Sectarianisms: A Dark Cloud Over the Peaceful Valleys of Gilgit-Baltistan

Sectarianism continues to be a challenging issue in Gilgit-Baltistan, a region located in northern Pakistan, making peace a distant dream for the local population. Despite a period of relative calm, the region is now once again experiencing intense sectarian clashes.

Demographically, the estimated population of 1.5 million in the area is composed of four distinct denominations of Islam, namely Shiite (39 per cent), Sunni (27 per cent), Ismaili (18 per cent), and Noorbakshi (16 per cent). It boasts a multitude of ethnic and linguistic groups, numbering no less than twenty-four.

Religiously motivated violence has emerged as a relatively recent phenomenon in Gilgit-Baltistan. This occurrence can be attributed to a combination of factors, namely demographic transformations, and increased exposure to religious extremism prevalent in mainland Pakistan. It is important to recognize that Gilgit-Baltistan has not remained unaffected by significant events such as the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, the policy of Islamization pursued under General Zia-ul-Haq’s leadership in Pakistan, and the Afghan jihad during the 1980s. These historical occurrences have had a lasting impact on the religious landscape of Gilgit-Baltistan.

Notably, in the mountainous region, Gilgit Baltistan, historically, the emphasis placed on ethnic and tribal identities alongside longstanding social connections outweighed the significance attached to sectarian affiliations.

Before the aforementioned national and international geopolitical developments, the people of the region coexisted harmoniously. My father often recounted stories of fraternity among the Shia and Sunni populations in the area. Specifically, Shia mothers in Gilgit’s city area used to generously looking after the Sunni children and vice versa. Unfortunately, this once peaceful city has now become a breeding ground for sectarian conflicts.

Chronological study on the sectarian violence in the Gilgit Baltistan illustrates that in 1975, the first incident of sectarian violence took place in Gilgit town. During a Shia Muharram procession, shots were fired at the participants from a Sunni mosque. This led to the arrest of a Sunni religious leader, which in turn sparked riots in Sunni areas located in the Indus valley, south of Gilgit, as well as in the nearby valleys of Gor, Darel, and Tangir. The Sunnis from these regions threatened to launch an attack on Gilgit. Later, in 1983, a sectarian clash occurred due to a disagreement over the sighting of the moon. This disagreement pertained to the timing of the end of Ramadan, a month-long fasting period, and the commencement of Eid festivities.

In 1988, a religious militia called mujahedeen, comprising of a large number of fighters (estimated to be over eighty thousand by some accounts), invaded Gilgit. This invasion resulted in a tragic incident where more than seven hundred members of the Shia community were brutally killed and several Shia villages were destroyed by fire. Shia community of the region remember these killings as ‘Jalalabad Massacre’. 

Fast forward to the second decade of 21st century, on February 28, 2012, a tragic incident occurred on the Karakoram Highway in the Kohistan district where eighteen Shia pilgrims were ruthlessly and publicly murdered while on their journey back from Iran. Further, on 3 April 2012 another attack left twenty killed in Chilas.

Following the sectarian-based bloodshed campaign in 2012, the region enjoyed a decade of relative tranquility, with only minor confrontations occurring primarily on a verbal level. Nevertheless, starting in late August 2023, the region was engulfed in sectarian tensions after a Shia cleric made derogatory remarks about the Sahaba Karam (Companions of the Prophet Muhammad PBUH) during a Muharam procession in Skardu Baltistan. Since then, each passing day has been marked by ongoing protests in Gilgit Baltistan. As a result, the local government made a formal request to deploy the army and paramilitary forces in order to safeguard the major urban areas of Gilgit Baltistan. The lasting and immediate effects on the socio-economic sphere of Gilgit Baltistan are noticeable.

De-tourism tops the list of negative repercussions resulting from sectarian clashes. Gilgit Baltistan, known as a prime destination for both domestic and international tourists, has suffered from the ongoing tensions and hostile attitudes among different sects. As a result, tourists are reluctant to visit the region, leading to vacant hotels even during the peak tourism months of August and September. Consequently, the tourism sector is heavily impacted by sectarianism, posing great challenges.

In addition to tourism, the IT sector has established a strong presence in the region. Both boys and girls are engaged in freelancing to earn money, which encourages them to stay in the region instead of traveling to mainland Pakistan. However, the wave of sectarian tensions has negatively affected freelancers, as the internet service has been disrupted throughout the region.

Lastly, in the past decade, there was progress in bridging the divide between Shia and Sunni communities at a societal level. However, it appears that this gap is now widening once again. Consequently, it is possible for the sociopsychology of people to be influenced by feelings of hatred, a sense of otherness, and enmity.

[Passu Cones, Gilgit Baltistan. Photo by Mobeen Saeed, via Wikimedia Commons]

Deedar Karim belongs to Hunza, Gilgit Baltistan. He is currently working as a Research Associate at the South Asia Times. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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