When you reach Babusar Top which is some thirteen thousand feet above sea level, you see two different landscapes on two sides of the same mountain. Here Khyber Pakhtunkhwa ends and Gilgit division of Gilgit-Baltistan region starts. On KP side you will find sprawling meadows with cattle almost everywhere. Downwards, towards the Gilgit side, the district of Diamer starts. The landscape is in stark contrast to the KP side of the mountain as the area is marked by rocky and steep terrain. Not just the area, you will find that the people are of rough and tough nature as well. This is a tribal area and the people are religiously conservative. Many Madaris (plural of Madrassah) are working in the area imparting religious education. One can still find some houses with outposts to use firearms against opponents. In the past almost every house used to have such kind of outposts.
Diamer District has three major parts or units such as Chilas, Darail and Tangeer. On August 2, 2018 some unknown militants simultaneously vandalized and burnt some thirteen government schools in all three units of the Diamer District. Half of the targeted schools were imparting girls’ education. A subsequent hunt for the culprits resulted in death of a local militant commander Shafiq who was the son of a late local influential cleric, and led to the arrests of many others with the help of local tribesmen. No militant group claimed responsibility or issued any kind of statement in favor of or against the incidents. It was a surprise attack in which almost all the culprits were local militants indoctrinated by extremist ideology of Takfeer and Khrooj.
Apparently it was in line with usual practices of anti-Pakistan militant groups who oppose modern education especially education for girls. Attacks on the government schools prior to Operation Zarb-e-Azb was a norm in FATA. The concept behind this approach is that modern education spreads ‘secularism’ which endangers religion. Contrary to the practice, one finds many militant commanders who have graduated from modern educational institutions, which implies there may as well be some other reasons behind targeting government educational institutions.
One cannot ignore the fact that all these attacks on government schools took place around CPEC route. Well-coordinated attacks in all three Tehsils of Diamer District of GB cannot be considered an isolated incident from the conspiracies against the project. Last year at least 12 militants with the intent to target CPEC projects were arrested along with arms and ammunition. They belonged to Draweristan movement seeking a separate homeland in Northern areas. Later it was revealed that the effort was funded and sponsored by India.
It is worth noting that displacement of the militants from FATA took place in many directions after the successful Operation Zarb-e-Azb and one of the area of displacement was Shangla, Battagram and Diamer which makes an arc around the CPEC route. Anti-Pakistan forces always try to exploit weak points in local areas. However, Pakistan Army had already comprehended the situation and launched recruitment drive in the area. Now many soldiers from the area are serving the motherland on the front line against terrorists. The impact was such that local tribesmen worked day and night to force the culprits to surrender and the key commander – Shafiq – was also reportedly killed by the relatives of martyred policeman who was killed in an attack in the outskirts of Gilgit a few days after the incident of school burning.
The encouraging aspect is that local population fully supported the action against the culprits of school attacks. Taking local elders onboard with a comprehensive strategy of promoting education in the area can yield long-lasting impact.
Apart from the fact that the incident of burning of schools in Diamer has a strategic dimension of anti-state forces, one cannot deny that the extremists working in the name of religion are forces of darkness who would love to keep people ignorant to exploit their religious feelings. This underscores the importance of education in fighting extremism and terrorism. It is common practice for extremist groups to recruit less educated and less-exposed youth to their ranks and files in the name of religion. Even religious education is not properly imparted the way it should be and we produce somewhat half-cooked or half-baked clerics who play with the religious sentiments of the people. Compulsory religious education should be incorporated in general syllabus of modern education so that the dependence on traditional clergy regarding religious education ends and our youth becomes well aware.
There are some parts of GB where literacy rate is 100% while areas like Diamer need special attention of GB and the Federal Government. Despite being a unique and beautiful area, Diamer could not become a tourist hub contrary to some other parts of GB region that are attracting tens of thousands of tourists every year. Investment in education sector and promoting tourism will help eradicate prevailing conservative environment of the area and also pave way for development.
It is pertinent to note that not just in Diamer, but everywhere in the country we will have to prioritize education at the top. We cannot comprehensively fight the menace of terrorism unless we properly educate our population. The word “properly” is emphasized because poor education is also part of the problem. The good thing is that newly elected Federal Government has announced education as its top priority. If implemented, it will have far-reaching impacts including the reduction in extremist tendencies in the society.
Having said this, we cannot ignore the fact that GB area may remain a focus of anti-state and anti-CPEC forces and the weak points could be exploited. We will have to remain vigilant and steadfast in our security and counter-intelligence measures.
The writer is Managing Director at Pakistan Institute for Conflict and Security Studies. He is an expert on militancy and regional security.
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