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l June 2004 l

The Kashmir Bachao Andolan Publication

l Vol 4, No 2 l

L A S T  W O R D

Pakistan: The Northern Areas Tinderbox
Kanchan Lakshman

Celebrating liberal democracy during his speech to the Constituent Assembly on August 11, 1947, Pakistan's Quaid-i-Azam (Great Leader) Mohammad Ali Jinnah said, "You may belong to any religion or caste or creed... that has nothing to do with the business of the state. We are all citizens and equal citizens of the state." Fifty-seven years since, even as President and General Pervez Musharraf exhorts the people of Pakistan to adopt 'enlightened moderation', Pakistan's tentative quest for a non-discriminatory liberal democracy continues to unravel. Indeed, the ideology of fundamentalist Islam appears to remain at the heart of the Musharraf regime's strategy of national political mobilization and consolidation, despite talk of 'enlightened moderation' - as recent developments in the Northern Areas (NA) of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) demonstrate.

Agitated over contentious sections in the textbooks prescribed in state-run schools, protestors of the Shia community in the Gilgit city of NA clashed with troops on June 3 during a curfew that had been imposed in the city's municipal limits. While one protestor was killed near Khomer Chowk, clashes and arson were reported from all over the district. A Pakistan Radio van and transmitter, the Danyore Police Station, the Police Training Centre, the Gilgit Deputy Commissioner's office, a rest house and the Northern Areas Legislative Council hall were damaged by angry mobs. Shia clerics in Gilgit had called for a rally after failing to reach a compromise with the officials over the textbooks, which they felt were against their belief system, and sought to propagate a particular brand of Sunni Islam in the Shia dominated Northern areas. The Army was called out in Gilgit to maintain law and order after Shia leader Agha Ziauddin Rizvi set June 3 as the deadline for the administration to resolve the issue. Another three persons died when troops opened fire on a vehicle which was violating the curfew on June 6.

The severity of the situation can be gauged from the fact that more than 200 school-children from the Shia community staged a three-day hunger strike in Gilgit on May 17 against the existing syllabus. At the time of writing, authorities had imposed a round-the-clock curfew and deployed troops and police in Gilgit city. The NA administration has decided to close all Government schools in districts Gilgit and Skardu for an indefinite period. The underlying fear in Islamabad is that the sectarian unrest that engulfed Karachi in recent days could fuel greater anger among the Shias in Gilgit and elsewhere in the Northern Areas.

But what precisely are these objections? The Curriculum Reform Committee of Northern Areas, Gilgit, while stating that certain sections are repugnant to the Shia school of thought, added that these have been deliberately inserted to alienate the Shia school-children from their faith. According to Mohammad Shehzad, writing in the Friday Times on July 10, 2003, these offending sections include, among others:

  • The incident of wahee (revelation) has been described in a ridiculous manner that shows the Prophet himself was not sure about his prophet-hood. Islamiat, 4th grade, 22; Social Studies, 4th grade, 115; Urdu, 8th grade, 14.

  • A picture that depicts the Sunni style of saying prayer. Urdu, 2nd grade, 18.

  • The Sunni caliphs have been presented as Khulfa-e-Rashideen [the Orthodox Caliphs] unopposed by Shias. [The Shia do not recognize the first three caliphs as Khulfa-e-Rashideen] Urdu, 3rd grade, 89; Arabic, 7th grade, 46; Social Studies, 7th grade, 12-14.

  • The Caliphs [that are not recognized by Shias] have been eulogized through titles such as Siddique Amirul Momineen [Siddique, Commander of the Faithful, the First Caliph Hazrat Abu Bakar Siddique] and Farooq Amirul Momineen [Farooq, Commander of the Faithful, the Second Caliph Hazrat Umar Farooq]. Shias claim such titles are only for Hazrat Ali [the Fourth Caliph]. Urdu, 4th grade, 77; Islamiat, 4th grade, 25; Arabic, 8th grade, 27.

  • Yazid [who the Shia's accuse of the killing of the Prophet's grandson, Hazrat Hussain] has been totally exonerated in the Karbala events, which culminated in the extermination of Hazrat Ali's son's (the Prophet's grandchildren) Hassan and Hussain, and their families, and the entire blame has been shifted to Ibn-e-Ziyad. Urdu, 8th grade, 105.

  • The Prophet's wife Ayesha has been projected as superior to all other women of the Prophet's family through fake ahadiz (sayings of the Prophet). Urdu, 7th grade, 9-10.

  • The Prophet's uncle Hazrat Abu Talib has been described a non-Muslim. (Islamiat, BA, 231).

  • "One of the textbooks of Islamic Studies carries a picture that shows a boy offering prayers in a manner practiced by the Sunnis i.e. hands held together and put on the belly. Shias don't follow this posture. The picture misleads a Shia student about his/her religious rituals," said Ali Ahmed Jan, a Fellow of Leadership for Environment and Development (LEAD).

  • Further, "The textbooks have utterly ignored the contribution of Hazrat Ali in the battle of Badar. It is a known fact that he had killed the major chieftains of non-believers and played a key role in Badar's success. Unfortunately, there is no mention of Hazrat Ali in the books. Moreover, the books speak highly of the companions of Holy Prophet but they are silent over the important figures from Ahle-Biat [family of the Prophet]," said Shia scholar Amin Shaheedi.

The Northern Areas of PoK, spread over an area of 28, 000 square miles, comprise the five districts of Gilgit, Ghizer, Diamer, Skardu and Ghanche. The population of approximately 1.5 million has ethnic groups as varied as the Baltees, Shinas, Vashkuns, Mughals, Kashmiris, Pathans, Ladhakhis and Turks inhabiting the region, speaking a variety of languages like Balti, Shina, Brushaski, Khawer, Wakhi, Turki, Tibeti, Pushto and Urdu. Unlike the rest of Pakistan, Shias dominate the demography of the Northern Areas. According to Faqir Mohammad Khan's The Story of Gilgit, Baltistan and Chitral: A Short History of Two Millenniums, Gilgit is 60 percent Shia, 40 percent Sunni; Hunza is 100 percent Ismaili [a Shia sub-sect]; Nagar is 100 percent Shia; Punial is 100 percent Ismaili; Yasin is 100 percent Ismaili; Ishkoman is 100 percent Ismaili; Chilas is 100 percent Sunni; Astor is 90 percent Sunni, 10 percent Shia; Baltistan is 96 percent Shia and 2 percent Sunni.

The Northern Areas, administered directly by the Federal Government from Islamabad, is governed by the Frontier Crime Regulations framed during the British colonial era. The region is ruled directly by the Minister of Kashmir Affairs and Northern Areas with a six-member Cabinet. It remains largely neglected, with no university or professional colleges. With an acute absence of industry, subsistence is overwhelmingly based on tourism. The people of the Northern Areas are denied representation in the Federal Parliament and the local elected body, called Northern Areas Legislative Council (NALC), has no powers even comparable to that of a municipal body in a Pakistani city. Although elections to the NALC were held under the military regime in 2000, financial and legislative powers are yet to be delegated to the NALC.

Amidst the lack of civil and political rights, many movements articulating dissent have emerged. The lack of political representation has fueled demands for both formal inclusion within the Pakistani state and for self-determination. In 1988, there was sectarian unrest in Gilgit after Shias demanded an independent state. However, the Pakistani army suppressed the revolt, allegedly with the assistance of armed Sunni tribesmen from a neighboring province.

The absence of a politics of criticism has dominated the Northern Areas' historiography. Freedom of association and assembly is restricted. Political parties advocating either self-rule or greater political representation within Pakistan have, more often than not, found their leaders being subjected to arbitrary arrest and long prison terms. One such formation, the Balawaristan National Front (BNF), estimated in 2003 that more than 70 individuals are facing sedition or treason cases as a result of their political activities. BNF leader Abdul Hamid Khan, while referring to the region as 'the heart of darkness', notes that political and administrative circumstances in NA - with total control exercised by Islamabad through the Army, with no popular freedoms or rights, and tight censorship of all information flows - make the region an ideal and secret place for the relocation of the dislocated hub of international terrorism.

Pakistan's military regime is apprehensive of a geographical spread of the sectarian cauldron, with the possibility of outlawed groups like the Sunni Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) and the Shia Sipah-e-Mohammed Pakistan (SMP) fishing in troubled waters in the NA. Earlier, in February 2004, Islamist extremists had destroyed at least nine schools in Diamer. Many in NA believe that the schools were possibly targeted because they are foreign funded. Mir Aman, resident editor of the Kunjarab Times International, a Gilgit newspaper, said that, as these schools began to attract students, "enrollment in madrassas [seminaries] started declining and the fundamentalists took that as a threat to their value system. The people in this backward area are very religious and female education is considered a waste."

During the same month, the Federal Government had cracked down on an unnamed group led by Maulvi Shahzada Khan in NA for its alleged involvement in terrorist activities. Reportedly involved in bomb blasts and firing at Social Action Programme school buildings in the NA, the group is linked to the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi (TNSM) and other banned Sunni Jehadi organisations. Intelligence sources quoted in a Daily Times report of February 25 said that the group played a leading role during the 'invasion' of Shia localities by an armed tribal force in Gilgit in 1988. Being strategically vital to Islamabad's Kashmir policy, the military regime can ill-afford another violent front being unlocked, as it is already beleaguered on the Afghan border, Karachi, Baluchistan and the North West Frontier Province.

The problems over the syllabus and school curricula currently being encountered in Gilgit and elsewhere in Pakistan, are largely the product of a state endeavour to support a particular variant of Islam. The very converse of 'enlightened moderation' is being vigorously propounded by what an official of the Curriculum Wing said is a 'powerful lobby' of ultra-Islamists who follow the Wahabi school of thought. To be fair to the military regime, however, a separate curriculum for the Shias is unlikely to provide a solution given that it would only further aggravate sectarianism. The roots of the problem lie in the Pakistani state's pre-occupation with the entire process of Islamization, as also in the 'disengagement' of the Northern Areas, a region that remains deeply neglected, exploited and that has been denied a clear political identity. The resulting ground reality is that the region is a tinderbox and the syllabus issue may well be the spark that sets it aflame.


The author is: Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management; Assistant Editor, Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution.

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