Gilgit-Baltistan is a land whose travails, similar to Balochistan, are kept hidden from the rest of Pakistanis. A land that can be called semi-autonomous at best because the Pakistani government has refused to fully absorb it in for years and called it as the Northern Areas. It is a land that was forcibly annexed from Jammu and Kashmir. A land that for the best part of the past 68 years has had no judicial system of its own, no independent educational set up and no other government systems. There is no proper road transport system, while the air fares are extremely high and non-affordable to the local people. Additionally, there is a lack of educational institutions.

Since 2008–09 hollow democratic system has been put in place under which the PPP ruled the region and currently the PML-N is in power here. However, all shots are being called by the federal government sitting in Islamabad and the locals have no say in any matter. All the atrocities of the sitting government and the establishment alike are swept under the carpet. All is well over there. Any real news coming out of Gilgit-Baltistan is not considered worthy enough to be tweeted and retweeted. Almost none of the big journalists or the social media activists have taken any issue coming out of the province as trending worthy. It is almost as if the establishment has dictated that this area is only to be discussed in relation to the CPEC and that too sweepingly.

Rarely have the people of the region, or their issues, been given a mention on the national media. 2012 was one such year. On 6th July 2012, around 100 activists belonging to Labour Party Pakistan (LPP), Progressive Youth Front Lahore, National Trade Union Federation, Carpet Workers Union, International Socialists, and Pakistan Tehrik-i- Insaf (PTI) decided to hold a protest and marched from Aabpara Chowk to the Press Club in Islamabad. They were chanting ‘Baba Jan! Baba Jan! Baba Jan ko riha karo’. Baba Jan is a political activist from the village of Nasirabad in Gilgit-Baltistan. He started his political journey in 1999 during his college days. This man from an extremely humble background first came to the forefront when he raised his voice for those people of Gilgit-Baltistan who had been displaced from their homes as a result of landslides in 2010.

Because of this natural catastrophe, five villages that were home to around 1,000 people got affected and these people were left to fend for themselves without any help or attention from the government. At that time it was Baba Jan who lobbied the government to compensate for the displaced people of the valley and solve their problems in the aftermath of the devastating landslide. He organised protests, toured the country and held press conferences that pressurised the local government to finally agree to compensate the displaced victims of the landslide. As a result, all but 25 families were compensated. These families kept on protesting under Baba Jan’s leadership. They came out on the roads of Nasirabad and refused to budge until their demands were met.

In August 2011, the police tried to disperse the protesting crowd and resorted to opening fire on them. This resulted in the death of two protestors, a father and son. The death of two innocent people led to a multi-party rebellion in the area. In September 2011, Baba Jan, along with scores of other activists, was arrested on charges of terrorism. Afterwards, all activists other than those belonging to PLP were released. Video footages show the atrocities of army men on innocent activists who are seen as a political threat, while their only crime is raising voice for the hapless citizens of Gilgit-Baltistan. Baba Jan also protested against the selling off of all the natural resources of the region to Chinese companies.

While in jail, Baba Jan actively worked on promoting inter-sect harmony between the Shias and Sunni prisoners. Until then the Shias and Sunnis were kept separately and not allowed to meet with each other. Baba Jan held several meetings with the leaders of the two communities there and convinced them to unite for their rights. As a ‘reward’, Baba Jan and four of his fellow party workers were separated from other prisoners and tortured. According to the PLP, Baba Jan was subjected to torture for three to four hours at a stretch. He was beaten with sticks and his feet crushed under heavy boots for three days in a row. Also, he was denied treatment for his many injuries despite the orders of the court.

After 12 days of this incident, upon severe pressure raised through an international campaign by the party workers and Gilgitis spread across Europe and Australia, Baba Jan and others were provided with medical assistance. Baba Jan was later released on bail after serving 13 months in prison. At the time of release, his kidney was badly damaged because of the incessant beatings.

He was also suffering from acute psychological trauma resulting from merciless torture. Baba Jan’s bail expired in 2014 and he was sent back to prison. Afterwards, an anti-terrorism court awarded him a sentence of 71 years in three different cases.

Since the locals of Baba Jan’s area see him as a ray of hope, he contested the 2015 elections of the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly. He lost the elections against the PML-N candidate who later became Gilgit-Baltistan’s prime minister. The by-elections on this seat were scheduled for May 2016, but the government machinery delayed them for three weeks fearing the possible victory of Baba Jan who was again contesting for the seat. Meanwhile, one of the life sentences awarded to Baba Jan was upheld by an anti-terrorism court in Gilgit, as a result of which he and nine of his associates were sentenced to 40 years in prison. It is obvious that Baba Jan’s ever growing presence and his sincere intentions to become the true voice of the people of Gilgit Baltistan is a threat to the agenda of the powers-that- be.

Baba Jan is now at the forefront of protests against Pakistan’s expansionist designs and blatant colonisation of the land that is essentially disputed. He challenges the forcible occupation of 2,800 square miles of the region’s land mass by the Chinese, as well as the annexation of Kohistan and Chitral into the Pakistani federation. Kohistan has been integrated into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa even though historically it forms a part of Gilgit-Baltistan. Similarly, Chitral, which was formerly a princely state that had affinity with Gilgit-Baltistan, has also been integrated into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The forces in power are desperately trying to get Baba Jan disqualified from participating in the by-elections and so far the courts have not entertained their requests. It remains to be seen as to what lengths they will go to make sure the voices of the common people of Gilgit-Baltistan remain unheard.