Speaking at a press conference in Skurdu last Sunday, Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf Chairman Imran Khan urged the Chief Justice of Pakistan to take suo moto notice of targeted killing of members of the Shia community in Gilgit-Baltistan. His party had announced a day earlier that, if brought to power, it would give representation to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan in the National Assembly and Senate. By addressing the two issues, the PTI has struck the right chord with the people of the region. The question is: why have the established political parties, including the ruling PPP that swept the last elections to the Gilgit-Baltistan Assembly, failed to articulate and address these popular concerns?A few days back as I sat with a politically alive friend overlooking the Indus, I didn’t know how to respond to the frustration in his tear-filled eyes. We were discussing the monster of sectarian divisions that is spilling over from a volatile Gilgit and getting bigger even in Skurdu and other districts that have been famous for tolerance and sectarian harmony. The composure of his historical analysis was replaced by intense emotions, as he asked me in a hurtful tone that shook my heart: “Why doesn’t the Chief Justice take suo moto notice of these repeated killings when even minor incidents in the rest of the country catch his attention? Are the lives of our people not precious enough? Are we not Pakistanis?”It was not the first time that somebody had raised the question, though nobody had done it with such intensity. It’s been over six weeks since I’ve been travelling through this heavenly region and my journey has taken me from Chilas in Diamer district to Karimabad in Hunza-Nagar, from the divided town of Gilgit where streets smell of insecurity to the districts of Astore and Skurdu where peace feels as solid as the mountains. Except in the barricaded town of Gilgit where a visitor no longer feels safe to venture out and mingle with random people, I’ve had the opportunity to share thoughts with people from different sects and diverse economic, social and educational backgrounds. It is amazing that despite such diversity, their concerns are not so different.Besides the expectation from the Supreme Court to take notice of the deteriorating situation in their region, the people express a sense of alienation due to a denial of full citizenship rights. Those still sympathetic to the PPP see the present political arrangement introduced under a presidential ordinance as a step in the right direction, while their opponents see it as eyewash. Both agree that it does not go far enough and that important decisions about the region are still taken by the government in Islamabad, and like everything else, the Zardari regime is adding to the problems rather than solving them. The meddling of the Federal Interior Minister in the strategy to control sectarian violence, and his unhelpful statements in that regard are viewed by many as a hurdle in tackling the growing problem.Whoever I spoke with in Astore, whether Shia or Sunni, was frustrated to see their peaceful district being singed by this unholy fire. A friend kept repeating that the source of this evil emanated from Gilgit and repeatedly asked a simple question: “Why is nobody controlling the hatred being spewed in Gilgit by the top sectarian leadership, residing in palatial houses and moving around town in long cavalcades of expensive vehicles and an army of private guards carrying sophisticated weapons? Why does nobody stop them?” When I asked the same question to people close to the region’s government, they said that such major decisions were not taken in Gilgit, but in Islamabad.The top cleric in Skurdu is very different from his counterparts in Gilgit and he is widely credited for keeping the peace in the city. He has clearly renounced targeting Sunni residents of the city as revenge for the Shia killings, saying it is forbidden to attack innocent people who have nothing to do with the crime. Essentially, he is articulating the feeling prevalent among the general populace. People in every district I spoke with, both Shia and Sunni, talk about the ideal relationship between different sects that they have always known in their areas. They talk about their strong friendships and even intersect marriages that they have grown up amidst. They talk about the need to retain this harmony as sectarian strife would not benefit anyone. They sound confused and helpless, as they see things moving in the opposite direction and distances creep in between their clean hearts, despite such positive feelings for each other.The factories of sectarian hatred are not too many and easily identifiable, and they have made a business out of the incidents of targeted terrorism through their divisive interpretations, rousing sectarian emotions and identities. They would like to engulf the peace-loving and tolerant people of the region in the fire started by the evil acts of a few. On this issue, and on the question of full citizenship rights, the local political leadership across party lines is one with their people. Yet, they have not been able to bring their central leaderships around to articulating these concerns and in the case of PPP that rules the roost in Gilgit and Islamabad, to actually do something about it. It is a sad reflection on our established political parties that PTI, a new entrant that is struggling to find a foothold in the region, has taken the lead in giving a voice to what is in the hearts of the people here.

The writer is a freelance columnist.Email: hazirjalees@hotmail.com