Addressing the first joint session of the Gilgit-Baltistan Council and Legislative Assembly on September 28, Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf announced Rs2 billion in socio-economic development funds “to grapple with the wave of deadly sectarian violence that has gripped the restive tourism haven”. He was clearly shaken by the recent massacre of Shia passengers travelling in a bus on the Karakoram Highway (KKH). He said that the FC, Gilgit-Baltistan Scouts and police units had been deployed on the KKH for the protection of passengers and the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa government had been asked “to ensure secure journey of passengers”.
Gilgit-Baltistan is another ‘far-flung’ but strategically important region, where the writ of the state has been leeched away since the Afghan war against the Soviet occupation started under the tutelage of General Ziaul Haq. The KKH had been built by the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto government, which India saw as a chessboard move challenging its presence in Kashmir. General Zia, however, soon discovered that the real threat was not from India, but from his new policy of using proxies against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Two developments took place that had enduring effects for the coming decades. The jihad was dominated by the mujahideen funded by America and Saudi Arabia, which meant that General Zia had a stormy relationship with Iran. Shias were targeted by mujahideen “because they were reluctant to help in fighting the jihad against the Soviet occupation”. Shias of Kurram Agency were attacked by mujahideen, followed by the incursion of a Sunni Lashkar into the region in 1988, in order to sort out the majority Shia-Ismaili population of the region. Decades later, the punishment meted out to Shias has reached new depths. This time, it is happening in the shape of the death of the writ of the state in areas such as Kurram Agency, Gilgit-Baltistan and Quetta, where Hazara Shias are being systematically exterminated.
The then-commissioner of Gilgit has been immortalised in history for writing what really happened in 1988. He stated: “It was clear to the Gilgit civil administration that the raiders, who were tribals and mujahideen elements, could not have reached this remote place from Peshawar without someone’s blessing. The FC, whose check posts dot the Swat-Besham road and the Besham-Gilgit highway, did not act to intercept the raiders. The true significance of the Gilgit riot has never been highlighted by our media.” In 2012, the Taliban, fighting another war in Afghanistan under the tutelage of al Qaeda, are using Gilgit-Baltistan as their hinterland, which has to be religiously cleansed.
A professor travelling in the ill-fated bus on August 16 that was gunned down, stated that in the Babusar bus carnage, four Sunnis were killed by terrorists as they came forward to save their Shia brethren. As another proof that the region was never divided along sectarian lines, he added that “terrorists beat up the Sunni passengers for not being supportive in identifying the Shia passengers”.
Gilgit-Baltistan was roughed up again during the Kargil operation when external non-state actors were allowed to penetrate the region — all of them either Deobandi or Ahle Hadith, poisoned against the Shia majority of the region and supported by the military commander there, who was conducting the infiltration into the high mountains against the Indian presence.
No one cared that the region was more important for the national economy than for military strategy against India: the Bhasha Dam, which was to be an alternative to the Kalabagh Dam; and the gas pipeline coming from Iran was also planned for passage to China through the region. Pakistan was defeated in the Kargil operation and the economic transformation projected through the construction of the Bhasha Dam and the gas pipeline are now in abeyance till the Taliban are finally defeated by the army. The Rs2 billion package offered by the PM is welcome, but the larger picture in Gilgit-Baltistan is gloomy because of Pakistan’s isolationist foreign policy that some would say tends to favour the Taliban-al Qaeda combine.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 30th, 2012.