IFFRAS - THE INTERSECTION OF RELIGIOUS TENSIONS, POLITICAL STRUGGLES, AND RESOURCE EXPLOITATION IN GILGIT-BALTISTAN

pakistani flag Greek embassy

In late August, large-scale popular protests erupted in Gilgit Baltistan over the arrest of a Shia cleric under Pakistan’s reinforced Blasphemy laws. These protests, resonating with impassioned chants such as “Chalo, chalo Kargil chalo” (Let’s go…let’s go to Kargil), which tore through the atmosphere, were billed as the most significant in the region’s history. Community leaders issued a solemn warning to the Pakistani authorities, expressing grave concerns over the looming spectre of a civil strife. A faction among them even articulated a desire for a potential merger with India.

Agha Baqir al-Hussaini spoke against an Islamic faith leader in front of a gathering of esteemed ulema in Skardu. The assembly was to deliberate upon Pakistan’s proposed augmentation of its blasphemy legislation, ostensibly with the intention of tightening the noose around the Shia community. While Pakistan predominantly identifies as a Sunni-majority nation, it is worth noting that the Gilgit-Baltistan region harbours a significant Shia population.

The inception of this policy shift can be traced back to the era of General Zia-Ul Haq, under whose administration, successive Pakistani governments launched attempts to alter the demographic profile of Gilgit-Baltistan by encouraging Sunni individuals to settle within the region.

In January, Pakistan enacted a significant amendment to its already stringent blasphemy laws, further extending their scope to encompass those who may offend individuals associated with Prophet Muhammad. This pivotal revision now encompasses insults directed towards the companions of the Prophet Muhammad, a category that includes numerous early Muslims of historical significance. One figure at the centre of this contentious alteration is Yazid, whose mention has become a point of contention. It is alleged that Al-Hussaini, in a speech that subsequently led to blasphemy charges against him, uttered curses directed at Yazid, the son of Muawiya. Notably, Hussain, who was the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, met his tragic demise during the Battle of Karbala under the orders of Yazid.

While it is customary among Sunnis to hold all companions of the Prophet in high regard, the same reverence does not apply within the Shia community, particularly concerning figures like Yazid. This distinction arises from the Shia tradition of commemorating the martyrdom of Hussain during the month of Moharram. Consequently, the observance of Moharram becomes a point of contention in regions where both Shia and Sunni communities coexist.

In Pakistan, there has been a recent modification in the legal framework dealing with individuals who express derogatory statements about revered figures within Islam. This amendment has increased the minimum sentence for such offenses from a three-year prison term to a more severe 10-year imprisonment, accompanied by a substantial fine of one million Pakistani rupees. The most stringent punitive measure now in place renders blasphemy an offense ineligible for bail, carrying a life sentence as its penalty.

Earlier alterations to the blasphemy laws had primarily targeted the Ahmadiyya community, previously classified as non-Muslims. Concerns among human rights advocates have been mounting, particularly regarding the potential persecution of minority groups, with a specific focus on the Shia Muslim community, who may hold dissenting perspectives regarding certain early figures in Islamic history. Given Pakistan’s historical record of misusing these laws, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has expressed apprehension that these recent modifications may lead to unjust treatment of minorities and various factions within the country. Such concerns raise the spectre of unwarranted accusations, maltreatment, and the erosion of fundamental rights.

The protest against the arrest of Agha Baqir al-Hussaini was only the latest instance of the popular outburst against Pakistan in Gilgit Baltistan. The residents of Gilgit Baltistan generally share a tortuous relationship with the Pakistani state. A similar protest too place a few months earlier against the extension of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor. Pakistan’s relentless commitment to advancing the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) triggered resentment amid concerns that it would lead to rampant exploitation of the natural resources in the area.

The Pakistan Army was deployed to Gilgit-Baltistan ostensibly to safeguard the local interests. However, contrary to this stated purpose, it appeared to be aiding Chinese interests in the excessive extraction of natural resources, further fuelling discontent among the locals.

Conventional wisdom would claim that the presence of abundant natural resources typically signifies progress and prosperity for a region. Paradoxically, it does not hold true for GB. The region, despite substantial mineral and water resources, with an estimated value in the billions of dollars, has languished in a state of neglect. The population of the area struggle against severe poverty, largely due to the apathy of policymakers towards their plight.

Recently, the Chief Minister of Gilgit-Baltistan, Khalid Khurshid Khan, accused Islamabad of deliberately slashing the development budget for the region to a mere PKR 23 billion—a move seemingly designed to hinder the region’s progress. Under the auspices of CPEC, substantial projects such as mega dams, oil and gas pipelines, as well as uranium and heavy metal extraction, have commenced operations in the region. However, these ventures have come at the expense of local livelihoods and environmental sustainability.

Given that the region plays a pivotal role in providing over half of Pakistan’s drinking and irrigation water, the impact of these projects on the local climate has been particularly deleterious. Local citizens complain that the Chinese projects have led to uncontrollable pollution and irreversible depletion of aquatic ecosystems. Chinese corporations involved in the region paid insufficient attention to the environmental concerns of this delicate ecosystem. Many individuals point fingers at the China Roads and Bridges Corporation, a Chinese firm, for employing environmentally destructive practices in expanding the Karakoram Highway in Gilgit-Baltistan.

The protests in Gilgit-Baltistan, sparked by the arrest of a Shia cleric under Pakistan’s stricter Blasphemy laws, are a historic wake-up call. Chants of “Chalo, chalo Kargil chalo” echo the region’s deep discontent and an audacious desire for potential merger with India. These sentiments trace back to General Zia-Ul Haq’s demographic-altering policies and recent blasphemy law amendments. Beyond religious issues, Chinese interests in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor threaten local resources, exacerbating poverty and environmental degradation. Gilgit-Baltistan’s call for change is a plea for justice, equality, and a better future. It’s time to address the plight of this region and its people.

Copyright Greekcitytimes 2024