By Aziz Ali Dad
From Khunjerab on the Chinese border right down to Karachi, violent events keep taking place in Pakistan. On February 28, there was a massacre of passengers travelling from Rawalpindi to Gilgit. The buses carrying the men and women were forced to stop in Kohistan district by armed terrorists who, after checking the travellers’ identity cards for their names, shot 18 passengers belonging to the Shia community, and left eight people wounded.
Soon after the massacre, the banned organisation Jundallah claimed responsibility for the killings. Though the region of Gilgit has witnessed sporadic sectarian violence since 1988, this became a regular phenomenon since 2005 following the assassination of a prominent Shia leader and subsequent violent events.
Sectarianism has entered every sphere of life in Gilgit. It has provided fertile ground to fanatical elements to push a terrorist agenda using religion as an excuse. Jundallah’s entry into the sectarian imbroglio in Gilgit-Baltistan is a particularly alarming development.
Kohistan is adjacent to Swat. Therefore it is easy for militants from that restive region to sneak into Kohistan to expand their activities into more northerly areas. The area where the passengers were killed is located on the Karakoram Highway at the fringes of Diamer district in Gilgit-Baltistan. This area is so dangerous that army personnel have also been killed by militants there.
In view of the grim law-and-order situation in many areas along its route, the government must take urgent measures to ensure security for passengers travelling on Karakoram Highway. The blockade of a vital route linking Gilgit-Baltistan with China should have awakened the rulers to the need for strengthening these security measures on the highway. After the reopening by protestors of the blocked point of the highway in January in Chilas, the government should have taken measures to prevent a recurrence, but it did not. Even in normal times, it had been routine for police and the FC to escort convoys of vehicles on the highway, so in the worsening situation the government should automatically have strengthened security measures. But it relaxed its guard when things got better for the time being.
Because of the flow of weapons into the region over the years, Gilgit city is now sitting on a powder keg. The weaponisation of Gilgit’s society started after 1988 when the government proved its inability to provide protection to people from marauding armed bands. It would be an understatement that this neglect has created a trust deficit among the citizens regarding the authorities. As a result of this loss of trust, individuals and groups started to take the law into their own hands.
After this latest incident, the situation will probably become still more acute as violence of the scale as the tragedy of February 28 is likely to lead to collective efforts for self-protection. Given the tribal nature of society in Gilgit and Diamer, it is probable for people to retaliate at tribal and sectarian levels to avenge killings.
If people decided to form armed militias in Gilgit-Baltistan for self-defence, the violence could spin completely out of control. If the government still fails to take preventive measure against that, violence will no longer be committed by individual zealots: whole communities could become involved. This holds true for all religious denominations in Gilgit-Baltistan.
The gravity of the situation calls for effective efforts for deweaponisation and against the religious radicalisation of the region. The government should stop the region’s slide further down the path of death, destruction and complete anarchy. Otherwise the situation could soon reach a point of no-return.
The writer is based in Islamabad. Email: azizali firstname.lastname@example.org