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Sectarian violence in the Gilgit-Baltistan region

Sectarian violence in the Gilgit-Baltistan region is a matter of deep concern because it is damaging the very fabric of the society and becoming a potent threat to the very existence of the region.

By Vivek Kumar Mishra

Sectarian violence in the Gilgit-Baltistan regionSectarian violence in the Gilgit-Baltistan region is a matter of deep concern because it is damaging the very fabric of the society and becoming a potent threat to the very existence of the region (Esman 1994: 28). It has increased phenomenally over the past few decades and has extended beyond sporadic clashes over doctrinal issues between Sunnis and Shias and metamorphosed into political conflict around mobilization of group identity (Nasr 2002: 171). The dissemination of their own literature and variously combating that of their rivals have become major concerns of sectarian organizations. The relations among religious sects, that is, Shia and Sunni’s are potentially divisive. One irresponsible move against any particular group can easily ignite emotions and shatter relative peace and harmony (Akbar 2003). ‘The problem of sectarian violence lies in the kind of thinking that hold religious sentiment to be sacred than the right to an orderly civic life’ (Khan 1998: 23).

The objective of the article is to analyze the brief outlook of the demographic profile of Gilgit-Baltistan region. It has explored the various factors of sectarianism and seeks to assess the impact of sectarian violence and also analyzed the phase-wise sectarian violence in Gilgit-Baltistan region.

Gilgit-Baltistan Region: An Overview

Sectarian violence in the Gilgit-Baltistan regionGilgit-Baltistan region was given by the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir to the British in 1935, on a sixty year lease. However, the period of the lease was cut short by the Independence and the Partition of the subcontinent in 1947 (Sokefeld 2014). Prior to the lease, the Gilgit region enjoyed the same status as other Wazarat in the state. In view of the lapse of paramountcy and its strategic importance, the state government decided to bring about certain administrative changes to Gilgit as a governor’s province, naming it the Frontier Province.

Accordingly, Maharaja as the governor of these areas deposed Brigadier Ghansar Singh. He took over charge from the political agent Colonel Beacon on August 1, 1947. The governor accompanied by the chief of staff, General Scott, met the officers and JCOs of the Gilgit scouts and was handed over a series of demands relating to the service conditions. They promised to serve the state if their demands were met (Watsan 1966: 25). The local rajas welcomed the return of Maharaja’s rule, but the Gilgit scouts led by Major Brown continued to defy the governor. On October 31, 1947, Gilgit scouts surrounded his house and demanded his surrender. The governor was arrested and imprisoned. The Pakistani propaganda apparently played with the religious sentiments of the Muslim soldiers in Maharaja’s army. Gilgit scouts also incited them to revolt and detached the region from the rest of Kashmir. Later events like Pakistan’s inclusion in Western defense parts during the Cold War politics indicate that revolt in northern territory could have been politically motivated by the British officers to keep it under the control of a trusted power of Pakistan (Gupta 1966: 428).

After occupying Gilgit, the rebels captured Baltistan in the east, and in 17 days these areas were known as ‘People’s Republic of Gilgit and Baltistan’ under a provisional government formed by the rebels and headed by one local Rais Khan, and Major Brown hoisted the Pakistani flag in Gilgit on November 4, 1947 (Hassnain 1978: 27). Pakistani authorities in Peshawar were asked to send political agents to rule over this area. Pakistan made this transfer formal by signing an agreement with the presidents of ‘Azad Kashmir’ and the Muslim Conference on April 28, 1949. Under this agreement, the Government of Pakistan secured legitimacy of sorts to keep Gilgit and Baltistan under its administrative control (Gupta 1966: 428). Prime Minister Liaquat Ali Khan decided not to introduce democratic structures in Gilgit-Baltistan, but recommended that it should be directly controlled by the Ministry of Kashmir Affairs from Karachi (Bennett-Jones 2002: 70).

The Gilgit and Baltistan region were annexed by Pakistan in the wake of confusion prevailing after Pakistani invasion of Jammu and Kashmir in 1947. The government of the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir was recognized by Pakistan. It was with this government that Pakistan concluded a ‘standstill agreement’ by the exchange of the telegrams on August 12 and August 16, 1947 (Aggarwal and Agrawal 1995: 284). Pakistan has violated all norms of international law by committing an act of aggression against the state three months later. Pakistan blocked the supply of essential commodities. Pakistani nationals and tribal raiders under the guidance and leadership of its army corps invaded Gilgit-Baltistan region of Jammu and Kashmir (Gupta and Bansal 2007: 30).

The two resolutions of the UNCIP (August 13, 1948 and January 5, 1949) clearly indicate that the presence of Pakistan in parts of Jammu and Kashmir was illegal and that it had to withdraw its troops and abandon the aggression against India. Three major regions, namely, Mirpur, Muzaffarabad, Gilgit and Balitstan, covering one-third of the total area of 86,023 sq. mi. of the state of Jammu and Kashmir are still under the illegal occupation of Pakistan (Gupta and Bansal 2007: 32).

Gilgit-Baltistan region has never been represented in the Pakistani parliament. This region became a separate administrative unit in 1970 under the name ‘Northern Areas’. In 1970, an Advisory Council with fourteen elected members was set up, which was subsequently converted into the Northern Areas Council (NAC) in 1975, but continued without any legislative or executive powers and was presided over by the administrator appointed by Islamabad. It was formed by the amalgamation of the former Gilgit Agency, the Baltistan district and several small former princely states, the larger of which being Hunza and Nagar (Burki 2015: 228). Unlike Pakistan’s four provinces, the region has no political representation in the parliament or the federal cabinet and no status under Pakistan’s constitution (Bansal 2013: 2). On August 29, 2009, the Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self-Governance) Order, 2009, was passed by the Pakistani cabinet and later signed by the then president of Pakistan Asif Ali Zardari (European Foundation for South Asian Studies 2016). The order granted self-rule to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, by creating, among other things, an elected Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly and Gilgit-Baltistan Council. Gilgit-Baltistan thus gained a de facto province-like status without constitutionally becoming part of Pakistan. However, the real power rests with the governor and not with chief minister or elected assembly (Sering 2010: 354). Currently, Gilgit-Baltistan is neither a province nor a state. It has a ‘semi-provincial status’. It is neither a part of what Pakistan calls Azad Kashmir nor is it a province of Pakistan. In fact, Supreme Court of Pakistan pronounced in 1994 that these areas ‘are part of Jammu & Kashmir state but are not part of “Azad Kashmir”’ (Singh 2015).

Sectorial Division in Gilgit-Baltistan

Gilgit-Baltistan is a multilingual region with socio-cultural and ethnic diversity. There are four sects in Gilgit-Baltistan: Shia, Sunni, Noorbakhshi, and Ismailis communities (Feyyaz 2011: 12). The sect-wise division in the region includes 41 per cent Shias, 30 per cent Sunnis, 24 per cent Ismailis, and 6 per cent are Noorbakhshis (Ibid.). The geographical distribution of the sects reflects the spatial trajectories of Islamization in the region. The south of Gilgit-Baltistan, Diamer district, has purely Sunni population. Nagar district in the north and Baltistan in the east are mostly Shia dominated (with a small minority of Noorbakhshis) and Skardu has a predominantly Shia population. The northern area of Hunza and western part of Ghizer is dominated by Ismailis (Chandrashekhar 2017: 11). The city of Gilgit, being the political and economic center of the region, stands at the geographic crossroads of movements from all directions, is religiously mixed. It is roughly estimated that the three major sects are almost equally represented in Gilgit (Grieser and Sokefeld 2015: 27). Religious tolerance was the characteristic of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan (Hunzai 2013: 5). All communities were lived peacefully with communal harmony before the 1970s, and after the 1970s the sudden rise of sectarian violence has become a major cause of concern. The following factors are responsible for sectarian violence in the region.

Factors of Sectarian Violence

Theological Differences between Shia and Sunni

Sectarian violence usually refers to violent conflict along religious and political lines. Islam has two main branches: Shiaism and Sunnism. The Sunni population subdivides into four major streams: Deobandis, Barelvis, Ahl-e-Hadith, and Wahabis, within which there are dozens of subgroups (Qureshi 1999: 59). Each sect has its own madrasas in which their own version of Islam is taught. The basic reason for sectarian violence is the theological differences between Shia and Sunni. This difference is rooted due to disagreements over the succession to the Prophet Muhammad, who died in 632 AD (Khalilia 2016) along with the matter of leadership in the Muslim community (Azmi 2004: 17). The other differences over certain issues of political theory and interpretation of early Muslim history constitute the most potent reason for their conflict. Sunnis believe that the leader may be any man who manifests appropriate qualities of leadership and character as demonstrated by Prophet Muhammad (Ramadan 2006: 249). Sunni elected Abu Bakr, a companion (sahaba) of the Prophet as the first Caliph of the Islamic state. They regard the first four rulers, following the Prophet’s death (Abu Bakr, Omar bin Khattab, Osman bin Affan, and Ali Ibne Abu Talib), as not only legitimate but also as ‘pious’ and ‘righteous’ caliphs worthy of great reverence (Syed 2001: 249). The Shia considers Ali Ibne Abu Talib alone to have been a legitimate ruler and treat his three predecessors as usurpers. They also believe that the first three caliphs were not really true to the Prophet’s mission. Allegedly, they speak ill of them in various other ways in their own gatherings and some of them use insulting vocabulary in referring to them. The Sunnis find these Shia attitudes and interpretations to be intolerably offensive (Ibid.)

The Shia believes that the leader of community must be elected from amongst the descendent of Prophet Muhammad, that is, the leader must be from Muhammad’s bloodline (Ramadan 2006). Shias hold that the leadership of the community was the exclusive prerogative of the Prophet himself, and after him, resided with his descendants, the Ahl-e-bayt—house of the Prophet (Irfani 2004: 150). Shias claim that the Prophet’s son-in-law Ali should have succeeded him, and they claim that the Prophet had in fact designated Ali as his successor.

However, Shias follow a line of religious leadership emanating from Ali, whom they regard as the first imam (or successor). Ali Ibne Abu Talib occupies a central place in the Shia belief system, but Sunnis regard Ali as one of the four ‘righteous’ Caliphs. One of the major issues of conflict between the two sects is the question of acceptance of the legitimacy of the caliphate.

Public display of mourning is an essential part of the Shia faith, particularly during Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, when they commemorate the Battle of Karbala (680, in Iraq) in which the Omayyads killed the Prophet’s grandson, Hussain, and his family. For Sunnis, especially Deobandis and Ahl-e-Hadith, these Shia beliefs and ceremonies are an insult to their religious sensibilities. The divisions between these two sects have led to two different orientations within Islam and the adherents of these two sects have fought zealously for upholding the legitimacy of their separate views throughout Islamic history (Behuria 2004: 158).

Impact of General Zia Islamization Policy

General Zia used Islamization as a state enterprise based on a series of reforms intended to turn Pakistan into a truly Islamic state (Knudsen 2002: 32). He supported Sunni Islam that could help him perpetuate and legitimize his military rule. The important features of General Zia’s Islamization program were the imposition of Zakat (an Islamic tax) which the government decreed would be automatically collected from people’s bank accounts (Zaman 1998: 693). Shia and Sunni schools of law differ quite markedly in their stipulations on Zakat, as in many other areas of law (Coulson 1964: 113). The government’s decision to impose Zakat and Ushr (farming tax) ordinances according to the prescriptions of the Hanafi school of Sunni law created intense resentment among the Shias and proved to be a powerful stimulus toward their political mobilization in Pakistan. The implementation of the Sunni Hanafi fiqh has became the starting point of Shia resistance in Pakistan (Ahmad 1998: 249).

Pakistan’s Shia demanded exemption from the tax on religious grounds and fiercely resisted General Zia’s attempts. It was followed by large demonstrations in 1980; finally they were exempted from the tax, but this sowed the seeds of anti-Shia sentiments. Over the time, these differences were manifested in a growth of new types of movements which were virulently anti-Shia.

General Zia’s time is important because of the regional and local geopolitical and social dynamics of Gilgit-Baltistan. General Zia immediately after imposing martial law extended subjugating rules to Gilgit-Baltistan (Dad 2018). General Zia’s support to particular Sunni parties and groups and the existing power vacuum in Gilgit-Baltistan provided an opportunity for the ulemas to assert their role in public space (Dad 2017). The impact of the aggressive Sunni Islamization drive initiated by General Zia fell substantially on the Shia-dominated Gilgit-Baltistan region. The importance given by Islamabad to the Sunni ulemas, and extremist groups, and to the politics played by the regional administrative officers appointed by Islamabad was largely responsible for fueling sectarian clashes in the region. Besides, it was always in the interest of the army in Pakistan to keep Gilgit-Baltistan divided on sectarian lines to retain tight control over this strategically important area. The Islamization drive of General Zia was welcomed by Sunni leaders as they deem that Islam can protect their interests from politics of Shia’s community. The armed Sunni extremists had traveled a long way to reach Gilgit without being stopped by the security forces at any point. General Zia administration did nothing to control the sectarian violence in 1988. The administration was actively involved through Sunni Mullah and allowed them to fill the power vacuum in the region. Mohammad Shehzad stated in Friday Times,

On the fifth day, a huge lashkar of 80,000 Sunni extremists was sent by General Zia’s Government to annihilate the Shias. Villages inhabited by the Shias-Jalalabad, Bonji, Darot, Jaglot, Pari, and Manawar were completely ruined. Even their animals were slaughtered. The laskhar had traveled a long distance from Mansehra to Gilgit and the Government did not stop it. Instead, it put the blame on RAW (an Indian intelligence Agency) and CIA-the US external intelligence Agency. (Shehzad 2003)

The Islamization drive of General Zia was not completely abandoned by the successive governments. Islamabad’s reliance on jihadis for its proxy war in Kashmir and its policy to keep the strategically important region of Gilgit-Baltistan under its absolute control prompted it to fuel the flames of sectarian violence in the region.

Islamic Revolution in Iran and Saudi Connection

The international dimension has also contributed to sectarianism in Gilgit-Baltistan. The politicization of Pakistani Shia’s started in the early 1980s in the wake of the Iranian Revolution under the influence of Ayatollah Khomeini (Jaffrelot 2014). The Iranian Revolution has increased sectarian consciousness amongst Shia’s population in Pakistan and helped them to emphasize their identity, encouraged assertiveness, and emboldened their aspiration to gain political power. Both ideological and material support from Iran began to flow in and influence the activism of the Pakistani Shia community (Zahab 2002). Iran, for instance, distributed scholarships to Shia students who were invited to study at educational institutions in Qom (important city in Iran). There, young Pakistanis met co-religionists from the rest of the Middle East. Iranian cultural centers also multiplied in Pakistan (Jaffrelot 2016). It is stated by Mariam Abou Zahab that ‘the Iranian revolution inspired Pakistani Shias and contributed to their politicization’ (Zahab 2004: 115). After Islamic Revolution, Shias in Pakistan became influenced by Iran in formal and informal ways. Allama Arif Hussain al-Hussaini, a Khomeiniite cleric, took over the Tehrik-e-Nafaz-Fiqh-e Jafaria (TNFJ), Shia Muslim sectarian organization in Pakistan, in 1983 after the death of Mufti Jafar, who was a traditionalist. Al-Hussaini, who was declared Khomeini’s official representative in Pakistan (Abbas 2010 34) put the TNFJ on a revolutionary trajectory, urging his followers in a 1984 address in Karachi to ‘chant slogans in favor of Khomeini, who gave you and me the courage to get out into the streets for our rights’ (Hussaini 1984). In July 1987, he warned: ‘Shia will topple the government in Islamabad if it helps the United States to launch anti-Iran operations from Pakistan’ (Broder 1987).

Saudi Arabia offered billions of dollars in financial assistance not only to the Sunni militants fighting with the Soviets in Afghanistan (Bergen 2001: 55) but also to Sunni madrasas across Pakistan that had grown exponentially during the 1980s. Pakistani Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith madrasas were the major recipients of this patronage—which, in many instances, funded anti-Shia teachings and literature and consequently fueled a cycle of sectarian violence in Pakistan (Abbas 2010: 29). The government believed that expansion of the role of madrasas in national education would entrench Sunni identity in public arena. Furthermore, the madrasas and their students were viewed as important to government’s efforts to contain Shia activism (Nasr 2005: 23).

The phenomenon of the Iranian Revolution was a morale booster for the Shia’s youth in Pakistan. The revolutionary government in Iran deemed it expedient to extend moral and material assistance to the Shia minority in Pakistan. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states started backing Sunnis due to the threat of Iranian Revolution to their governments. After the end of the Afghan war, the Iran had pulled back support but Saudi Arabia directly or indirectly continued to support sectarian groups in Pakistan. The Iranian Revolution in 1979 had a cumulative effect on sectarian violence in Pakistan and Gilgit-Baltistan.

The Role of Madrasas and Afghan Jihad

A major development that served to raise the level of sectarianism was the rapid spread of madrasa culture during General Zia period. The madrasas, sponsored by politico-religious parties and often funded by donors from the Middle East, instruct their students in accordance with the sectarian beliefs of the school’s sponsors (Davis 1999). The madrasas have spread even to small towns and they enroll more students than the public elementary and middle schools in Pakistan and Gilgit-Baltistan region. They teach theology, but many of them also teach their students to disapprove of sects other than their own and also impart military training. The madrasas have been a key player in the sectarian violence by producing a large number of indoctrinated youths with sect-oriented education. Hence, madrasa students are converted into sectarian militants readily available to fight for their sectarian organizations against the rival sect. They are providing the man power to their respective sectarian militant organizations.

All the madrasas, including the Shia ones, teach the Dars-e-Nizami though they do not use the same texts. They also teach their particular point of view (maslak) which clarifies and rationalizes the beliefs of the sect (Sunni or Shia) and sub-sect (Deobandi, Barelvi, and Ahl-e-Hadith; Rahman 2013). Moreover, they train their students to refute what in their views are heretical beliefs and some Western ideas. The madrasas have become a source of hate-filled propaganda against other sects and the sectarian divide has become sharper and more violent (Nayyar and Salim 2005: 243).

The Afghan jihad played an important role in fueling sectarianism in Pakistan and Gilgit-Baltistan. The USA funded billions of dollars to the active Sunni organizations in Pakistan due to Cold War politics (Irfani 2004: 150). The idea was to marginalize Iran in a post-Soviet Afghanistan that was to be dominated by forces friendly to their US–Saudi–Pakistani benefactors. The Soviet invasion and the subsequent decision of the USA to provide funds to Pakistani authorities, especially the ISI (the intelligence agency of Pakistan), to create a radical Islamist international brigade to fight the Soviet army worsened the sectarian relationship in Pakistan and militarized the sectarian groups. Pakistan’s ISI coordinated and distributed this financial and military aid, especially to radical Islamist groups. ‘Jihad’ entered educational institutions, especially in the madrasas, deliberately to mobilize fighters against the Soviets (Maley 2002). The sectarian tensions in Gilgit-Baltistan as well as in other parts of Pakistan are related to this (Behuria 2004: 159).

State Subject Rule (SSR)

State Subject Rule was a law passed by the erstwhile Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir defining a hereditary state subject and forbidding employment of non-state subjects in public services. Also, non-state residents were not allowed to purchase land in the state of Jammu and Kashmir. However, under Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, this law was abolished in 1974 which opened the floodgates of immigration for people from different parts of Pakistan to settle in Gilgit-Baltistan (Singh 2012). Interestingly, both on the Indian side of the Line of Control (LoC) as well as in other areas of Pakistan occupied Jammu and Kashmir (PoJK), the ‘State Subject Rule’ is still in force (Ismail Khan 2006). This is one of the clearest manifestations of the intent of Pakistan to change the demographic profile of the region. This paved the way for settling outsiders, mostly Sunni ethnic Pathans and Punjabis in Gilgit-Baltistan region (Lambah 2016: 232). The attempt by successive Pakistani government to bring people from various parts of Pakistan has created fear in the minds of the people of the region that the government is aiming at their ethnic marginalization in their own traditional homeland. From 1998 to 2011, due to large-scale migration, the population in Gilgit-Baltistan surged by 63.1 per cent, as against 22.1 per cent in Mirpur–Muzaffarabad, where the ‘State Subject Rule’ is still in force. The fact that the population in Sunni-dominated Diamer District more than doubled during this period gives some credence to this allegation (Khan 2012).

Pakistan’s Divide and Rule Strategy

Sectarian violence in the Gilgit-Baltistan developed as a strategy of ‘divide and rule’, employed by the Government of Pakistan. The Pakistani army, ISI, and the administration are geared to nurture divisive tendencies amongst the people and keep at bay any possibility of a united dissidence against Pakistan’s high-handedness (Singh 2013: 44). Pakistani government has sent radical Sunni ulemas to madrasas in Gilgit to preach hatred against Shias (Grieser and Sokefeld 2015: 88). ‘These Pakistani Sunni Ulemmas had started allegation that Shias are not “real Muslims”, which was vehemently reciprocated by the Shias in Gilgit’ (Ibid.). The Pakistani authorities have tried to divide the people of the region along sectarian and ethnic lines to counter the demand for local self-rule by the people of the region. A sect-based divided society in the region is busy in settling sectarian scores with each other rather than taking a united stand to pressurize Pakistan to address their genuine long pending political and economic grievances (Shekhawat 2011). Undoubtedly, Islamabad’s ‘divide and rule’ policy has worked successfully in Gilgit-Baltistan.

Major Incidents of Sectarian Violence in Gilgit-Baltistan Region

The Sufi Islamic culture was prevailed in this region, who preached tolerance and universality of human values (Hunzai 2013: 5). All communities in Gilgit-Baltistan—Shia, Sunni, Noorbakhshi, and Ismailis—lived peacefully without any sectarian tension till the 1970s (Lambah 2016: 233).The roots of sectarian violence in Pakistan and Gilgit-Baltistan region originated not because of Muslim state but due to the government’s succumbing to pressure to adopt a more exclusive definition of Muslimness beginning in the 1970s (Rafiq 2014). During Zulfikar Ali Bhutto regime, Gilgit and Baltistan were transformed into districts like those in Pakistan’s settled areas (Feyyaz 2011: 5). NAC replaced the Northern Areas Advisory Council (NAAC) in 1974, with members elected by direct adult franchise (International Crisis Group Asia Report 2007). It was during Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s regime in the mid-1970s that the first reported sectarian clash in Gilgit-Baltistan took place, when Sunnis raised objections to the Shias making a stage in the middle of a road for delivering speeches (Ibid.: 14). Acting on the objection, Bhutto prohibited the Shias from engaging in this practice. The consequent Shia resentment resulted in firing by the police, which injured many protestors, and kidnappings and destruction of property also took place (Shekhawat 2011). In 1972, a conflict over the Shia Ashura procession occurred. The day of Ashura is marked by Muslims as a whole, but for Shia Muslims it is a major religious commemoration of the martyrdom at Karbala of Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. It falls on the 10th of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar. Another case of sectarian violence resulting in the loss of human life occurred in 1975, when the Shia Muharrum procession in Gilgit town was fired at from the Sunni mosque (Hunzai 2013: 5). In 1975, a Sunni preacher is said to have declared Shias to be kafirs (unbelievers) and Shias were shot at from the Sunni mosque (Ibid.). To support the Sunnis in Gilgit, a large gang of armed men from the valleys of the south set off, but was stopped by Gilgit scouts before they could reach their destination (Stober 2007: 402).

In the following years, sectarian violence increased, especially during Muharram procession. The reason why the course of the Shia Ashura procession became locally contentious during that particular time is mostly attributed to outside influence and to political dFactors of Sectarian Violenceevelopments. The incidents of sectarian violence marked the beginning of weakening of administrative control in the area. The vested interests of Pakistan also emerged promoting a host of ethnic and sectarian issues in a traditionally peaceful society.

In the 1980s, religious affiliation became an additional factor in local politics and elections. The next major clash took place in 1983, triggered by a dispute over the sighting of the moon—the timing to end the month-long fasting of Ramadan and start Eid festivities (Hunzai 2013: 5). Based on the declaration of moon sighting by their religious leaders, the Shia community ended fasting and started celebrations while the Sunni community was in fasting. Sectarian tension rose quickly and resulted in violent clashes in Gilgit town, two people were killed and several others were injured (Kreutzmann 2008: 216).

Jalalabad Tragedy

Jalalabad tragedy of 1988 was triggered by a clash between Shias and Sunnis in Gilgit. ‘On May 17, 1988, Shias celebrated Eid-ul-Fitr, the festival marking the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, a day earlier than the Sunni population’ (Muhammad 2014). The Sunni started clash with the Shia community, as a result of which a Shia student leader was seriously wounded (Ibid.). The news of the clash was spread to different parts of the region and beyond; Sunni ulemas in North-West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) declared a jihad against Shias. Sunni supporters—assisted by local Sunnis from Chilas, Darel, and Tangir—attacked several Shia villages on the outskirts of Gilgit (Sorbo 1988: 31). Almost 150 people were killed, many were injured and property worth millions of rupees were destroyed (International Crisis Group Report 2007: 16). This attack was triggered by a rumor alleging a Sunni massacre in Gilgit by Shias, which some say was deliberately spread to provide an excuse for Sunni militants to conduct the attacks. This massacre marked the beginning of a new and more lethal phase of the conflict, one that involved well-equipped militant organizations, often supported by external sponsors, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, which provided money and training (Hunzai 2013: 6). Unlike the previous sectarian clashes, which were usually limited, the post-1988 conflict has become more violent, unpredictable, and severe (Malik and Hunzai 2005). The massacre of Jalalabad has created a disappointment in the Shia community in Gilgit-Baltistan. Shia’s also decided to upgrade its capability for a long war with Sunni extremism as revenge and naturally looked to Iran for material support and strategic guidance (Feyyaz 2011: 14).

Shia’s perception was that as long as the Sunni sectarian organizations remained unchecked, much of the violence against them was engineered by Pakistan. Thus, an arms race of a sort ensued in which local Sunni and Shia sectarian groups have been accumulating light and heavy weapons illegally and recruiting unemployed youth to their cause (Ibid.). This incident has witnessed the emergence of a vicious cycle of sectarian organizations, which were fueling violence in Pakistan directly and also inflaming the violence in Gilgit-Baltistan (International Crisis Group Report 2005).

The proliferation of militant sectarian organizations led rise of sectarian killings and violent clashes through the 1990s in Gilgit-Baltistan and continued throughout the decade that was followed by vested political interests at a particular time. The Tehrik-e-Nafaz-Fiqh-e Jafaria (TNFJ) has become a formidable political force during the 1990s. The TNFJ and the Shia community boycotted the election to the NAC in 1991, accusing the then Ministry of Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas (KANA) minister, Sardar Mehtab Abbassi, of redrawing constituencies in Gilgit in favor of the Sunni community. In 1994, soon after the Legal Framework Order (LFO) for Gilgit-Baltistan was passed and concerned about Shia alienation, Islamabad held early elections when the TNFJ won ten seats out of twenty-four and was included in a coalition government, although Islamabad’s decision to make concessions to a local religious party was criticized (Feyyaz 2011: 16).

Text Book Controversy

In 1999, the federal education ministry of Pakistan suddenly introduced amended textbooks produced by the Punjab Textbook Board in Gilgit-Baltistan region. These textbook curriculums were exclusively based on Sunni beliefs and practices. Shias in Gilgit-Baltistan region felt that in these books Islamiyat as well as the Islamic practices (such as prayers) were presented in strictly Sunnite way. Shia personalities were left aside or not referred to in due form (Stober 2007: 390). Consequently, the Shia community started a campaign for changes in curriculum, particularly in textbooks for religious studies (Shekhawat 2011). Agha Ziauddin Rizvi, the imam of Gilgit’s Imamiya Mosque and other representatives of the Shia community of Gilgit have showed their criticism to the concerned authorities and demanded to redesign of the textbooks. There were some exchange of positions, talks or even negotiations seem to have taken place with the Ministry of Education and Northern Areas authorities, without any result (Stober 2007: 401). Thus, positions hardened and the Shias felt compelled to raise the pressure. On August 15, 2003, riots broke out in Skardu (Daily Times 2003b) and violent protests shook Skardu city. The Shias organization Anjuman-e Imamia set September 1, 2003, as a deadline for the government to meet their demands (Stober 2007: 391). In September 2003, there was a demonstration of Sunni madrasa students and teachers against any change in the existing syllabi in Gilgit (The Dawn 2003). Anti-Shia demonstrations in Gilgit and Chilas on October 7, 2003—triggered by the murder of Azam Tariq, a Sunni extremist leader (chief of Millat-e Islamiya, former Sipah-e Sahaba Pakistan) in Islamabad—reveal a glimpse of the wider context of the textbook issue (Daily Times 2003a). Later, Shia leaders protested against the arrest of Sajid Naqvi, chief of the banned Shia organization Tehrik-e-Jafaria Pakistan and the syllabus question was also raised (Ibid.).

The textbook and syllabus question revived again on May 17, 2004, when 300 students started hunger strike (Stober 2007: 392). A prominent Shia scholar Syed Agha Ziauddin Rizvi was killed in January 13, 2005 (The Dawn 2005a). It is widely believed that the real cause for the killing of Syed Agha Ziauddin Rizvi was his struggle in favor of a separate syllabus for Shia students (Shekhawat 2011). Rizvi’s killing intensified the ‘textbook controversy’ that has rocked the Gilgit-Baltistan for more than a decade. To pacify the population, the government agreed to withdraw the controversial textbooks of Islamiyat and Urdu from the curriculum (Ismail Khan 2005). The old textbooks, with minor modifications, are still used in the region, although the controversial chapters are not taught (International Crisis Group Report 2005). Despite such measures, sporadic cases of violence continued in the region.

The ‘textbook controversy’ offers a useful lens to interrogate how state practices in Pakistan have served to normalize particular religious sensibilities for its citizens. Instead of homogenizing identity by ‘managing’ difference, these practices have served to aggravate inter-sect differences and conflict in Gilgit-Baltistan. The ‘controversy’ over textbooks was an outlet for and consequence of a history of political and religious suppression in Gilgit-Baltistan that has been vitally responsible for the polarization of sectarianism in the region.

The Rizvi Episode and Earthquake in 2005

The violent clash again started with the murder of Agha Ziauddin Rizvi, prominent Shia leader in January 2005. Rizvi was assassinated by Sunni sectarian group ‘Lashkar-e-Janghavi’, known for its anti-Shia ideology. The death of Rizvi led to fresh wave of vicious circle of sectarian violence in the region (Mahapatra and Shekhawat 2008: 125). In October 2005, the devastated earthquake badly affected the PoJK and it was embroiled in its own sectarian violence. On October 11, 2005, armed militant in the outskirts of Gilgit opened fire on a bus, killed one passenger and injured seven others (The Dawn 2005b). The police apprehended one of the Sunni attackers. However, the trouble broke out when the attacker was taken away from local police by the military (Abbas 2005: 32). A group of Shia students suspected that the government was protecting the attackers. A Shia student was detained and there was firing and a cross-firing from Shia and Sunni communities leading to twelve deaths including two rangers (Stobdan and Suba Chandran 2008: 67).

In year 2008, eighteen people were killed in sectarian violence, including the director of the agriculture department of Gilgit (Bansal 2013: 33). However, 2009 again saw the incidents of sectarian violence. On April 20, 2009, Syed Asad Zaidi, the deputy speaker of the Gilgit-Baltistan (Northern Areas) Legislative Assembly was shot dead, along with his companion, in Kashrote, which is a Sunni-dominated neighborhood of Gilgit city (Ibid.).

Election of 2009 and Sectarian Violence

Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly was created through a presidential order in 2009. It has total thirty-three members, twenty-four members were elected directly and six women and three technocrats were elected indirectly through party-list proportional representation system (Business Standard 2015). The first election was held on November 12, 2009, on the basis of the Gilgit-Baltistan (Empowerment and Self-Governance) Order, 2009. In this election, most of the Pakistani political parties and local groups participated (Bansal 2013: 34), and most of the voting took place along sectarian lines. The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) field a Sunni candidate for the first time in immigrant-dominated GBLA-2 constituency, which is currently represented by the Hafiz Hafeezur Rehman, Chief Minister of Gilgit Baltistan Province since 2015 election, but it resulted in splitting of the Sunni votes between the PPP and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), resulting in the victory of an independent Shia candidate, named Deedar Ali (Ibid.: 35). This resulted in all six seats in Gilgit district being won by Shia candidates and aggravated sectarian tensions (Sering 2009b).

The year 2010 was relatively peaceful. ‘There were in all 13 sectarian attacks in the region, which resulted in seven persons being killed and 16 getting wounded. Most of these attacks took place in and around Gilgit city’ (Bansal 2013: 36). In 2011, there were twenty-six attacks taken place in the region, which resulted in the death of nine persons and injuries to twenty-four (Pakistan Security Report 2011).

The Karakoram Highway (KKH) and Sectarian Violence

The Karakoram Highway (KKH) linking China to Pakistan with Gilgit-Baltistan has resulted in influx of weapons and drugs into the region. It has led to a change in demography of the region (Lambah 2016: 234). The KKH is celebrated as the lifeline of Gilgit-Baltistan which links Pakistan with China, and is the only all-weather connection that theoretically is open throughout the year (Grieser and Sokefeld 2015: 97). Anna Grieser stated that ‘[t]raveling and trade on the KKH has become indispensable; but as people in Gilgit often complain that the road at the same time enables an increased influx of suspect and alien persons from other parts of Pakistan’ (Ibid.). After any sectarian attacks in the Gilgit region, the KKH remained closed for all travelers for several weeks which greatly disturbed the mobility and lives of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan region. The restriction of travel experienced by the people was clearly sectarianized. While Shias feel hesitation to travel on the highway between Gilgit and Islamabad, in order to avoid the Sunni areas of Diamer District and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sunnis also avoid traveling in north, fearing the Shia area of Nagar (Ibid.). The KKH has become a major battleground in the sectarian strife (Khan 2005).

Eighteen Shia pilgrims were killed on February 28, 2012, on the KKH in Kohistan district while returning from Iran (Express Tribune 2012a). Another attack killed twenty people at Chilas on April 3, 2012 (Express Tribune 2012b). These events have jolted the communities in Gilgit-Baltistan, which have collectively condemned such killings and demanded decisive action from the government. The brutality and impunity with which these crimes were committed have triggered wider sectarian tensions (Hunzai 2013: 2).

Gilgit town is the most tense district of the region because it is divided into ‘no-go’ areas for the main Shia and Sunni communities, forcing people to use separate transportation, schools, and hospitals (Ibid.). Land travel between Gilgit-Baltistan and Islamabad has become extremely insecure for local travelers, traders, and tourists alike. The magnitude of losses accruing to socio-economic spheres of life is huge. Trade of high-value horticultural crops—such as seed potatoes, cherries, and apricots (a mainstay of local economy)—has been badly disrupted. The changing environment around Gilgit-Baltistan has certainly helped bring heightened sectarian conflict to the area (Dad 2012).

China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and Gilgit-Baltistan

Sectarian violence in the Gilgit-Baltistan regionCPEC, the Chinese-funded multi-dollar development project, aims at establishing a network of highways, railways, oil pipelines, electrical power grids, fiber optic cables, and special economic zones, linking the Chinese trading hub of Kashgar in Xinjiang province with the Pakistani port city of Gwadar in Balochistan province (Wolf 2016: 7). The Pakistani government asserts that CPEC is an economic game changer for Pakistan and will bring prosperity to Gilgit-Baltistan region, but the people of Gilgit-Baltistan region feel that CPEC project would not only trigger an ecological disaster, a demographic shift and land grabbing, but also threaten their unique culture (The Economics Times 2018).

The geostrategic location of Gilgit-Baltistan is very important and without Gilgit-Baltistan, the implementation of the CPEC project is impossible (Sood 2016). Gilgit-Baltistan region is facing a serious demographic change because of Pakistan’s internal migration: the people from other provinces of Pakistan like Punjab have moved to Gilgit-Baltistan to take over businesses and administrative jobs. This development has created a feeling among the local people that they will turn into a minority in their own region (Ebrahim 2016). This phenomenon has promoted terrorist activities accompanied with intensified sectarian clashes. There is the imminent threat that minorities might be used as ‘scapegoats’ for potential CPEC (Wolf 2016: 10).

Pakistani militants, mainly the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, in collaboration with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and Chinese Uighur militants have started to entrench themselves in this region (Hussain 2016). ‘A total of 74 terrorist attacks were reported from Gilgit-Baltistan between 2007 and July 2014, 71 from Diamer and Gilgit alone—out of which 55 were sectarian-related and only 16 were carried out by the TTP and associated militants and other groups’ (Sial 2014 34). The growing network of Taliban with the active sectarian organization in the region has not only aggravated the sectarian violence but also led to change in the demographic profile and erosion of the local cultural identity in the region (Sering 2009a). Pakistan Taliban has increased their influence in Gilgit-Baltistan. CPEC will most likely lead to an increasing sense of deprivation and create further unrest in the region.

The entire region does not have any kind of industry and over 85 per cent of the people live in below the poverty line (Stobdan and Suba Chandran 2008). Due to the limited means of earning a livelihood, the people of this region mostly depend on government-offered jobs and tourism industry. As a result of deteriorating law and order in the region, the tourists are not coming in the region. The sufficient investment is not coming either from foreign or local sources, and when investment is not taking place, unemployment is bound to increase, giving rise to further lawlessness and violence in the society (Mahmud 2004).

An atmosphere of sectarian frictions cast its cloud on economic prospects in general and tourism-related businesses in particular. The region is now caught in a vicious cycle, and sectarian violence has become a major internal security threat to the Gilgit-Baltistan region.


Sectarian violence in the Gilgit-Baltistan region has risen remarkably, particularly due to General Zia’s Islamization program; the Iranian Revolution; Pakistani madrasas and Afghan war; State Subject Rule, and Pakistan’s policy of divide and rule. All of these have fueled sectarian hostility in the region. It is fundamentally linked to the religious and geopolitical anxieties because of Shia-majority, contested border territory poses for the Pakistan state, as a result of which Pakistan has established particularly harsh regimes of political and religious subjection in the region. Pakistan has promoted sectarianism as a calibrated policy to keep the people engaged in trivial issues and to promote Sunni variety of Islam in the region. By denying the region as a constitutional identity, administering it through a highly centralized bureaucracy and depriving its residents of political rights and recourse to justice, Pakistan has created an environment in which increasing numbers, particularly youth, have no outlet to express themselves except through sectarian violence. It is to be noted that despite decades of military subjugation, demographic engineering, and the ceding of some territories and influence to China, Islamabad has failed to win the support of the people of the region.

Gilgit-Baltistan region has paid a heavy price under the Pakistani occupation. The demography of the region has been changed completely, and it is reported that the old population ratio of 1:4 (non-locals to locals) has now changed to 3:4 (non-locals to locals). This demographic change has wrecked the peace and order in the region.

It is estimated that more than thousands of lives have been lost because of the sectarian violence. Pakistan’s policy is intrinsically divisive and relies on the sectarian card to serve its vested interests. Years of turmoil and instability have stalled development and fostered a sense of insecurity among the people of the region. Similarly, the social fabric of the region has been eroded for long; it remains to be seen how far the cosmetic changes act will restore the true identity of the region.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


Abbas, Hassan . 2010.Shiism Sectarian Conflict in Pakistan Identity Politics Iranian Influence Tit-for-Tat Violence, Occasional Paper Series. Combating Terrorism Center: Harvard Kennedy School: Belfer Centre for Science and International Relations, 22 September. Available on http://www.ctc.usma.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/CTC-OP-Abbas-21-September.pdf

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