By Aziz Ali Dad
An important development during General Ziaul Haq’s period was the opening of the Karakoram Highway in 1979. The route connects Gilgit-Baltistan with Western China and the rest of Pakistan. It has exposed the hitherto relatively isolated region of Gilgit-Baltistan to exogenous life styles, market forces and ideas.
The interface between Gilgit-Baltistan and the rest of Pakistan is crucial to understanding local sectarian politics and violence. Communication with the rest of the country has facilitated the influx of people and goods from other regions. It has also enabled local religious elements to foster a nexus with national and global Islamist discourses and movements.
Izhar Hunzai, in his paper titled ‘Conflict Dynamics in Gilgit-Baltistan’, believes that “while unlocking Gilgit-Baltistan from its physical isolation and ushering in economic opportunity, the highway has also increased Gilgit-Baltistan’s vulnerability to new threats, such as the influx of illegal weapons, drugs, and intolerant attitudes from the south, and it has changed the demographics of Gilgit and other towns”. That is why the early 1980s are considered to be significant in impacting the sectarian milieu in Gilgit-Baltistan.
In addition to local and national factors, there was an international dimension that contributed to sectarianism in Gilgit-Baltistan. In the 1980s, Pakistan turned into a turf for an ideological battle between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Although the Iran-Iraq War was confined within the geographical boundaries of Persia and Arabia, their ideological war spilled over into different parts of the Muslim world, including the far-flung areas of Gilgit-Baltistan. The Iran-Iraq War was, to a great extent, an incognito Arab-Persian conflict. But it trickled down into the perceptions of Gilgit-Baltistan’s society as a religious one.
Concomitantly, the Soviet incursion into Afghanistan and the Iran-Iraq War left indelible imprints on the social fabric of Pakistan. During the Afghan war, the then Gilgit-Baltistan was not a forward base. Instead, it attracted local sympathisers of jihadists to engage in jihad in Afghanistan. This was the first-ever exposure of the region to the global Islamist discourse and struggle.
During his rule, Zia’s policies palpably favoured Sunni interests. Despite all these developments, both local communities never took up arms against each other. The final straw on the fragile back of Shia-Sunni relations came in May 1988 when a dispute over the sighting of moon resulted in violent clashes in Gilgit Town.
It all started one fine morning in May 1988 when a minor clash over Eidul Fitr celebrations in a locality of Gilgit spilled over to other parts of the city in the form of clashes between Sunnis and Shias. Within a short span of time, sectarian clashes spread to other parts of the region as the Sunnis were supported by people from Diamer and Kohistan and the Shias were assisted by their co-religionists in Nagar Valley. The lashkar attacked 13 suburban Shia villages, pillaged properties, burnt houses and incinerated everything on the ground.
Mohabbat Ali Qaisar – in his book Shuhada-e-Gilgit-Baltistan (The Martyrs of Gilgit-Baltistan) – asserts that the total number of Shias killed in these attacks was 88. However, the International Crisis Group, in its report titled ‘Discord in Pakistan’s Northern Areas’, states that the total number killed during the riots in 1988 is between 150 and 200. Sunni sources contest this figure and claim that the total numbers of casualties stood at 20.
A certain section within the Shia community has accused the government of sponsoring the mujahideen in the events of 1988. It believes that an attack on such a large scale needed coordination, logistics and training, which the people of Diamer lacked. All the hallmarks of attacks on suburban Shia villages in Gilgit point towards the involvement of the mujahideen. The carnage was committed right under the nose of the state.
This event is famously described through the English word ‘tension’. Whenever there is a sectarian clash, both communities have termed it as a form of tension. This event was a major watershed as it created a trust deficit against the state within the Shia community on the one hand and led to the mass weaponisation of both communities and the institutionalisation of violence on the other.
The jihadists in Gilgit-Baltistan became active in the 1990s when the Kashmir jihad was in full swing. It is reported that they managed to establish trainings camps in some valleys of Gilgit-Baltistan. Various jihadi outfits were also involved in recruiting people. In the early 1990s, there were reports of dozens of young people from Henzal and other villages in Gilgit being martyred in Kashmir. But the party that recruited them did not pay any compensation to their families.
Jihadists in the region were strengthened when they flocked to Skardu Town during the Kargil War. This created consternation among the local communities who demanded the expulsion of such elements from the Shia-majority town of Skardu.
Although the people of Gilgit were on the fringes of the Afghan Jihad, some of them entered the mainstream of the Kashmir jihad; and hundreds of people received training. At times, the trained guns turned inwards and assumed the role of saviours among their respective hamlets, villages, towns and cities. They managed to balance their opponents in tactical terms, if not in numbers. The confusing mix of jihad and violence has exacerbated the situation in Gilgit as the city witnessed an increasing sophistication in assassination techniques and a gradual deterioration of socio-economic conditions.
After 1988, Gilgit witnessed intermittent sectarian violence. However, violence remained confined to the Gilgit district – specifically in Gilgit Town. The sectarian mindset that was in its formative stages manifested itself after 2005 when Gilgit city became clearly divided along sectarian lines after the assassination of Shia scholar and leader Syed Agha Ziauddin Rizvi in January the same year. This time, target killings became the norm and violence spread over to other districts of Gilgit-Baltistan.
At the social level, sectarian violence has destroyed the very social fabric of Gilgit. It has created fissures within sects, severed local communities from all the kinship-based solidarities and identities and imbued diverse identities in sectarian hues. In addition, it has severely impacted the economy, the social fabric, politics, education and the people’s mindset.
After 1988, a common perception among people of one sect about those who belong to the ‘other’ sect is that they are their enemies. Under this perception, the extremist elements try to purge members of the opposite sects from spaces where they have a majority. In areas where the culture of blood feuds do not exist, sectarian forces have organised themselves on modern management and military lines.
The organisation of multiple hues of religion under a single banner of sect-based and religious politics has helped the clergy become the sole spokesmen of economic, political, social and religious grievances. Now most religious bodies have become so strong that people have been compelled to play the sectarian card to secure jobs and enter politics. Otherwise, it becomes difficult to survive.
Owing to the weaknesses of major political parties in resolving the problems of the people, religious parties have become a medium for expressing the grievances of the people. When viewed in this manner, it can be said that the popular discontent finds its expression through religious politics – which, in its turn, gains legitimacy for its undemocratic tactics by feeding on the political economy of sectarian violence.
To be continued, Originally published in The NEWS
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Gilgit.