Suppressed Shias Raise Banner Of Revolt
24 June 2004
The Daily Excelsior
Jammu: Half a century of serf-like existence is producing a rebellious mood among Shias in the Northern Areas of Pakistan occupied Kashmir. Until 16 years ago they fought a bitter but losing battle for their right of self-determination usurped by Pakistan in 1949. They lost this battle because Gen Zia - ul-Haq very successfully divided the local population on sectarian lines and unleashed a campaign, which was virtually aimed at Shia cleansing in Northern Areas. In the last two years of Zia's rule, hundreds of people, mostly Shias, were killed when thousands of heavily armed Sunni tribesmen from outside Northern Areas invaded here. During Zia's rule, Shias in Northern Areas were fighting for their civil and democratic rights. Today, when another Army man is ruling Pakistan, they are fighting not for any constitutional rights but for the protection of their faith. The Islamic textbooks, taught in the schools of Northern Areas, are without a mention of the Shia school thought. For the past about four years, Shia students had been demanding correction of this anomaly - but to no avail. This year the students and the people of Gilgit, the central city of Northern Areas, decided to take their fight to the streets. In may, more than 2000 students went on a three-day hunger strike in Gilgit to protect the Government's indifference to their demand to withdraw the controversial syllabus. Shia leaders expressed their solidarity with the students. Thousands of Shias blocked roads bringing business and traffic to a halt. Shia leader Agha Ziauddin Rizvi announced that the protest could take an uglier turn if students' demands were not accepted. The Northern Area Administration sought the Army's help while the protestors went on the rampage in defiance of the curfew. They targeted Frontier Constabulary Troops, Government buildings, including Radio Pakistan building, vehicles and police stations. In Hunza they attacked a motel and set on fire the office of Assistant Commissioner and a police station. Thousands of protestors from different parts of Northern Areas tried to converge on Gilgit, the nerve center of the present agitations. However, the police foiled their attempt. Among other things, these protests have badly affected the tourist season and Pakistan's trade through Karakoram Highway. Until the current revolt, nobody ever thought that the Shias of Northern Areas could stand up to the might of the Pakistani security forces to protect their religious identity. But it is not just the Islamic text book issue which has rubbed them on the wrong side, it is the whole history of their deprivation and presentation that seems to be brutalising them. In Karachi, Shias are businessmen while in Southern Punjab they landowners. But in Northern Areas they are a poor lot. The main reason for this is that although Pakistan levies its taxes on the local population and exploits its natural wealth, it is not willing to let them have their own Government. The Northern Areas Council is the highest elected body here, but it has no power, no speaker and leader of the House. The controversial Pakistan's Minister for Kashmir Affairs is the Chief Executive through whom Pakistani laws are extended to the Northern Areas. In other words, the local people cannot choose what laws should govern them. The people of Northern Areas have been living in virtual serfdom since April 28, 1949, when the pro-Pakistan Muslim Conference handed over the administration of these areas to the Government of Pakistan. It ruled it with a highly inhuman and uncivilised set of rules known as Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR). These rules were framed by the British rulers who were not willing to accept the tribals of North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and the people of Gilgit-Baltistan region as human beings. They were not allowed to indulge in political activities. Punishments given to them were inhuman. Pakistan treated the people of Northern Areas with the same FCR until Mr Zulfikar Bhutto abolished it in 1974. (But FCR is still operative in the tribal areas of NWFP). Gen Zia followed a policy of encouraging Sunni outsiders to settle down in Northern Areas so as to cut Shias to size. The result of this policy was increasing unemployment among local Shias and sectarian tension. The flourishing (under Zia) Pakistan's' sectarian militant organisations extended their activities to Northern Areas. There were also reports of Saudi and Iranian support to Sunni and Shia militants, respectively. In the 56 years, Gilgit and Baltistan remain almost as poor and backward as the British left them. Roads are few and dilapidated. There are hardly any hospitals. In schools, children are taught to venerate Pakistani heroes as their own. Teaching of history of Kashmir is banned. When students graduate, there are no jobs for them because there are no industries or even factories. There are hundreds of doctors, engineers and graduates who have no jobs. As a result, increasing number of educated youths is taking to crimes like dacoity and drugs. Another dimension of unemployment, as revealed by the Chairman of the Gilgit-based Balwaristan National Front Abdul Hamid Khan, was that the ISI had been picking up such educated unemployed to send them to Kashmir for militant activities without telling their parents. This was revealed in a letter he sent to the United Nations and some countries in 1997. When parents approached police stations, they were told no complaints could be lodged against Pakistan's intelligence agencies. In his book 'Kaun Azad, Kaun Ghulam' Arif Shahid writes that many unemployed MAs and BAs in Northern Areas had committed suicide. Others ended up as dishwashers in the hotels of Karachi and Punjab. The current widespread violent agitations have to be seen against this State of frustration among young people. What is more frustrating for them is that no national party in Pakistan is willing to support the Shia students' point of view on Islamic textbooks. Recently Jamaat-e-Islami held a 'Wehdat-i-Kashmir Conference' in Gilgit. It passed many resolutions but none to address the Shia students' grievance. Funnily, it blamed the deprivations of the people of Northern Areas on delay in the solution of the Kashmir problem by India.