“Sectarian thinking is contagious and rapidly spread.”
― Moutasem Algharati
The issue of sectarian violence in Gilgit-Baltistan cannot be analysed through an idealised view that tends to paint the region as an idyllic paradise where no violence ever occurred before the advent of modernity.
The reality is that sectarian violence has been a part of the history of Gilgit-Baltistan. Throughout history, Gilgit had been depopulated and devastated several times because of intermittent wars between regional polities and different religions. This region was home to different religions, including Bon Mat, Shamanism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and local forms of animism.
Usually, a new religion disturbed the existing arrangements sanctified and legitimised by the dominant religion. The tendency of the dominant religion to use violence against other religious groups essentially stems from its struggle to maintain control over power and the ideological apparatus. This is done by declaring the other religion detrimental to the system. At times, the confrontation between different groups in the region appeared in the form of skirmishes, battles and civil wars.
An example of the violent engagement between the old and new religions is evident from the long altercation between the local Balti religion of Bon Chos and Buddhism. The confrontation between both eventually turned into a civil war in the 8th Century and continued until the emergence of Ali Sher Khan Anchan in the 16th Century. Buddhism exterminated Bon Chos through the power of the sword. So it is a myth that Buddhism is essentially a peaceful religion.
Events in Gilgit-Baltistan took a sharp turn in about the eight Century AD. Commenting on this period, Professor Ahmed Hassan Dani writes “in about eighth Century AD international politics around Gilgit took a new turn. With this change began the mediaeval history of Gilgit. The Arab advance into Central Asia and their conquest of Samarkand, Tashkent, Farghana and right up to Kashgar created a great stir among the then non-Muslim Turkish population of the region (Gilgit-Baltistan)”. During this period, Islam came to the region. Muslim religious figures and preachers emerged on the historical scene of Gilgit-Baltistan to fill the power vacuum created by the withdrawal of Tibetans and Chinese on the one hand and changes in the neighbouring region of Central Asia on the other.
Austrian-German anthropologist Prof Karl Jettmar marks the 12th Century as the end of Buddhism in Gilgit-Baltistan. According to local historians, the dynasty of Azar or Shamsher became Sunni through a wave of conversions. The majority of preachers came from Central Asia. However, the situation started to change when the local Raja of Gilgit, Mirza Khan, became Shia. Karl Jettmar in his paper ‘Northern Areas of Pakistan: An Ethnographic Sketch’ writes that: “this was the beginning of a religious division between the local population, causing troubles to the present day.”
Contrary to the common perception in the modern period, when Islam permeated into the indigenous communities of Gilgit-Baltistan, it did not disturb local social order and culture. In fact, it allowed local shamanistic traditions, cultural rituals and festivals to coexist in the same social space. By doing so, it assimilated into the local culture and social milieu. In addition, owing to its rugged geographical terrain and harsh climatic conditions, Gilgit-Baltistan remained almost aloof from the rest of the world, though religious pilgrims from neighbouring regions used to trickle in and out. The isolation and the absence of organised religion allowed local people to develop their own theological and mythical interpretative scheme about self, society and the cosmos.
However, Gilgit-Baltistan’s society started to change drastically with the advent of the British in the mid-19th Century. It is wrong to assume that the British were the first invaders and conquerors from outside. Gilgit-Baltistan had witnessed numerous invaders who were later either assimilated with the locals or driven out. What makes the British advent different from previous invaders was that they brought modern institutions, lifestyle and ideas along with their military might, and they did not assimilate with the local culture. Until the advent of the British, the religious difference was not an issue for the local communities of Gilgit-Baltistan. That is why people did not face sectarian violence.
A new dimension in the power relation was added during the British period in the shape of the Kashmiri establishment. Though they were few in numbers, they were strong and powerful. The addition of the Kashmiri rule to the power relation had long-term repercussions on society and the emergence of sectarianism in Gilgit-Baltistan. With the conquest of Gilgit-Baltistan in the mid-19th century by the Sikhs, the concept of ‘pure’ Muslim was introduced among the local population which till then was following syncretic traditions. The commander of the army was appalled by the practices and rituals observed by nominal Muslims of Gilgit-Baltistan and intended to turn them into ‘pure’ Muslims. To turn the local populace into observant Muslims, a cadre of clerics was brought from Kashmir.
There are anecdotal stories of how Muslim mullahs (clerics) under the Dogras tried to purge local Muslims of their pagan practices and rituals. Frederic Drew who closely observed this process, reports that Nathu Shah, the army commander “acquired over these Dards [refers to natives of Gilgit, mainly Shina speakers] a great influence, and he exerted to make ‘good Muhammedans’ of them, to get them to attend more carefully to the forms of their religion. It is a fact that before Nathu Shah came (say in 1842) the Astor people used to burn their dead and not bury them as Muhammedans should.”
From the above discussion, it can be said that the concept of puritan Islam was grafted in Gilgit-Baltistan society during the colonial period. The major issue at that time was not the religion but the incessant fighting between different princely states in various valley domains of Gilgit-Baltistan. When two British officers — Major Van and W.Agnew — arrived in Gilgit in the first half of the 19th Century, they found Gilgit depopulated because of the continuous state of war with its neighbouring states. The repercussions of the fighting between regional states did not remain confined to the military front but permeated into every sphere of life ranging from architecture, settlement pattern, representations to literature, music and social ethos.
The arrival of the British on the political scene of Gilgit-Baltistan broke the cocoon of regionalism and exposed it to the outside world. Until then, the shell of inwardness kept the populace immune from exogenous lifestyles, things, ideas and institutions. The opening up of society propelled the region on a trajectory which was new to the local populace. The current phase is the late phase in the path of the historical trajectory of modernity embarked upon by Gilgit-Baltistan during the colonial period.
Unlike the then local rulers of Gilgit-Baltistan, the British dominated every valley of the region as well as large swathes of territory with diverse people around the world. Owing to the complexity and diversity within regional principalities and polities in Gilgit-Baltistan, the British introduced modern institutions and laws that could ensure peaceful rule over the people with minimum efforts and resources. That helped eliminate the local practices of kidnapping, slave trading and vendetta killings from the region. It is during the British rule that people of the region witnessed a modern system that was impersonal, unlike the personal institutions of kinship.
Inter-sect relations during the colonial period were mostly amicable as older identities of region and kinship still superseded other markers of identity. The traditional governance system did not allow any space for the clergy in its power structure. Religious figures were supposed to perform limited religious duties. Within the overall power relations, religion did not have an overt and significant role. Furthermore, the clergy did not even engage in theological issues, for the majority of the people relied on the cultural worldview to deal with their daily lives. A layperson never raised a question pertinent to theology.
The clergy started to become more important when people could not understand the modern order of things and newer issues through their old worldview. Rampant illiteracy and lack of exposure to the outside world provided an opportunity for religious figures to find a niche in society through their power of knowledge, however little, and exert more influence on people’s hearts and minds. (To be continued)
Originally published in The News International. We are publishing it on The High Asia Herald pages with the permission of the writer
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Gilgit. He can be reached at <[email protected]>