Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Gilgit is on fire again 10 January 2005

Gilgit is on fire again 10 January 2005
Dr Shabir Choudhry
According to news items in Pakistani papers at least fourteen people have been killed, six of them have been burnt alive and dozens have been injured in sectarian clashes in Gilgit. These are the official figures, unofficial figures are much higher, not to mention loss to business and property.
One has to look at the causes of this conflict which erupts from time to time, and result in loss of valuable life and destruction to private property and business in a society where there is no insurance to compensate their financial losses. One view is that these sectarian clashes are carefully planned to achieve certain aims, and one such aim is to punish those individuals who refuse to follow a given line.
Areas of Gilgit and Baltistan, which are generally referred as Northern Areas by authorities in Pakistan, are part of the State of Jammu and Kashmir. Strategically and economically these areas are very important to Pakistan and it is because of this reason they were separated from other areas of Kashmir.
These areas were termed as a ‘last colony on earth’ by one Pakistani writer, who visited these areas some years ago and was moved by the lack of progress and condition of the people. Pakistani authorities have kept these areas under tight grip by using draconian laws which were used during the British Raj.
Pakistani efforts to suppress their search for national identity and a sense of belonging have failed. These people have opposed attempts to annex these areas and merge them with Pakistan. National parties, writers and intellectuals of this area demanded that they are part of the former Princely State of Jammu and Kashmir; and as such should be given a separate political structure until the final resolution of the Kashmir dispute.
This attitude frustrates the Pakistani agencies and in order to punish these people, from time to time, they stir up communal tension leading to Shia and Sunni riots. The State of Jammu and Kashmir is home to people of different religions, and Gilgit and Baltistan also has different Muslim sects. History of Kashmir clearly demonstrates that there has been unique religious and communal harmony here, and sectarian riots are always engineered from outside to achieve certain targets.
Major Shia Sunni riots took place in 1988 when thousands of volunteers of religious groups marched from Pakistan to Gilgit. In these disturbances hundreds of local people were put to death and their property burnt and in words of Pakistani English daily:
‘“lashkars” sent in by a politician nicknamed the “devil of Hazara” entered the Shia city after travelling the Karakoram Highway which was supposed to be guarded closely by the Pakistan Army. Then it was the high tide of General Zia’s jihad in Afghanistan and the Shia — from Kurram Agency to the Northern Areas — were considered “non-cooperative”. That year, Parachinar and Gilgit were both subjected to invasions and hundreds of people were put to death. The climax of the anti-Shia campaign was reached when the all-Pakistan Shia leader Allama Arif ul Hussaini — a Turi from Kurram Agency and close companion of Imam Khomeini — was murdered in Peshawar.’ (Daily Times editorial, 10 January 2005)
The present riots have many dimensions and one single issue has not caused this havoc. In my view some of the reasons for this unrest are as follows:
1. People are not happy about Pakistan’s attempt to change demography of the area. In complete violation of the State Subject Ordinance Pakistan has settled thousands of Pakistanis in the area, and made the local people of Gilgit a minority in their own area.
2. Non local people control local administration, local business and transport etc, resulting in frustration and anger.
3. Lack of opportunities, poor health and educational facilities and widespread unemployment and poverty adds fuel to local displeasure and anger.
4. Direct control of Islamabad and lack of liberal and democratic practices, coupled with non status and absence of identity for this region is also frustrating the people.
5. Introduction of Pakistani political parties and religious rivalries have torn apart fabrics of the local social and cultural traditions.
6. Attempts to introduce new text books against the declared opposition of the people resulted in burning of schools and clashes last year, and it was still very much alive in minds of the people.
7. And to make matters worse for the authorities, nationalist parties have increased their activities, and have challenged the rule of Islamabad which has no legal and constitutional standing.
As noted earlier that activities of Kashmiri nationalists, writers and intellectuals were getting a new momentum. Their representatives managed to take part in international conferences organised by International Kashmir Alliance, where they had opportunities to meet and interact with leaders from other parts of the State, and forged new ties with their fellow countrymen. They also managed to liaise with diplomats of different countries and briefed them about the situation there.
These political activists and leaders had a number of meetings in Gilgit and Baltistan, Azad Kashmir and Pakistan which helped them to organise people on platforms of APNA (All Parties National Alliance) and GABNA (Gilgit and Baltistan National Alliance). These Alliances had support of national parties, local think tanks and NGOs. They unanimously refused to become Pakistanis, and demanded a new political structure for this area, and a role in the future talks.
Encouraged by this, local activists and local weekly and monthly magazines started publishing materials, which was disliked by the authorities, and in order to curb their activities the local administration decided to strike. One monthly magazine, Kargil International, was proscribed and copies of its July- August 2004 issue confiscated. The magazine is accused of publishing ‘subversive and seditious’ materials and ‘instigating people against President Musharaf and maligning his personality’.
The Gilgit and Baltistan Home Department ordered the Skardu Police to take action against the editor and Publisher under section 501 and 505 (b) of the Pakistan Penal Code. On November 4 the Police arrested managing editor and publisher Ghulam Shehzad Agha, who is also a President of a nationalist party, Gilgit and Baltistan United Movement. Mr Agha was released after demonstrations by the local people.
The administration also issued an arrest warrant for the magazine’s Chief Editor, Manzoor Hussain, but he managed to get a bail from Lahore High Court Rawalpindi Bench, and escaped arrest and torture.
All these activities were not appreciated by the authorities and secret agencies who wanted to maintain their hold at all costs. And to make matters worse on 2nd January 2005, nationalists from Gilgit and Baltistan attended a seminar organised by Gilgit and Baltistan Thinkers Forum, and unanimously declared that they wanted their ‘identity and freedom from the occupation of Pakistan’.
Pakistani agencies were quick to act and after the seminar Mr Wajhat Mirza, Chairman of APNA and organiser of the event, received a number of threatening phone calls. And according to information provided by nationalist groups, Engineer Shafqat Ali Inqulabi, Chairman Karakorum Students Organisation was kidnapped and taken to Head Quarters of one secret agency in Islamabad, where he was interrogated and tortured; and threatened to be killed if he did not give up his activities.
According to the information provided by Balawarstan National Front, attack on 8th January 2005, on life of Agha Zia Ud Din Rizvi, who was Imam of central Imamia Mosque Gilgit, was not sectarian in nature, but handy work of Pakistani agencies who want ‘to dilute the unity of all the sects for the freedom of their motherland’.
BNF claims that agencies want to ‘create disunity in the region by killing the important persons of all the sects, so the joint struggle of the nationalists of all the sects for their future fate could be derailed.’ And apart from this attack on a prominent Shia leader, important figures of other sects have been killed in this violence in order to create a rift among the people of this area. A high ranking Sunni official Dr. Sher wali, Director of Health was killed; and a high ranking Ismhaili official Mr. Taighon Nabi, Divisional Forest Officer, was also murdered for the same reason.
Even if one considers BNF statement as less credible because they are a party to this dispute, but a notable Pakistani English Daily Pakistan Times also looks at chain of events which started on December 27, 2004, by the killing of two workers of the Agha Khan Health Services Office in Chitral. Also four vehicles belonging to this charity were burnt down.
It was later learnt that attackers were members of a religious group Harkatul Mujahideen; and the paper in its editorial on 29 December 2004 noted: ‘This kind of violence has happened in the area before but has gained momentum after the MMA campaign against the Aga Khan Foundation in the rest of the country. In the adjacent Northern Areas (Gilgit) the Agha Khan charity institutions have come under attack regularly in the past years after being targeted by the radical religious elements waging jihad in Kashmir.’
All sections of the Pakistani and Kashmiri communities have strongly condemned this conspiracy to start sectarian riots in these areas. MQM Chief Altaf Hussain said ‘no religion allowed the killing of followers of other religion and adhering to a school of thought was a matter of personal faith. Therefore those involved in the killing of innocent people on the basis of faith or sect were not only an enemy of the religion but also of humanity. He appealed to the people belonging to all schools of thought to keep their emotions under control and foiled the conspiracies of vested interests to trigger sectarian riots.

Additional Secretary General Pakistan Muslim League (PML) Senator Nisar Memon said, 'These terrorists are enemies of Pakistan, this kind of cowardly attacks do not affect us but strengthen our resolve to fight the terror in all its forms and manifestations from Pakistan.'

It is imperative that government of Pakistan takes appropriate measures to control the situation and ensure that people with vested interest DO NOT have their way in Gilgit and Baltistan; and genuine demands of the people are met without delay. If activities and designs of the people with vested interest are not checked then there is danger that the people will be forced to think of alternative measures.

Writer is a Chairman of Diplomatic Committee of JKLF and author of many books and booklets. Also he is a Director Institute of Kashmir Affairs. Email:

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