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Gilgit-Baltistan: The AQ Khan Proliferation Highway—Part III

(To be read along with “Gilgit-Baltistan: The AQ Khan Proliferation Highway” — Part I , Part II)

The first signs of political ferment against Islamabad appeared in 1971 when an organisation called the Tanzeem-e-Millat (TM) started operating in Gilgit despite the ban on political activities. In 1974, Johar Ali Khan, the founder of the party, called for a strike to demand the repeal of the Frontier Crime Regulations (FCRs) and the recognition of the basic rights of the locals.When the agitation took a violent turn, A.R.Siddiqui, the then Deputy Commissioner, ordered the Gilgit Scouts, a para-military unit raised by the British and with a history of over a hundred years, to fire on the agitators and disperse them. They refused to open fire on fellow-Shias. He then grabbed a rifle from a soldier of the Gilgit Scouts and opened fire on the crowd himself. One agitator was killed and the crowd dispersed.Johar Ali Khan and 15 others were arrested and taken to the jail. A large number of Shias raided the jail and got them freed. They were subsequently re-arrested.

2. Following these violent incidents—the first in the history of the NA since the Pakistan Army occupied it— Zulfiquar Ali Bhutto, then in power in Islamabad, issued a notification disbanding the Gilgit Scouts as a punishment for its refusing to fire on the Shia agitators. The disbanding of the unit hurt the feelings of the Shias. It also threw a large number, who served in the Scouts, out of job.This marked the beginning of the alienation of the Shias of the NA against Islamabad. Tracing the history of the alienation of the Shias of the NA, the “FridayTimes”, a weekly of Lahore, wrote in its issue of October 15-21,1992, as follows: ” The Gilgit Scouts was the only credible law-enforcing agency from pre-Partition times. Northerners generally resent the undoing of this centuries-old institution.”

3. The widespread anger caused by the disbanding of the Gilgit Scouts led to the emergence of a number of anti-Government religious organisations of the Shias. To counter this, the local Army authorities allegedly encouraged the formation of pro-Government organisations by the Sunnis. This injected the poison of religious sectarianism in the NA, which like the rest of Jammu & Kashmir, had historically remained a tolerant society.

4. The injection of this poison led to an anti-Shia carnage in Gilgit in May 1988. This was followed by more anti-Shia incidents in 1990, 1992 and 1993. In its issue of April 1990, the “Herald”, the monthly journal of the “Dawn” group of publications of Karachi, wrote as follows: ” In May 1988,low-intensity political rivalry and sectarian tension ignited into full-scale carnage as thousands of armed tribesmen from outside Gilgit district invaded Gilgit along the Karakoram Highway. Nobody stopped them. They destroyed crops and houses, lynched and burnt people to death in the villages around Gilgit Town. The number of dead and injured was put in the hundreds, but numbers alone tell nothing of the savagery of the invading hordes and the chilling impact it has left on these peaceful valleys. Today, less than two years later, Gilgit is an arsenal and every man is ready to fight. In March 1990, when the Administration raided homes in Gilgit Town to seize weapons, one was reminded of Karachi and Beirut, not Shangri-la. In February and March this year, sectarian violence in Gilgit claimed several lives in the worst flare-up since May,1988.”

5. The “Herald” did not identify “the invading hordes” or their leader. These hordes consisted of Mehsuds and Wazirs from the Waziristan area of the Federally-Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan. Their leader was a man called Osama bin Laden. He was then the blue-eyed Mujahideen of the USA’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). 1988 was the year which saw the end of the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. Before the Soviets announced their intention to withdraw, the attacks by the Afghan and Arab Mujahideens were intensified. An increased number of private flights organised by the CIA brought in more and more weapons for use by the Mujahideen against the Soviet troops. Some of these weapons were diverted by the ISI to the Mehsuds and the Wazirs, who carried out during 1988 the greatest massacre of Shias in the history of the sub-continent since India and Pakistan became independent in 1947. More Shias of Gilgit were killed by bin Laden’s Mehsuds and Wazirs in 1988 than the Shias (Hazaras) killed by the Taliban during the five years of its rule in Afghanistan.

6. Since the support of these tribals and of OBL and his Arab Mujahideen was needed in the culminating battles against the Soviet troops, the Western world maintained a silence on the carnage of the Shias. Till “Herald” broke the story of the carnage two years later, the outside world hardly had an idea of the ferocity of the suppression of the Shias of Gilgit by the Pakistan Army with the help of the invading tribal hordes from the FATA.

7. Writing on the same subject, the “Friday Times” (October 15-21, 1992) said as follows:” In 1988, 150 people were killed when armed lashkars from Chilas and Kohistan— a predominantly Sunni and an exceptionally militant region– raided the Shia-dominated region of Gilgit. After eight days of uninterrupted carnage, the military was finally called in and curfew imposed. Zia-ul-Haq’s regime exploited the Shia-Sunni chasm. The invasion from outside has ignited an inferno of instability that has continued to blaze with the passage of time. It has militarised an otherwise peaceful environment into a ghetto of blind hatreds and animosities.”

8. Twenty-eight Shias were killed in Gilgit Town in May,1992. Latif Hasan, a well-known Shia leader of the Town, was murdered in broad daylight by masked assassins, leading to retaliatory attacks by Shias on the Sunnis, killing six of them. On August 18,1993, 20 Shias were killed in the same town and the authorities had to impose a curfew.

9. Strongly condemning the anti-Shia incidents in the NA, Allama Syed Sajid Ali Naqvi, the chief of the Tehrik-e-Jafria Pakistan, the Shia political organisation of Pakistan, demanded the dismissal of the Inspector-General of Police of the NA. The “Frontier Post” of August 28,1993, quoted him as saying as follows: “Due to wrong policies and inappropriate tactics of the IGP of the Northern Areas, the situation has deteriorated to such an extent that the Pakistan Army had to leave the peaks of Siachen for the streets of Gilgit. The bureaucracy and the authorities of the Northern Areas, who do not have the fear of accountability, have started interfering in the beliefs, customs, traditions and religious affairs of the poor people.”

10. The year 1988 saw not only the “invading hordes” of Sunni tribals trained and motivated by OBL coming down the Karakoram Highway constructed with Chinese assistance in territory, which belongs to India. It also saw the movement of the first heavily-protected convoy of Chinese vehicles carrying Chinese weaponry, including short-range missiles, and nuclear-related equipment down the same Highway.The Karakoram Highway had become AQ Khan’s Proliferation Highway. Many more convoys carrying such material have since come down this Highway—most of them carrying weaponry meant for the Pakistani Armed Forces and some carrying weapons meant for Iran.

11. Iran, which was dependent on this Highway for the movement of some of its military imports from China, chose to maintain a silence on the plight of the Shias of Gilgit. ( 14-9-09) (Continued in Part IV)

(The writer, Mr.B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai. He is also associated with the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )

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