Gilgit-Baltistan:Gilgit’s Sectarian Conundrum-Government Needs to Support Voices of Peace

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By 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.

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.

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

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