Gilgit’s sectarian conundrum

Aziz Ali Dad

It seems that the smoldering fire of sectarianism in Gilgit-Baltistan has turned into a full blown conflagration that has engulfed the entire region. In response to the recent killings, the local administration plans to carry out operations to purge the region of militants and weapons.

But the roots of sectarianism go deeper than mere existence of militants. Various socio-political, economic and religious factors have contributed to the emergence of a mind that does not hesitate to execute inhuman acts against people who hail from a different denomination. Not satiated with target killings of innocent individuals, the terrorist have now resorted to mass killings, as seen in the murder of six people in Gilgit, 18 in Kohistan and 13 in Chilas recently. The extent and expansion of violence has all the hallmarks of genocide.

The lethal combination of weapons and mistrust has turned Gilgit into a killing field for sectarian outfits

To prevent the region’s slide into a path of death and destruction, it is indispensible for the government and peaceful sections of the society to take drastic measures to bring about a paradigm shift in the hearts and minds of the people. Rehman Malik claimed that a third hand is involved in Kohistan and Chilas carnage. Time and again we hear about invisible, foreign, third and nefarious hands involved in sabotaging Pakistan, but never witness any of them. Even if a third or a foreign hand is involved in sectarian strife in Gilgit-Baltistan, there are strong local factors that need to be looked at. To defeat the scourge of sectarian violence we need to have a strategy that is capable of dealing with indigenous as well as exogenous factors and actors .

Aziz Ali Dad

Although the seeds of sectarianism hatred were sown in the decade of 1970s, it took a violent turn during the reign of General Ziaul Haq in 1980s. Since then, local communities developed a trust deficit with the state as well as sister communities. The insecurity led to weaponization of society. In response to threat to their existence, local communities have taken refuge in the safe cocoon of their respective sects. The lethal combination of weapons and mistrust has turned Gilgit into a killing field for sectarian outfits.

Traditionally, the society of Gilgit was pluralistic, where people managed to live in harmony despite sectarian differences. Propagation of a reductionist narrative of religion for the last three decades has stifled spaces that accommodated diversity. The complex psycho-social processes of religiosity have reduced the multiplicity of identities into monolithic one in which every action in public and civic domain is viewed through the jaundiced eye of the sect. In this process kinship relationship, indigenous linkages and affiliations were condemned as betrayal of religion. Consequently, a tendency emerged in 1990s where all cultural activities were either labeled as contrary to the injunctions of religion or incorporated within the new radical discourse of religious identity.

Ghulam Nabi, a prominent social activist and analyst from Diamer, says, “Often when traditional systems are abolished without practical alternatives in place, societies get disillusioned. This is precisely what has happened in Gilgit-Baltistan. Our traditional governance systems were abolished without any alternate system relevant to the geographical, religious and ethnic diversity. What we have seen as alternative is lawlessness, mistrust, and hatred among the various groups.”

With the passage of time the gradual drifting away of communities from each other paved the way for emergence of a mindset that perceives the very existence of the other as threat to its existence. The mental rift of society on sectarian basis manifested itself on the physical landscape of Gilgit city, which has been divided along sectarian lines. Until recently, people with different religious backgrounds but with same tribal and linguistic background, were living together in peace and harmony. However, the scenario changed in the last seven years with the escalation of violence and target killings in Gilgit. It has forced people to migrate to the areas where the people of their sect are in majority. Things have come to such a pass that the very process of administrating city has changed. Currently, the markets, settlements, schools and hospitals and even transport have been divided on the bases of sects.

Commenting on sectarian politics and violence, Ali Ahmed Jan, a political activists and analyst, said, “The current developments – the Presidential Order of Self-Governance and Empowerment, 2009 and the construction of Diamer Basha Dam – are also seen through the sectarian lens. One of the sects feels the Self Governance and Empowerment Order as a threat to its interests because the other sect is in majority. Similarly, the other sect feels that the displaced people from the Dam site would be settled in the main town of Gilgit which will also end their demographic dominance. The sectarian thinking along with the struggle for political power is the root cause of current conflict.” The sectarian faultlines in the capital Gilgit have spread out to other areas.

Given the extent of the violence, reliance on bureaucratic measures only will not help in ameliorating the situation. There is a need to synergize administrative measures with cultural solutions. To fight with one-dimensional sectarian mentality, it is the need of the hour to chalk out a multi-pronged strategy and introduce a pluralistic narrative that derives its source and legitimacy from the very cultural roots of the society. Considering the expanding tentacles of sectarianism, it is important to intervene at various fronts which include education, economy, administrative setup, legislation and independent judiciary.

Besides local dialectics of sectarianism, there is an element of regional politics between the neighboring states. Gilgit-Baltistan is situated in a geo-strategically sensitive area because it borders with India, China and Afghanistan. Karakorum Highway is the only line of communication between China and Pakistan. The massacre of innocent passengers in Kohistan and Chilas took place on KKH. With the closure of KKH, suspension of cellular services, incessant curfew in the capital and spread of violence to other parts, the region is now virtually in incommunicado with rest of Pakistan. Already, direct inland communication between Pakistan and China has been severed by Attabad Lake.

Now, certain sections of the KKH have become unsafe for local communities to travel. After the killings in KKH a particular section demanded reopening of traditional routes of Astore-Srinagar, Chorbat-Nubra, Sham-Skardo, Drass-Gultari and Kharmang-Kargil. In the wider context of Pakistan, inability of the state to protect lives of the people has forced the residents of Parachinar and Upper Kurram Agency to use Afghanistan to reach Pakistan.

This is a very dangerous development because it will alienate the region from mainstream Pakistan.

Given the gravity of situation, the government needs to support the voices of peace. The litmus test of government’s performance lies in showing a clear stance on sectarian violence and taking concrete steps, like punishing the perpetrators of violence, and empowering cultural resources that can contribute to the restoration of peace in the region. Otherwise, the rent seeking approach and measures of government will worsen the situation and society will move towards death and destruction.

The writer is Islamabad based social scientist from Gilgit. azizalidad@hotmail.com

Originally published at The Friday Times

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  1. Aziz Ali Dad:

    The quality of education you have so far, reflects your positive mind set up approach and, would i hope, prove as one of a strong and important foundation stone for the new and energetic young generation of our area .

    carry on.

  2. Very Good analysis.

    Since the incidents in Kohistan and Chilas I came across discussion with some very well rooted civil society activities regarding their possible role in neutralizing the current situation.
    The answers were identical and hence worth sharing They said ” its not the fight between religions, sects or tribes, its a fight between notorious and brutal armed groups with their operatives outside the region and even country. Under such circumstances its the job of the government to use force! to crush such elements and the civil society will play its role if any support from common people emerges to such elements”

    This precisely means UNARMED people can only engage UNARMED people, to engage ARMED people you need to have stronger ARMS then they have!!!

  3. Yes Melad, but first we have to isolate the UNARMED from ARMED persons, otherwise it will result in more fighting and more bloodshed definitely of UNARMED persons.

  4. nicely analized by aziz alidad,as rehman malik has mentioned involvement of third hand and no doubt of a fourth hand which is very difficult one to iradicate….is monetary benifits.if you remove the 3rd and 4th factors it becomes very ez to overcome the remaining factors.Jan ali and ghafoor chilasi are enough to bring people back to their culture.local govt shud immediately encourage people to establish cinemas and music centres in gb bazaars so that gradually people start reunite.God bless our jannat.

  5. Thanks Aziz for showing the real picture of GB.Here my comment would be that Government alone never cannot resolve the issues untill and unless ,it would have not sought support of the people of all walk of life. As intellectual and good analyzer along with good writer and well wisher of GB you should have a forum consisting on members of all sects of Seven districts. Such types of same voices should raised from all writers of GB. On same lines there may be forums of religious,political, social and professionals leaders as well. Apart from this mostly leaders have affiliations and vested interests with various parties that further broads the gap amongst GB people instead of tailoring and bridging it. We appreciate and applaus all such parties and Government in GB that mandate should the well being of people of Gb. Though it is said we have our own government, What is the use of such government where a common people has no access to his basic rights like food, water, and security.In this time all we need to develop concrete strategic plans or proposals to influence and motivate Government officials to ensure peace and harmony in the region.Aziz, we expect you, in collaboration with other intellectuals develop and send a proposal to CM ,governor and chief secretary to ensure peace and development in the GB.

    Ali Mehr
    Social Activist

  6. Only a mutual agreement with sincerity on Respect for all Ahel el bait, Sahaba & Imams, Equal application of justice & equal oppertunities for all people in GB is the solution. Selective application of justice & baised media compaigns will never bring peace…………..

  7. nicely analyzed. i am not sure about involvement of foreign hand, but i am sure killers are from our own land. every body knows who is propagating hate in society?? we must be realistic now. Rehman BaBa wanted to complete his term and need more money to spend lavish life in UK. where are our Rehman Malik?? i mean our own minister who are from our soil? why we always blame foreign hand?? may be there is foreign hand, but what we did with our inner hand?? they are still roaming easily in the streets of Gilgit. if authorities have name of some culprits they should at least arrest them. since last twenty years government is playing with us like toys and we are searching foreign hand.now army must stop this nonsense.

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