The biggest protest in Hunza’s history: What do the protesters want?

By Zahid Ali

The temperature in the town of Aliabad in the Hunza Valley has dropped to minus five degrees Celsius, but even in this blood-curdling cold, thousands of people are sitting on the main highway. Among them is Azeem Hunzai, a young political activist who is seen holding a book in one hand and reading with angry but optimistic eyes. A few feet away from them is a group of women who have been protesting for the last several days in the scorching winter.

The main reason for the protest is the severe climate change in the high mountainous region. For thousands of years, local glaciers made of frozen ice have been melting, causing unexpected flooding of rivers and streams flowing here. Often when the snow on the mountain tops melts, the landslides bring with them heavy rocks down into the valleys that block centuries-old water and human passages.

The most notable change came in 2010 when heavy rocks fell from the mountains, blocking the passage of a river near the town of Attaabad in the Hunza Valley and submerging an entire valley in deep water. Today this whole body of water is known as Lake Ataabad.

Tourists visiting Gilgit-Baltistan from different parts of the country consider this lake tour an essential part of their journey. Surrounded by high mountains, its calm waters have soothed countless eyes through thousands – and perhaps millions – of photographs, but few people outside of Hunza know what human tragedies lie beneath its green waters.

A clear example of this unfamiliarity came when Gilgit-Baltistan students studying in Lahore staged a protest in front of the Lahore Press Club on Saturday, October 10, in solidarity with the Aliabad protesters. The number of participants in the demonstration could not exceed fifty, and hardly any locals were among them.

There are many human tragedies hidden under the green waters of Lake Ataabad 

A Hunzai youth protesting in Lahore complains that despite taking thousands of pictures on Lake Ataabad, people are still unaware of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan and their problems.

Captive to climate change

Lake Ataabad completely destroyed at least 30 houses and left hundreds homeless. The then regional government promised the victims that their losses would be repaired within a year, but when a year later they were still unresolved, they resorted to protest.

According to Nazneen Niaz, a resident of Hunza, “When the Chief Minister of Gilgit-Baltistan Syed Mehdi Shah visited Hunza in August 2011, the people affected by the lake tried to protest on this occasion while the police authorities forcibly stopped the protest. ‘A father and son were killed in demonstrations in the conflict between police and protesters.

Nazneen told that how “the police dragged my brother out of our house in the dark of night and arrested him.” “For many days we didn’t even know where they were taken,” she said.

Baba Jan was released on bail for a few months in 2015, but the Gilgit-Baltistan Chief Court in 2016 sentenced him and his fellow protesters to life in prison. So he was put in jail again. The families of the detainees immediately appealed against the decision to the Supreme Court of Gilgit-Baltistan, but four years later they could not be heard because the government of Pakistan had not appointed appellate court judges in that period.

Baba Jan is considered to be the most prominent voice for public rights in Gilgit-Baltistan 

Who is Baba Jan?

Baba Jan was born forty years ago in a working class family in Hunza. He has three brothers and four sisters, all younger than him. His father, Abdullah Baig, now in his 70s, has been farming for most of his life. He had also worked as a mechanic for some time.

Baba Jan’s political career began in 1999 when he was studying at Government Degree College, Gilgit. Israruddin Israr writes in an article published in 2016 on the website Hum Sab: This year he found out that a mountain of marble in his village Nasirabad had been leased to a company. Hearing this, they reached the village and mobilized the people of the village for their rights.

He did not allow this company to work there until the company went back and another company came and he also clashed with Baba Jan. Baba Jan organized the movement with the help of the people and did not allow this company to function either.
After completing his education, Baba Jan joined the Pakistan People’s Party and became the president of the Hunza unit of its affiliate, the People’s Youth Organization. He left the party in 2004 to join the Labor Party of Pakistan and ran for the district council from Hunza. He came in second with a margin of just 30 votes.

Israruddin Israr says that at the same time, Baba Jan founded the Progressive Youth Front, Blauristan, which launched a vigorous movement against the construction of the Diamer-Bhasha Dam. Once in motion they made a protest in Gilgit together with my colleagues on the police violence.

Inayat Baig belongs to the Gilgit-Baltistan branch of the National Students Federation, a left-wing student organization – he has known Baba Jan for the past two decades. According to him, in 2006 Baba Jan centered his political activities on the Soost trade center on the Pakistan-China border because he wanted not only the family of the former local ruler but also the people of Gilgit-Baltistan in administrative matters. Should also be included.

Protesters insist that the sit-in will continue till the release of Baba Jan and if there is no hearing, there will be a long march towards Gilgit city. 

When the Gilgit-Baltistan Assembly elections were held in 2015, Baba Jan participated in them despite being in jail and once again came second with a margin of a few hundred votes.

But on the one hand, Baba Jan’s political popularity was increasing, on the other hand, his arrest had put his family in a lot of trouble. Her sister Nazneen says her sister Shagufta’s education could not be completed because of his brother baba jan arrest. “She took first place in the intermediate exams in Gilgit-Baltistan in 2011 and was later selected to study in the United States on a Full Bright Scholarship. She could not continue his education and was forced to join the police force.

Similarly, when Nazneen and Shagufta got married in 2017, they were both sad instead of happy due to Baba Jan’s absence. “Our marriages were not a source of joy for us, but of mourning.”
Nazneen says her mother, Zahra Bibi, is also suffering from severe depression due to her son’s imprisonment. “Every day after my brother goes to jail, we go through a new ordeal.”

Future strategy

Nazneen and other members of her family came to sit-in in Aliabad every day to demand the release of Baba Jan and others imprisoned with him, and reiterate their demand for the prisoners to return to their homes.

Nazneen is grateful to the protesters and says that for the first time in Gilgit’s history, locals belonging to all religious sects and political parties, including themselves and their mothers, sisters, daughters and other family members, Thousands are participating in the sit-in.

Mudabar Ali, a young political activist from Gilgit who joined the protesters, said that people were taking to the streets to demand the release of Baba Jan, leaving behind sectarian and political affiliations, as “Baba Jan is now living in the entire region of Gilgit-Baltistan.” Have become representatives of the youth.

Although it has been a week since the protests began, its organizers have no plans to end them. They insist they will continue until Baba Jan and the other prisoners are released. According to Nazneen, “If no progress is made on this issue by the government and state representatives, the sit-in participants are ready to march towards Gilgit.”

Zahid Ali is a researcher, journalist and left-wing political activist associated with the student and labor movement