By Ajit Kumar Singh
On August 16, 2012, in a targeted attack, 25 Shias from Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) were killed at the Babusar Top, which connects GB to the rest of the country, in the Naran Valley of Mansehra District of the neighboring Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Province. According to reports, around 50 assailants wearing Army uniform stopped three buses heading from Islamabad to Astore District in GB and a van heading for Gilgit. Some reports, however, suggested that the vehicles were travelling from Rawalpindi to Astor. The assailants forced people off the bus, identified Shias from their documents, and shot them dead at point blank range. Khalid Omarzai, the local administration chief in Mansehra stated, “After checking [their] papers, [the attackers] opened fire.” After the killing, the assailants allowed Sunni passengers to continue on their journey towards Astore and Gilgit.
The spokesman of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) Darra Adamkhel District (KP) and Khyber Agency [Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA)] unit, Muhammad Afridi, who was in the past reportedly associated with the anti-Shia militant outfit Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan (SSP), subsequently stated that the killings were in retaliation for ‘excesses’ committed by Shias against Sunnis in GB. He warned that more such attacks would be carried out in other parts of the country.
At the time or writing, retaliatory violence had engulfed GB. On August 16 itself, the day of the incident, angry mobs burnt tyres and blocked roads in some parts of Gilgit city, as extra Police patrolled deserted streets and closed markets. Two truck drivers were killed in the Nagar Valley of Hunza-Nagar District in GB on August 18, 2012. One of the victims was identified as Muhammad Ishaque from Mohmand Agency of FATA. In Skardu District, armed men ambushed one Maulana Bashir, injuring him seriously. In the third incident of the day, a Gilgit District official was shot at and injured by unidentified men in Gilgit. Meanwhile, a partial strike was observed on August 18 in Skardu, Gilgit and other Districts of GB, as business centers, offices and educational institutions remained closed and people avoided going outside their homes due to tension in some areas. Astore Deputy Commissioner Momin Jan, on August 18, 2012, expressed some relief on the day of the burial of the victims of the Babusar Top massacre, noting, “We are thankful to God there was no untoward incident anywhere during the burial in the district.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of passengers, including women and children, who were to visit their families in GB to celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr, which marks the culmination of the fasting month of Ramzan of the Islamic calendar, have been stranded in the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi, as public and private transport for the region was suspended.
The Babusar Top massacre took place despite availability of intelligence with the Federal Ministry of Interior, which in turn was passed to the Home Department of the GB, that extremists could target Shias returning home during Eid holidays. On August 5, 2012, terrorists had exploded a passenger van, coming from Islamabad, in Gilgit killing one person and injuring five.
The August 16 attack is the third attempt in the current year to push the GB region into a deep sectarian divide.
Significantly, in reaction to the reported attack on a rally of the banned Sunni formation, Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ), a reincarnation of the banned SSP, on April 3, 2012, in which seven ASWJ cadres were killed, unidentified assailants had opened fire on buses on the Karakoram Highway (KKH) near Gonar Farm in Chilas, headquarter of Diamer District, on the same day, killing 12 Shias. The ASWJ 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. This resulted in complete chaos in GB. Curfew was imposed in Gilgit and its adjoining areas on April 3, 2012, and the Army was out on the streets to control the situation. All transport, including flights, into GB, was suspended, in a region that depends overwhelmingly on supplies from outside. The curfew was finally lifted in the night of April 28, 2012.
Significantly, four under-trial prisoners, who were allegedly involved in the attack on the the bus in Chilas on April 3, 2012, escaped from a jail in Astore District late in the night of August 6, 2012.
Earlier, on February 28, 2012, gunmen in military uniforms had dragged 18 Shias, travelling home to GB from their jobs and businesses in Islamabad, out of buses and shot them dead in the in the Harban area of Kohistan District, KP. Farooq Ahmed, editor of the Mountain Times, a weekly newspaper published in Gilgit, noted, “Both attacks [August 16 and February 28, 2012] are identical in method, so it’s clear that they were carried out by the same militant groups, if not the same people.” The convoy of the vehicles, attacked on August 16, 2012, was plying on the Mansehra-Naran-Jalkhad road. The transporters had diverted their passenger vehicles from the KKH to the Mansehra-Naran-Jalkhad road following the February 28, 2012, attack as they felt this route was safer.
Despite the severity of the February 28, 2012, attack, GB remained more or less calm, except for the killing of a man, identified as Naveed, in a clash with Law Enforcement Agencies in Gilgit District on February 29, 2012. Even the incidents of April 2012, which had the potential to engulf the whole region in a deep rooted sectarian confrontation, failed to create violent polarization. The people of GB, who have traditionally lived in harmony, have largely been successful in thwarting the designs of outside elements seeking sectarian polarization, actively initiating corrective measures after each major incident. On August 8, 2012, for instance, four religious parties decided to form a joint conciliatory body, Milli Yekjehti Council (MYC), in GB to marginalize sectarian influences and to maintain peace in the region. An MYC statement noted, “It is not the Ulama (Religious Clergy) who stimulate sectarian hatred. It is those selfish elements who, for their own heinous interests, divide people on sectarian lines.” They also decided that the MYC ‘cabinet’ would be set up on September 5, 2012.
On the other hand, the Government of GB, in continuing attempts to deepen the sectarian divide, suspended 60 Shia Government officials [48 on July 25, 2012 and another 12 on August 2, 2012]. Allama Aijaz Behishti, chief of the Majlis-e-Wahdat-e-Muslimeen Youth Affairs, pointed out that the Government was trying to intimidate Shia officials. Further, in its attempt to silence dissent, Ghulam Shehzad Agha, ‘general secretary’ of the Gilgit Baltistan United Movement (GBUM) was arrested in Skardu on August 13, 2012. GBUM Chairperson, Manzoor Parwana, disclosed that Agha had been arrested since he was emerging as a unity candidate of the opposition parties for the next general election.
Despite the manifest perversity of their actions, authorities in GB claimed to have taken several administrative measures to improve the law and order situation in the region. On April 23, 2012, the GB Cabinet approved the setting up a 410-strong new Force to ‘eliminate’ sectarian violence in the region. The Force started patrolling the KKH from May 1, 2012. On May 12, 2012, the Federal Ministry of Interior banned two organizations, Anjuman Imamia GB and Muslim Students Organization GB. The Ministry explained that these organizations were allegedly involved in sectarian killings and riots in Gilgit city, over the preceding months. With these bans, the totl number of proscribed organizations in GB reached 29.
On June 6, 2012, GB Chief Minister Mehdi Shah reportedly handed over 2,000 weapons and 200,000 rounds to the Police Force, and declared that efforts were also underway to build the capacity of intelligence agencies. GB presently has a total of 5,500 police personnel deputed, including support staff, such as drivers and cooks. This yields just 7.37 Policemen per 100 square kilometers in such a volatile region. There are, moreover, urgent concerns about the impartiality of the Police Force on sectarian ground. Thus, the Balawaristan National Movement chairman Abdul Hamid Khan, on August 16, 2012, called for the deployment of impartial law enforcers.
Meanwhile, Islamabad, expectedly, has failed to take any significant action against the perpetrators of successive massacres. The sectarian divide has long been an instrument of political and administrative management of this restive region, and attempts to deepen sectarian polarization date back at least to May 1988, under the regime of military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq. Washington based Gilgit Baltistan National Congress (GBNC) explained Islamabad’s strategy and intent in a statement dated August 17, 2012:
The region [GB] connects Pakistan with China and Central Asia and intelligence agencies see Shia majority as a threat to their control over this strategic corridor. Shia killings will continue until the strategic region of Gilgit Baltistan has a Shia majority population. Similar attacks by pro-Pakistan militants on Shia majority populations in the strategic valley of Parachinar [in FATA] have forced tens of thousands of Shias to abandon their homes, thereby converting Parachinar into a Sunni region. Parachinar provides direct access to Pakistani troops to Ghazni, Gardez and Central Afghanistan. It is feared that similar strategies are being implemented in Quetta [Balochistan], which neighbors Kandahar and Helmand Provinces of Afghanistan, and where Hazaras make up almost one-third of capital’s population.
Balochistan has witnessed at least 71 incidents of sectarian attacks in which 304 persons have been killed since 2009, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal database (all data till August 19, 2012). 93 persons have already been killed in 34 such incidents in 2012, the most recent of which was the killing of three Shias on August 16, 2012. Pakistan has recorded at least 2,642 sectarian attacks, inflicting 3,963 fatalities since 1989.
The sectarian thrust in GB, as in other parts of the country, remains powerfully backed by the establishment, particularly including the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), in Islamabad, even as demographic engineering to diminish or remove Shia majorities in various regions remains a principal objective of successive regimes in the country. The people of GB have managed to maintain – or in cases of occasional breakdown, quickly restore – sectarian harmony within local populations. But as the demographic balance shifts, and more and more outsiders are settled in the region, the delicate equilibrium will inevitably be disturbed under sustained assault by Sunni extremist groupings, backed by powerful state institutions.
Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management