Gilgit-Baltistan: Hidden Tremors
1 November 2005
South Asia Intelligence Review
New Delhi: In the shadow of the great and natural disaster that has struck Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) and parts of the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), another tragedy, in this case, fashioned by men, is being played out in the hidden Gilgit-Baltistan region (Northern Areas). Largely unnoticed, Gilgit has been under curfew since October 13, 2005, after a spate of killings that the administration is seeking to project as sectarian strife. Significantly, however, a majority of those killed have been demonstrators who have fallen to the bullets of the state's paramilitary force, the Pakistan Rangers, and sources in Gilgit claim that, contrary to the official position, there is no tension between local Shias and Sunnis, but rather a deliberate effort from the outside, part of a long-drawn campaign, to create mischief in the region. On October 11, 2005, hired Sunni gunmen opened fire on a group of Shias in Basen, 58 kilometres from Gilgit Town on the Ghezer road, killing two and wounding others. Two of the gunmen escaped, but a third was injured and thereafter arrested by the local police, and taken to the District Hospital, Gilgit. Some documents recovered from his possession indicated that he came from Kohistan in the NWFP. Shortly thereafter, however, the Pakistani Rangers, on orders from the 'highest quarters', forcibly removed the perpetrator from the hospital, apparently to avoid his identification and interrogation by the local police, which, sources in Gilgit indicate, would have exposed a larger conspiracy. At this stage, a crowd gathered and protests started, with people insisting that the culprit should not be taken away by the Rangers before the local police had interrogated them. The Pakistan Rangers resorted to strong arm tactics to disperse the protestors, and also kidnapped one of the student protestors, 15-year old Maqsood Hussain. The next day, October 12, his body was recovered, sparking widespread outrage in the town. On October 13, Maqsood Hussain's fellow students and the townspeople organised a demonstration to protest his death in the Rangers' custody. The demonstration was peaceful, but, after the protestors began to disperse, the Rangers opened fire, killing seven persons, including three women. The dead also included a former Chairman of the Municipal Committee, Gilgit, who was allegedly killed in his house. The death toll subsequently rose to twelve, after another five bodies were found in different parts of the city - including those of two Rangers. In a Press Release of October 14, 2005, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) noted that the Rangers had opened fire 'after the protesters had dispersed and were returning home', and observed that the shooting appeared to follow 'a distinct pattern of brutality and violence towards citizens'. In a purported bid to control the situation, the authorities arrested religious leaders of both the Shia and Sunni sect, though no clashes between the communities had been reported. The arrested leaders included, among Shias, Agha Rahat Al-Husaini, Shaikh Mirza Ali, Shaikh Nayyar Abbas, former Northern Areas Legislative Council (NALC) Member, Deedar Ali; and among the Sunnis, Maulana Qazi Nisar Ahmed, Chief of the Tanzeem Ahle Sunnat; Maulana Hussain Ahmad, Maulana Khalil Ahmad and NALC member Himayatullah Khan. The 'pattern of brutality and violence' has been clearly in evidence over the past year, and according to various estimates, close to a hundred persons have been killed in Gilgit-Baltistan over the past year (data compiled by the Institute for Conflict Management for year 2005, 81 persons had been killed till October 28) overwhelmingly in clashes with state Forces, but also in terrorist attacks engineered by 'outsiders', as well as retaliatory attacks by local forces. Earlier, on September 10, 2005, Bilal Hussain of Sonikot Village, Gilgit, a teacher at the Gilgit High School No. 2, had been abducted in Gilgit, near Hotel Jamal, allegedly by officials of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). No charges have been brought against Bilal Hussain, nor has the Government declared his detention. He has not, however, been heard of since his abduction. Unconfirmed reports suggest that there are indications of further trouble brewing in the region, with Shia youth congregating in Danyore on the outskirts of Gilgit, awaiting instructions from their spiritual leaders to march in protest on Gilgit. There are also reports of Sunnis having gathered in Jaglote and Chilas, demanding the release of their detained leaders. Shia women also blocked the Karakoram Highway at several places to protest the presence of the Rangers in Gilgit. The women wanted regular soldiers to replace the paramilitary Rangers, accusing the latter of bias and abuse of their sweeping powers. Similarly, Shia agitators from the Hunza and Nagar Valleys of Gilgit District issued an 'ultimatum', on October 20, demanding that the Northern Areas administration to curb the powers of the Rangers. Some 25,000 Shia demonstrators said they would continue their protests until the powers of the Rangers were curtailed and they were replaced by another neutral and impartial force. The protestors also demanded that, if the Northern Areas Deputy Chief Executive, the NALC Speaker, and other members of the NALC were powerless, they should resign. In Islamabad, the Shia Student Action Committed staged a demonstration at Aabpara Chowk on October 19, 2005, to protest against the Government's actions in Gilgit-Baltistan, and to demand the release of arrested persons. The demonstrators displayed pictures of the slain Shia leader from the region, Agha Ziauddin Rizvi, and of his successor, Agha Syed Rahat Hussain al Hussaini, who is under detention. Earlier, on October 17, leading Shia clerics of various seminaries and organisations had threatened the Government with a nationwide campaign of agitation if Rangers were not removed from Gilgit and action is not taken against those who killed civilians. Addressing a press conference at the Lahore Press Club, representatives of the Mujma-e-Ahle Bait, Jamiatul Muntazir, Imamia Students Organisation, Imamia Organisation, Imamia Alliance, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, and other organisations, blamed government agencies for incidents of sectarian violence in the Gilgit. Significantly, 41 of the persons who have been detained (at the barracks built for the Northern Areas Scouts in Sakwar) after the October 11 clashes, went on a hunger strike against maltreatment and inadequate facilities in the barracks. The detainees, drawn from both the sects, jointly displayed handwritten placards outside their cells with the slogan, 'Sunni-Shia Ittehad (Unity) for hunger strike'. Protests have now become a continuous process, on a near-daily basis, in the region, and threaten to snowball into a wider movement. However, given the past record, these may well attract extreme repression from state agencies. Crucially, a jirga, formed on September 21, 2005, and headed by the NALC Speaker, Malik Muhammad Miskeen, had drafted an agreement to be signed by top local Sunni and Shia leaders, and top Shia cleric, Agha Rahat al Hussaini (now detained) had approved the draft agreement. The Sunni leader, Maulana Qazi Nisar, who was travelling, was to sign the agreement on his return to Gilgit, but was thwarted by the current spate of violence. The Pakistan Rangers from Punjab were deployed in Gilgit after disturbances in the wake of the assassination of Shia leader Agha Ziauddin, on January 8, 2005, to add to the Frontier Constabulary that was already deployed in the area. A bulk of Northern Light Infantry (NLI) units, composed largely of locals (though officered by 'outsiders', mainly Punjabis), had been moved out of the region and deployed in Punjab and Waziristan. Only four NLI battalions out of 15 remain in Gilgit-Baltistan. The Pakistani administration has long been involved in a campaign that seeks to alter the demographic profile of the region, and to reduce the local Shia and Ismaili populations to a minority in Gilgit-Baltistan. In the Gilgit and Skardu areas, large tracts of land have been allotted to non-locals, violating the United Nations Commission for India and Pakistan (UNCIP) resolutions and the Jammu and Kashmir State Subject Rule, and outsiders have also purchased large tracts of land. One unofficial estimate suggest that over 30,000 Gilgit residents have fled the city and its suburbs since 2000, in the wake of orchestrated incidents of sectarian strife, followed by discriminatory and repressive action by the state Forces. Gilgit-Baltistan remains the poorest and most backward area in Pakistan, and is acutely lacking in education and infrastructure, with no more than a negligible presence of daily newspapers, radio or TV stations. The Pakistani establishment has long supported an anti-Shia programme in this region. A local insurrection broke out in Gilgit in May 1988 and in order to suppress the rebellion, the Special Services Group of the Pakistani Army based in Khapalu was dispatched. Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, then a young Brigadier, was in charge of the operations, in which he used Sunni tribal irregulars to execute a brutal pogrom against the locals. Truckloads of Sunni tribals were sent in from the Afghan border to the region, and they indulged in anti-Shia brutalities unprecedented in Pakistan's history. After eight days of sustained violence, the Army 'stepped in' to restore peace. Later on, the Shia population was further alarmed when large numbers of Sunnis were brought in from Punjab and the NWFP to settle in Gilgit. The anti- Shia pogrom resurfaced in 1993, when sectarian riots started again in Gilgit, leading to the death of 20 Shias. Year 2003 again saw trouble brewing in the Northern Areas over the Islamic textbooks that the Pakistan Ministry of Education has issued as part of the curriculum for the schools in the region. According to Shia community leaders, the textbooks promote Sunni thought and values and are an attempt to promote sectarian hatred between the two sects. Almost everyday, hundreds of primary and secondary school students boycott classes and stage protest rallies in Gilgit. Protests and violence have been simmering in the region since. But the troubles of Gilgit-Baltistan, and the repeated cycles of state repression, have remained concealed behind an iron veil that has been pulled across the region by Islamabad, reinforced by international indifference to, and ignorance of, the plight of the people. In a significant break from the past, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs did express concern over the 'severe repressive measures being taken against legitimate protests and demonstrations', in the aftermath of the October 11-13 violence. Nevertheless, despite a long history of protests, Gilgit-Baltistan remains a neglected centre of inequity. As Abdul Hamid Khan, Chairman, Balawaristan National Front (BNF), expresses it, 'International attention is focussed only on those political concerns that appear in the international media. Unfortunately, the international Press, particularly Western Press, is not bothered with a peaceful struggle. Only when a struggle turns into an armed struggle does it attract media attention. The people of Balawaristan (Pakistan Occupied Gilgit Baltistan) believe in peaceful political struggle, and that unfortunately does not attract the attention of the world community.'