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US backs India on OBOR, says it crosses ‘disputed’ territory

PTI report in Hindustan Times online,Oct 04, 2017
The Donald Trump administration threw its weight behind India’s opposition to the China- Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), saying it passes through a disputed territory and no country should put itself into a position of dictating the Belt and Road initiative.

India skipped the Belt and Road Forum (BRF) in May this year due to its sovereignty concerns over the nearly $60 billion CPEC, a flagship project of China’s prestigious One Belt One Road (OBOR), which passes through Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).

Having returned from his maiden trip to India last week wherein he met his counterpart Nirmala Sitharaman and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis appeared on Tuesday to be a strong opponent of China’s ambitious OBOR initiative.

“In a globalised world, there are many belts and many roads, and no one nation should put itself into a position of dictating ‘one belt, one road’,” Mattis told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee during a Congressional hearing.

“That said, the One Belt One Road also goes through disputed territory, and I think, that in itself shows the vulnerability of trying to establish that sort of a dictate,” Mattis said apparently referring to India’s position on CPEC.

Mattis was responding to a question from Senator Charles Peters over OBOR and China’s policy in this regard.

“The One Belt One Road strategy seeks to secure China’s control over both the continental and the maritime interest, in their eventual hope of dominating Eurasia and exploiting natural resources there, things that are certainly at odds with US policy. So what role do you see China playing in Afghanistan, and particularly related to their One Belt One Road,” Peter had asked.http://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/us-backs-india-on-obor-says-it-crosses-disputed-territory/story-Lh2aIU5Nt5BGYUMCj8xk3L.html

October 4, 2017   No Comments

The sectarian spectre in Gilgit-Baltistan- Part – III

By Aziz Ali Dad in THE NEWS,July 13, 2017
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Gilgit.
Though there was no serious confrontation between different sects in Gilgit-Baltistan during the British period, there were latent sectarian prejudices among the populace. Colonel John Biddulph in his book ‘Tribes of the Hindoo Kush’ recorded some practices and attitudes among Sunni and Shia communities that showed increasing dislike for each other among normally moderate people in matters of religion.

Biddulph served in Gilgit, Yarkand, the Pamir and Wakhan in the 19th century. Writing his observations about Sunnis and Shias, he states: “The people of Chilas…. boast that, though travellers and traders are safe in their country, no Shia ever escapes….” He also provides details about Shia behaviour towards Sunnis in these words: “In Gilgit…the greater proportion were Shias or Maulais, and it is related that any [Sunni] falling into their hands was branded with a hot iron unless he consented to become a proselyte.” Certainly, the attitudes and practices of that time have a strong affinity with the sectarian attitude in Gilgit today.

Although the independence movement of Gilgit-Baltistan is comparatively recent, it is shrouded in mystery owing to the writings of some of its prominent members who were more concerned with cultivating personality cults by reducing objective history into an epic of their heroism to turn the whole historical process in their favour. With the rise of sectarianism and increasing radicalisation, history once again has become victim. So far, no research has been carried out regarding the attitude of different sects during the independence movement. However, there are some oral and written proofs which point at sectarian undercurrents within the composition of leaders and forces of movement of autonomy.

Soon after independence, the revolutionary forces established independent political setup in Gilgit-Baltistan. The former raja of Gilgit, Shah Rais Khan, was appointed as the president of Gilgit-Baltistan and the head of the Gilgit Scouts, Colonial Hassan Khan, as the chief of armed forces. Because of their numerical strength in forces and majority in the region, the ruling elites of this newly born state were mainly comprised of Shias. Since the majority of soldiers and leaders in the war of independence hailed from the Ithna Ashari and Ismaili community, some Sunnis felt that they would be made subservient to the majority’s will. When a section of Sunnis in Gilgit-Baltistan perceived that the elite political and administrative positions were held by Shias, they started to feel insecure. That is why they started to develop a plan for their safety. In the early days of independence, a Sunni delegation under the leadership of a cleric from the Damote village in Gilgit reportedly went to Karachi to meet the Pakistani leadership and discuss the annexation of Gilgit-Baltistan with Pakistan.

Some sections in Gilgit-Baltistan claim that the demand to merge it with Kashmir aims at turning the Sunni minority status into a majority. The roots of these demands can be traced back to the Kashmir conflict in 1948. The Pakistani state appended Gilgit-Baltistan with the Kashmir imbroglio. That is why its constitutional status has remained in limbo for last 69 years. Some analysts see the efforts to link the region with the Kashmir issue by Kashmiri political parties as a covert attempt to turn the Shias into a minority. On the other hand, the Shia community considers itself as the biggest stakeholder in the region, and tries to derive its legitimacy for rule from the fact that there were more Shia and Ismaili martyrs than Sunnis in the Gilgit-Baltistan Freedom Movement.

The post-independence period in Gilgit-Baltistan is marked by new administrative arrangements by the government of Pakistan. Gilgit-Baltistan remained an independent state for 16 days with Raja Shah Rais as its first and last president. He was replaced by a political agent, Alam Khan. Since then, the region has remained under the strong control of the bureaucracy. This is a period when several political movements started against the local rajas of Punial, Nagar and Hunza. In Punial, people agitated against the local raja in 1952, resulting in the killing of five people. Similarly, people stood up against the atrocities of the rajas of Hunza and Nagar in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Some people mark 1971 as the starting point of sectarian violence, which was instigated by the state when the commandant of the Gilgit Scouts intimidated the headmistress of Fatah Bagh Girls Schools. That triggered a violent protest in Gilgit town. When the late Johar Ali and his comrades increase political pressure on him, the resident commissioner sought the help of a particular sect and turned an administrative issue into sectarian one. Some oral sources claim that when Johar Ali held protests and rallies against the intimidation of the local headmistress, the Sunni community did not take a serious interest in these. In the following year, Syed Asad Zaidi made an inflammatory speech against the Sunni community. Later he became the deputy speaker of the Northern Areas Legislative Council (NALC). Asad Zaidi was assassinated on April 20, 2009 in Kashrote.

The first incident of sectarian violence in Gilgit-Baltistan took place not during the rule of General Ziaul Haq, but in the reign of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Some segments in Gilgit-Baltistan accuse Bhutto for initiating the policy of divide and rule. He is accused of abolishing the Gilgit Scouts for fear that they would not follow the orders of the government of Pakistan and prefer to protect their own people. It is during the decade of the 1970 that the issue of the route of the Moharram procession became a bone of contention. Before that it was normal for Sunnis to facilitate the procession by providing water and cloth pieces to the mourners.

In 1972, Sunni leaders demanded that the assembly at the end of the procession be shifted to another place. But the Shia community disagreed with that. Three years later, in 1975, the Shia assembly was shot at from a Sunni mosque. The ensuing events led to the mobilisation of thousands of people from the Chilas, Darel and Tangir valleys to support Sunnis in Gilgit, whereas Shias were mobilised from the Nagar Valley. However, the security forces managed to keep armed supporters at bay from Gilgit city. This is a major event also for its long-term impact as it polarised the hitherto closely knit kinship-based communities in Gilgit on a sectarian basis. Thereafter, people have increasingly started to identify themselves on the basis of sect. The shift in markers of identity paved the way for religious extremism and sectarian violence in the following decades.

Gen Ziaul Haq’s rule is crucial to the history of Gilgit-Baltistan. Immediately after imposing martial law, he declared the region of Gilgit-Baltistan Zone C. By doing so, he extended the subjugating rules to Gilgit-Baltistan. It is ironic that every government extends only subjugating rules, instead of empowering ones. When it comes to empowerment, Zia supported a particular version of Islam and groups that could help him perpetuate his rule. Zia’s time is very important because of the regional and local geopolitical and social dynamics of Gilgit-Baltistan. Bhutto abolished the local Rajgi/Miri system in 1974. Though it was a commendable step, he did not introduce alternative institutions.

Traditionally, the ulema did not have an important role in the decision-making process of the local princely state. Their role was limited to the private sphere. However, Zia’s support to particular religious parties and groups and the existing power vacuum in Gilgit-Baltistan provided an opportunity for the ulema to assert their role in public space. It is a period that witnessed the mushrooming of seminaries and introduction of curriculum that propagated a particular version of faith. The Islamisation process of Zia was welcomed by Sunni leaders thinking that it could protect their interests from the majoritarian politics of the Shia community. (To be continued) https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/216059-The-sectarian-spectre-in-Gilgit-Baltistan

July 13, 2017   No Comments

The sectarian spectre in Gilgit-Baltistan: Part – I: by Aziz Ali Dad in The News, July 11, 2017

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Gilgit.
The issue of sectarian violence in Gilgit-Baltistan cannot be analysed through an idealised view that tends to paint the region as an idyllic paradise where no violence ever occurred before the advent of modernity.

The reality is that sectarian violence has been a part of the history of Gilgit-Baltistan. Throughout history, Gilgit had been depopulated and devastated various times because of intermittent wars between regional polities and different religions. This region was home to different religions, including Bon Mat, Shamanism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and local forms of animism.

Usually, a new religion disturbed the existing arrangements sanctified and legitimised by the dominant religion. The tendency of the dominant religion to use violence against other religious groups essentially stems from its struggle to maintain control over power and the ideological apparatus. This is done by declaring the other religion detrimental to the system. At times, confrontation between different groups in the region appeared in the form of skirmishes, battles and civil wars.

An example of the violent engagement between the old and new religions is evident from the long altercation between the local Balti religion of Bon Chos and Buddhism. The confrontation between both eventually turned into a civil war in the 8th century and continued until the emergence of Ali Sher Khan Anchan in the 16th century. Buddhism exterminated Bon Chos through the power of the sword. So it is a myth that Buddhism is essentially a peaceful religion.

Events in Gilgit-Baltistan took a sharp turn in about the eight century AD. Commenting on this period, Dr Ahmed Hassan Dani writes “in about eighth century AD international politics around Gilgit took a new turn. With this change began the mediaeval history of Gilgit. The Arab advance into Central Asia and their conquest of Samarkand, Tashkent, Farghana and right up to Kashgar created a great stir among the then non-Muslim Turkish population of the region (Gilgit-Baltistan)”. During this period, Islam came to the region. Muslim religious figures and preachers emerged on the historical scene of Gilgit-Baltistan to fill the power vacuum created by the withdrawal of Tibetans and Chinese on the one hand, and changes in the neighbouring region of Central Asia on the other.

Professor Karl Jetmar marks the 12th century as the end of Buddhism in Gilgit-Baltistan. According to local historians, the dynasty of Azar or Shamsher became Sunni through a wave of conversions. The majority of preachers came from Central Asia. However, the situation started to change when the local Raja of Gilgit, Mirza Khan, became Shia. Karl Jetmar in his paper ‘Northern Areas of Pakistan: An Ethnographic Sketch’ writes that: “this was the beginning of a religious division between the local population, causing troubles to the present day.”

Contrary to the common perception in the modern period, when Islam permeated into the indigenous communities of Gilgit-Baltistan, it did not disturb local social order and culture. In fact, it allowed local shamanistic traditions, cultural rituals and festivals to coexist in the same social space. By doing so, it assimilated in the local culture and social milieu. In addition, owing to its rugged geographical terrain and harsh climatic conditions, Gilgit-Baltistan remained almost aloof from the rest of the world, though religious pilgrims from neighbouring regions used to trickle in and out. The isolation and the absence of organised religion allowed local people to develop their own theological and mythical interpretative scheme about self, society and the cosmos.

However, Gilgit-Baltistan society started to change drastically with the advent of the British in the mid of the 19th century. It is wrong to assume that the British were the first invaders and conquerors from outside. Gilgit-Baltistan had witnessed numerous invaders who were later either assimilated with the locals or driven out. What makes the British advent different from previous invaders was that they brought modern institutions, lifestyle and ideas along with their military might, and they did not assimilate with local culture. Until the advent of the British, religious difference was not an issue for the local communities of Gilgit-Baltistan. That is why people did not face sectarian violence.

A new dimension in the power relation was added during the British period in the shape of the Kashmiri establishment. Though they were few in numbers, they were strong and powerful. The addition of the Kashmiri rule to the power relation had long-term repercussions on society, and the emergence of sectarianism in Gilgit-Baltistan. With the conquest of Gilgit-Baltistan in the mid-19th century by the Sikhs, the concept of pure Muslim among was introduced among the local population which till then was following syncretic traditions. The commander of the army was appalled by the practices and rituals observed by nominal Muslims of Gilgit-Baltistan, and intended to turn them into pure Muslims. To turn the local populace into observant Muslims, a cadre of clerics was brought from Kashmir.

There are anecdotal stories of how Muslim mullahs under the Dogras tried to purge local Muslims of their pagan practices and rituals. Frederic Drew closely observed this process and reports that Nathu Shah, the army commander “acquired over these Dards [refers to natives of Gilgit, mainly Shina speakers] a great influence, and he exerted to make ‘good Muhammedans’ of them, to get them to attend more carefully to the forms of their religion. It is a fact that before Nathu Shah came (say in 1842) the Astor people used to burn their dead and not bury them as Muhammedans should.”

From the above discussion, it can be said that the concept of puritan Islam was grafted in Gilgit-Baltistan society during the colonial period. The major issue at that time was not religion but the incessant fighting between different princely states in various valley domains of Gilgit-Baltistan. When the first British officers, Major Van and W Agnew, arrived in Gilgit in the first half of the 19th century, they found Gilgit depopulated because of the continuous state of war with its neighbouring states. The repercussions of the fighting between regional states did not remain confined to the military front, but permeated into every sphere of life ranging from architecture, settlement pattern, representations to literature, music and social ethos.

The arrival of the British on the political scene of Gilgit-Baltistan broke the cocoon of regionalism and exposed it to the outside world. Until then, the shell of inwardness kept the populace immune from exogenous lifestyles, things, ideas and institutions. The opening up of society propelled the region on a trajectory which was new to the local populace. The current phase is the late phase in the path of the historical trajectory of modernity embarked upon by Gilgit-Baltistan during the colonial period.

Unlike the then local rulers of Gilgit-Baltistan, the British dominated every valley of the region as well as large swathes of territory with diverse people around the world. Owing to the complexity and diversity within regional principalities and polities in Gilgit-Baltistan, the British introduced modern institutions and laws that could ensure peaceful rule over the people with minimum efforts and resources. That helped eliminate the local practices of kidnapping, slave trading and vendetta killings from the region. It is during the British rule that people of the region witnessed a modern system that was impersonal, unlike the personal institutions of kinship.

Inter-sect relations during the colonial period were mostly amicable as older identities of region and kinship still superseded other markers of identity. The traditional governance system did not allow any space for the clergy in its power structure. Religious figures were supposed to perform limited religious duties. Within the overall power relations, religion did not have an overt and significant role. Furthermore, the clergy did not even engage in theological issues, for the majority of the people relied on the cultural worldview to deal with their daily lives. A layperson never raised a question pertinent to theology.

The clergy started to become more important when people could not understand the modern order of things and newer issues through their old worldview. Rampant illiteracy and lack of exposure to the outside world provided an opportunity for religious figures to find a niche in society through their power of knowledge, however little, and exert more influence on people’s hearts and minds. (To be continued) www.thenews.com.pk/print/215718-The-sectarian-spectre-in-Gilgit-Baltistan-Part-I

July 11, 2017   No Comments