‘There is no reason to celebrate. We Shias are going to face endemic sectarian carnage and suffering in this new country.’ These were the words of Raja of Khapulo, Chorgyal Yabgo Nasir Ali Khan when his staff congratulated him upon the creation of Pakistan in 1947. Khapulo was one of the main towns of Ladakh Wazarat which got divided during the first Indo-Pakistan war on Kashmir. Khapulo today, is a part of the Ghanche District of Gilgit-Baltistan, occupied by Pakistan. In retrospect, one could credit Chorgyal Yabgo for his accurate prediction in those early years. The region’s distinct religious fabric has played a vital role in prompting the state of Pakistan to deprive and persecute the people of Gilgit Baltistan.
The elders of the region, born before partition still reminisce about the Hindu Dogra rulers of Jammu and Kashmir who treated their Shia subjects with justice and equality. Maharaja Hari Singh was patron to many Shia observances including the processions on the tenth (Ashura) of the Holy month of Muharram. On this day, it was customary for his soldiers to present a guard of honor to the standard of Imam Hussain (Alam), which is a symbol of devotion for Shias and Nurbakhshis. Many Hindu officials in Baltistan were known to start their workday by paying respect to the Alam. They would take off shoes before proceeding towards the Alam to touch it in reverence.
The illusion that merging with the Islamic Republic of Pakistan would glorify the religious lives of the people faded like fog within the first few days of the partition when people of Gilgit were asked to welcome and obey a repressive ruler. Pakistani occupiers brazenly used sectarianism to gain favour among the local Sunni minority, thus crushing the high hopes for equality and freedom.
To begin with, it did not sit well for a predominantly Sunni Pakistan to have a Shia-majority territory adjacent to China. The need to subjugate local Shias grew at par with the strengthening of strategic relations with China. As a result, the Pakistani state maintained the policy to attack and displace Shias living along the Karakoram Highway and repopulate those settlements with Sunnis. In 1988, military-sponsored terrorists burnt a dozen Shia villages to change the religious fabric of the Gilgit region. To date, terrorists attack and kill Shias traveling on the Karakoram Highway. Oftentimes, Pakistan’s military uses various excuses to seize thousands of acres of Shia-owned lands in strategic locations. The Asian Human Rights Commission’s 2019 report on Gilgit-Baltistan states that such practices of land grabbing have resulted in state-sanctioned demographic change. The report further claims that the proportion of the non-local population in Gilgit-Baltistan has increased significantly in recent years since the Pakistani government continuously violates a local law called the State Subject Rule to open floodgates to Sunnis of Pakistan. While the cacophony on Kashmir continues, this grave issue, however, is inadequately voiced in international and even regional media.
Pakistan unabashedly uses blasphemy laws to target Shias and curb religious freedom. To whitewash local identity, the government has imposed a permanent ban on teaching the Shia curriculum in academic institutions. The policy of repression and extirpation of Shi’ism has reduced them to less than 42% of the local population today. Like Shias, the Kalasha non-Muslims of Chitral, which is a traditional part of Jammu and Kashmir, face extinction with less than 2,000 practitioners surviving.
Social stagnation in Gilgit Baltistan is appalling as the territory remains far behind even the abysmal standards of Pakistan. The society as a whole suffers willful neglect with every passing regime. Pakistani rulers do not consider locals as citizens and deny basic rights such as suffrage and access to the judicial system. Most of the families languish under rampant unemployment and financial distress. Today, beggars swarm the streets and drug use is rampant among the youth in Skardo, a city in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan.
As of now, hundreds of local right-activists face sedition and terrorism charges under Pakistani rule. These brave whistleblowers take on the risk of living with a tarnished future, yet refuse to be terrorized into silence or accept permanent insignificance as fate. They face jail and torture for demanding constitutional rights and movement across the Line of Control.
Gilgit Baltistan was prosperous before the partition as locals could trade across the expanse of the Pamirs and the Himalayas. Open borders and prevalent peace enabled locals to move freely between Skardo, Leh, Srinagar, and Shimla. The friendly environment benefited everyone. Back then, farmers from Kargil could come to Baltistan to sell fruits, yak-butter, and barter dzos and dzomos (cattle). The wandering Changpas would arrive in Khapulo with salt and tea bricks. Travelers from Leh and Zangskar (in Ladakh) would spend the night in Balti villages along the Indus and Suru rivers on their way to Shigar (in Baltistan) and Gilgit. In those times, Shigar was called the breadbasket of Ladakh. It was a tradition for travelers to join local competitions of archery and polo and share exotic gifts from places as far as Lhasa, Badakhshan, Nepal, and Kashgar. With no travel restrictions, the local Shias and Nurbakhshis would travel to Lucknow to study in religious schools which at that time rivaled Iraq’s Najaf in academic standards.
In 1947, Pakistan did not just attack and divide our land. It also attacked and weakened our shared cultural identity. Today, it enforces a ban on teaching the native languages and culture in local schools whereas the same thrive today in the Union Territory of Ladakh. The juxtaposition of the terminal damage Pakistan has inflicted on our land and people with the constitutional rights and the many freedoms of the people of Ladakh reveals the miserable consequences of an unwanted partition.
(This article is Part I of a two part series on Gilgit-Baltistan)