October 19, 2009

The authorities in Gilgit-Baltistan were not quite done celebrating the proclamation of the Empowerment and Self-governance Ordinance of 20091, when a bomb rocked Gilgit town on September 27 sparking off the latest bout of Shia-Sunni riots.2 Gun battles in the aftermath of the blast have led to the death of more than twelve people, including Raja Ali Ahmed Jan, a prominent leader of the Pakistan Muslim League.3 The incidents, culminating in a short-lived peace in this Pakistani occupied Shia region of Jammu & Kashmir, have led to the detention of several civilians as well two policemen. Some of the arrested are allegedly linked to those who assassinated Deputy Speaker Asad Zaidi and his companions in Gilgit in April 2009.4 Zaidi was the third-most high profile Shia politician, after the revered clerics Agha Ziauddin5 and Allama Hassan Turabi, to become the target of sectarian violence – a menace that has troubled Gilgit-Baltistan socially and economically, since the 1970s. Agha Ziauddin’s death in January 2005 caused widespread clashes leading to a six-month long curfew and emergency, and loss of more than two hundred lives. Allama Turabi, shot dead in Karachi on July 14, 2006, hailed from Baltistan and was the President of Tehrik Jafaria of Pakistan (TJP). His death has been termed as detrimental to Shia rights’ movement in Pakistan.6

In the sequence of events, as one looks back, eighteen people including the Director of the Agriculture Department of Gilgit7 died in 2008 as a result of Shia-Sunni clashes. However, by far, 2009 has seen more sectarian killings than the previous two years put together. It started in the middle of February when two Shias were killed in an attack on a van in Gilgit.8 Then, on June 17, ISI personnel arrested a Shia political activist, Sadiq Ali, and tortured him to death.9 Two months later, when the leader of the banned anti-Shia political party Sipah-e-Sahaba of Pakistan (SSP), Allama Ali Sher Hyderi was killed in Sindh, riots broke out in Gilgit leading to the closure of markets and heavy gun battle between Shias and Sunnis.10 In September, two Sunni Pashtuns and three native Shias were killed in Gilgit while a bus with Shia passengers coming from Baltistan was torched, causing several casualties.11

For centuries, people of Gilgit-Baltistan, professing various religions, co-existed in amicable conditions. It was only after Pakistan’s annexation of these regions in the seventies that anarchy began. First, authorities abrogated the State Subject Rule, the law that until then protected the local demographic composition, and encouraged Pakistani Sunnis to settle in Gilgit town. This illegal government-sponsored settlement scheme damaged the social fabric and provoked religious feuds that continue to simmer. Pakistan created a political vacuum and a law and order crisis, once princely states and time-tested administrative structures of Gilgit-Baltistan were abolished. While Islamabad refused to delegate powers to local Shias by establishing viable a modern political structure, the despotic military rulers maintained ad-hoc policies to govern the region with an iron fist. It was during the same time that Pakistan embarked on its well-rehearsed divide and rule policy to paralyze local society. It exploited ethnic and religious fault-lines to weaken the natives in their demands for genuine political and socio-economic rights. Government-led Shia-Sunni and Shia-Nurbaxshi riots caused acute socio-political polarization in Skardo during the early 1980s. Events like these forced members of the local intelligentsia like Wazir Mehdi, the only Law graduate of Gilgit-Baltistan from Aligarh University, to admit that unification with Ladakh and Kashmir brought culture and civilization to the region while opting for Pakistan has resulted in the arrival of drugs, Kalashnikovs and sectarianism. On occasion, agencies employ religious leaders to fan hatred. In one such incident, intelligence agencies released a Punjabi cleric, Ghulam Reza Naqvi, from prison “to be sent to Gilgit to keep the pot of sectarian violence boiling.” His release was granted after negotiations with SSP, which also got their leader Maulana Mohammad Ludhianivi freed from jail.12 A watershed in the history of Gilgit-Baltistan causing permanent trust deficit was reached in May 1988 when tribal Lashkars, after receiving a nod of approval from General Zia, massacred thousands of Shias in Gilgit and abducted local women. The intention was to undertake demographic change by force in this strategically located region sandwiched between China, the former Soviet Union and India.

The recent killings of Shias in Gilgit-Baltistan may also hinder the election process for the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA) that will take place in November of 2009. With the newly proclaimed self-governance ordinance, GBLA is expected to legislate on 66 articles pertaining to socio-economic and administrative issues. While local political institutions are evolving towards achieving genuine autonomy, the Sunni minority fears that the Shias would gain a majority in the assembly, which the former sees as a direct attack on its long term political and socio-economic interests in the region. The authorities intend to exploit similar insecurities to consolidate control over Gilgit city, which is not only the largest settlement in the region but also the capital of Gilgit-Baltistan. As the regional ballot is nearing, authorities may resort to electoral engineering to create a hung assembly, thereby stripping GBLA of the mandate to pass laws. The past experience of reorganization of constituencies along Shia-Sunni lines has also enabled Sunni candidates to gain a majority in various constituencies.

Gilgit city is divided into two constituencies – Gilgit-1 and Gilgit-2. Until a decade ago, voters from both constituencies sent Shia members to the local Council. The demographic change has turned the tide in favor of the Sunnis; in 2004, voters of Gilgit city returned Sunni candidates as winners. Shias in Gilgit-1 were further marginalized when the major Shia settlement of Nomal was transferred to Gilgit-4, thereby tilting the population balance. Since then, contests between Shia and Sunni candidates have remained neck to neck.13 The tipping point is the vote bank in the Amphari neighborhood with a mixed Shia-Sunni population where sectarian polarization will help the Sunni candidate gain a lead. Likewise, in Gilgit-2, the settlement of Pathans and Punjabis has changed the demography and this one-time Peoples Party (PPP) stronghold supported Hafiz Rehman of PML in the 2004 elections, which he won by a small margin of 500 votes.14 The voters’ list released recently shows more than a 80 per cent increase in voters’ numbers in Gilgit-1 (from 28,146 to 47,835) and Gilgit-2 (from 34,517 to 62,048) in just five years.15 Of these, a majority are Pakistani settlers who will impact election results in favor of Sunni candidates. The government is planning to increase the number of GBLA seats after the November elections and the above-mentioned additional voters in Gilgit city will lead to an out of proportion representation for Sunnis in GBLA. Such interference from Pakistan will only lead to further sectarian clashes and deaths.

Although sniper shooting has remained the primary method of sectarian killings, owing to Taliban influences bomb blasts are also becoming common. In May 2009, a bomb blast occurred in Baltistan, which led to the arrest of two Sunnis and recovery of explosive-making material and hand grenades.16 Later in July, a bomb was hurled at Bagrot Hostel, Gilgit, killing two and injuring several other Shia students.17 In April 2009, an Al Qaeda member, Abdullah Rehman, threatened to bomb a four-star hotel in Baltistan.18 Many Taliban who escaped from Swat and adjoining areas found shelter among Sunni extremists in Gilgit.19 Analysts fear that locals may benefit from the Taliban expertise in the field of bomb and suicide jacket making. Local youth is also susceptible to converting to the extremist Islamic ideology and joining the suicide bomber club as a result of Taliban influences. The fact that more than 300 suspected terrorists were expelled from Gilgit in October 2008 highlights fears that the Taliban presence in Gilgit-Baltistan is widespread.20 Successful Talibanization of Gilgit-Baltistan means more Shia deaths and continued arrival of Taliban in large hordes, which will hasten demographic change and hurt local cultural identity and ethnic solidarity. The ongoing military operation in Waziristan against Taliban and Al Qaeda may also create greater problems for Gilgit-Baltistan as Shia soldiers of the Northern Light Infantry Regiment will be in direct confrontation with those who perpetuated the Shia genocide in Gilgit in 1988

Notes:

  1. 1. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/KI16Df01.html
  2. 2. http://www.thenews.com.pk/updates.asp?id=87717
  3. 3. http://pamirtimes.net/2009/09/28/pml-leader-raja-ali-ahmad-jan-shot-dead-in-konodas-gilgit/
  4. 4. http://pamirtimes.net/2009/04/21/asad-zaidi-deputy-speaker-nala-shot-dead-in-gilgit/
  5. 5. http://pakistantimes.net/2005/01/14/top1.htm
  6. 6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allama_Hassan_Turabi#Early_life
  7. 7. http://hunzatimes.wordpress.com/2008/12/27/five-of-a-family-killed-in-gilgit-attack-updated-news-news/
  8. 8. http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=40756234671
  9. 9. http://www.ahrchk.net/ua/mainfile.php/2009/3193/
  10. 10. http://pamirtimes.net/2009/08/17/violent-protests-in-gilgit-over-murder-of-ali-sher-hyderi/
  11. 11. http://www.blogcatalog.com/blog/pamir-times/854fb8cae3214331a32604745d595c27
  12. 12. http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2006%5C05%5C21%5Cstory_21-5-2006_pg3_1
  13. 13. http://www.ciaonet.org/wps/icg449/icg449.pdf (pp:16)
  14. 14. http://pakistantimes.net/2004/10/14/top2.htm
  15. 15. http://www.app.com.pk/en_/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=87988&Itemid=2
  16. 16. http://dardistannews.wordpress.com/2009/05/
  17. 17. http://pamirtimes.net/2009/05/23/bomb-blast-at-hostel-in-gilgit-city/
  18. 18. http://weeklybaang.blogspot.com/2009/04/weekly-baang-karachi-voloum-02-issue-08_3275.html
  19. 19. http://dardistannews.wordpress.com/2009/06/02/taliban-hiding-in-gilgit-baltistan-operations-in-gb-asian-human-rights-commission-press-release/
  20. 20. http://www.dawn.com/wps/wcm/connect/dawn-content-library/dawn/news/pakistan/nwfp/300-suspected-people-ex