The Problems Of The Northern Areas

31 January 2001

The Northern Areas are a part of the undivided state of Jammu & Kashmir, which was annexed by Pakistan in 1947-48 during the war with India. These mountainous areas were generally known as Gilgit and Baltistan. The people here are mostly Shia Muslims and have traditionally maintained their way of life distinct from the people of the Kashmir Valley. After Pakistan annexed these areas, it brought the various principalities in this region under one federally administered territory called the Northern Areas. Unfortunately, this area became more of a Pakistani colony than anything else. It was administered directly by Islamabad and even basic political and civil rights were not conferred on the local populace. The situation has remained unchanged for more than 50 years and it is only now that some groups have begun to protest. Islamabad, which has consistently accused India of suppressing Kashmiris in the Indian part of Kashmir, has been embarrassed by the voices of protest from the Northern Areas and has responded by cracking down on fledgeling political organisations in that area.


Indus River

For over half a century, time has stood still in the Northern Areas owing to total neglect by successive regimes in Islamabad. Rumblings of revolt by the suffering and discriminated people are felt all over the Karakoram mountains. For almost five decades, the area has been under virtual Martial Law, with the rights of people suppressed and their needs neglected. Under the archaic Frontier Crime Regulations (FCR) framed by the British during the colonial days and which continues to be in force, every resident of the area has to report to the local police station once a month and all movements from one village to another have to be reported to the police station. In the Northern Areas, basic facilities, such as electricity, drinking water and elementary health care are non-existent. As a result, a strong Free Balwaristan Movement is taking shape in Gilgit, Astor, Skardu, Hanza, Hazara, Chitral, Nagar, and adjoining areas. Remoteness and neglect, with suffering and deliberate increased physical isolation has become the hallmark of this area.

For administrative convenience the Northern Areas have been divided into five districts:
1. Gilgit District
2. Skardu District
3. Gazar District
4. Dayamar district
5. Ganchhi district

These five districts encompass an area of about 33,600 square kilometres with a population of 1.2 million. Gilgit and Skardu districts are more populous and have a clear majority of Shias. Dayamar has Ahle-Sunnats and Wahabis in a majority. Aghakhanis and Ismailis dominate in Gazar and Noorbuxies have a majority in district Ganchhi. All these districts are far less populous than Gilgit. Prior to 1846, all these areas were autonomous. The Maharaja of kashmir captured these areas after 1846. Pakistan with the help of some tribals annexed these areas in 1947.

Geographical Importance

The Northern Areas are strategically very important. To the north is China, with Tadjikistan towards the north-west, Afghanistan in the west and Pakistan occupied Kashmir in the east. In the past, Russia and Great Britain competed to gain control of these areas. Now this area is completely under the control of Pakistan although India still keeps an eye on these areas. The United States of America too is getting interested in the area. The Americans could be interested to monitor and block this route for the Chinese. There are reports of American agents working in these areas under the garb of research scholars. Pakistan, China and Kazakhstan have recently entered into an agreement to increase trade through the Karakoram highway.

Condition of Shias in the Northern region

After the formation of Pakistan in 1947, a reign of terror was let loose on the Shias. A political agent was appointed by the Pakistani government for the development of this region and he laid the foundations for Sunni hatred against Shias. The control of a mosque in Gilgit, which was common for both the Shia and the Sunni communities, was handed over to the Sunnis. Tourist resorts in the region were opened up for the rehabilitation of migrant Sunnis and the Sunnis were also given ownership of the forests in the region, which were earlier the preserve of the Shia. Following the construction of the Karakoram highway connecting Pakistan to China, the Wahabi Maulvi from the bordering areas have made existing conditions worse. They objected to Imam Hussain taking out processions. In 1980 the Aashora processions of the Shia was fired at from the very mosque which had earlier been common to both Shia and Sunni Muslims. Eighteen Shias were injured, yet the rulers did nothing to stop the miscreants. Moreover, prior to this incident, the police attacked Imam Hussain's Chehlum procession although it passed only through Shia areas.

Groupism in 1988

In May 1988, during the rule of general Zia-ul Haq, there were many attacks on the Shia population. Many villages were destroyed, thousands were forced to flee and live like refugees in Gilgit. Dozens of mosques and imambaras were set ablaze and about 100 Shia persons were killed. Yet, the government of Pakistan did nothing. This encouraged the anti Shia elements and subsequently many more Shias were ruthlessly murdered. On several occasions, the culprits were set free despite a number of witnesses. There were many reports of incidents of assassination of Shias and ransacking of their houses. The discrimination of the Shias from hospitals to the courts has become common. The political front is also no exception. Over 80 percent of the population of Gilgit and Baltistan (Shias) boycotted the illegal northern area council elections of November 1991 because the minister for the Northern Areas, Sardar Khan wanted the elections to be held on communal lines.

Political Negligence

The people of the Northern Areas have been consistently deprived of all constitutional rights despite the fact that Pakistan talks and preaches about constitutional rights all over the world. Pakistan's intentions are clear. If it grants constitutional rights, then the Shias will go to assemblies in large numbers and fight for their rights there. The Shias of these areas are doing their duty defending Pakistan's borders but cannot send its representatives to the assemblies, whereas criminals and anti-national elements from different areas have full right to send their representatives to the assemblies. Ironically, Pakistan is talking about right of self-determination in Indian Kashmir but does not respect the same demand of its people in the northern areas. The Shias are not only asking for their rights but also of the entire population of these areas.

Economic Backwardness of the Shias

The economic condition of Shias in the Northern Areas as compared to the Ismailis or Wahabis is pathetic The Ismailis have a programme under the Agha Khan Foundation for their economic development. The Shias have nothing of the sort. Besides, the Pakistani administration has launched a ruthless programme to turn the Shias into a minority in the Northern Areas. The joint action by the administration and the anti-Shia elements are forcing Shias away from their traditional areas. The 1993 attack on Shias was in keeping with this sinister plan. In Gilgit and Skardu, both strategically important and predominantly Shia areas, large areas of land are being allotted to non-Shias. Because of better economic conditions of the non-Shias, they are purchasing a lot of land and are settling down in Gilgit and Skardu. In contrast, Shias are victims of heavy taxation and are compelled to sell their lands. The Shia pockets of Skardu and Gilgit are witnessing an increase in the population of non-Shias. The old population ratio of 1:4 (non-Shias to Shias) has now changed to 3:4 (non-Shias to Shias). If this process continues, the non-Shias will soon become a majority forcing out the original inhabitants of this land. In this connection, attention may here be drawn to abrogation of the state subject law by the Pakistani government. Under this law, non-Shias not belonging to the Northern Areas could never purchase land. The policy of keeping the Northern Area void of constitutional rights will continue until the Shias are no longer in a majority.

The Northern Area has no university and no professional colleges. It has only 12 high schools and two regional colleges with no post graduate facilities. Lack of education has practically closed all avenues of government jobs, thus negating their changes for upliftment. There are no daily newspapers and no radio or TV stations. The local people draw their subsistence from tourism and by joining the Northern Light Infantry, recruitment in which has now been reduced considerably. Government service is another means of livelihood, but the natives who manage to join service are paid 25 per cent less than non-native entries from the Punjab province. Funds earmarked for developmental schemes often lapse. The mainstay of the economy in this area is essentially agriculture, but like every feudal society, most of the land is held by a privileged few and the rest continue to live in sub-human conditions.

Due to a very low literacy level, extreme poverty and no organised political activity, the Ulema has acquired a strong hold over the people. In October 1994 the election procedure was changed along with the grant of status of provincial legislators to the Northern Area Council members and of ministers to Advisors. However, in the absence of real executive and legislative powers, which continues to be exercised from Islamabad the public remained unsatisfied.

The growing alienation of the people of the Northern Areas on the one hand has led to a demand from the Shia majority for a separate Karakoram Province with real executive and legislative powers and on the other hand by the Sunni minority for a merger of the Northern Areas with POK, a demand which has been upheld by the POK judiciary. However, an abyss already exists between the Shias and Sunnis, not only in Pakistan, but in the rest of the Muslim world too. Pakistan's political and religious collusion with Pan-Arab countries follows an anti-Iran and anti-Shia line. The Shias of POK are thus being deliberately discriminated against and denied their due share of funds for development. The Pakistan government, entangled in a web of its own inconsistencies fears the creation of a separate full-fledged Shia majority province, which could have serious repercussions on Shia-Sunni relations in the rest of the country. The Shia-Sunni relations have claimed over 200 Shia lives in the ongoing sectarian violence in the Northern Areas.

Anti Shia Religious and Cultural Activities

The Wahabis and Ahle Sunnata are very active in cultural and religious fields in order to subvert loyalty of the poor pro-Shia population in far flung areas of the Northern Areas. They distribute medicines and warm clothes in winter months to win them over. Poor children are admitted into their educational institutions and get subverted. The situation is worse in Baltistan where the minority of Noorbuxies is changing their loyalty towards Wahabis and nothing is being done to bring them towards the Shia fold. According to the details given in a Journal by the Siddiqui Trust, 14 religious schools and 10 mosques were constructed in the Ismaili majority areas by 1985 and an equal number of school and mosques are under construction.

Karakoram Highway, Unsafe for Shias

The Karakoram Highway, by and large, passes through Wahabi dominated areas. Shia-Sunni conflicts have been a recurring feature in this area since 1970. The current situation is that armed persons stop buses coming from Rawalpindi and enquire about Shia presence on the bus. The Shias are then looted and killed on the spot. The Government say it is helpless.

Discrimination in Jobs

In the northern areas, Wahabis have dominated government jobs since the beginning, resulting in ill-will and hatred towards Shias in different departments. Petitions have been handed to the government regarding the ill treatment of Shias yet no attention has been paid. After the boycott of elections by Shias, all developmental projects have been given to Wahabi dominated areas. Out of 87 important government posts, 73 are controlled by Wahabis, 9 by Shias and 5 by Afghans. The Shia officers are transferred to far off places, and if this does not satisfy the anti Shia lobby, they are dismissed. The treatment meted out the Shia officers in the Health Department is disgusting.

Involvement of Shia Youth in False Litigation in Gilgit
1. Shaheed Latif Hussain: false charge of throwing a grenade on the Mosque of opponents. Yet, there are no charges against the Wahabis who fired from their Mosque on the Muharram Procession where 18 Shia were injured
2. False Involvement of Shia youth in a rest house and Chinar Bagh bomb case
3. Torture of Shia youths in 1990 in connection to an alleged attack on Mr. Qyum
4. Arrest and torture of several Shia youths in connection with Cantt area firing.
5. Two persons from Chhugarh were killed in a family dispute and the blame was put on a Shia youth.
6. The police torture of two Shia Youths in an alleged charge of the murder of Hanif in 1991. The youths have still not been returned to their homes.
7. In the Idgah bomb case of April 14, 1991, Shia youths were tortured by Police, nine of them sent to jail and five are missing
8. On May 31, 1992 in the case of a murder of a "bad element" a number of Shia youths were involved
9. More than a dozen Shia youths, aged persons were arrested and tortured by the Police in the murder case of four non Shias in Gilgit in September 1994, although, the night before, dead bodies of 5 Shias were covered who had been beaten to death mercilessly

Political Situation

The people of Northern Areas have even petitioned UN Secretary General Mr Kofi Annan against Pakistan's sinister move to change the demographic character of the area from a sizeable Shia population, to Pathans brought in from the North West Frontier Province. By so doing Islamabad is trying to overwhelm the Shia population, which has always been suspicious of Pakistan. The entire region is governed by an authoritarian Northern Areas Council, which is elected through a system akin to the policies of Gen Ayub Khan. This council is ruled directly from Islamabad by the Minister of State for Kashmir and Northern Areas (Pak) Affairs with the help of six officers, all non-natives, deputed from outside, which includes the Judicial Commissioner against whose judgements there is no right to appeal. Residents are given no representation in government services, which are the monopoly of the Punjabis and Pathans.

Frustration arising from unemployment and discrimination is acting as catalyst for people to come out on the streets. As the region has been kept outside the jurisdiction of courts, the people receive no redress. An indifferent bureaucracy, and political leadership, and an oppressive Army, have all put the Northern Areas on a turbulent course, which may not be possible to change.