Sectarian differences were politicised in Gilgit-Baltistan for the first time in the election of the erstwhile Northern Areas Council in 1988. The election in 1988 in the constituency of Gilgit-1 was contested between Wajahat Hassan Khan and Sunbul Shah. The former was a Shia and son of Colonel Mirza Hassan Khan – the hero of the war for the independence of Gilgit – while the latter was a Sunni of Kashmiri origin. Wajahat drew his legitimacy from being Colonel Mirza’s scion.
Gradually, the election campaign took on a religious colour. Owing to the deft manipulation of sectarianism for political purposes, religious parties become more prominent in the elected bodies.
After the opening of the Karakoram Highway (KKH), the economy in Gilgit and the rest of the region underwent a drastic transformation. Gilgit used to be an idyllic small town with lush green fields, orchards and glacier-fed brooks and channels. These disappeared within the short span of 15 years once the small town of Gilgit transformed into big city. Andreas Dittmann has documented the dynamics of this change in his paper titled ‘The Bazaars of Gilgit: Ethnic and Economic Determinants of Centrality’.
With urbanisation, kinship-based relations weakened and modern structures were introduced. When sectarian violence raised its ugly head for the first time in Gilgit in the 1980s, there was no basis of kinship that could enable people with same racial stock and linguistic group to empathise with each other. To aggravate the situation, the new version of religion tended to demonise the ‘other’.
Ultimately, it led to the incessant sectarian strife that destroyed the economy, polarised the administration and divided settlements and educational institutions on sectarian lines. Now sectarianism has seeped into everyday life and activities in Gilgit. This is evident from the fact that Gilgit now has no-go areas for both Sunnis and Shias. The situation gave rise to separate transport facilities, schools, hospitals and offices that are based on sectarian lines.
Currently, business in Gilgit is factually divided on sectarian lines. Even new economic opportunities and initiatives cannot save themselves from sectarianism. For example, major cellular services in Pakistan launched their businesses in 2006. Unlike traditional businesses, the cellular companies provide a lucrative business and yield profits in the short term.
In order to gain the franchises of these cellular companies, there is a covert struggle between people from different sects. Traditionally, businesses in Gilgit Bazaar were run by people from different religious denominations and racial and linguistic groups. Now even the bazaar has been turned into exclusive zones. This has robbed the businessmen of a diverse clientele.
The tourism industry is the backbone of the economy in Gilgit-Baltistan. The unabated violence in the region has badly affected tourism. In 2012, Gilgit-Baltistan witnessed the killing of passengers along the KKH. The ensuing violence spread to different parts of the region.
Spring in Gilgit-Baltistan attracts thousands of tourists from Japan to enjoy the season of the cherry blossom. Owing to the violent events in Hunza, Nagar, Gilgit, Chilas and Skardu, hundreds of foreign tourists have been stranded in these areas in 2016. They were later evacuated by Pakistan Air Force (PAF) in C-130 planes. This also caused the cancellation of hundreds of trekking and expedition tours to the region. Though nature offers mesmerising sceneries to the tourists, its beauty is marred by sectarian violence.
Education is also the worst affected by sectarian violence in Gilgit. Historically, schools have played an important role in providing a common space for interaction between students from diverse regional, religious, linguistic and ethnic backgrounds. They helped to create cross-sectarian solidarities among students and provided social cohesion. But in 1990, Government High School No 1 witnessed clashes between students of two religious groups. Gradually, sectarianism spread to other educational institutions as well.
The 1990s witnessed the mushrooming of schools run by faith-based organisations. Today, even government schools in a locality that belongs to a particular sect are virtually a no-go area for the students of the opposing sect. Private schools feed themselves on the catchment area of their respective sects. In the case of Gilgit-Baltistan, the corruption of the social mind precedes the degeneration of society.
A major setback in the education sector involved the brief closure of the Karakoram International University (KIU) in 2012. The KIU is the first-ever university in the region. The decision to close the university was taken after three people were killed and seven others were injured in a clash between two religious groups over the issue of commemorating religious days at the university. Such issues have become a major bone of contention on the KIU campus every year.
The purpose of writing this series on the history of sectarianism in Gilgit-Baltistan is to trace the genealogy of religious prejudice by both indigenous and exogenous actors. It is an attempt to excavate the archaeology of historical experiences that forms the collective unconsciousness of people of the region.
Tragically, this latent form of religious prejudice has manifested itself in a tangible form in everyday life. Martin Sokefeld rightly calls it ‘everyday sectarianisation’ – the application of sectarian logic to daily action. The cumulative result of the politics of religiosity and sectarianism appears in the shape of the stifling of a meritocratic, democratic, pluralist and open society in Gilgit-Baltistan. Such a closed self relishes in wallowing in the swamp that devours everything that is progressive and enlightening. Today, the society of Gilgit-Baltistan is living in the second dark age and only a creation of new enlightened souls can save it from the spectre of sectarianism that has captured the hearts and minds of the people.