Exploring Peacebuilding Strategies for Sectarian Coexistence in Gilgit-Baltistan

Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), a Shia-majority province in a Sunni-majority country, has a diversified religious landscape, with Shia, Sunni, Noorbakshia, and Ismaili populations coexisting. It is located between the disputed regions of India and Pakistan and is a volatile area characterised by sectarian clashes. Once a symbol of communal concord, this Shia-populated land underwent a transformative shift after the 1970s, resulting in communal bloodshed and upheaval in the region’s social fabric. This analysis aims to explore the underlying reasons for sectarian violence, shed light on recent developments that have aggravated tensions, and provide feasible options for holistic peacebuilding in GB – i.e., peacebuilding aimed to address the root causes of conflict, assisting people in resolving their disputes peacefully and lay the groundwork for future conflict resolution. Understanding the many facets of sectarian turmoil is critical for charting a path toward permanent peace and nurturing a future where GB may restore its status as a safe haven.

Before the 1970s, the region was noted for its ethnic and religious diversity, with all groups coexisting peacefully. However, the reopening of the Karakoram Highway, certain policies of General Zia-ul-Haq, and foreign factors contributed to the outbreak of sectarian conflict in the 1980s. The imposition of Sunni rulings on Shias, efforts to change the communal landscape by relocating Sunnis, the formation of anti-Shia groups, foreign intervention from countries such as Saudi Arabia, and the aftermath of Afghanistan’s jihad all have contributed to the rise of sectarian violence in GB. Sectarian severe violence erupted in 1983, signalling a dangerous rise in communal tensions. The most painful episode, however, occurred in 1988, when a false rumour suggesting a Sunni massacre perpetrated by the Shia community sparked a violent retaliation. Thousands of armed tribesmen from the South launched an attack, tragically killing approximately 400 Shia people and deliberately torching many Shia neighbourhoods.

Analysing the region’s historical intricacies and current issues highlights the need for a diverse strategy. The active participation of local communities and religious leaders is necessary for long-term peace.

Furthermore, the lack of registered educational institutions has resulted in the rise of religious schools, most of which promote sectarianism. The “textbook controversy” in 1999 intensified sectarian tensions by introducing revised textbooks with a Sunni tilt into the curriculum. Protests and violence broke out, resulting in conflicts between the Sunni and Shia communities. The assassination of Shia leader Agha Ziauddin Rizvi on 8 January 2005 sparked a new round of sectarian violence, which was exacerbated by external forces and political developments.

Few years later, in February 2012, eighteen Shia pilgrims were openly killed, and in April of that year, a terrible incident in Chilas occurred. The death of Ahmer Abbas, a Shia student from Gilgit, in April 2012 reiterated the critical need for intervention and protection for the vulnerable Shia population. Moreover, on August 16, 2012, gunmen killed 19 Shia Muslims from busses in GB, marking the third such occurrence in six months. A re-ignition after a relative calm occurred in August 2023 when sectarian tensions in GB again risked worsening due to a blasphemy accusation levelled against a Shia preacher, prompting government action through security personnel and peace committees. Recently, on December 4, 2023, a terrorist attack on a passenger bus in Chilas, GB, caused much commotion, though no group claimed responsibility for the attack. Nevertheless, the region remains plagued with sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Concerns remain regarding the need for more effective methods to address fundamental inter-sectarian dynamics.

Addressing the growing conflict requires implementing reconciliation and conflict transformation strategies for peacebuilding. According to a United Nations (UN) publication, an Agenda for Peace, peacebuilding encompasses various actions related to capacity building, reconciliation, and societal transformation. The process requires cultivating constructive relationships across various frontiers, addressing injustices non-violently, and changing the contributing conditions.  In GB, a policy that will work at all levels of society is needed, connecting local communities with international officials to build relationships, institutions, and policies that promote long-term peace and justice. There is a need to combine human rights, economic prosperity, environmental sustainability, and conflict prevention across generations, necessitating cross-group networks for long-term development and security. The goal is for GB to become a symbol of togetherness, using its unique cultural and natural assets to develop understanding and harmony, overcoming sectarianism, and fostering a peaceful and prosperous future for the area.

An in-depth interview by the author with a native citizen of GB further revealed the region’s pressing issue of sectarianism. The respondent emphasised the necessity for a thorough and realistic peacebuilding approach recognising GB’s historical intricacies and contemporary concerns. The respondent emphasised the need for resolving long-standing grievances, building mutual understanding through interfaith discussions, and adopting inclusive educational changes, highlighting the multifaceted character of the situation. Furthermore, the interviewee underlined the importance of economic development projects that emphasise inclusive policies to overcome socioeconomic gaps. The active participation of local communities and religious leaders is thus critical for long-term stability to mend the scars of sectarian conflict through long-term rebuilding initiatives. Notably, the respondent indicated a shared desire for peace in the area, highlighting the community’s unwavering opposition to further sectarian tensions.

In conclusion, the recent rise in sectarianism in GB necessitates a more nuanced and introspective approach to peacebuilding. Analysing the region’s historical intricacies and current issues highlights the need for a diverse strategy. The active participation of local communities and religious leaders is necessary for long-term peace. Looking ahead through the prism of ongoing peacebuilding efforts, it is clear that GB can emerge from the shadows of sectarianism. This, however, will require unwavering commitment from all parties, from communities and religious authorities to international partners. The region’s journey toward durable peace is more than just a reaction to current difficulties; it is a collective effort to construct a strong and peaceful future, demonstrating that joint efforts may change the course of nations. While barriers remain, the commitment and cooperation of all parties concerned provide hope for GB to overcome its current issues and pave the path for a more inclusive and tolerant society.

Sanila Ibrahim

Sanila Ibrahim is a Peace and Conflict Studies graduate from the National University of Modern Languages (NUML) Islamabad. Her research interests include Non-Traditional Security Threats and Peace Building. She is a Research Intern at the Centre for Strategic and Contemporary Research.

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