By Zafar Iqbal
Recent spate of target killings in Gilgit Baltistan (GB) has caused a great political instability and sectarian unrest in this volatile region which is surrounded by three countries—including two major powers— Afghanistan, China and India. Its distinctive geo-strategic context builds the possibilities of wider regional implications of major internal occurrences. Consequently, fresh outbreak of murder of innocent civilians has exacerbated various social, political and religious processes in Gilgit Baltistan society.
Contrary to rest of the Sunni-dominated country, Shias are in majority in the GB where Pakistani establishment has been accused of the denial of legitimate rights of this vast majority by imposing pro-Sunnis policies and practises. For instance, Shias has been forced to study the Sunni syllabus, which has caused violent clashes in January 2005. [i]
Like rest of the country, Shias has been a soft target for unprovoked bloodshed. In 1988, hundreds of Shias were killed in Giligit by thousands of armed Sunni invaders from Khyber Pakthunkhwa. It is widely believed that the killers had support of General Zia’s regime. [ii]
Sadly, the successive democratic governments could not stop the target killing of the Shias. Even after the 28 February, 2012 Khostan massacre in which 18 Shia passengers were killed on the KaraKoram Highway (KKH), agitators of banned sectarian organisations continue to propagate hate messages and slogans like “Sunni Raj in a Sunni state” and “Shia Kafir”.[iii] In a series of incidents, dozens of people, mostly Shias, have been killed or wounded and their properties are burnt.
Yet 2009 partial autonomy, which gave more powers to the region, has not curtailed the religious hostilities. Disproportionate power sharing on the higher in present PPP -led government level has been considered a bone of contention between the both sects. It is believed that due to the possession of key administrative and political posts by the Shias due to their overwhelming majority in the population, Sunni minority feels somewhat left out or unheard in the mainstream structure.
Today, suspicions or lack of trust for the other sector rivals prevail in neighbourhood communities where frightened Shias and Sunnis are disinclined to enter ‘others’ territories.
Ejaz Karim, a student, describes his wariness about the changing social fabric:
“There are ‘no-go-areas’ for both communities. You cannot go to the Sunni area, if you are a Shia and you cannot go to the Shia area, if you are a Sunni.” In this situation, both communities have started their own transport system in various parts as they feel insecure to travel in an area dominant by the fanatical followers of other sect.[iv]
Similar sectarian segregations are common in other civic amenities like markets, hospitals, educational institutes and so on. Above all, it is the only place in the country where prisoners are locked on the sectarian affiliations.[v] Senseless extremism and counter vengeance worries citizens who predict more bloodshed, if authorities fail to respond swiftly.
Socio-economic deprivation is another key factor to expand the religious and sectarian rifts in the area. The GB is the poorest and highly marginalized region of Pakistan where the average household income is $0.50 per capital per day.[vi] As 85 per cent of the population do not have access to safe drinking water, 60 per cent of inhabitants rely on water from open channels where water contamination is 500 times higher than WHO standards. As a consequence, poor water and sanitation takes 50 percent of all deaths of children between 1 and 5 years of age.[vii]
Economically, tourism has been a major contributor of local livelihood, however, terrorism wave in the country and representation of Pakistan troubled Khabyer Pakthun Khwa (KPK) in international media as ‘Northern Pakistan’, which equates with the former name of the GB region has devastatingly damaged the local tourism industry.[viii] Unemployment has increased alarmingly. In the GB 70% of the population is under 25 years of age and 70 per cent suffer from under/unemployment.[ix]
Public sector job recruitment process is compromised on sectarian and party affiliation basis and few available positions are mostly occupied by influential elite, consequently, poor and marginalized sections suffer from alienation and gross discrimination. There have been various controversial recruitments in higher judiciary and government departments.[x]
Recalling historical bonds
The incidents of brutal murder of blameless and innocent people in the GB have triggered sentiments of alienation among public vis -a -vis their socio-economic links with Islamabad. Demands of local population for resumption of bus service between Sakrdu and Kargil and other travel and trade linkages with the adjoining areas under Indian and Pakistani control has attained massive support from different segments of society.
The demand of alternate routes has been forwarded by people due to a highly insecure travel all along the KKH. Growing sense of insecurity has made locals to avoid travel on the KKH, which is the only road connection between Pakistan and China and remains as the lifeline of the area.[xi]
Over 5,000 passengers per day travel on the KKH to reach capital city Islamabad to perform their routine matters.[xii] Before the partition of India in 1947 the region was connected with Ladakh and other adjourning regions with land routes. The division of Indian subcontinent between India and Pakistan ceased these routes for ever.
The 1947 Partition also divided a large number of families in Gilgit Baltistan, Kargil, Laddakh and adjacent areas. For decades chances of reopening of such historical routes remained blurred because of long-lasting animosity between Pakistan and India which controlled the regions.
However, ongoing- India Pakistan peace process and starting of Intra-Kashmir trade and travel arrangements and reunion of divided Kashmiris over Line of Control (LoC) have raised the hopes of divided Ladakhis and other separated families in the GB.
The Kohastan massacre has resulted into obvious unwillingness to travel on the KKH that has underscored significance of reopening traditional routes of the region. In a string of demonstrations people of the region have urged India and Pakistan to re-open Astore-Srinagar, Chorbat-Nubra, Sham-Skardo, Drass-Gultari and Kharmang-Kargil routes to reunite them with Kargil and other areas in Indian administered Kashmir.
Articulation for identity
Growing call for re-configuration of political identity of the region is another key factor behind on-going public anger. This emerging voice has stunned Pakistani establishment which believed that 2009 Self Rule will recompense the grievances of the people; however, the reinstatement of State Subject Rule (SSR) is unanimous demand of the local agitators.
The SSR is the law that protected the local demographic composition till in the 1970s when Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto abrogated it to encourage settlements and property allotments of outsiders.[xiii] The abolition of the SSR in the GB has caused worse demographic change from local ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural perspectives.
Mounting Chinese geo-strategic influence in Giligit Baltistan is another cause of instability not only for neighbouring India but for people of the territory as well. As Islamabad- Shanghai cooperation is increasing, bilateral trade between China and Pakistan has increased 28 per cent[xiv] in the past year to approximately $10. 8 billion compared with US $ 8.7 billion in 2010.[xv]
Currently China is working on a Karakoram Highway (KKH) Improvement Project at an approximate cost of $500 million and 18 mega projects in the energy and mining sectors in Gilgit-Baltistan and Pakistani controlled Kashmir.[xvi]
Chinese firms have been accused of ill-treating and exploiting local workers or ignoring indigenous populations. Therefore, presence of alleged 4,000-7000 Chinese troops/workers in Gilgit Baltistan and Pakistan’s consideration of leasing the GB to China for the next fifty years have also estranged public and deepen the sensitivities of the region.[xvii]
No doubt, the repercussions of these developments are wide ranging not only for India, Pakistan and China but also for the people of the area. Pakistani establishment should address the legitimate concerns of the people immediately. And the composition of political, legal, administrative and constitutional arrangements of the region should be aligned with the aspirations of the general public, otherwise simmering instability and violence will continue.
[i] Samer et al (2011) The Hidden Crisis: Armed Conflict and Education, UNISCO, France, page 169
[ii] Haroon, A (2012) Why not Kohistan? (Online) available at:
[iii] Kharal , A (2012 ) ASWJ calls for protest against ‘curriculum change’ in Gilgit-Baltistan(Online) available at:
[iv] Daily Pamir Times, Gigilgit, 4 and 5: the routes to sectarian divisions and disharmony (online) available at:
[v] Daily Mahasib(Urdu) Gilgit, April 1, 2012
[vi] United Nations Development Group (2012) MDG-7: Ensure Environmental Sustainability (online) available at:
[vii] Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) (2011) Supporting the next generation of leaders in Pakistan (online) available at:
[viii] Nawaz et al. (1211), “Impact of Terrorism on Tourist Industry: a point to ponder”, International Journal of Academic Research, (Vol. 3. No. 4. , I Part )
[x] Mir, S (2012) Chief judge’s appointment: Baltistan bar terms decision illegal(online) available at:
[xi] Parwana, H.(2012) Skardu Kargil road :Tear down the Berlin Wall of Asia (online) available at :
[xii] Parwana, H. (2012) The Joyride to Death in Pakistan (online) available at:
[xiii] Singh, P. ( 2012 ) Gilgit Baltistan: Neither ‘in’ Pakistan Nor ‘of’ it? (Online) available at:
[xiv] Geoffrey F. Gresh (2012 ) Russia, China, and stabilizing South Asia (Online) available at: http://afpak.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/03/12/russia_china_and_stabilizing_south_asia
[xv] Pakistan-China trade reaches US $ 10.6 billion mark; Pak exports register 23% growth; total volume US $ 2.12 billion (Online) available at:
[xvi] Malik M Ashraf (2012) Chinese mega projects in Pakistan (online) available at:
[xvii] Ojuland, K (2012) The dangerous presence of Chinese troops in Gilgit-Baltistan (online) available at :
Weekly Viewpoint, no. 129, November 30, 2012,