Gilgit's Sectarian Conundrum
30 October 2005
Karachi: Gilgit has witnessed some of the worst sectarian violence in the country in the last 18 months, which was first triggered by clashes that ensued from a controversy over textbook material in May 2004. So far, around 95 people have died despite the fact that the controversy was amicably settled in March this year. Some respite from the violence was seen during the three different curfews imposed in the city - June 2004 and January and October this year. But curfews can only be a temporary solution to a longstanding problem. The sectarian groups began to strengthen their rank and file in the political vacuum that emerged after 1979 when both Iran and Afghanistan experienced revolutions. The uprising in Kashmir in 1988 tended to provide an identity to these sectarian groups which camouflaged their objectives in struggles that were taking place outside their territory. The sectarian game was started to supplant each other. There seems to be no remedy in sight for the politics of sectarianism, as successive governments have shown a lack of both political will and sensibility to address the causes of the menace nor have they come up with viable solutions. Faced with sectarian violence that has spun out of control, the military government has branded it terrorism. However, some analysts argue that in the context of the Northern Areas it has reinforced the geo-strategic preferences of the military vis-a- vis its Kashmir policy - which is why the government has not taken any serious steps to tackle the problem. In the absence of political parties, the struggle by each sect to dominate every aspect of life has transformed the once peaceful city of Gilgit into a sectarian cauldron. Both the Sunnis and the Shias are fully armed, and conflict between them has led to the death of over 90 people so far, but nobody had been arrested, because both communities are well protected, and the government lacks the will to apprehend the culprits. As a result of the violence, people are feeling increasingly insecure and vulnerable; some even contemplate migrating. Recently, the administration mustered some courage and detained the top leadership of both sects, booking five clerics and leaders under the anti-terrorism act. But this may not provide any succour to the beleaguered masses, who are victims of other injustices like poverty and unemployment. Any attempt at reconciliation that does not take into account true justice will not appease those who have lost their relatives and properties in the violence since 1988. With the exception of few prominent people, the victims of sectarian killings mainly comprise drivers, cleaners, labourers, clerks and watchmen. The bereaved families' rehabilitation has also not been given any importance. A tripartite system of government exists in the region comprising the force commander of northern areas, the chief secretary and the Northern Areas Legislative Council (NALC). The former two enjoy immense powers while the NALC is unable to play any role in resolving the localized crises. The powerlessness of NALC is also a source of irritation and unrest since powers are concentrated in the hands of the chief executive who is an unelected person based in Islamabad. Over Rs1.5million are being spent daily on the maintenance of the forces, but the situation remains fluid. Tribal feuds, personal enmities and business rivalries are being depicted as sectarian killings due to the absence of an effective investigation system. Solutions can be found by setting up an independent judicial commission headed by a Supreme Court judge to investigate the killings in this area since 1988. The administrative and financial empowerment of the NALC should also be allowed so that it can make decisions about the region, but it should be headed by a locally elected chief executive. It is equally important to grant compensation to those who have lost lives and property in the last 18 months.