Sectarianism in Gilgit-Baltistan Region

Dr.Vivek Kumar Mishra

Sectarian conflict is not a new phenomenon and has existed in the culture of the sub-continent for many centuries in one form or the other. In its literal meaning, sectarianism refers to a rigid adherence to a particular sect. It often implies discrimination, denunciation, or violence against those outside the sect.

The term is most often used to refer to religious sectarianism, involving conflict between members of different religions or denominations of the same religion. Sectarianism may, in the abstract, be characterised by dogmatism and inflexibility, sentimental adherence to an idea, belief or tradition and idealism that provides a sense of continuity, orientation, and certainty. A sectarian conflict usually refers to violent conflict along religious and political lines. It implies political conflict between different schools of thought such as that between Shia and Sunni Muslims.

In Gilgit-Baltistan, sectarian conflict is a matter of deep concern because it is damaging the fabric of society and is becoming a potent existential threat.1 It has risen phenomenally in the region over the past few decades and has extended beyond sporadic clashes over doctrinal issues between Sunnis and Shias and metamorphosed into political conflict around mobilisation of group identity,2 with relations among different religious sects and ethnic groups becoming potentially divisive. One irresponsible move against any particular group can easily ignite emotions and shatter relative peace and harmony.3

Political Development in the Gilgit-Baltistan

Gilgit-Baltistan region has never been represented in the Pakistani Parliament. It became a separate administrative unit in 1970 under the name “Northern Areas” and an Advisory Council with 14 elected members was set up, which was subsequently converted into the Northern Areas Council in 1975. It however was devoid of any legislative or executive powers and was presided over by an Administrator appointed by Islamabad.

It was formed by the amalgamation of the former Gilgit Agency, the Baltistan district and several small former princely states, the larger of which being Hunza and Nagar.4 The region was named “The Northern Areas of Pakistan” and placed under the direct control of Islamabad. Unlike Pakistan’s four provinces, the region has no political representation in the parliament or the federal cabinet and no status under Pakistan’s constitution.

On 29 August 2009, the Gilgit-Baltistan Empowerment and Self-Governance Order 2009, was passed by the Pakistani cabinet and later signed by the then President of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari.6 The order granted self-rule to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, by creating, among other things, an elected Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly and Gilgit-Baltistan Council.

Gilgit-Baltistan thus gained a de facto province-like status without constitutionally becoming part of Pakistan. However, the real power rests with the governor and not with the Chief Minister or elected assembly.7 Currently, Gilgit-Baltistan is neither a province nor a state. It has a semi-provincial status. It is neither a part of what Pakistan calls Azad Kashmir nor is it a province of Pakistan. In fact, Pakistan’s Supreme Court pronounced in 1994 that these areas “are part of Jammu & Kashmir state but are not part of Azad Kashmir.



Gilgit-Baltistan is a multilingual, multicultural and ethnically diverse region. The Shia, Sunni, Ismaili and Nurbakhshi are the four major sectarian groups, found in the region, the Shias at 39 percent being the majority population, followed by the Sunnis with 27 percent and the Ismaili and Nurbakhshi with 18 and 16 percent respectively.

The geographical distribution of the sects reflects the spatial trajectories of Islamisation: The southern district of Diamer is exclusively Sunni. Nagar in the North and Baltistan in the East is mostly Shia (with a small minority of Nurbakhshis) while Ismailis prevail in Hunza in the North and in Ghizer in the West. The city of Gilgit, being the political and economic centre of the region, which stands at the geographic crossroads of movements from all directions, is religiously mixed. It is roughly estimated that the three major sects are almost equally represented in Gilgit.10Skardu has a predominantly Shia population.

Factors Leading to Conflict

All communities in Gilgit-Baltistan were living peacefully in communal harmony till the 1970s as per the Kashmiri tradition prevalent before 1947. Sectarian conflict reared its ugly head only post 1970 and remains a major cause of concern. The factors responsible for the growth of sectarian conflict are:

Theological Differences between Shia and Sunni

To understand the sectarianism in GilgitBaltistan it is necessary to have at least a cursory understanding of the divisions within the Islamic faith. Islam has two main branches: Shiaism and Sunnism.11The Sunni population subdivides into four major streams – Deobandis, Barelvis, Ahl-e-Hadith and Wahabis, within which there are dozens of subgroups.12 Each sect has its own madrasas in which their own version of Islam is taught.

The crux of their differences is rooted in the question of succession and leadership of Muslims after the Prophet’s death in 632 A.D. The bone of contention between the Shias and the Sunnis has historically been a dispute over questions of legitimate authority. The Sunnis regard the first four rulers, following the Prophet’s death (Abu Bakr, Omar bin Khattab, Osmab bin Affan, and Ali Ibne Abu Talib), as not only legitimate but also as “pious” and “righteous” caliphs worthy of great reverence.

The Shias consider Ali Ibne Abu Talib alone to have been a legitimate ruler and treat his three predecessors as usurpers. They also believe that the first three caliphs were not really true to the Prophet and his mission. Allegedly they speak ill of them in various other ways in their own gatherings and some of them use insulting vocabulary in referring to them. The Sunnis find these Shia attitudes and interpretations to be intolerably offensive. Sunnis regard Ali as one of four “righteous” Caliphs. One of the major issues of conflict between the two sects is the question of acceptance of the legitimacy of the caliphate.

To the Shias, most of the companions of the Prophet (sahaba), conspired after the Prophet’s death to dispossess Ali (his son-in-law), and after him his descendants, the imams, of their divinely ordained right to the Muslim community’s leadership. In the Shias view of history, these companions, and their successors, were hypocrites and usurpers who never ceased to subvert Islam for their own interests.

Public display of mourning is an essential part of Shia faith, particularly during Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, when they commemorate the Battle of Karbala (680, in Iraq) in which the Omayyads killed the Prophet’s grandson, Hussain, and his family. For Sunnis, especially Deobandis and Ahle Hadith, these Shia beliefs and ceremonies are an insult to their religious sensibilities.


There are also differences of opinion about the merits and functions of the successor to the Prophet. “The Sunni Islam considered the Caliph to be a guardian of the Sharia in the community, while Shias saw in the “successor” a spiritual function connected with the esoteric interpretation of the revelation and the inheritance to the Prophet’s esoteric teachings.”18 In contrast to the Sunnis, the institution of Imamate is fundamental to the Shia Islam.

“The Imam, besides being a descendant of the Prophet, must possess certain qualities. He must be sinless, bear the purest and cleanest character, and must be distinguished above all other men for truth and purity.”19 Whereas, “Sunnis believe that Imamate is not restricted to family of Mohammad, imam need not be just, virtuous, or irreproachable in his life, nor need he be most excellent or eminent being of his time, so long as he is free, adult, sane, and possessed of  capacity to attend to ordinary affairs, he is qualified for election.”

Later, both the Shia and Sunni schools further split into several sub-sects on different issues related to succession, interpretation of scriptures and political theory of Islam. Each sect blames the violent activities of the other as the reason for its own existence. The fundamental problem of the sectarian organisations is their sectarian identity which cannot be used as an ideology for political mobilisation.

General Zia-ul-Haq’sIslamisation Policy

The Islamisation policy of General Zia was state enterprise based on a series of reforms intended to turn Pakistan into a truly Islamic state.21 A highlight of General Zia’s Islamisation programme was the imposition of Zakat, (an Islamic tax) which the government decreed would be automatically collected from people’s bank accounts.22 Shia and Sunni schools of law differ quite markedly in their stipulations on Zakat, as in many other areas of law.23 The government’s decision to impose Zakat and Ushr(farming tax) ordinances according to the prescriptions of the Hanafi school of Sunni law, created intense resentment among the Shias and proved to be a powerful stimulus towards their political mobilisation in Pakistan. The implementation of the Sunni Hanafifiqh thus became the starting point of Shia resistance in Pakistan.24 Pakistan’s Shia minority, who demanded to be exempted from the tax on religious grounds, fiercely resisted General Zia’s attempts.

Following large demonstrations in 1980, they were exempted from the tax but this sowed the seeds of anti-Shia sentiments and a growing sectarian violence. Over time, these differences were manifested in a growth of new types of movements which were virulently anti-Shia. In 1980, the clash over the Zakat issue led to the formation of a Shia movement called the Tehrik-i-Nifaz-i Jafaria Pakistan (TJP).

Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Fiqh-e-Jafaria’s (TNFJ’s) emergence also marked a radical shift in the intra-Shia scene as the centre of gravity of Shia politics, traditionally associated with big landlords, shifted to the Shia Ulema and the younger militant groups. The increasingly confrontational and aggressive posture of TNFJ, however, led to a Deobandi Sunni backlash that took the form of Sipah-e-Sahaba Pakistan(SSP), founded in 1985.

The SSP, under the leadership of Haq Nawaz Jhangvi, started a hard-line anti-Shia agenda and demanded that Shias be termed infidels.27 Thus began the strife between the (Shia) TJP and the (Sunni) SSP, in which leaders and followers alike were killed in bloody encounters and outright assassinations. When the SSP leader was killed in 1990, an even more violent offshoot was created in his name, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LJ). The formation of the LJ in turn sparked the formation of another militant Shia organisation, Sipah-e-Mohammedi Pakistan (SMP) in 1993.28 Both the LJ and the SMP are more ruthless than their parent organisations (SSP, TJP). In particular the LJ has proved to be the most violent sectarian organisation ever to have existed in Pakistan.29

General Zia’s time is very important to the geopolitical and social dynamics of Gilgit-Baltistan.  Immediately after imposing martial law, Zia extended the subjugating rules to Gilgit-Baltistan and supported Sunni Islam to legitimise his rule. However, Zia’s support to particular Sunni parties and groups and the existing power vacuum in Gilgit-Baltistan provided an opportunity for the ulema to assert their role in public space.30


Gilgit-Baltistan is legally and constitutionally an integral part of India. Unfortunately, successive Indian governments have maintained a stoic silence over the happenings there. Sectarian violence in the region is an attempt by the Pakistani establishment to deny the local residents their legitimate rights by embroiling them in internecine war.

By denying Gilgit-Baltistan constitutional identity, depriving its residents of political rights and recourse to justice and administering it through a highly centralised bureaucracy, Pakistan has created an environment in which increasing numbers, particularly youth, have no outlet to express themselves except through sectarian conflict.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mention of supporting voices from Balochistan and Gilgit during his 2016 Independence Day speech was seen as a positive signal of a shift in Indian foreign policy. India needs to explore mechanisms to communicate its support to Gilgit-Baltistan’s people. It is high time that India’s diplomatic channels reach out to the voices of Gilgit-Baltistan.



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