Sectarian tensions between the Shia majority and Sunni minority communities of Gilgit-Baltistan are once again in the headlines.
Recently, while addressing an Eid sermon, Shia-majority leader Agha Rahat Hussain invited the Sunni leaders for a mubahila—an early Islamic tradition of debate on righteousness of faith and beliefs.
This invitation was met with a strong response by Rahat Hussain’s Sunni counterparts. Video messages appeared on social media in which Sunni clerics agreed to the debate and settle the matter once and for all! The central Sunni mosque in Gilgit even issued a statement agreeing to the debate and asking to finalize a venue so that the “mubahila” could take place.
The situation took a farcical turn when the central Shia mosque came out with another statement, asking the government of Gilgit-Baltistan to make arrangements for firewood instead of a debate, so that the leaders of Shia and Sunni camp, Aga Rahat and Qazi Nisar respectively, could jump into a fire. The statement went on to declare that the one that emerged alive shall be considered righteous.
This news spread quickly on social media. Memes and sectarian commentaries emerged, adding to the precarity of the situation. The provincial government of Gilgit-Baltistan, however, declared that no such event would be allowed to take place.
This instance reminds one of the time Louis Bonaparte came to power in France with the promise of reviving the political and ideological legacy of his great uncle, Napoleon Bonaparte. Marx described this event as history repeating itself, albeit this time only as farce.
Shias leaders inviting their Sunni counterparts for debates in Gilgit-Baltistan is nothing new. Rahat Hussain’s predecessor, Agha Ziauddin Rizvi lost his life for such a cause. Rizvi constantly exchanged letters with his Sunni counterparts. Before he was murdered in 2005, Rizvi asked close confidantes to publish the letters that he exchanged with Sunni cleric Qazi Nisar Ahmed in the form of a book.
The book Ayeena-e-Haqeeqat (The Mirror of Truth) was published posthumously by Rizvi’s descendants, only to be banned after some time by the Home Department of Gilgit-Baltistan on the grounds that its contents might intensify the Shia-Sunni rift in the region.
Since 1970s, Islamabad’s policy vis a vis Gilgit-Baltistan has been to remain a spectator in the face of growing sectarian violence
Rizvi was a learned scholar; someone who advocated for the Shias and Sunnis to come closer through dialogue. In his first letter exchanged with a top Sunni cleric in Gilgit-Baltistan, Rizvi asked for permission to appear in a Sunni congregation so that matters pertaining to Shia-Sunni unity could be discussed. Numerous letters were exchanged between Rizvi and his Sunni counterparts in Gilgit-Baltistan, but before any tangible outcome, Rizvi was murdered and the region was once again consumed by sectarian violence.
What spurred Rizvi’s assassination is not difficult to comprehend. Since the 1970s, Islamabad’s policy vis a vis Gilgit-Baltistan has been to remain a spectator in the face of growing sectarian violence. The main goal was to keep social and political movements in check so that regional solidarities aiming for political recognition in Pakistan’s constitutional and federal framework could be thwarted.
By pitting the local Shias against Sunnis, by changing the demographics to “Sunnify” the region and by giving unbridled authority and power to the subversive sectarian clergy on both sides, Islamabad was able to keep Gilgit-Baltistan in a state of exception. In 1974, Pakistan allowed people from outside of Gilgit-Baltistan to buy lands and properties by scrapping state-subject rule in the region— a legislation enacted by Maharaja Hari Singh in 1927 to prevent non-locals from owning land and property in erstwhile Gilgit agency. At that time, the Gilgit agency was under the suzerainty of the Dogra raj government in Kashmir. When the issue of Kashmir was taken to the United Nations by Pakistan and India in April 1948, the resolutions entailed that no change in status quo shall be made until the plebiscite is held. Yet, Pakistan changed the status quo in Gilgit-Baltistan.
This exacerbated sectarian tensions as it added to the perception of the predominant Shia majority that the state wanted to turn their numerical strength into a minority. With the arrival of non-local Sunnis, sectarian tensions flared, erupting in various episodes of gruesome violence.
With the murder of Aga Zia Uddin Rizvi, sectarianism became an inevitable pattern of social life in Gilgit. Now, it has reached a point where even everyday governmental decisions are largely dictated by sectarianism. Educational institutes, bureaucracy and even cultural festivals are not safe from the monster of sectarianism. It has seeped into the very core of social life in Gilgit-Balitstan.
Rizvi gave his life for a greater cause; to unite different schools of thoughts in Gilgit through intellectual debates and dialogues. History is repeating itself in Gilgit-Baltistan. This time albeit as farce.