By Ajit Kumar Singh
Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) has been an area of enduring darkness and oppression since its occupation in 1948, in the wake of India’s bloody Partition, and is, again, reeling under a renewed cycle of acute violence. The current troubles commenced with the killing of 18 Shias in the Kohistan area of neighboring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) on February 28, 2012, and took an uglier turn on April 3, 2012. At least 24 people have died and several others have been injured, in incidents across GB, since the morning of April 3 (till the time of writing). Unconfirmed reports put the number of dead at more than 250.
Giving his account of the escalation, GB Police officer Basharat Ali noted that the violence within the region commenced on April 3, when five persons were killed in Gilgit city in clashes between the Police and protesting cadres and sympathizers of the recently banned Sunni formation, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), a reincarnation of the banned Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP). The outfit had called for a strike in Gilgit, to press the Government to release its ‘deputy secretary general’, Maulana Ataullah Sadiq, who was arrested on March 28, 2012, in connection with firing on a Shia procession on March 4, 2012. The March 4 procession had been organized to protest against the February 28, 2012, Kohistan killings.
On April 3, angry protesters burnt tyres and forced shopkeepers to shut down their shops. Meanwhile, an unidentified person hurled a grenade at the protesting ASWJ cadres, killing at least seven protestors. Subsequently, mosques in the Kashroot area of Gilgit made announcements to retaliate against the Shias in the Diamer District of GB and the Kohistan District of KP. Unsurprisingly, 12 Shias were killed when unidentified assailants opened fire on buses on Karakoram Highway (KKH) near Gonar Farm in Chilas, headquarter of Diamer District, on April 3. According to eye witnesses, miscreants also set ablaze four buses. In a number of attacks on public transports, some 300 passengers were reported missing, and their whereabouts are yet to be ascertained. Fresh lashkars (armed groups) were reported to have embarked from the Chilas, Diamer and Kohistan areas towards Gilgit and its outskirts, to take the ‘revenge’ for the grenade attack on the ASWJ protestors, but were prevented from entering the town by locals in the outlying villages.
Curfew was imposed in Gilgit and its adjoining areas on April 3, 2012, and the Army was out on the streets to control the law and order situation. All transport, including flights, into GB, have been suspended, already resulting in an acute shortage of essential commodities, including food and medicines, in a region that depends overwhelmingly on supplies from outside.
In related incidents thereafter, two Shias, Akbar Ali and Ali Raza, from Gilgit-Baltistan, were shot dead by unidentified assailants on Mecongi Road in Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan, on April 3, 2102. On April 6, 2012, again, a Shia student, Ahmer Abbas, hailing from Gilgit, was shot dead in Karachi.
For once, the authorities have not blamed their favoured straw man, the ‘foreign hand’. Indeed, GB Inspector General of Police, Hussain Asghar, on April 7, 2012, explicitly denied foreign involvement in renewed cycle of violence in the region, preferring to blame limited job opportunities and a high literacy rate among the resident youth for fueling dissatisfaction that was feeding the rise in sectarianism. He argued,
I don’t think there is any foreign hand involved in the sectarian riots. The key thing in my understanding is the high rate of literacy without employment opportunities, which allows the frustrated youth to be easily used by some elements. GB has among the highest literacy rates in the country, but few employment opportunities. Such a situation frustrates the youth.
There are others, however, who have blamed “state engineered sectarianism” for the current conflagration, in line with past cycles. Several reports, both in the past and the present, have given ample evidence of Islamabad’s role in fuelling the sectarian divide in GB. A March 12, 2012, Daily Times report criticized Islamabad’s reluctance to act, despite ample warnings that the situation in GB could erupt at any time, triggering large-scale violence. The report claimed that large amounts of illegal arms and ammunitions had reached GB, traversing three-hundred kilometers of heavily securitized territory, passing through numerous check posts and pickets set up by the law enforcement agencies. The report also highlighted that a large number of locals from various areas of GB had been trained for militant activities in camps at Diamer and Mansehra. Past reports have indicated that terrorist training camps have been established, or have run at different points of time, in various locations within GB, including Tangir and Darel, Astore, Darul-Uloom, Juglote, Gilgit, Madrasa Nusratul-Islam, Konodas, Skardu city, and Ghowadi village near Skardu.
Significantly, Islamabad has turned Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) – including both Azad Kashmir and GB – into a hub of Islamist extremism and terrorism since the 1990s. Militant groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM), Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), and many others have been facilitated in creating bases and training camps in the region. These terror camps are ‘global in nature’ – including terrorist formations that have an international agenda. India maintains that “42 terror training camps were very much alive and kicking in PoK”. On April 6, 2012, China indirectly alleged that insurgents of the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) were trained at camps in PoK. Significantly, a British court, on February 9, 2012, sentenced nine persons, including one of Pakistani origin, for plotting to bomb the London Stock Exchange and build a terrorist training camp in PoK. Three of these men, Mohammed Shahjahan (27), Usman Khan (20) and Nazam Hussain (26), had planned to raise funds for a terrorist camp in PoK and recruit Britons to attend.
Crucially, while naturally maintaining a studied silence on the role of state agencies, Federal Minister of Interior Rehman Malik, on April 4, 2012, stated that the conflict in GB was not ‘sectarian’ in nature, and that some “hidden forces are involved”. Sub-nationalist groupings in GB have alleged, further, that there were no sectarian tensions among the ‘natives’ in the region, and that local Shia and Sunni groups had united in their demand for the reinstatement of the State Subjects Rule, which offers particular protection to ‘natives’, on the issue of travel and trade towards Ladakh (in India), and on the issue of ‘no taxation without representation’. The current violence, they allege, has been orchestrated by outsiders acting at the best of ‘hidden agencies’ who seek to disrupt this local unity, in order to perpetuate the inequitable conditions that prevail in the region.
Gilgit-Baltistan remains the poorest and most backward area in Pakistan, and is acutely lacking basic development and infrastructure. Instead of improving the situation, state agencies have sought to divert public attention from these issues and the political demands of the local population, by encouraging a rivalry between sects and political groupings, even as a concerted effort has been made to alter the demographic equation in the region by an orchestrated effort to bring in large numbers of ‘outsiders’ from KP, Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and Punjab.
Ruled under the Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self-Governance) Order 2009, passed on September 9, 2009, GB is administratively divided into two divisions, Gilgit and Baltistan. These, in turn, are divided into seven Districts, including the five in Gilgit – Gilgit, Ghizer, Diamer, Astore, and Hunza-Nagar; and two in Baltistan – Skardu and Ghanche. Unlike Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), which, along with GB, constitutes PoK – GB had no legal existence or protection till the passage of the September 2009 order. It is still excluded from any constitutional status, despite clear directives from the Supreme Court of Pakistan, resulting in the denial of constitutional rights and protection to the population. It is widely believed that a principal motive of such discriminatory legal and constitutional treatment arises out of the fact that GB is Pakistan’s only Shia-dominated region, unlike AJK, which, like rest of Pakistan, is Sunni dominated. Though Islamabad has succeeded in substantially re-engineering the regional demography, Shias, accounting for 39 percent of the inhabitants, still dominate the region. Other denominations include 27 per cent Sunni, 18 per cent Ismaili and 16 per cent Nurbakhshi. By January 2001, the old population ratio of 1:4 non-locals to locals had already been changed to 3:4 non-locals to locals. No estimates of the current ratio are available, but it is expected to have been altered further to the disadvantage of the locals.
Ethnic ties and tribal loyalties conventionally surpassed sectarian identities in GB, with people engaging in many inter-ethnic and inter-tribe marriages. Indeed, GB remained immune to any manifestation of sectarianism till 1974, when Islamabad initiated a number of divisive measures to create a wedge between various denominations. In one such measure, Islamabad banned the annual Muharram procession in Gilgit in 1974, expecting sectarian clashes and a resultant divide. Clashes did occur, and were the beginning of repeated cycle of sectarian strife in the region. An extended controversy over the alteration of school curricula, with increasing emphasis on Sunni practices, provoked one of the longest periods of violence in GB. Despite this sustained, state-orchestrated, mischief, however, no permanent sectarian divide between local communities has resulted. Contrary to frequent official projections, there is no tension between local Shias and Sunnis, but rather a deliberate effort from the outside, part of a long-drawn campaign, to sustain tensions in the region.
Violence has, consequently, been predictable and recurrent in the region. According to a May 2011 Pakistan Institute of Legislature and Transparency report “since 1998 to December 2010, 117 sectarian cases (of murder) have been registered, 74 were challaned, 15 cancelled, 10 remained untraced, and 15 are pending investigation. This tally does not include attempted murder which has so far numbered 170. Perhaps a thousand people were killed during the 1990s.” Other reports suggest that there have been more than 600 killings over last five years. One unofficial estimate earlier suggested that over 30,000 Gilgit residents have fled the city and its suburbs since 2000, in the wake of orchestrated incidents of sectarian strife, followed by discriminatory and repressive action by the state Forces. Aziz Ali Dad, in an article on December 22, 2011, observed that Gilgit city and its suburbs were experiencing a new element of violence in the shape of target killings, which have virtually turned Gilgit into a ‘no go’ area. Every week, Dad claimed, several people fell prey to target killings.
A devastating report by the European Union Rapporteur, Baroness Emma Nicholson, adopted by the European Union on May 24, 2007, deplored “documented human rights violations by Pakistan”, and 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.
Any voice of dissent in GB is routinely and brutally suppressed. Abdul Hamid Khan, chairman of the Balawaristan National Front (BNF), a nationalist political party in the region, in his statement in United Nations Human Rights Council’s (UNHRC) 13th Session in Geneva on March 16, 2010, noted:
Human rights abuses are widespread and common in Gilgit Baltistan for many decades, but (the) unfortunately absence of local media (and) independent judiciary, (and the) misrepresentation and distortion of facts, have helped Islamabad to hide its illicit practices, normally carried out in the disguise of political authority. Large population faces severe human rights abuses that encompass political, religious, gender, ethnic and economic (dimensions). Area faces serious and widespread discrimination in the form of economic, social and political spheres (sic). More than 200 political activists and leaders of this land, including me, are facing death sentence in sedition charges, because we dared to protest against Pakistani occupation in peaceful public gathering (sic).
More recently, Mumtaz Khan, Executive Director, Centre for Peace & Democracy, has noted “that challenges to human rights lie in the nature of control Pakistan exercise on Muzaffarabad (Azad Kashmir) and Gilgit Baltistan, that includes constitutional and extra-constitutional, and direct and indirect (control) over political, financial and cultural affairs of these Areas.” Noted Author Tarek Fateh has stressed, further, that “a country that discriminated (among) its own citizens based on color, language and ethnicity has no moral, political and legal claim on any part of Kashmir.”
The present volatile situation in GB appears to be part of Islamabad’s continuing design to undermine any unity among the people of this region, and to perpetuate its ‘divide and rule’ policy. This stratagem has worked well for decades, but is becoming, on the one hand, increasingly transparent and, on the other, progressively intertwined with wider terrorist movements in Pakistan, at least some strains within which are beginning to escape the control of their progenitors and handlers in the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI). While these trends presage untold and greater future suffering for the people of GB, they constitute an imminent existential threat to Pakistan itself.
Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management