The people of Gilgit Baltistan take great pride in their community building – with good reason. Old traditions focus heavily on the community and on the idea of strength formed by the community’s bonds. According to one anecdote, times of epidemics would see the community gathering at the nearest body of water (the stream etc.) to pray for relief and essentially “Wash” the illness out – letting it flow away. Another anecdote reveals another tradition: families would form alliances by bringing together the sons from each family and exchanging their caps. The boys were supposed to be like brothers from then on – closer, even. “As I take your burdens and enemies,” it meant, “you take mine.”
If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard about these traditions before: according to locals I spoke to, the last time such traditions were practiced were a generation ago
In addition, conversations with locals have repeatedly brought up a rising xenophobia with the politically ambitious spreading the fear of absolute assimilation and the destruction of cultural heritage at the hands of progress – and China. This, from a people whose urban residents – until recently – laughed when asked why they didn’t lock their doors at night. When faced with a new and changing world, they like every other community are also latching on to skepticism and fear.
The political, economic, cultural and linguistic alienation that has persisted is a notable failure of previous governments.
But GB’s people are also at fault.
There’s little to no linguistic preservation or written histories – in what’s not dissimilar to indigenous people around the world. While researching indigenous languages I came across a piece by Jon Reyhner who covered a SIL International report: that of 2M people around the world who call themselves “Native American”, only 361,978 speak one of the 154 known indigenous languages – often, spoken only by the very old.
While there have been some texts attempting to draw attention to the history, it is uncommon they’ll gain attention outside GB. And yet, their efforts need to be noted. Because while GB has a tradition of narrating oral histories, as time has proven again and again, there must be significant work done to preserve history, and much of that is reliant on written records and their writers.
Muhammad Rasheed Khan is one such writer. Focusing on both personal history of his own family and the people of Gilgit Baltistan in general, he has tried to record the history that many of GB have grown up only knowing as hearsay or hearing at late night gatherings. One of his books, Jiddo Jahad e Aazadi Gilgit Baltistan (Efforts for the freedom of Gilgit Baltistan) begins with the conquest of Kashmir by Mughal Emperor Akbar. Each section that follows attempts to explain not only the subsequent divisions and unification of it and territories around it, but also to provide historical context for the political situations and each government’s internal conflicts and upheavals. He elaborates on the Dogar rule in what is now Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan, touching on internal politics, civil wars and first contact with the British.
His efforts to set the record straight regarding GB’s history are not insignificant – whether or not they’re recognised is another matter. His work, in a effort to connect with a larger audience, has been in Urdu. But that may also be because there are no books in the multiple dialects and languages of GB – not even in the Shina commonly spoken in Gilgit proper. With no written language, it’s no wonder many young Gilgitis today mix up the multiple dialects and even rely on a heavy smattering of Urdu to communicate.
On the other hand are people like Hazrat Alam Ghulam Naseer – better known as Baba Chilasi. Poets are revered in Gilgit Baltistan – and his spiritual poetry and philosophies are no exception. Unfortunately, despite efforts by his students and disciples, his work hasn’t been popularized elsewhere, at least in Pakistan – while it’s rumored his work is taught in Iran, I haven’t verified this. Again, promotion is either lacking or considered beyond one’s means, with people seemingly willingly trapped by ignorance. Baba Chilasi himself does not publish his work – the poems and teachings that have been collected and published by the aforementioned students, those who have been affected by his words and hope to spread his message.
As a matter of fact, GB generally does remain bemused about outsider fascination, which not only leads to little or far too late awareness of resulting opportunities, but also leads to exploitation.
Discussing his book “The Intellectual and Cultural Property Rights of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Asia”, Dr. Bengwayan points out that Asian indigenous communities are practically endangered to cultural assimilation, facing threats to their lands, resources, and appropriation of their knowledge. GB’s people aren’t dissimilar. “Kill the Indian in him, and save the man” as was the US mindset forcing Native American children into boarding schools in the 19th century. A travesty – since indigenous people have much to contribute to the societies around them, bring valuable advice to contemporary issues, and shouldn’t need to assimilate in order to feel a part of the larger community. They’re real, present, valid. As is the gradual decline of Gilgiti customs and community-building traditions.
A key factor in the survival of these traditions, cultures, and languages according to locals was a much revered isolation – the good old days that GB can no longer afford. It’s easy to blame modernity for this, even when this isn’t necessarily true.
I have written before on this phenomenon, comparing the few aware and broad minded individuals and communities of GB to the Winnebago’s Angel DeCaro – who taught her students to value indigenous artforms by exhibiting white people’s esteem for them. The few who continue to write and preserve Gilgit’s history, culture and legacy know the worth of promoting what surrounding communities consider mundane.
Globally, indigenous people are reclaiming their heritage and identity. With recent developments including the new visa-policy with which the government hopes to facilitate tourism, GB should be doing the same – with the government and the civil society’s support.
With the world growing ever connected, the youth in GB will continue to find new ideals to embody if their own language, culture and heritage are not given importance. Gilgit Baltistan is more than a tourism location. And if there was ever a time for politicians and the government’s education and cultural ministries in particular to put their money where their mouth is and end GB’s alienation – it is now.