The woes of Gilgit-Baltistan

Spearhead Analysis – 20.08.2014

By Shayan Malik
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

Gilgit TerrorismOne would imagine Gilgit-Baltistan to be a peaceful paradise in comparison to the visual trouble elsewhere in the country, apparent to those of us not on the ‘periphery’ of the state. However, perceptions at times can be a tad bit removed from reality. According to one analysis, 117 murder cases were registered between 1988 and 2010, along with an estimated number of 170 attempted murders for the same time-span, in this region of nearly two million inhabitants. The major security challenges that this semi-autonomous and self-governing territory has been beset with since the 1980’s is sectarian militancy, although, the proliferation of anti-state militant groups such as the Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan across the length and breadth of the state’s territory has meant that anti-state militancy targeting the state’s institutions and its bureaucratic and security personnel might be an emerging trend.

This was indeed seen with the attack on the Police Station in Darel Valley, Gilgit-Baltistan, on the 4thof July, 2014. Militants, in army uniforms, ransacked the police station and captured important arms and ammunition. The tied hapless police officers were ordered to leave their profession or face stringent and fatal consequences if they refused to comply. In response, the Pakistan Army launched a search operation on the 9th of July, in order to arrest the terrorists. The event which triggered the search operation implies that the human security paradigm, as was set out in the draft of the National Security Policy 2014, has yet to be internalized by the state’s security apparatus, in lieu of the fact that there have been numerous attacks on civilians in the last three years as well.

One needs to analyze the historical, social and anthropological factors that lead to this conundrum, and even though there has been relative peace in the last decade, when compared to the 80’s and the 90’s, developments from the past four years have made it clear that the wounds of the region haven’t  fully healed.

How it all began

Apart from the vexed constitutional and other challenges that emerged from this region being carved out from the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, being made up of the principalities of the Gilgit Agency, Baltistan and the princely states of Hunza and Nagar, the woes of Gilgit-Baltistan and its people within the state of Pakistan, largely began, in the 1970’s. Interestingly, this was the time when decolonization of these erstwhile colonial territories was spearheaded by the Bhutto regime in a series of progressive reforms. This process entailed the revocation of the Frontier Crimes Regulations and the agency system in this territory, along with the abolishment of fiefdoms in the form of hereditary rule. The devolution of government into district administrations, something that was already prevalent in the rest of Pakistan, also took root in the region during this time. Moreover, adult franchise was introduced in the region for the first time, which enabled members to be directly elected to the Northern Areas Advisory Council (an earlier version of the present Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly).

Although, these reforms created some semblance of space for the region’s people in the democratic dispensation, it also produced the unintended effect of creating a social and political vacuum at the grassroots level. Prior to this, Gilgit-Baltistan was mostly peaceful because of the nature of its population’s political economy and the generations old social structures in place. Society mostly revolved around kinship clans, a strict hereditary clan system with a tribal leader at the top, and the rural nature of the population in such a milieu meant that there was interdependency between different groups, regardless of their sectarian affiliations. The people of the region did not feel the need for a singular identity. The abovementioned political reforms without an alternative at the grassroots opened up a social and political chasm as it resulted in the undermining of these structures. The resulting space was filled by a ‘singular identity’, around which the people could rally around. These indeed came in the form of a ‘sectarian identity’. However, this wasn’t the only trigger at play.

The replacement of the clan with the sect

The resulting exclusivist discourse then turned militant mainly due to geo-political factors at work. These factors have now turned into a fable in the academic and policy worlds; yet, they are seldom linked to the quagmire in Gilgit-Baltistan, something that reflects the lack of attention researchers have given to this region. The first event in these series of events was the Iranian Revolution which enabled the Iranian clerical leadership to develop its clout over Pakistani Shiites, including those in Gilgit-Baltistan. This was followed with the Pakistani State’s use of proxies to drive off the Soviets from Afghanistan, along with help, from the anti-Shiite Wahabi- inspired Saudi regime. The Zia regime’s ideological tilt towards Riyadh, which resulted in a number of Islamic Laws, some of whom were anachronistic to Shiite Jurisprudence, meant that the Shiite community and its religious leadership in Pakistan started seeing itself as besieged in a state that was turning into an ideological anathema.

The same was true for the Shiite’s who were living as a majority in Gilgit-Baltistan (The only portion of Pakistan that is to date not Sunni Majority). The first anti-Shiite massacre occurred in 1988, when Shiite clerics had sighted the moon before the Sunnis, and thus, were found celebrating Eid while the latter were still fasting. Alternatively, some sources claim the root-cause of the massacre to be a rumor that Shiites had massacred the Sunni’s in the south. Nevertheless, groups of Sunni lashkars or militant groups from outside the region, entered parts of Gilgit-Baltistan, and ransacked several thousand Shiite villages, that resulted in the death of at least 400 Shiites, according to the most modest estimate. This set forward the trend of sporadic riots and reprisal killings that reached its peak in the mid 90’s.

Differing narratives

From the 70’s onwards, domestic politics in Gilgit-Baltistan have been stratified along sectarian lines. This has also been enabled because of the geographical distribution of the population along sectarian lines across the region. For example, Diamer Valley has a majority Sunni Population at nearly 95 percent; whereas the Shiites make up the majority in the rest of the territory with the exception of Astore (Shiites themselves are divided between Twelvers, Ismailis and Noorbukhshis).   

Shiites have alleged that the state has sought to change the demographics of the region by enabling more and more Sunnis from the outside to settle. This was indeed true during the Zia regime when the banned militant group Sipahe Sahaba Pakistan spread its tentacles across the state. They are also apprehensive about the Sunni version of Islamic History taught in public schools. Whereas, the Sunnis claim that they get targeted in reprisal attacks even though they do not support the militants, and are marginalized from development funds allocated by the regional legislative assembly.

At the same time, it must be mentioned that these polarized narratives do not reflect all of the region’s Sunnis or Shiites. There have been inter-sectarian non-governmental organizations seeking to bridge the gap between the two communities, along with the secularist nationalist movement in the region. One cannot even claim that sectarianism has an ideological hold over the majority of the population. Indeed, a peace treaty that was signed between two politico-religious groups from each sect in 2005 that resulted in a Code of Conduct, prohibiting clerics of each sect from issuing fatwa’s and counter-resolutions against each other. Although, this has only partially worked, such an endeavor in the rest of the state would come as a magnanimous relief for those working for peace.

Identity, violence and reforms

Akin to what happened in many other parts of the world, modernity took a huge toll on the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. It is seldom the case that post-colonial societies and their leadership in the ‘peripheries’ of the world, were able to fully realize the huge costs at overcoming the colonial project. Nevertheless, their failures can serve as a lesson for the policymakers of today. Reforms must be followed with social security nets with alternative social structures in place. The people of Gilgit-Baltistan, need alternative avenues to get their voices heard in a centrally bureaucratized entity.

According to Amartya Sen’s seminal work, ‘Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny’, the fixation with a ‘singular identity’ breeds violence. The state needs to revive the generations old progressive and pluralistic traditions of the people, through culture and sport, in order to enable them to feel comfortable in their regional and ethnic identities, apart from other myriad identities including their national, religious and sectarian identities.

Hence, for the short term, there is a need for the state to inculcate a milieu in the region that would enable its inhabitants to have the capacity to retain multiple identities and not have to choose between one identity and the other. This can be done with setting laws in place which further inclusive development and governance. The state must consult the expertise of social scientists such as historians and anthropologists in this regard. The Shiite community’s fear of being caught up in, proxy wars and redundant security doctrines needs to be assuaged, and the state needs to help those non-sectarian groups in the region who are already involved in inter-sectarian peace efforts. Nevertheless, these are major steps that can be taken in the short to medium-term, apart from efforts aimed at unlocking the troubling constitutional status of Gilgit-Baltistan.