This Muharram, Sunnis from Gilgit city vowed to protect their Shia brethren during the mourning processions that take place annually at this time of the year. This decision was the outcome of a collaborative process on a community level.
In the weeks leading up to ashura, which marks the 10th day of Muharram, officials from the local government and administration reached out to clerics and community elders. The parties decided that both sides (Shia and Sunni) would observe Muharram peacefully.
Several meetings were held at local administration offices, mosques and other neighborhood venues to spread the word of peace. A major boost to these efforts came when leading scholars from both sects – Shia cleric, Agha Rahat Hussain al-Hussaini, and his Sunni counterpart, Qazi Nisar – their followers to offer their prayers in the other sect’s mosques. This is not the first time Hussaini has made such a gesture towards sectarian harmony. In June 2013, he (along with 200 of his followers) attended a Deobandi scholar’s lecture.
Also setting an example for others to follow were two elders from the Sunni community, Maulana Maqsood and Nisar Wali, who took part in the Shia processions. These actions were well-received by the people in the city, as the word spread to other parts of Gilgit-Baltistan. Following the example set by their leaders, young people from the Sunni community are reported to have taken part in the arrangement and protection of the majlis and various processions.
Not so long ago, this show of religious harmony and solidarity seemed unlikely as a rekindled spate of sectarian killings gripped the region four years ago.
In August 2012, a bus carrying passengers travelling between Rawalpindi and Gilgit was ambushed: 20 Shias were dragged out of the vehicle and shot dead at point-blank range. This was the third incident in six months that year in which Shias were targeted and massacred in the Gilgit-Baltistan region. There were retaliatory killings in Gilgit city and its suburbs, by armed militants on both sides, which escalated the carnage.
As demonstrated in the aftermath of the violent clashes in 2012, the local government and police were ineffective in maintaining peace in the area. The army had to be called in to impose a curfew at that time. "The reason for the local administration’s failure to control the clashes is the association of officers and public representatives to their respective sects," says Mahmood, a senior official who spoke under the condition of anonymity.
“I have three brothers, and I have lost one. I don’t want the killing to continue. Revenge will not bring my deceased brother back. I wish peace on this land,” says Haider Ali, a local shopkeeper in Gilgit city, on a recent October day.
The majority in the valley share Haider’s sentiments. To them, peace and economic prosperity matter the most.
“This Moharram, we have decided we will not let the perpetrators of sectarianism sabotage peace in the valley. We will provide protection to the Muharram processions to make sure our Shia brethren are able to observe it peacefully,” says Abdur Rehman, a young Sunni student.
In the aftermath of these clashes, efforts were made by both the Shia and Sunni communities to relieve tensions and move towards a peaceful reconciliation. Residents hope to leave the violence behind them, as both communities are committed to curbing the menace of extremism and terrorism. This year, there has been considerable improvement in relations, residents say.
Reconciliation efforts in bringing peace through Aman Committees is one mechanism that was adopted in 2013. Built on the concept of community policing, these platforms include local elders and clerics from diverse sects as well as administration officials. Every committee is responsible for protecting residents in its own area, irrespective of caste and creed.
The committees have added a new dimension to how communities interact in society. “Every area and mohalla has its own Aman Committee. We invite residents and scholars on alternate days to discuss the security situation,” says Abdur Rahim, a superintendent of the police in Gilgit.
Another step taken towards maintaining peaceful coexistence between the two sects is to invite volunteers from both Shia and Sunni groups to deliberate and organise security arrangements for Muharram processions.
Zubair, 20, lives in Jutial, located in the upper area of Gilgit city. He attends the processions every day. Though a Sunni, Zubair makes sure to manage security for Shia participants on the occasion. He joined the ranks of citizen police after his area’s Aman Committee asked that people – the youth, in particular – volunteer their services for the processions’ safekeeping.
“I have so many childhood memories with friends who happen to be Shia. I have many class fellows and friends who are not from my sect. Firqawariat (sectarianism) should not keep us away from each other,” he says.
As local Shias, clad in black, walk slowly towards the imambargah, lightly beating their chests in mourning, Zubair walks on the side of the procession attentively. He is not alone, as there are many other young men like him who have volunteered this Muharram to ensure peace in their hometown.
This delicate peace is crucial for the country’s only Shia-majority region. Locals fear the area remains vulnerable to sectarian violence and can implode if the provocation warrants it. Sectarian clashes since the 1980s have been so intense that, on most of the occasions when violence has erupted, a curfew is declared to control the situation.
In the early 2000’s, major clashes occurred due to ongoing tensions over the curriculum being taught at government schools. Members from the Shia community were demanding that the local and federal government include chapters on Shia imams in the Islamic studies textbooks or perhaps a separate reader that traced the Shia version of Islamic history. This point of contention led to a series of boycotts, routine clashes – which were sometimes deadly – and arrests.
The incident which intensified the textbook controversy was the the assassination of a prominent religious scholar, Syed Agha Ziauddin Rizvi, who was injured in an armed attack on Jan 8, 2005. He was known to be a proponent of sectarian harmony in the region. The killing sparked a fresh series of violent incidents – claiming at least 45 lives – and curfews imposed by the army.
It is because of this bloody history that clear lines were drawn to distinguish Sunni and Shia areas. Located on one side of the Gilgit airport, Kashrote and Sonikot are areas known for Sunni residents. On the other side, Basin and Jutial are areas marked as predominantly Shia. Ismailis generally live in the nearby town of Danyor.
The area was not divided on sectarian lines in the past. The first major sectarian clash occurred almost 30 years ago, after anti-Shia riots broke out in May 1988 over the sighting of the moon, which ushers the end of the holy month of Ramzan. When Shias in Gilgit celebrated Eidul Fitr, a group of extremist Sunnis, still fasting because their religious leaders had not announced the sighting of the moon, attacked them. This led to violent clashes between the two sects. In 1988, after a brief calm of nearly four days, the military regime allegedly used certain militants along with local Sunnis to ‘teach a lesson’ to Shias, which led to hundreds of Shias and Sunnis being killed.
This year, however, residents remain hopeful that there will be no violence.
In market places, people gather around sabeels (milk and water stalls) set up outside imambargahs and venues that host majlises. Many Sunnis set up sabeels in their respective areas as well.
“We have always arranged sabeels in Muharram. It is for everyone, Shia or Sunni or anyone else. ‘Gham e Hussain’ is our belief and we mourn the death of the Holy Prophet’s grandson,” says 34-year-old Umar Ahsan, while setting up a sabeel at the entrance of his place in Sonikot.
While driving around during the month of Muharram, one can observe the strong presence of security personnel at key places in Gilgit city. The market rooftops, mosques and imambargahs have a heavy deployment of police and paramilitary Rangers personnel holding guns and keeping a watchful eye on every vehicle passing by. Check posts set up by the Gilgit scouts, clad in light brown uniforms, add a sense of heightened security in the city.
Another major reason why locals are banking on peace in the region is that violence disturbs economic development, and that is bad for everyone.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), for example, has given a hope to the people of the area.
Connecting Pakistan with China, the Gilgit-Baltistan region is expected to play a vital role in the future of this massive economic endeavour. The announcement of developmental projects by the federal government has given much hope to the people, as 450 kilometres of the CPEC route passes through the region. The federal government also announced that it would set up industrial zones and declare Gilgit-Baltistan a free trade zone. Training institutes are also being planned to advance the technical skills of local residents.
Situated near the rocky and barren Chilas area, 180 kilometres downstream from Gilgit city, the Diamer-Bhasha Dam is considered another mega-project that will boost the local economy in addition to relieving the energy crisis in the country. In May 2016, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif inaugurated the Pakistan-China Optical Fiber Cable project in Gilgit, which is a part of CPEC and is scheduled to be completed in two years at a cost of 44 million rupees. Locals view sectarian violence as a threat to these economic opportunities, which have the potential to alleviate poverty.
Muharram is a month of grief, but this time, it brings an opportunity for people in Gilgit and other parts of the region to unite for peace.
The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad and tweets at @ShamilTaimur