April 29, 2005
EDITORIAL: Take Gilgit violence seriously!
Last Wednesday, Gilgit again saw sectarian violence when four Shias were shot and wounded by unidentified gunmen. The city’s old polo ground area, where the incident happened, immediately erupted in gunfire, forcing the administration to call in army and paramilitary troops to cordon off the area and search for weapons. Thirty-two people have already been arrested in connection with the incident and the city has been placed under Section 144 for two months to avoid further disruption of life.
The Northern Areas as a whole have fallen through a black-hole. Information about violence in the area reaches the rest of the country sporadically. The government has done nothing to enlighten people about what exactly is happening there. The press has made only half-hearted efforts to unearth the dynamics of sectarian tension in the region. The official response to acts of violence typically takes the form of stopgap administrative action: curfews, slapping Section 144, calling in the army, cordons and arrests. There is hardly any attempt to address the causes of sectarian unrest to return the area to normalcy on a long-term basis. The result is obviously a recrudescence of violence every now and then. In the past four months alone, official toll of casualties related to sectarian violence stands at 35.
The region has been in the grip of sectarian fever for nearly two years now. It all started with the Shia community objecting to some lessons in the Islamic studies syllabi. We do not know what the government has done to address the grievance of the community. But we do know that since then the region has seen a number of sectarian attacks. On January 8 this year a prominent Shia cleric, Agha Ziauddin Rizvi, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen. The reaction to that came down south in Karachi where a Sipah-e-Sahaba cleric was shot dead. An attempt to kill another Sunni-Deobandi cleric in Islamabad failed. Later, on March 23, a former Northern Areas police chief, Sakhiullah Tareen, was shot dead along with his police guards. Just days before he was killed, Mr Tareen had led a crackdown on sectarian groups. To add to the woes of people in the region, the Karakoram Highway has apparently become a haven for criminal gangs who loot and kill travellers at will.
None of this adds up to any good. The Northern Areas are a direct responsibility of the federal government that deals with them through a ministry. Their legal status is already disputed within the larger ambit of the Kashmir issue. They also offer the best tourist destinations in Pakistan, besides the peaks that are sought-after by climbers around the world. Unrest in the area hurts Pakistan’s interests at multiple levels. Whatever the federal government might have done so far is clearly not enough. It needs to look into the causes of sectarian tension instead of merely employing its administrative might to counter acts of violence reactively; if this means looking into the syllabi and correcting what is wrong in them, that must be done immediately. This would also instil in people the confidence that Islamabad is serious about tackling the situation. That would open space for the government to co-opt leaders of the two communities and get them to clean up their act. On the administrative side, it would become much easier for the law enforcement agencies to weed out the troublemakers. *