By Ambreen Agha
.…The Shias and Sunnis have always peacefully coexisted in Gilgit-Baltistan. Even today they do not consciously take up fights with each other, unless pushed. The history of violence here is old. It goes back to the days when Pakistan established a fake autonomy over us. It is since the last 40 years that our lives have been plagued by the ever present Pakistan military here.”
– Spokesman of a Gilgit-Baltistan nationalist organization, on condition of anonymity, in an interview to SAIR, March 2, 2012.
At least 18 Shias from Gilgit-Baltistan were killed on February 28, 2012, by armed assailants in military uniforms on the Karakoram Highway in the Kohistan District of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, while they were returning in a convoy from a pilgrimage to Iran. According to the Police, the assailants flagged down four buses, boarded them, and asked the passengers whether they were Shia or Sunni. They then asked the Shias to step out of the buses and checked their identity cards before pumping bullets into them. All those killed were men, while the eight injured included women and children.
Soon after, tension started brewing in Gilgit. In a clash with law enforcement agencies in Gilgit District on February 29, a man, identified as Naveed was killed and two others were injured. The Police also recovered a dead body from a mountain in the Napur area of Gilgit on March 1. Earlier, on February 28, the Gilgit District Administration had imposed Section 144, prohibiting public assemblies or demonstrations and the display of arms, in Gilgit city, and had closed all private and Government organisations for three days.
Meanwhile, the anti-Shia outfit Jandullah ‘commander’ Ahmed Marwat claimed responsibility for the attack, declaring, “they were Shias and our mujahideen shot them dead”. However, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly Member, Mehboob Khan, in a bizarre statement, blamed the people of Gilgit-Baltistan for carrying out the attacks in Kohistan to settle ‘personal scores’. Abdul Sattar Khan, Member Provincial Assembly (MPA) from Kohistan’s Dassu tehsil (revenue unit) in an attempt to give credence to the theory, noted that two persons belonging to the Sunni-populated Chilas area had earlier been killed in sectarian clashes in Gilgit-Baltistan, and the people of Chilas had vowed to avenge the two deaths. He claimed that the killings could be the result of the sectarian strife within Gilgit-Baltistan.
The MPAs’ observations appear to be misplaced. Despite a fear of the revival of sectarian skirmishes in Gilgit-Baltistan on the day of fateful incident, a media report from The Express Tribune on March 2, 2012, stated that the elders of the Shia dominated Nagar Valley in Hunza Nagar District took at least 35 Sunni labourers working in the area into protective custody and handed them over to the Police, who escorted them safely to Gilgit, the next day. Quoting this incident during his telephonic interview, the spokesman of a Gilgit-Baltistan nationalist organisation observed,
A sense of belonging to this region is inherent in the people of Gilgit-Baltistan and binds them together across sectarian lines. Faith based killings, or killing for one’s identity is not common among the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. Pakistan’s brutal encroachment and the eventual fanning of the Shia-Sunni divide by the military and corrupt officialdom installed by Islamabad has sometimes led to some stray acts of sectarian killings. The general perception of a low level of sectarian violence in Gilgit, compared to other ‘explosive regions’ of Pakistan, is correct, because people here are not divided on any sectarian or ethnic lines; in fact, they are united on a common goal of attaining their rightful political autonomy and achieving their basic rights.
Gilgit-Baltistan has historically remained a peaceful region, with occasional cycles of orchestrated tension and violence. Shias were a majority in the region until the Government of Pakistan breached the State Subject Rules (SSR) promulgated in 1927 by the last Dogra Maharaja Hari Singh, in a massive effort at demographic re-engineering. According to the State Subject Rules, no non-local could take up permanent residence or acquire property in the Gilgit-Baltistan region. The rule, however, was suspended and violated when the Pakistan Government in the 1970’s, during the Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto era, settled thousands of people from the then North West Frontier Province (NWFP, now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) in Gilgit-Baltistan, converting the local majority into a minority. The first reported sectarian clash took place during Bhutto’s regime in the mid-1970s, when Bhutto prohibited the Shias from setting up stages on the streets. The consequent Shia resentment resulted in firing by the Police, injuring many.
Later, in May 1988, military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq, in an attempted massive sectarian attack, sent a Lashkar (army) of militants, comprising natives of Afghanistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, to attack the Shias living there. The fire of sectarianism was lit by Zia during the last days of his rule.
In the words of International Crisis Group’s (ICG) report Discord in Pakistan’s Northern Areas:
.…Sunni zealots, predominantly from NWFP’s tribal areas, assisted by local Sunnis from Chilas, Darel and Tangir, [on May 17, 1988] attacked several Shia villages on the outskirts of Gilgit. For three days, they killed, looted and pillaged with impunity while the authorities sat back and watched. Although contingents of the paramilitary Frontier Constabulary (FC) were eventually sent in, they too looked the other way while Sunni attackers wreaked havoc. By the time army units were sent in to quell the violence, at least 150 people were killed, several hundred injured and property worth millions of rupees destroyed.
The brunt of the radical Islamisation policy of General Zia-ul-Haq in this region focused on settling outsiders in the area, impacting directly and adversely on the local people. The policy of Islamization, the Afghan crisis in the 1980s, the revolution in Iran in 1979, each had a cumulative impact on sectarian turmoil. Even after these events subsided and the General Pervez Musharraf regime announced a policy of ‘enlightened moderation,’ nothing spectacular happened to assuage the wounds of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan.
Gilgit had come under the firm grip of sectarian violence in 1992 following the assassination of Gayyasuddin, a Sunni leader, on May 30 that year, leading to at least 30 killings. The subsequent conciliatory peace talks ended when Latif Hassan, a Shia leader, was shot dead on August 4, 1993, again leading to clashes that claimed more than two dozen lives. Also, the year 2003 saw trouble brewing in the Northern Areas over the Islamic textbooks that the Pakistan Ministry of Education had issued as part of the curriculum for the schools in the region. According to Shia community leaders, the textbooks promote Sunni thought and values and are an attempt to promote sectarian hatred between the two sects.
Apart from cycles of violence and sustained oppression from above, a low literacy rate and acute poverty act as powerful deterrents to any movement to further the region’s democratic demands, and contribute directly to the growth of sectarian fanaticism. The Zia era witnessed the creation of extremist groups like the anti-Shia Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and, in response, the Shia Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Fiqah-e-Jafaria. In 1996, the SSP created an armed wing, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). At the other end, the Shias formed their own armed outfit, the Sipah-e-Mohammedi Pakistan (SMP). The aggressive Sunni Islamisation drive initiated by General Zia impacted substantially on Shia-dominated Gilgit-Baltistan, with the Pakistan Army and politicians in Islamabad seeking to divide the region along sectarian lines to retain tight control over this strategically important area.
On December 7, 2005, for instance, a Daily Times editorial noted that intelligence agents had discovered that the LeJ and SSP were planning to use suicide-bombers to target Shia members of the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Council. Earlier in October 2005, hired Sunni militants had attacked a group of Shias in Basen, 58 kilometres from Gilgit Town on the Ghezer road, killing two and wounding others. Two of the gunmen escaped, but a third was injured and thereafter arrested by the local police, and taken to the District Hospital, Gilgit. Some documents recovered from his possession indicated that he came from Kohistan in the NWFP. Shortly thereafter, however, the Pakistani Rangers, on orders from the ‘highest quarters’, forcibly removed the perpetrator from the hospital, apparently to avoid his identification and interrogation by the local police, which, sources in Gilgit indicate, would have exposed a larger conspiracy. A majority of those killed have been demonstrators who have fallen to the bullets of the state’s paramilitary force, the Pakistan Rangers, and sources in Gilgit claim that, contrary to the official position, there is no tension between local Shias and Sunnis, but rather a deliberate effort from the outside, part of a long-drawn campaign, to create mischief in the region.
A report by Freedom House in 2010, noted, further:
A number of Islamist militant groups, including those that receive patronage from the Pakistani military, operate from bases in Pakistani-administered Kashmir. Militant groups that have traditionally focused on attacks in Indian-administered Kashmir are reportedly expanding their influence and activities in Pakistani Kashmir, including the establishment of new madrassas (religious schools) in the area. They have also increased cooperation with other militants based in Pakistan’s tribal areas, such as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)…… In August (2010), the Pakistani Government banned 25 militant groups operating within the country, including those focused on Kashmir. Although the Government claimed to have raided and sealed off the Muzaffarabad headquarters of the LeT, also known as the Jama’at-ud-Dawa, other reports indicated that the group continued to operate training camps in the region.
Though the changed demographic nature of the region and continuous Pakistani attempt to foster sectarian strife to divide the people and thus deprive them of a ‘united formation’ has led to some sectarian strife, the local culture has remained substantially resistant to violence. Significantly, media reports indicate that five people were killed and another eight were injured in sectarian-motivated killings in the month of November 2011. However, with little media presence in the region, and tremendous manipulation of reports, suspicions persist that these killings may have been orchestrated by the Pakistani establishment, rather than motivated by local sectarian sentiment.
Moreover, Security Forces (SFs) are accused of barging into the houses without search and arrest warrants. Islamabad and its “state apparatus” have been accused of engineering ‘disappearances’ and illegal detentions in the region. In one glaring incident of excesses, Manzoor Parwana, a leading politician in Gilgit-Baltistan, was abducted by Pakistan’s SFs on July 28, 2011, for demanding the rights of the more than ten thousand Ladakhi refugees, who reside in different parts of Gilgit-Baltistan, and desire reunification with their relatives in India. He is yet to be released.
In September 2011, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) expressed alarm at the arrest of over two dozen political activists in Gilgit-Baltistan and reports of maltreatment of some of them in detention. In connection with the August 11, 2011 protests over non-payment of compensation to the victims of the Attabad landslide, an HRCP statement observed,
The Commission takes serious exception to the manner in which the authorities have chosen to deal with public resentment following the August 11 killings. The Policemen accused of the killings have yet to be arrested but many political and civil society activists have been held in a crackdown against the protesters. HRCP has noted with concern reports of mistreatment of some of the activists.
The population of Gilgit-Baltistan is silenced by an overwhelming military and intelligence presence, arbitrary detentions and ‘disappearances’. A devastating report by the European Union Rapporteur, Baroness Emma Nicholson, while deploring “documented human rights violations by Pakistan” declared unambiguously that “the people of Gilgit and Baltistan are under the direct rule of the military and enjoy no democracy”. Nicholson’s report was scathing on the sheer oppression of the people, on the complete absence of legal and human rights and a Constitutional status, as well as on the enveloping backwardness that had evidently been engineered as a matter of state policy in the region.
The President of Pakistan ‘selects’ the Chief Ministers of Gilgit-Baltistan, and they are not, consequently, answerable to the local people. They remain subject to military and bureaucratic pressures from Islamabad. Not surprisingly, Chief Minister Mehdi Shah of Pakistan People’s Party, in a startling revelation, disclosed that he had been forbidden to take action against corrupt officials in the past by sitting Assembly Members, on political and sectarian grounds. However, the speaker of Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly, Wazir Baig, of Pakistan People’s Party Parliamentarian (PPPP), an electoral extension of PPP in Gilgit-Baltistan, accused the Chief Minister of orchestrating recent extra judicial killings and the arrest of dozens of innocent local youth.
Despite a fitful focus on the more extreme developments in the region, Gilgit-Baltistan has largely been ignored by the international media and community, substantially as a result of its remoteness and intentional isolation by Islamabad. The denial of basic rights is a quotidian reality in the region, with periodic escalation of orchestrated excesses by state agencies or Islamist extremist proxies. Despite clear directives from the Supreme Court of Pakistan, the ambiguity of the region’s constitutional status – and hence the denial of legal and constitutional protection to the population – persists. Islamabad has combined the military jackboot with the instrumentalisation of extremist majoritarian Islam as its principal strategy of political management in Gilgit-Baltistan, and the population continues to despair for any proximate relief in a situation where every dissenting voice is immediately and effectively suffocated.
Research Assistant, Institute for Conflict Management