Sectarian violence in Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan
November 5 2012: Whilst sectarian violence is rife within Pakistan, it is often misrepresented as terrorism. This is causing the issue to go undiagnosed and thus resources are not adequately directed to cure the problem. Zahid Shahab Ahmed explores the issue of sectarian violence within the city of Gilgit-Baltistan in the north of Pakistan.
Because of this, the issue quickly disappears from policy-making circles and media. There is a need to acknowledge how deep-rooted this issue is, as recent episodes of sectarian violence in the country have raised eyebrows within the domestic and international community regarding the protection of religious and ethnic minorities in Pakistan.
Sectarianism in Pakistan
Sectarian violence in Pakistan occasionally erupts between the Sunni and Shia strands of Islam, where approximately 70 percent of the Muslim population in Pakistan are Sunni, compared to the 20 percent of Muslims that comprise the Shia population. Small factions of militant groups exist in both religious groups, such as the Sunni Sipah-e-Sahaba and Shia Sipah-e-Muhammad.
Sectarianism surfaced during General Zia-ul-Haq’s era in the 1980s through his policies of Islamisation. Whilst Saudi Arabian and Iranian state funding for Sunni and Shia militant groups in Pakistan is often blamed for sectarian violence, it is clear that a major root cause of sectarian violence is the lack of good governance in the country. This creates opportunities for Pakistan to be used as a battleground for both internal and external extremism.
So far in Gilgit-Baltistan, over 50 people have been killed in sectarian violence that begun in August 2012. These casualties highlight the need for greater attention from local and international communities.
Gilgit-Baltistan covers an area of 72,971 km2 with an estimated population of 1.8 million. This mountainous region borders with Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhunkhwa province to the west, Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor to the north, China to the east and northeast, Pakistan-held Kashmir (Azad Kashmir) to the southwest, and Indian-held Jammu and Kashmir to the southeast. Together with the Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, Gilgit-Baltistan forms part of the disputed Kashmir region – a major cause of conflict between India and Pakistan for the past 60 years.
The population of Gilgit-Baltistan is comprised of many diverse ethnic groups, including Shins, Yashkuns, Kashiris, Kashgaris, Pathans, and Kohistanis. Although Urdu is the national language of Pakistan, it is also understood in the region, whilst the area’s dominant religion is Ismailism, a branch of Shia Islam.
Control of the region has been stifled by attempts to limit its autonomy.. In 1993, for example, the government of Azad Kashmir tried to annex Gilgit-Baltinstan – an attempt that was halted by the Supreme Court of Pakistan. In addition, the Shia population of Gilgit-Baltistan strongly opposed this move of the Sunni-dominated Azad Kashmir, for fear of domination and exclusion.
Sectarian violence in Gilgit-Baltistan
The most recent wave of violence surfaced in the region on 28th February 2012, when masked extremists killed 16 passengers on four buses in the Hurban area of Kohistan. This issue received greater international attention than ever before, because those responsible recorded a video of this incident and shared it via the internet. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan claimed responsibility for this attack. Since then, the law and order situation in Gilgit-Baltistan has worsened.
In April 2012, the violence erupted again in the city of Gilgit, when masked men riding a motorcycle hurled a hand grenade at Sunni activists that were forcing shopkeepers to close their shops in support of a strike they had called. By August 2012, more than 30 lives had been lost in Gilgit, and finally the Army was called upon to take control of the city. Whilst this government intervention created calmness in the region, it does not provide a long-term solution to the problem of sectarianism.
Responding to sectarianism
The short-term solutions require that all those involved in Gilgit-Baltistan violence would face prosecution, in addition to a permanent ban on militant outfits of both Shias and Sunnis. For long-term solutions, however, the government needs to create mechanisms for mainstreaming religious and ethnic minorities in every area, especially at the decision-making levels and law enforcement. In doing this, Pakistan would stand a much better chance of addressing this serious problem. Considering Gilgit-Baltistan’s link to the Kashmir dispute with India, Pakistan needs to address the issue of sectarian violence in this region more seriously if it is to prove itself worthy of claiming a right over Kashmir.
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