By Mayuri Mukherjee
17 May 2012
To control the Northern Areas that it has illegally occupied, Islamabad has crippled it with sectarianism
Khan Muhammed was gathering firewood in the forest overlooking a deserted stretch of the Karakoram Highway when, on that cold February morning, he witnessed something that would forever be etched in his memory. About a dozen men, dressed in military fatigues and armed with AK-47 assault rifles and hand grenades, intercepted a passenger bus that we now know was ferrying passengers between Rawalpindi and Gilgit city. As the vehicle screeched to a halt, the men boarded the bus. They demanded that the passengers show their identity cards, and eventually hauled out 16 men from the bus. These men were then lined up by the roadside and shot dead in cold blood. All of the murdered passengers were Shia Muslims.
The incident happened near a small town in the remote Kohistan district of the northern Pakistani Province of Khyber-Pakhtunwa that borders the Gilgit-Baltistan area in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir, and sparked the worst kind of sectarian violence the region has seen in decades. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Section 144 was imposed in the area while the police maintained a close watch. An uneasy calm prevailed, but not for long.
After the February incident, transporters introduced a new Shia-only service which, of course, led the Sunnis also to create their own community-specific bus route. On Sunday, April 1, however, police announced the annulment of the new route permits. In response, the Shias went on strike the next day, blocking roads and setting up barricades. Tensions were running high and soon the uneasy peace of the previous weeks was shattered as clashes erupted between Shias and Sunnis.
In the next 24 hours, all hell broke loose. Early Tuesday morning, a group of Shias on motorcycles threw a hand-grenade at a Sunni rally that killed five and injured many more. Gun shots were fired and street-fighting continued through the day killing six more people. The police were largely overwhelmed and more often concerned with protecting members of their own sect rather than bringing the situation under control. Any semblance of a Government was entirely absent. Fear and panic spread like wildfire even as areas around Gilgit city came under attack.
As news of the grenade attack reached the Sunni-majority town of Chilas, vengeful residents there ran amok. They burnt buses, fired at Shias and took over 250 members of the rival community hostage. They were released later but on that day, another 10 people died in Chilas. Close by, in Nagar town, there were unverified reports of at least 20 more hostages being taken.
At some point during the day, curfew was announced but it was only after the sun had set and the Army had been called in that it was actually imposed. As the people retreated into their homes, unsure of what the next day had in store for them, Gilgit, once a picturesque city known for its breath-taking scenic beauty, now wore the look of a garrison town. Over the next few weeks, men in all sorts of uniforms patrolled the city; markets, schools and offices remained shut; cell phone services were jammed and suspected miscreants were taken into custody. Gilgit remained on the edge.
It wasn’t until another 25 days later that the curfew was removed on April 29. Almost three weeks later, today, the Army has returned to its barracks, the cell phones are working again and the people are going about their business — on the face of it, a sense of normalcy has been restored. But scratch the surface and the unhealed wounds stare right back at you. Look closely and you will see the decades-old scars of sectarian violence that mark the psyche of every man, woman and child in Gilgit-Baltistan.
And yet, it was not always like this. For centuries, different religious communities lived in peacefully in this region. Inter-faith marriages were common and members from one community often took part in the events and rituals of other communities.
The situation changed after Partition in 1947 when the region’s exact status came under a cloud. A political vacuum settled in. Consequently, where politicians feared to tread, mullahs quickly filled in their shoes. In the absence of any significant institution of authority, it was the mullahs, defined by their religious identity and driven by the sole aim of promoting their sect, who took charge. This was particularly convenient for Islamabad.
Having illegally occupied the Gilgit-Baltistan area, Islamabad would forever be anxious of its legitimacy in that region. To make matters worse, Gilgit-Baltistan was almost entirely Shia-dominated, in contrary to the rest of Sunni-majority Pakistan. Hence, in the minds of lawmakers in Islamabad, there was always the fear of a nationalist insurrection in Gilgit-Baltistan or of losing the strategically located region to India in the larger battle for Kashmir.
Still, the Pakistani state maintained a more or less secular position in Gilgit-Baltistan up until the 1970s, which is when Islamabad launched an active campaign to establish authoritarian control over the region as well as tilt its problematic Shia-majority demography towards a more ‘favourable’ Sunni-majority. The first step in that direction was taken by then Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto who abrogated the State Subject Rule — the law that protected the original demography of a region — and then, encouraged Sunnis from the rest of Pakistan to settle in the area. He also abolished the independent princely kingdoms of the region and set up one large administrative unit called the Northern Areas.
Then, the Army and the intelligence agencies were sent in to play mischief. In the years after that, mullahs were reportedly paid by agents of the state to introduce the poison of sectarianism — and they sure did inject it deep into the region’s bloodstream.
Over the next few years, the seeds of sectarian polarisation were sown across the region but it was only under General Zia ul-Haq who took over from Bhutto in a bloodless coup in 1977 that the situation progressively worsened on a path of no return. Not only did Gen Zia introduce religious schools with the sole mandate of raising a generation of extremist Sunni Muslims, he also encouraged cadres of the radical Sunni Sipaha-e-Sahaba to take their nefarious activities to the Northern Areas.
Consequently, in 1988, the first instance of an armed conflict was reported from the region. The immediate incident that sparked the riots was really a non-issue: The Shias had sighted their moon after Id-ul-Fitr and were already celebrating, but the Sunnis, who were yet to receive the green signal from their leaders, were still fasting. Clashes broke out and before long, there was a large-scale riot of the kind that would lead to years of mistrust and animosity between the two communities. As a result, even as the 80s drew to close, the venom of sectarianism spilled into the 90s that was marked by more violence and more bloodshed, and even more name-calling by the mullahs.
The situation did not change much until after 2005 when the two communities signed a peace agreement promising to stop issuing fatwas against each other, to protect minorities in their areas and to promote peace and harmony. That, along with the 2009 Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self Governance Order which allowed the people much needed political representation, helped bring down temperatures by a few degrees.
But decades of mistrust and suspicion cannot be undone in a few years, as the the recent riots prove. However, that should not be an excuse to give up on peace. The Masjid Board that has been set up in the aftermath of the April riots to bring both communities on board, for instance, is a step in the right direction. The Gilgit-Baltistan Government’s decision to set up a judicial commission to investigate the events should also help the healing process. But much of this will come to naught if Islamabad does not end its radicalisation campaign in the region to gain political points.