BUILDING peace in Gilgit-Baltistan is not a matter of virtue or high moral principle; it is one of necessity and the survival of the people of the region.
Building and sustaining peace is an ongoing process of reform with no clear beginning or end, but introducing a set of reforms is a necessary condition towards the settlement of sectarian issues.
The generic policies introduced by the government of Gilgit-Baltistan in the last two decades have failed to address the issue of sectarian violence.
The reason seems simple; the government was unable to identify the prevalent market and government failures; and thus couldn’t design relevant public policies to address these failures.
Although, given the severity of the problem, a whole laundry list of failures can be presented, the following four, being the mother of all other policy lapses, merit our attention.
First, there can be a causal relationship between sectarian violence and socio-economic factors. Sectarian violence can impede the process of development whereas few economic opportunities have the potential to exploit the situation to generate violence.
According to Hussain Asghar, a former inspector general of the Gilgit-Baltistan police, the high unemployment rate coupled with the high literacy rate is one of the reasons for sectarian violence in Gilgit-Baltistan.
As development funds have more often than not been diverted towards security needs, the government of Gilgit-Baltistan has been unable to match employment opportunities with the burgeoning labour force.
Likewise, the shrinking of both the tourism sector and of non-profit ventures, which were the major source of employment, is deepening the crisis.
The reverberations of this unmanaged recession are manifesting themselves in the form of sectarian violence. However, the government has not even taken up a single policy reform to address this cause of sectarian violence.
Second, in the past, religious bigotry, myths, misinformation for private gains, and lack of trust had been at the centre of the problem.
Nosheen Ali, a professor at Stanford University, in her study on sectarian violence in Gilgit-Baltistan, focused on a classroom situation in Gilgit city where the students were asked to specify their sect on a form: “In my class, I noticed that children were now more aware of each other’s sect. They started to self-segregate, with Sunni ones sitting and socialising with other Sunnis, Shias with Shias, and so on. Several teachers noticed this tendency in their classrooms.”
Imagine the future of these primary school kids who were interacting with their classmates through suspicion and resentment. This ‘sectarian imaginary’ originates from myths — the myths about other sects these students hear either from older people in the streets or from their own parents.
And sooner or later these myths will become the reason for violence of which the residents of Gilgit-Baltistan have been the victims for the last two decades.
Moral suasion that has been the only policy to address this failure seems to be inadequate and a more nuanced policy that also targets curriculums to enhance critical thinking would be appropriate.
In addition, according to one study, democratic governance plays an important role in sustaining peace within societies. While introducing the concept of bad leaders, this study considers them responsible for state failure, which seems applicable to the leaders of Gilgit-Baltistan.
During an episode of intermittent sectarian strife some time back, the head of the Gilgit-Baltistan government couldn’t even make himself available in the region.
The so-called religious leaders are alleged to have hijacked the system by threatening and blackmailing the government for their own sectarian interests. The government seemed paralysed and finally the army stepped in to handle the security situation.
It was a complete failure of democracy as representatives of the people couldn’t voice their voters’ interests. For some, the kind of sectarian influence exercised would rival that of a government.
In such a scenario, the public policy should be to reduce the self-proclaimed arbitrary powers of the clergy while empowering the elected representatives. However, in stark contrast to policy requirements, the government is actually empowering the de facto rulers — the clergy — by constituting ulema boards.
The bottom line is, the democratic system in Gilgit-Baltistan presents itself as a candidate for a major revamp that should include the possibility of a power-sharing formula between the two major sects.
Finally, more often democracy failures are accompanied by bureaucratic failures as a result of a principal-agent problem. The principal is the elected representative in this case, and is weak, thus creating an opportunity for the bureaucracy to shirk its responsibilities.
Working for sect-based interests in the bureaucracy has interrupted the transparent system leading to massive corruption that I call the violence corruption. Violence corruption is widespread, systematic and often interlinked, yet another barrier in building sustainable peace in the region.
Take one instance. According to official estimates; the government of Gilgit-Baltistan spends Rs600 million annually for maintaining peace.
The peace maintenance package includes increased salaries/allowances, luxurious vehicles for officers’ use, rent-seeking opportunities and lack of proper monitoring and accountability mechanisms, thus creating room for massive corruption.
Therefore, the bureaucracy might deliberately affect the peace-building process by creating barriers which involve incompleteness and vagueness in agreements, and lack of coordination between those who mediate peace agreements and those who must implement them. Hence, the bureaucracy failure leads to implementation failure.
Peace in Gilgit-Baltistan might not prevail without the existence of an honest and well-oiled bureaucracy, and therefore, attaching priority to merit and introducing legislation for accountability and transparency in policies would go some way in reversing the situation as it is today.
The writer is a doctoral student at the Claremont Graduate University, Los Angeles.