Hunza sit-in, story of Baba Jan, Iftikhar Karbalai and other political prisioners
Gilgit/Aliabad (TP) October 8, 2020: A rare unity and massive gathering of the people in Hunza in Gilgit-Baltistan, seeking the release of jailed political prisoners including the iconic Baba Jan, has upped the ante as participants of the demo have refused to disperse, bracing the chillingly cold weather, until all the wrongly convicted prisoners were released ahead of the forthcoming election of Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly scheduled for November 15.
The sit-in in Aliabad Hunza seeking the release of political leader Baba Jan, Iftikhar Hussain Karbalai and 13 others, currently serving life imprisonment in Damas in district Ghizer after their conviction by an anti-terrorism court in a highly dubious verdict on charges of rioting that erupted in 2011, entered the fourth day, as men, women, students and children braced the cold weather, demanding the release of all the prisoners.
Some of the leaders while addressing the protesters urged the people of Hunza to boycott the forthcoming election of Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly until the jailed leaders were released and their conviction revoked. Leaders of different nationalist and federalist parties have been visiting the sit-in venue in Aliabad for the last many days to express their solidarity with the protesters and family members of the jailed leaders.
While the sit-in has entered the fourth day, the national media has scrumptiously blacked out the massive public gathering, a rare phenomenon in the area famous for its beauty, hospitality, literacy and nonviolence ambience. Interestingly, none of the national leaders including Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and Maryam Nawaz have kept a mum over the sit-in and the incarceration of the political prisoners including Baba Jan.
Who are Baba Jan, Iftikhar Karbalai and other prisoners?
In January 2010, a mountainside collapsed into the Hunza River and created what is now known as the Attabad Lake. The landslide immediately killed 20 villagers and rendered more than 600 people homeless. As the lake formed, village after village was submerged. In total, over 1000 people were displaced and over 25,000 were cut off from the rest of the country (the lake had destroyed the one road that connected the area to Pakistan).
The plight of the affected people was ignored. Baba Jan toured the country lobbying for the government to drain the lake and create transport facilities for the affected. The then Pakistan People’s Party government acted too late. The then PPP government promised monetary compensation to the affected people and support in their resettlement. However, for many, compensation never arrived. An official list of those who were to receive compensation named 457 families. Over a hundred of these families did not receive their compensation until recently.
On 11th August 2011, around 200 people, including the members of 25 families affected by the disaster, protested for the rights of the affected people to promised compensation, as the then Chief Minister of Gilgit-Baltistan, Syed Mehdi Shah, was visiting the town of Aliabad, Hunza. The police, instructed to remove the protesters by any means, started with a baton-charge and then proceeded to use tear gas, before opening fire with live ammunition. Their first victim was Afzal Baig, a 22-year old student. When his father Sher Ullah Baig tried to retrieve the body of his son, he too was shot. Both died. The valley erupted and a police station and other government buildings were burnt down by the protesters.
Baba Jan arrived 6 hours later. He organized the protesters in a peaceful manner and they were promised an investigation and firm action against the police officers responsible for the killing. The protesters waited for the government to act. It acted a week later. Arrest warrants were issued for over 350 protesters including Baba Jan. While most of those arrested were released, Baba Jan and 13 other protesters were kept in jail on-and-off for 2 years. Baba Jan was granted bail in 2012, while another activist, Iftikhar Hussain’s plea for bail was denied. Subsequently, Baba Jan’s bail was revoked.
A judicial inquiry into the killing of Afzal Baig and his father was conducted. Its findings have not been made public but some say it lays the blame on the police force and local bureaucracy for the incident.
Baba Jan and Iftikhar Hussain are political activists. Iftikhar Hussain is a senior leader of the Karakoram National Movement, a regional political party. Baba Jan is the former Vice President of the Awami Workers Party-Pakistan, the founding chairman of the Progressive Youth Front and. In 2013, Baba Jan, was granted bail and resumed his activism. He successfully campaigned for the ‘wheat subsidy’ to be restored for the Gilgit- Baltistan region in 2014. For his efforts, his bail was withdrawn and he was sentenced to life imprisonment, along-with, 13 others. Undeterred, in summer 2015 he stood from jail to be a representative in the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly from Hunza constituency. Without funds and hindered by jail, he nonetheless, managed to gain the second-highest number of votes in the elections. The seat became vacant again in 2015. Baba Jan was set to run but was not allowed to. His strong showing had scared the Government of Pakistan and the election was delayed multiple times on various pretexts until Baba Jan was convicted and became automatically ineligible to run in the election.