
As I have mentioned earlier that Gilgit Balitistan (GB) is not a free land but a colony of Islamabad. GB has no representation in the National Assembly and Senate. The Supreme Court has already declared that GB is not part of Pakistan. The Legislative Assembly has no right to decide the future of this region.
It has been reported by a section of foreign press that China has deployed its troops in Gilgit Baltistan. Also the Indian government has been reputedly voicing concerns over the Chinese troops in the GB.
India has strategic interests in the GB as it has rivalry with China. Strategically GB is very crucial for Pakistan as well. There is no Chinese military presence in the region, except their engineers working in expansion work of the KKH and few other mega projects.
Various Kashmiri political parties declare the GB as part of the State of Jammu and Kashmir and demand its inclusion in the Jammu and Kashmir. Any comment?
India occupied the Laddakh territory, which is part of Great Blawaristan. Pakistani President General Ayyub handed over Aksai Chin to China. Chitral was separated from Gilgit Baltistan and included in the NWFP (now Khyer PakhoonKhawa). Kohistan District was also separated from GB, however, Kashmiris have never voiced against such injustices. They see the Gigligit Baltistan from the glasses of their interests and ignore the plight of people in the area.
In 1993 the Azad Jammu and Kashmir Judiciary led by Justice Majid Malik declared that Gilgit Baltistan is part of Jammu and Kashmir. Accordingly, the AJK government should have annexed the region with Azad Jammu and Kashmir, however, then the Muslim Conference government failed to implement this because Sardar Abdul Qayaum Khan denied following the court ruling.
Our Kashmiri friends consider the GB as part of Jammu and Kashmir. The United Nations (UN) resolutions about the Kashmir conflict also declare this region as disputed. Historically, along with British rule over GB there was also a governor appointed from Kashmir.
With all such historical facts we believe that the future of this area only could be decided by a Constitutional Assembly elected by free, transparent and neutral elections held under the supervision of international observers.
Pakistani rulers have been trying to befool the people of GB through different Constitutional Packages or reforms. Current GB Assembly and government are run by not the people of Gilgit Baltistan but by Minister of Kashmir Affairs Manzoor Ahmed Wattoo.
Gilgit Baltistan has a right either to be a free area or annexed with Pakistan or somewhere else. But it is clear that our people would not accept the dictation of any puppet regime.
Zafar Iqbal is a freelance writer and campaigner. He writes on political, environmental and geo-strategic dimensions of contemporary South Asia. He could be accessed via : www.pressforpeace.org.uk
Weekly Viewpoint,ISSUE NO. 123 19 October, 2012,