There is still an element of surprise as to how and why Abdul Hameed Khan, the leader of the ultra-nationalist Balawaristan National Front (BNF) operating in Gilgit-Baltistan, decided to surrender to the Pakistani authorities on February 8 after carrying out anti-Pakistan activities for 20 long years based in India and Belgium.
Unnamed sources were quoted as saying in the news items published in sections of the Pakistani media recently that Pakistan’s intelligence agencies in a major breakthrough had successfully busted the saboteur network, BNF-Hameed, funded by the Indian spy agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Islamabad has been alleging that India by using its proxies was trying to fuel terrorism to destabilise Pakistan. Balochistan is mentioned in particular as the focus of India’s attention. As an evidence, the arrest of the serving Indian Navy Commander Kulbushan Jadav during a counter-intelligence operation in March 2016 in Balochistan is repeatedly highlighted by Pakistan.
However, Islamabad has also alleged that RAW is behind acts of sabotage elsewhere in Pakistan, including Karachi, erstwhile Fata and Gilgit-Baltistan, earlier known as Northern Areas. Islamabad has been claiming that India in collaboration with the Afghan intelligence agency, National Directorate of Security (NDS), is using Afghanistan’s soil to destabilise Pakistan by offering support to Baloch separatists, the secular nationalist Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) and others.
In context of Gilgit-Baltistan, the increased Indian interest in the largely mountainous region is understandable considering the fact that New Delhi has publicly opposed the multi-billion dollar China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). India has been arguing that the CPEC, the flagship project of China’s massive Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that starts from Kashgar in China’s Xinjiang province and enters the neighbouring Gilgit-Baltistan region on the way to Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, is a disputed territory as it is historically a part of Jammu & Kashmir.
The details of the intelligence-based operation, “Operation Pursuit” that tracked down the BNF-H have not been shared with the media, but it must have been quite elaborate because Abdul Hameed Khan was living abroad and getting him to return to Pakistan from Brussels, Belgium and unconditionally surrender would have needed time and effort. The terms of his surrender aren’t known, though many political workers in Gilgit-Baltistan are speculating that Abdul Hameed Khan could eventually enter electoral politics in case he pledges loyalty to Pakistan and is given amnesty. That cannot be an easy decision for the state in view of his past during which he allegedly played in the hands of RAW and ran a campaign from India and Belgium to malign Pakistan for denying the rights of people of Gilgit-Baltistan and committing human rights violations.
Abdul Hameed Khan’s surrender seems to have led to a series of events as the intelligence agencies moved to arrest 14 BNF-H activists and seize a huge cache of arms in Gilgit-Baltistan. Finally on March 29, the head of the Balawaristan National Students Organization (BNSO), the students’ wing of BNF-H, Sher Nadir Shahi, also surrendered to the authorities. He was accused of motivating Gilgit-Baltistan students studying in different parts of Pakistan to join BNF-H and spreading its message through the Balawaristan Times magazine. The authorities insist that like his mentor Abdul Hameed Khan, Sher Nadir Shahi too had fled abroad, reportedly reaching Nepal via the United Arab Emirates to link up with his handlers. It isn’t clear as to when he came back to Pakistan.
The intelligence agencies that now hold Abdul Hameed Khan and Sher Nadir Shahi in custody have made serious allegations against them and have provided evidence of their links with RAW. Sources close to the intelligence agencies said BNF-H had made long-term plans to sow chaos in Gilgit-Baltistan at the behest of RAW by brainwashing the students through secessionist and anti-state propaganda and also undertake terrorist attacks.
The details provided by the intelligence agencies about Abdul Hameed Khan’s 20-year stay abroad make alarming and also interesting reading. He is said to have gone to Nepal in 1999 where RAW agents, Colonel Arjun and Joshi, took him to India and lodged him in a luxury apartment in New Delhi with his family. His three sons were allegedly educated at the elite schools and colleges in Dehradun in the Indian state of Uttarakhand. He was provided Indian identity documents and facilitated to run a business.
RAW invested heavily in Abdul Hameed Khan, providing him more than one billion Indian rupees, including 700 million rupees sent to Pakistan through different channels. An attempt by BNF-H to set up an FM Radio channel to broadcast anti-Pakistan propaganda was reportedly foiled by the intelligence and law-enforcement agencies.
The intelligence sources reported that Abdul Hameed Khan was assisted to shift to Brussels in 2007 to appear at international forums to malign Pakistan and give a global dimension to his campaign concerning Gilgit-Baltistan. He spoke at conferences and interacted with the media. He also made use of social media. One of his actions was to send letters to the international financial institutions to make the case that no funds should be provided to Pakistan for building six proposed dams in Gilgit-Baltistan or places like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Kohistan and Chitral districts that the BNF-H claims to be historically part of Gilgit-Baltistan.
Belonging to the Yasin valley in Ghizer district in Gilgit-Baltistan, Abdul Hameed Khan had a nationalist bent of mind and on July 31, 1992 he launched the BNF together with Nawaz Khan Naji, Mohammad Rafiq and Shujaat Ali. Said to be aged more than 50 years old, Abdul Hameed Khan’s extreme views led to a split in the BNF when Nawaz Khan Naji broke away and formed his own faction on December 28, 1989 to restrict his demand to maximum autonomy for Gilgit-Baltistan in the federation of Pakistan. Nawaz Khan Naji subsequently entered electoral politics and has twice won a seat in the 33-member Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly from his native Ghizer district. It hasn’t been easy winning from Ghizer as politics in the district has been dominated for decades by the family of Pir Karam Ali Shah, who had a long association with the PPP.
Ghizer, where the majority of population is Ismaili, has been a stronghold of nationalists. Both Abdul Hameed Khan and Nawaz Khan Naji belong to Ghizer, but the factionalism in the BNF would continue to affect its popularity. The BNF also has small pockets of support elsewhere in Gilgit-Baltistan, but it has never been enough to win seats in the legislative assembly.
The BNF is a minor party compared to Pakistan’s mainstream political parties that have dominated politics in Gilgit-Baltistan. The revelations about the BNF-H’s links with RAW would further erode its support as the people of Gilgit-Baltistan may have grievances, but an overwhelming majority still prefer to remain part of Pakistan. However, some of the BNF demands like more autonomy for Gilgit-Baltistan and making the region the fifth province of Pakistan remain attractive.