The Northern Areas (NA) in Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK) are once again in turmoil, the scenic heights of the Karakoram have become a stage for violent clashes. The recent killings in Gilgit and the surrounding areas are indicative of the fact that the battle lines that were drawn in January this year have not blurred with the passage of time. The recent wave of violence in Gilgit and surrounding areas started on July 17 following an attack on a passenger bus on the Karakoram Highway (KKH) near Chilas, in which five passengers died and six were injured. Six more deaths were reported in revenge attacks, which left the region paralysed for over a week. Gilgit was still reeling from the shock of the fresh spate of sectarian attacks when a Union Council chairperson and three others were gunned down in a suburban area, triggering clashes between residents and the police. Subsequently, the house of a local journalist was bombed in Gilgit, orders were promulgated to shoot the miscreants at sight and the local administration in desperation was forced to appeal to the elected representatives to promote peace and harmony in the area.
The region has continued to be in turmoil since the assassination of Shia leader Aga Ziauddin by gunmen in Gilgit in January this year. In a case that was clearly indicative of rising sectarian intolerance, fifteen people were killed by the rampaging mobs before some modicum of governance was restored. A large number of government buildings were set on fire and a number of officials and their families were attacked. Troops had to be deployed to restore law and order and a faÃƒÂ§ade of normalcy is being maintained, but violence keeps erupting from time to time. In a stark reminder of the situation, the inspector general of police - the highest ranking police officer - was assassinated along with his bodyguards on March 23, while travelling between Gilgit and Hunza.
The region has a unique status within Pakistan and became part of Pakistan when the British Commander of Gilgit Scouts, Major Brown declared accession to Pakistan on November 4, 1947. The region was named 'The Northern Areas of Pakistan' and put under the direct control of Islamabad; separate from Pakistan-administrated 'Azad Kashmir'. Of late, the region has become the stage for violent protests by the impoverished population, which believes that their unique ethno-cultural and religious identity is being threatened. The alienation of the populace is on the rise. Besides, ethnicity and sectarian identity is due to the complete denial of any constitutional and democratic rights. People have been demanding for their democratic rights for a long time. The Northern Areas Legislative Council created in 1994, has remained a dysfunctional consultative forum.
Poor economic conditions and lack of educational facilities have made the region a hub of communal strife. The basic dynamics of sectarianism in this region resembles the rest of Pakistan - External involvement from other Islamic countries, a weak judicial system, proliferation of small arms, mushrooming of sectarian madaris and the state's use of religious groups for internal and external policy objectives. Ironically, the impoverished parents have no other option but to send their children to madaris - the ubiquitous nurseries of religious extremism. As a result, the region produces more ulemas (religious scholars) than Punjab or Sindh. Due to their limited understanding of Islam and aversion towards science and technology, the ulema unknowingly and often intentionally instigate communal hatred that leads to violence.
The region contains a high percentage of Shias, some tribals of their ethnic origin and many Ismailis - a sect led by the Aga Khan and considered heretics by hard-line Islamists. From being a completely Ismaili (a Shia sub-sect) region in the past, it has been injected with external population. Clerics from other parts of the country have introduced the Twelver Shia (official religion of Iran) and Sunni faiths. Presently this is an area where geographic and linguistic boundaries often coincide with the sectarian identities. Different valleys speak different languages and follow different denominations. Last year, differences over contents of Urdu and Islamiyat textbooks forced the closure of schools, it took more than a year to resolve the row and reopen the schools.
It is not the first time buses have been attacked and people killed on the KKH, especially in Sunni dominated Chilas Valley, where inhabitants are known for their hostility to Shias living further North. In the past, the government officials, including those in the army, Northern Light Infantry and the police, have been identified and murdered while travelling in buses in areas falling under the control of rival sects. Blockade of the KKH and casualties due to bomb explosions, ambushes and sniper firing have become a daily routine. The gravity of the situation is best exemplified by the recent sacking of three police officers of the rank of superintendent of police for refusing to join duty in Gilgit. If the senior police officers prefer sacking to serving in the region, the fate of other government officials can be well imagined.