For about three-and-a-half decades, there has been a cycle of people’s protests, demands and sectarian riots in Gilgit-Baltistan. Sectarian riots are very brazenly set off to break people’s united demands for human rights.
They demand right to food, water to drink, their land and property, electricity, their natural wealth and above all, just governance. These demands were building up since the end of last year and were stepped up this year. The current reports of Shia-sunni tension in parts of Gilgit-Baltistan are not surprising for those who keep a watch on this part of occupied Kashmir.
The present tension was clearly staged managed. An FIR registered for blasphemy against a Shia Imam Agha Baqir-Al-Hussaini of Skardu (a Shia majority district) was clearly meant to create Shia-Sunni tensions. Shias protested against the FIR. On the other hand, the people in Sunni majority Diamar district went on a protest to demand his arrest and punishment for his alleged blasphemous remarks. Shias took out counter rallies against the FIR.
As a result of Shia-Sunni tensions, schools were closed. Foreign tourists were stranded when the Government closed the Karakoram highway.
According to Shias in Skardu, the blasphemy allegation was made because Imam Baqir had mobilized the support of Shias, Sunnis and others to start work on water project for the good of everybody – Shias, Shunnis and others in the area. But the Gilgit-Baltistan administration which receives huge funds for such projects, didn’t like it. It started a campaign against Imam Baqir. And that was that.
The irony in Gilgit-Baltistan is that it is rich in water resources but people have very little drinking water. It is like Samuel Coleridge’s “water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink.” Lack of drinking water is one of the major causes of protests. People say the Gilgit-Baltistan government can solve this problem by constructing dams. But since this government is made up of politicians of Pakistan-based political parties, it is mainly concerned about Pakistan’s interests here. Ensuring drinking water to the local population is not its priority knowingly or unknowingly. Imam Baqir tried to sabotage Pakistan’s game of keeping Shias and Sunnis at war so that they do not challenge Pakistan’s illegal occupation of their land. Shias and their sect Ismailis formed the majority of Northern areas (now Gilgit-Baltistan) population. Before 1947, when Gilgit was made under British control, the population was treated as non-humans without any civil and human rights but also without any distinction between Shias and Sunnis. After Pakistan illegally captured Northern areas when the British left, it treated the locals the same way- no civil and human rights. But locals wanted these rights plus constitutional identity.
Shias and Sunnis unitedly demanded these rights from the cussed Pakistani government. They staged daily rallies which got publicity in Pakistan and even abroad including India. When Gen Zia ul Haq captured power in Pakistan in July 1977, he decided to put an end to Shia-Sunni joint rallies by dividing them and drastically change the demographic profile of the Northern areas.
Gen Zia put this diabolical scheme to practice in May 1988 when Shia-Sunni agitations were gaining momentum. He sent thousands of armed Sunni tribesmen to invade Northern Areas to kill and plunder fields. Zia’s scheme succeeded in as much as they forgot their demands and became thirsty of each other’s blood. Anti-Shia Sipah-e-Sahaba and pro-Shia Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Fiqh Jafaria became active with weapons received allegedly from Iran and Saudi Arabia. In 1992, there was an eight-day Shia-Sunni bloodbath in Gilgit when Sunni from Chilas and Kohistan descended here reacting to rumors that Shias were raping Sunni women. The military allowed the mayhem to continue for eight days. Gen Zia split Shia and Sunnis to thirst after each other’s blood and changed the demographic profile, but Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s reforms in 1974 which allowed party-based elections proved more damaging. As a result of these reforms, all Pakistani parties and Islamic groups have captured political power in Gilgit-Baltistan, reducing locals to non-entities. This is causing much resentment among both Shias and Sunnis who have become helpless and dependent. But the government does not worry; it has an easy formula – divide “n” misrule.