The sectarian ghoul in Gilgit

By:Aziz Ali Dad, Courtesy The News

The region of Gilgit-Baltistan made news this year not for its scenic beauty, but for sectarianism in the form of brutal murders and target killings. Historically, the region has been vulnerable to attacks by other powers because of its geographical location at the intersection of the Karakorams, the Himalayas and the Hindu Kush. Gilgit has undergone periods of both war and peace over the years. What makes this current wave of sectarian violence different from previous conflicts is its intensity and scale.

Although sectarian differences existed in the region, these were largely confined to the level of theological debates. Sectarianism in Gilgit started to raise its ugly head in the 1970s and turned violent in the 1980s. Initially, sectarian strife remained confined to the city but in the second half of the last decade it spread to the suburbs as well. This year (2012) saw sectarianism and its ugly consequences engulf all of Gilgit-Baltistan, as well as the district of Kohistan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Since Gilgit is the centre of power and economy in the region, it is natural that a conflict in the capital will have repercussions in other valleys and neighbouring regions.

Before the emergence of religious violence in Gilgit the mindset of its society was largely religious, which made it easier for the people there to internalise the violent agenda of extremist forces. The nexus between religiosity and violence has disrupted social and political arrangements made by kinship-based communities.

Local religious elements have played a pivotal role in establishing this linkage. Incidents such as the killing of travellers on the Karakoram Highway and Babusar Top Pass point to the existence of trained militants in the valleys along these areas. Their operations in far-flung areas are not possible without the logistical support of sectarian elements within those societies. The nexus of local sectarian outfits with militants has aggrandised the power of militants in tactical terms, if not in numbers. Coupled with the mixing of local religious forces with national and global jihad, and the geo-political location of the area, the sectarianism in Gilgit-Baltistan is at once local, national and global. This blurring of distinctions not only produces a distinct consciousness in the region, but also makes its politics very different from the rest of Pakistan.

Demographic realities – in terms of religious composition – in Gilgit-Baltistan are different from the rest of Pakistan. As a result, violence assumes a different pattern and necessitates tactical changes in the modus operandi of sectarian militants who try to tilt the local people to their side by spreading violence in the region. The violence in Diamer and Kohistan is indicative of these tactical changes. This tactical manoeuvring, however, does not remain confined to violence – it has spread to every part of life in this region. The Shia community fears that elements within the state try to convert the majority group into a minority by covertly supporting Sunni migrants. Gilgit-Baltistan is the only administrative unit in Pakistan where Sunni Muslims are a minority. To compensate for this weakness in number, some tend to look for help from outside brethrens, which has helped militants and the discourse of exclusion to establish a foothold in the region.

Such is the dominance of the sectarian mindset in our society that it strips people of other identities and affiliations, so they view the ‘other’ as a threat to their existence. In the Babusar tragedy the Sunnis who asserted their solidarity with their fellow (Shia) travellers were also killed because they had dared to associate with the ‘others’, which is against the monomaniac mind of militants. Martin Sokefeld in his paper, ‘Selves and Others: Representing Multiplicities of Difference in Gilgit and the Northern Areas of Pakistan’ also thinks that “society in Gilgit became effectively polarised by the Shia-Sunni dichotomy.” He further states “The Shia-Sunni dichotomy became effectively a premise that structured the perception of the social space.”

In addition to the nexus between local militant organisations with national and global jihadists and the influence of jihadi discourse, some of the cultural practices in the region also imperceptibly contribute to the expansion of violence. The spread of sectarian war from Gilgit to Diamer and Kohistan also needs to be understood in a cultural context.

Kohistan and Chilas have a long tradition of blood feuds. A murder on sectarian basis in Gilgit triggers a demand for revenge – equally supported by sectarian forces. This mixing of the old tribal practice of vendetta killing with sectarian sentiments leads to collective vengeance in the shape of lynching (by mobs) in Chilas and mass murders in Kohistan and Babusar. Thus the tradition of vendetta helps to settle a non-kinship issue with the institution that is a product of Gemeinschaft – kinship-based society.

In those areas where the culture of blood feuds did not exist, sectarian forces organised themselves on modern management and military lines. The organisation of multiple hues of religion under the banner of sectarian and religious politics has helped the clergy to become spokespersons of economic, political, social and religious grievances. The cumulative result of the politics of religiosity or religion is the stifling of a democratic and pluralist society. However, it is surprising that despite having a majority in the ballot box, secular parties are not playing their role in building peace. The reason for their silence can be explained by the fact that when it comes to sectarian issues no affiliations mean anything except loyalty to one’s respective sect.

Most sectarian militants are shadowy characters, remaining on the periphery of major religious parties and covertly playing an active role in banned (militant/terrorist) organisations. This allows them to inject their agenda at the political front and pursue their violent activities against other sects. However, a sizeable number of sectarian militants are already out of the system. It is not peace but violence that helps them gain strength by bringing perpetrators and victims of violence within the fold of sectarianism. In the vicious cycle of sectarian violence, violence feeds religiosity, which supports violence in its turn.

To break the vicious circle of violence, it is imperative for the government to intervene. According to Max Weber, in modern institutional arrangements the state ought to establish its monopoly on the legitimate use of violence. Unfortunately, the state’s legitimacy is eroded by violent associations that regularly commit violence against innocent citizens with impunity.

For a durable peace, the state has to assert itself to protect its citizenry. Otherwise, people will be attracted by the display of quick fixes provided by religious demagogues for long-term problems and coercion of population through the barrel of the gun wielded by non-state actors. Those committing violence against innocent people in Gilgit have been emboldened by the lukewarm response of the government, over the last 24 years, towards sectarian violence in Gilgit-Baltistan. When the state fails to protect its citizens, people seek refuge in groups that hold a monopoly on violence. We have to learn from what happened in Swat.

Both the government and civil society need to invest in the softer side of development and cultural activities. During the last 20 years Gilgit has witnessed the emergence of markets, commercial plazas, development in communication and an increase in literacy rates. Ironically, it is during the same period that traditional and modern social spaces disappeared from Gilgit. With the increase in violence, Gilgit’s culture has also shifted. Now vendetta, jingoism and intolerance are the dominant cultural ideals of Gilgit’s society. In the absence of other cultural and creative activities and forums, young people are attracted to this emerging culture that romanticises fomenters of violence as divine saviours.

The process of building peace is long and not without hurdles. The current wave of violence is the product of a generation that grew up during the 1980s. Sectarian violence in Gilgit-Baltistan is the manifestation of these intolerant minds. In addition to other peace initiatives, it is important to focus on children. Only a generation with a changed mindset can ensure lasting peace. To create a healthy, peaceful, pluralistic and prosperous society, we must change mindsets, because corruption of the mind precedes degeneration of society.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad. Email: azizalidad @gmail.com

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