Venom  and Vengeance in Gilgit and Kohistan

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Venom  and Vengeance in Gilgit and Kohistan

By: Aziz Ali Dad

In July 2019, four people of Ghizer district were abducted by a Kohistani tribal leader from a meadow in Hundarap valley in Gilgit-Baltistan. The valley borders with Kohistan district of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa.  Later, a FIR was lodged against the abducted persons in Kohistan. The issue was resolved by intervention of different stakeholders. However, on Feb 22, 2020, the judge of sessions court of Ghakuch cancelled the bail of abductor Malik Afreen, and  handed him over to police for physical remand. This has elicited angry response from Kohistan district in the shape of protests.

One of such protest has taken an ominous turn when the speakers in Dassu town of Kohistan district gave sectarian colour to the arrest of their tribal leader and threatened members of a certain sect with dire consequences. The speakers included a tribal leader, notable and cleric. All the speakers have vowed to take revenge of the arrest of their leader at the Karakuram Highway (KKH) by making impossible for specific people to commute. Revenge at KKH refers to the events in 2012 when dozens of passengers form different sects were hauled and brutally murdered on the Karakuram Highway.

The speakers issued open threats of murder to the members of Ismaili community with impunity. It is important to highlight that people of Kohistan belongs to same ethnic and linguistic groups living across the boundary in Gilgit-Baltistan. However, the sanguinary rhetoric points to two important developments that have taken place in Kohistan and Gilgit-Baltistan over last 72 years. First is internal to these societies, and second external in the shape of state policies.

Historically, Kohistan and Shinkari area (Chilas, Darel and Tangir) remained autonomous republics. Karl Jattmar calls these “segmentary republics”. Even after the conquest of Shinkari region by the British, Kohistanis were allowed relative freedom to manage their own affairs through traditional institutions primarily because Kohistan did not matter much in the bigger scheme of the Great Game. As a result, the society remained ossified and xenophobic. The only change that came was permeation of puritan form of Islam, which buttressed the already existing xenophobic attitude towards internal “others”. Thus came a mindset that view the world through exclusivist lens.

Until now the social affairs in Kohistan are managed through tribal council.  With the opening of KKH, the closed valley of Kohistan got connected with the outside world. It was the precise time when society needed to change its orientation. But the votaries of status quo opposed social transformation to protect their vested interest. To enable themselves to fit into the new order of things, the tribal heads, religious leaders, and notables have adjusted themselves with modern arrangement of things such as contesting election for MPA and MNA seats, engaging in timber business, availing loans from commercial banks, jobs and other opportunities. But they did not allow common people to change their fixed traditional roles and tribal mores to make readjustments. Paradoxically, with more connectivity, the society of Kohistan has become more conservative and xenophobic.

A salient feature of the Kohistani society is violence, culture of blood feud and tribal notions of honour.  Jurgen Wasim Frembgen has done ethnographic study of history and political organization in depth. He finds causes for rivalry in “conflicts over grazing rights on the summer pastures.” He claims that “these meadows, sometimes situated in side valleys (as in Shinkari), formed a kind of buffer zone between  the republics, an unsettled area of defense around the borders.” The existing conflict between Ghizer district of Gilgit-Baltistan and Kohistan over a meadow is an atavistic manifestation of cultural instincts that burst forth from time to time in a violent form.

Traditionally, the Kohistani society has aggressively protected its tribal customs by defying any centralized authority. This has allowed space for the individual members of society to commit violence. There was tradition of violence  and enmities in the principalities within Gilgit, Baltistan and Chitral. But because of centralised authority, the individual was not allowed to commit violence at his own whim. In other words, the collective will superseded the individual will. With the gradual co-option of the principalities in Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral under centralised system in colonial and post-colonial state, the erstwhile principalities and societies, surrendered their authority on violence to the state. In other words, the state established monopoly on violence.

Unfortunately, the state of Pakistan adopted another policy regarding Kohistan. Instead of establishing its monopoly on violence, it has allowed the practices that devolves violence to tribes and individuals. Owing to this, the society in Kohistan has witnessed accretion of ideas and practices that can only forestall social transformation. What we are witnessing today in Kohistan is increasing ferocity of tribal practices because of the coupling of radical ideas with lethal weapons. The lethal brew of violence is made by poisoning the mind with sectarian and tribal hatred, and allowing free arms in the area.

Now the poison of sectarianism has permeated into every aspect of society in Kohistan, Diamer and Gilgit. A venomous mind reduces every complex phenomena, multiple identities and diverse traits into single definition and identity. The venom of sectarianism has penetrated so much into the society that its has numbed hearts and minds of the people. One of the effects of venom is that it seeps into body, and numbs the mind and paralyses the body. The social body in Kohistan is dying, but it is named as culture and tradition. The venom of violence and sectarian xenophobia is killing the society of Kohistan from within. The soul might be screaming and complaining in pain that she got trapped in such a venomous mindset of cannibals of Gilgit and Kohistan.

Instead of making us better humans, sectarian affiliations have turned us into cannibals. There is an old myth about a king Shri Badat in Gilgit. He was notorious for eating human flesh. The speeches by Kohistani leaders in the last week of February 2020 are not religious sermons to raise us to sublime heights of humanity, but they are pronouncement of cannibalistic instinct, which has become more ingrained in the cultural mindset. These are howling of wolves baying for the blood of innocent lambs. Strangely, the state has fettered the lambs and allowed wolves to roam freely to search for the prey.

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