August 31, 2023
By Ahmed Saeed
Gilgit Baltistan, a serene region known for its natural beauty, has been witnessing unrest over the last 10 days due to waves of protests by Shia and Sunni groups.
Initial protests began on August 20, when Sunni organizations launched a rally in Diamer and Chilas against a prominent Shia cleric, Agha Syed Baqir Hussaini. Sunni groups accused Hussaini of blasphemy and urged the authorities to register a First Information Report (FIR) against him.
Skardu Police initially resisted the registration of an FIR, fearing backlash from the Shia community. However, on August 23, an FIR was formally lodged against Hussaini under sections Sections 298 and 295-A of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC).
“This led to the start of region-wide demonstrations by the Shias, which gained momentum after a rumour suggesting that the police would arrest Hussaini soon. The protestors are demanding that the authorities withdraw the FIR,” a local journalist, Faheem, told Voicepk.net.
Demonstrators belonging to either group also staged sit-ins on different sections of the Karakoram Highway, causing temporary disruptions to traffic to and from Islamabad. Many tourists remained stranded in Chilas with little food and water.
The Gilgit Baltistan government attempted to diffuse the situation by activating inter-sectarian peace committees, however the Shia community has insisted upon withdrawing the FIR to end the agitation.
In response, Sunni groups also took to the streets, calling for the arrest of the accused Shia cleric.
Sensing the gravity of the issue, the Gilgit Baltistan government has deployed Rangers and GB Scouts to maintain law and order, as well as issuing directives to government employees to refrain from posting any incendiary content online. In this regards, three officials have already been suspended for posting posting such material on their social media accounts.
Local journalists and rights activists warn that the situation is still tense, and that the government has not taken any serious measures to curtail sectarian hatred. They fear that that if the situation persists, sectarian clashes may break out in the region.