Paper 289 07.08.2001
Before the recent Agra summit, Gen.Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's self-reinstated Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), self-styled Chief Executive and self-promoted President, had held a series of consultations with political and religious leaders of Pakistan, including Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir (POK), on his negotiating strategy at Agra. As we had mentioned in our reports on the subject available at www.saag.org , significantly, he did not invite any representative of the Pakistan-Occupied Northern Areas (Gilgit & Baltistan) for these consultations.
Reports available since then indicate that his decision not to invite anyone from the Northern Areas was due to the fact that Gilgit was in a serious state of unrest for a fortnight from the last week of June,2001, due to protests from Sunni organisations over the decision of the local administration to introduce different text-books in the schools for the Shias, who are in a majority in Gilgit, and the Sunnis. Embarrassed by the outbreak of the violence before the summit, the Pakistani authorities stopped all movements between Gilgit and the rest of Pakistan and imposed strict censorship on the publication of the details of the incidents in Gilgit.
The riots in Gilgit started on June 23,2001, when there were clashes between the workers of the extremist Sunni organisation Sipah Sahaba Pakistan (SSP) and law enforcing agencies following the arrests of some SSP leaders, who demanded that Shia students should study the same books as are prescribed for Sunni students by the Sunni Ulema and not separate books approved by the Shia clergy.
The Sunni traders started a shutter down strike in protest against the arrests of the central Khateeb and Ameer Tanzeem-e-Ahle-Sunnah-al-Jamat, Maulana Nisar Ahmed, and the President of the Gilgit branch of the SSP,Himayat-ullah, along with other religious scholars on the night of June 22.
To disperse rioting SSP members, the police first baton charged and when the SSP cadres retaliated by pelting stones, they fired tear-gas shells intermittently for nearly two hours, which resulted in a large number of casualties. A curfew was imposed and para-military forces were deployed to enforce it.
Thousands of protesting activists of the Ahle Sunnah blocked the roads in Gilgit City and Kohistan to prevent the movement of reinforcements, which were then rushed to the affected areas by helicopters, The Army then forcibly removed the demonstrators from the roads and used bulldozers to remove the barricades erected by them.
Subsequently, about 500 activists of the SSP surrounded the Gilgit City Police Station, demanded the release of the arrested Sunni leaders and defied an one-hour ultimatum to disperse issued by the Army.Brig.Zahid Mubashir, the Station Commander at Gilgit, then rushed to the Police Station and tried unsuccessfully to persuade the demonstrators to disperse. Later, he withdrew the Army to the barracks and let the local Police handle the inflamed situattion.