Gilgit is capital of the so – called Northern Areas of Pakistan and if, at some point in time, this region becomes ‘the fifth province’, as some of the residents envisage, this is the city most qualified to be the provincial capital. It is a small and beautiful city, surrounded by mountains, with river Hanisara, having origin in the world famous Shandur region, flowing through the city. It is densely populated and a commercial hub of the entire region, with lesser breathing space for the original inhabitants.
The entire region is severely divided on sectarian lines since late eighties, after a group of Jihadis attacked a Shia village called Jalalabad, located at the periphery of Gilgit city, and burnt it down, killing men, women, children and even animals, without discrimination. The remnants of Afghan “Jihad” wanted to capture the Northern Areas and establish their rule in the region. The exact number of people killed in that most brutal of attacks on civilians in Gilgit – Baltistan is not known. Neither have we known anything about the perpetrators, executioners, financiers and the planners of the attack. No one has been punished, needless to say. Justice has not been done.
Nowhere else, in the entire region, are the sectarian divisions more visible than Gilgit city. There are Sunni localities and then there are strictly Shia localities. These localities become no – go areas during times of sectarian clashes.
After that attack, launched in 1988, there have been several sectarian riots in the region. Members of opposite sects (including Shias and Ismailies) have been slaughtered on the Karakuram Highway, shot in the streets of Gilgit city and tormented throughout the region. This is not to mean that only the Sunnis are taking guns in hands, the Shias have also killed members of their opposite sects. Several Ismailies have also been killed in the “cross fire”.
On January 8, 2005, after the murder of Agha Zia Udin Rizvi, an influential local leader of the Shia community, eighteen people, including director of a government department, were killed in broad daylight in Gilgit city. Schools, colleges and the region’s only university, the Karakuram International University, remained closed for more than ninety days because of the resulting sectarian tension built.
The most relevant question might be who is behind all this Sectarian killings in Gilgit – Baltistan are recent phenomena. People in the region had been living in peace for centuries, with negligible or no sectarian rift. What has suddenly changed in the region that the peaceful people have turned into extremist sect lovers?
Nationalists and other centrifugal forces point fingers the establishment, the agencies and other government elements, as is the ‘norm’ in other parts of the country as well. Some segments of the society blame the Indians and other world powers for the sectarian history of Gilgit – Baltistan. The position of the government is not known, because any inquiries, if held, are not shared with the public.
Nationalists argue that through sectarianism the region is kept divided, to avert attention from the denied constitutional rights of the region. This lack of transparency and justice has fueled suspicion and brewed alienation from the state, to threatening degree.
Lack of justice has coupled with the feeling of betrayal triggered by the state’s refusal to bring the region into the national political mainstream, has helped create and environment where the state is looked at with suspicion and distrust. Trained sectarian militias exist in the region, because of this feeling of insecurity.
Very recently, a week ago, deputy speaker, Syed Asad Zaidi, of the region’s toothless “legislative assembly”, was shot dead in Gilgit city. Fortunately, prudence prevailed and the tragic murder of Mr Zaidi didn’t trigger sectarian clashes in the region. Otherwise, the plot seems to have been executed pretty well: a Shia leader killed in a Sunni locality is enough to unleash the zealots with guns.
That the government needs to win trust of the region’s populace cannot be emphasized more. Confidence building measures, like inclusion of the region into the national political mainstream, dispensation of justice to victims and survivors of the sectarian clashes, including the 1988 tragedy, and emphasizing more on economic development of the region can be three of the many vital steps that are overdue, and hurting.