By Ahmed Ali-Aafani
NESTLED in the northern Karakoram-Himalayan region of the subcontinent, Gilgit and Baltistan remained a strategic part of Dogra-ruled Jammu and Kashmir prior to the territory’s self-generated independence in 1947-48.
When a local group led by Col Hassan Khan of Kashmir’s Fourth Regiment in Gilgit revolted against Maharaja Hari Singh, the then ruler of Kashmir, they initially desired to set up Gilgit and Baltistan as an independent state. But impressed by the leadership of Mohammad Ali Jinnah and more so because of religious affiliations, the region opted to accede to Pakistan hoping to achieve greater spiritual and religious freedom. In terms of commerce, the markets of Srinagar and Leh in India-held Kashmir were geographically closer and more accessible to the area than Abbottabad and Rawalpindi. Yet ever since the 1988 massacre of Shia Muslims in Gilgit and Jalalabad during the military regime of Gen Ziaul Haq, journeying on the Karakoram Highway (passing through Kohistan and now Naran) has over time become a perilous exercise. There are some who say the 1988 bloodshed was carried out in complicity with the military ruler as the perpetrators then, too, had been wearing military uniforms. Had the tragedy been investigated by an independent and non-partisan commission at that time and had the perpetrators been brought to justice, perhaps the recent attacks of a sectarian nature on passengers on the Karakoram Highway could have been prevented.
The state’s failure to protect its citizens has emboldened the perpetrators and has prepared the ground for further sectarian violence in the region. The inaction of governments has led to the gradual growth of the strife, particularly in Gilgit. This factor will continue to have national implications if not addressed in a timely manner. While festively waving the national flag of the then newly established country in 1948, the people of what is now Gilgit-Baltistan never knew that a day would come when they would be asked to prove their identities — not to be appreciated for upholding the national flag but to be slaughtered by militants based on sectarian differences. However, despite the difficulties and Gilgit-Baltistan’s geographical proximity to Srinagar and Leh, the region’s citizens seem content with their forefathers’ decision to be part of Pakistan. One may wonder why religious harmony is elusive in so many parts of the country including Parachinar and Gilgit-Baltistan.
It is about time the federal authorities took steps for the region’s security on a war footing lest it slips entirely into the hands of terrorists and extremists and in order to thwart more serious security implications. Mere official condemnations, public protests, strikes and curfews will not halt the violence nor heal the wounds. Aggravating the hurt, the Babusar Pass shooting in August, in the sacred month of Ramazan, has sparked a flurry of distress and resentment everywhere. What Robert Kennedy said in the 1960s is pertinent here: “What is objectionable, what is dangerous about extremists, is not that they are extreme, but that they are intolerant. The evil is not what they say about their cause, but what they say about their opponents.”
Beyond doubt, Gilgit-Baltistan has unique geo-strategic significance for Pakistan due to its close proximity to two of the fastest-growing economies in the world (China and India). The region’s strategic attachment to Kashmir in the wake of the 1949 United Nations resolution had already drawn worldwide attention, followed by Pakistan and India’s armed conflicts. Besides hosting the world’s so-called highest battlefield in Siachen, the Kargil incident has also placed the region in the global spotlight, while some analysts are of the opinion that America has its eyes on Gilgit-Baltistan to watch over China. Whatever one may say about Gen Pervez Musharraf, his regime proved to be the second after that of the late Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to have perceived the geo-strategic importance of the area. Following the recent bus ambushes, the government must seek to pre-empt sectarian violence in the area. Investment must be made in educational and economic development while a comprehensive strategy is needed to address past grievances so that mistrust between communities is replaced by religious tolerance, integration and pluralism. Tactically, building the professional and technical capacities of non-partisan law-enforcement officials and their ability to coordinate and seek support from the military to proactively prevent and investigate sectarian violence is required.
Of course, an increase in the frequency of morning flights and the operation of afternoon flights to and from Islamabad would make a lot of sense. It is about time the Karakoram Highway was made secure not only for Gilgit-Baltistan but also for sustaining the vital link with China. For this purpose a new police force must be carved out along the lines of the National Highways and Motorway Police.
The writer is a resident of Gilgit-Baltistan and currently is a Fulbright-Humphrey Fellow at the Protection Project of the Johns Hopkins University in Washington DC.