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Karakoram Impasse

Captain Alok Bansal was Member, Navy at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • June 02, 2005

    As the Karakoram Highway reopened on May 2, 2005, for traffic between China and Pakistan, the area surrounding it continues to be tense. The Northern Areas (NA) of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir continues 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 façade 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.

    NA is a sparsely populated mountainous region with an area of 28,000 square miles that makes it more than six times the size of Azad Kashmir. More than one million population (562,000 according to 1981 census) comprises numerous ethnic groups and tribes. Gilgit-Baltistan, as this it is often referred to in local literature, acceded to 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. The Karakoram Highway linking China to Pakistan passes through it and reportedly generates trade worth billions of dollars. The region, however, 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 increasing and besides ethnicity has a strong sectarian undertone. The acts of violence in Gilgit and surrounding areas are due to the absence of any genuine democratic and constitutional mechanism to resolve the problems. People have been demanding their democratic rights for a long time. The Northern Areas Legislative Council created in 1994, has remained a dysfunctional consultative forum, presided over by the Minister for Kashmir Affairs, who is also the de-facto Chief Executive of the region.

    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 are cited as the major reasons for the current sectarian situation in Pakistan. Ironically, the impoverished parents have no 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 Shia, some tribal in their ethnic origin and many Ismaili — a sect led by the Aga Khan and considered heretics by hard-line Islamists. From being a completely Ismaili (a Shia sub sect) region, it has been injected with external population. Consequently, there have been competition of sorts between the big sects, and 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 and it took more than a year to resolve the row and reopen the schools.

    The gravity of the situation is best exemplified by the recent sacking of three police officers of the rank of Superintendent of Police (SP) for refusing to join duty in Gilgit. If the senior police officers prefer sacking to serving in the region, the fete of other government officials can be well imagined. In the past, the government officials, including those of Army, Northern Light Infantry and police, have been identified and murdered while travelling in buses in areas falling under the control of rival sectarian militia. Casualties due to bomb explosions, ambuscades and sniper firing in Nultar have become a daily routine and so is the blockade of the Karakoram Highway (KKH). The area around Karakoram Highway from Gilgit to China border is dominated by the Shia militants where as the area South West of Gilgit up to Manshera is under the influence of Sunni extremists. Some of them have sympathies for Uighur nationalists in Sinkiang and may be inclined to attack Chinese vehicles passing through the Highway. Any attack on the Chinese vehicles or assassination of Chinese personnel on or around the Highway may cause Pakistan a huge embarrassment and generate adverse publicity for trade through Karakoram Highway.