On the morning of July 14th 2021, a bus transporting workers through the mountainous terrain of Kohistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was attacked.The workers, mainly Chinese nationals, were travelling from their place of stay to the Dasu Hydropower project when their bus was intercepted by a car laden with explosives.
In the ensuing suicide blast, nine Chinese nationals were killed along with a few Pakistani workers.
This attack, which is by far the deadliest in terms of Chinese lives lost, is just next door to the disputed region of Gilgit Baltistan (GB), an area through which much of China’s trade into Pakistan moves.
GB is part of the ‘Kashmir territory’ which became a disputed piece of land following the India-Pakistan War of 1947, which was fought over the control over the region.
No group claimed responsibility for the bus attack but the modus operandi reflects it maybe the work of local Islamist militants. Many such extremist groups have proliferated in Gilgit Baltistan in recent years and the Pakistani state has chosen to ignore the matter and has even encouraged this radical Islamist expansionism.
WHY THE ISLAMIST EXAPANSIONISM IN GILGIT BALTISTAN?
The reason behind this rampant Islamization of GB is that the region has predominantly had a Shia majority, a sect of Islam that the Sunni State of Pakistan views suspiciously, since the 1979 Iranian revolution just next door. And to counter this Shia majority and its influence in the region, Pakistan has encouraged Sunni extremist groups to set up shop in the area.
In 1974, the Pakistani government abolished the ‘State Subject Rule’ in GB which protected the local demography, but after its abolishment, Pakistanis from other parts of the country could settle in GB. This was one of the first political moves by the government in Islamabad as part of its Islamization process because most new settlers belonged to the Sunni sect, thereby reducing Shia influence which has gone from over 80% to just 39%, in the last 74 years.
This illegal government-sponsored settlement scheme damaged the social fabric and provoked religious feuds that continue to simmer.
Gilgit Baltistan has witnessed several sectarian attacks aimed at the Shias in the past. The first attack can be traced back to the year 1988 when a large group of Sunni militants raided the land and massacred over 700 Shias. The Pakistan Army which was incharge of the country then,under the dictatorship of Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, stood by silently as this bloody event unfolded in front of their eyes.
In August 2012, as part of a ‘targeted genocide’, multiple gunmen dressed in military uniforms, forced 25 Shia passengers out of the buses they were travelling in and shot them point blank in GB.This was the work of Sunni militant organization, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi. In April the same year, 20 people were killed in an attack in Chilas, Gilgit Baltistan.
PERSECUTION OF SHIAS ACROSS PAKISTAN
The Shia population have been staring down the barrel of a gun, not just in GB but across the country. There are examples of numerous attacks against the Shias in various parts of Pakistan.
Just January this year, 11 Shia coal miners were abducted and shot dead in the Balochistan province by Sunni terrorists. Shia Muslims have often been targeted by Sunni terrorist groups over the years, one of the most brutal attacks happened in 2019 where a suicide attack in a busy marketplace in a Hazara housing society in Quetta, killed at least 21 people. In November 2012, a Talibani suicide bomber killed 23 in an attack targeted at a Shia procession in Rawalpindi. In a similar incident in Karachi, Taliban set off two bombs outside a Shia Mosque. And most recently, a bomb attack on a Shia Muharram procession, left 3 dead and scores injured in Bahawalnagar, Punjab.
Since the turn of the century, there have been nearly 500 incidents of violence against the Shia population, which has led to over 2700 Shia deaths in the country.
A NEW TARGET FOR ISLAMIST MILITANTS: CHINA
But now it seems the same anti Shia militants are expanding their scope by going after international targets. And this can jeopardize the age-old strategic relations between Pakistan and China because the militants seem to have China as their new target.
China appears to have taken due cognizance of the evolving situation and has expressed its concern through strongly worded statements such as the one given out by Chinese state owned media house, the Global Times which stated that China will not shy away from deploying its own troops in Pakistan, if Islamabad continues to fail in protecting Chinese nationals and interest in the region.
Following the bus attack, Pakistan had tried to underplay the seriousness by calling it an accident arising from mechanical failure. This was met with stiff resistance by the Chinese who insisted that it was an attack and even sent its own team of investigators to look into the matter. Thereby exposing the fault lines in the China-Pakistan relationship.
Pakistan has created dedicated brigades for the protection of Chinese interests, namely the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Beijing has time and again extended its resources and its support to Islamabad in its fight against militancy of all kinds. It has invested money into creating and training a new Pakistani security force called the Special Security Divisions (SSDs). Two such outfits have been created with 15,000 troops each from the Pakistani Army.
There has been a growing trend of attacks against Chinese nationals in Pakistan and there are multiple culprits. In April this year, there was a deadly blast at a hotel in Quetta where the Chinese ambassador was staying. Again in July this year, two Chinese nationals were shot at while travelling in a car in Karachi. Like these two incidents, many of the attacks aimed at the Chinese happen in the south of Pakistan where there is an ongoing insurgency by the Baloch population. But the cause of concern for the Chinese is that there is an increasing trend of attacks in the north as well, especially in GB, like the deadly bus bombing.
It has become crucial for China and consequently for Pakistan, to have a tight control over GB.
IS PAKISTAN PLAYING A DOUBLE GAME WITH CHINA?
In a move to impress its investment partner China, Islamabad has now decided to grant provincial status to GB, elevating it from an autonomous status and making it the fifth province of Pakistan. This move by Islamabad, seems to have Beijing’s backing as China stands to profit from this move. Now that GB is a province of Pakistan, China can bypass any issue of investment in a disputed region and also makes it easier for them to purchase land for its projects.
But the Sunni Islamist population that Pakistan has pumped in the region, shall become a spoiler for any Chinese advancements as there ought to be a spillover of Pakistan’s ulterior motives.
But is Pakistan genuinely unable to contain militancy, which has been a result of its own doing? Or is it playing the same double game with China as it did with other international partners where it shakes hands with militants on one side and with international partners on the other. This double game that Islamabad is playing, will not only put the Chinese investment in Pakistan at risk, but such manipulations will also affect the local Shia population who already have felt the brunt of Pakistan’s policies.