Governance structure in Hunza state

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Governance structure in Hunza state

Hunza’s importance as a strategic area ascended during the Great Game, when rivalry between the British Lion and Russian bear was on the rise. Many writers examined various aspects of Hunza state. William Lockhart, Gottlieb Wilhelm Leitner, John Bidduplh, Francis Edward Younghusband, Aurel Stein, Algernon Durand, Reginald Schomberg and many others visited Hunza, but their purpose and frequency of visits varied. Some of them documented the local customs, folk stories, languages and geography while others studied political relations and geo-strategic proclivities prevalent in Hunza. Espionage and secretive work was the central motive of many travelers, who worked for the British Empire.

Ali Gauhar- Arbab of Ghulkin. Source: The Gilgit Mission 1885-86–photo provided by the author

What remains missing in academic discourse is the detailed study of internal administration and governance of areas such as Hunza- which have remained part of the great game in manifold ways.

This article will try to expound a basic framework to understand the governance structure and mechanisms that existed in Hunza state. The ruler of Hunza was known as ‘Thum’ by majority of his subjects. Those living in the upper parts of Hunza referred to him as ‘Mir’. Although the ruler of Hunza was the final authority in the state, but the opinion of his cabinet members could not be brushed aside. Both external affairs and internal administration needed prudent policy inputs. Internal administration in Hunza included selection of village chieftains, land allotment, issues of irrigation and tribal conflict resolution etc.

After Thum, the position of the Wazir (minister/adviser) remained most powerful, as he closely aided the ruler of the time. Regarding Wazirs in Hunza, The Gazetteer of Kashmir and Ladak (1890) mentions: “The wazirs of Hunza, by name are Dadu, and of Gujal, Sarhang Muhammad, are immediately under the raja.” This was during the time of Safder Ali Khan. When in 1891 Safder fled to China, Humayun Baig wasted no time in helping the British install Safder’s half-brother Muhammad Nazim Khan as the new ruler of Hunza. He himself became Wazir of the new ruler. After Nazim’ death in 1938, his son Ghazan Khan II ruled Hunza for seven years. In 1945 it is alleged that Ghazan’s eldest son Jamal became the ruler through regicide, with the help of a Wazir. Throughout Hunza’s history some wazirs have indeed played a crucial role in changing rulers.

Left to right: Wazir Humayun Baig and the ruler of Hunza- Muhammad Nazim Khan- 1890s. Source: The Making of a Frontier by Colonel Algernon Durand–photo provided by the author

First published in 1973, in the book Macartney at Kashgar, the authors state that: “The Mir of Hunza had sent an agent, Nazar Ali, to Kashgar with seven Kanjutis, to discuss with the Taotai the partitioning of the Raskam valley.” This person was in fact Nazar Ali Shah who belonged to Gircha village in Hunza and held the appointment of Elchi (a word of Turkish origin which means envoy or ambassador). In November 1898 when Macartney (The British Counsel-General) returned to Kashgar, the “most ominous development” that took place was regarding Raskam. This was “a subject that promised to be a running sore in Macartney’s relations with the Chinese. The Amban of Yarkand had reportedly given three out of the seven Raskam holdings to the people of Sarikol at the expense of the Kanjutis. The Taotai’s only concession to the Provincial Governor’s order that Raskam should be handed over to the Kanjutis was to send General Chang to Yarkand on 30 September to supervise the division of the Raskam lands between the Kanjutis and the Sarikolis”.

Furthermore, in the book Nazar Ali Shah is again mentioned: “The Mir of Hunza’s agent, Nazar Ali, was sent backwards and forwards between Chinese officials in his efforts to secure the holdings for his people.” Muhmmad Nazim Khan who ruled Hunza from 1892 to 1938 also mentions in his autobiography about Nazar Ali Shah. He says: “Before the party set off I sent on a hundred men to do what they could with the road and gave instructions to Nazar Ali who was accustomed to take the annual gold tribute to China, to go on ahead from Murkushi with some horsemen….”

Another important post in Hunza state was that of Arbab. Arbab was actually the village chieftain. In lower parts of Hunza ‘Trangpa’ was equivalent to Arbab. The day to day running of the village, conflict resolution, decision making at village level and communication with the ruler was part of his duty. Some of the powerful Arbab’s were not limited to their respective villages. One of them was Ali Gauhar, the Arbab of Ghulkin. In the confidential report titled ‘The Gilgit Mission 1885-1886’, the physical appearance, traits and qualities of Ali Gauhar are well narrated. Ghazan Khan I, the then ruler of Hunza is said to have absolute trust in this man. Hence, Ali Gauhar led The Gilgit Mission to Wakhan and then returned to Hunza, as per the ruler’s instruction.

Reginald Schomberg was another foreigner assisted by the ruler of Hunza, but this happened sixty years later after The Gilgit Mission traveled through Hunza. Now, the ruler in Hunza was Muhammad Jamal Khan. Schomberg in his work The Afdifar Pass in Hunza (1946) states that the Arbab of Shingshal was summoned to Hunza proper in the summer of 1945. This was to make arrangements for Schomberg’s journey to Shingshal. The picture of this Arbab published in the journal is that of Arbob Qurban Muhammad. Managing, facilitating, guiding and accommodating state guests was also part of the responsibility of close confidants of the ruler. The office of the Arbob was assisted by a Chorbu. ‘Chorbu’ was personal assistant of the Arbab. He used to announce decisions, carry messages and take orders from the chieftain and announce it to the public. It could be normal routine work, community work or any other work related to an urgent order or emergency.

Yarpa/Yarfa (Revenue Officer or Land steward) took care of property and assets of the ruler of Hunza. One prime example was that of Yarpa Muhammad Nida, who managed the pasture lands of the ruler in Chipursan valley, bordering Wakhan. Muhammad Nida’s eldest daughter whom I interviewed last year states that as Yarpa her father was responsible for overseeing and collecting food production for the ruler. With that, taking decisions on pastoral activities in the high lands, directing his subordinates to graze their livestock at designated pastures and granting people special permission to graze their horses on better quality grass was also part of his authority. Later on, Yarpa Nida was designated as Arbob of Ghulkin village, which was a rare appointment after having already served as Yarpa for nineteen years.

Another prominent Yarpa was Himayat Shah. His eldest grandson (from Shah’s son Nasir) informed me that Himayat Shah had also served as Elchi of Hunza state in Kashgar, during the rule of Muhammad Nazim Khan. Last year in summers, during an interview Muhammad Hasnat (Himayat Shah’s first cousin) told me that Shah was very fluent in Turkic language spoken in Kasghar. His intelligence, mannerism, and political acumen are still adored by many in Hunza. Moreover, Hasnat also added that Himayat Shah was a very prominent notable during the reign of Muhammad Jamal Khan and an integral part of his cabinet.

Uyum was an honorary title given by the ruler of Hunza to certain chosen ones. This was to distinguish them from the common people. Naubahar Shah was the only Uyum who I discovered through my father. I saw an old picture from 1960s, when President of Pakistan Muhammad Ayub Khan visited Hunza state. Uyum Naubahar is visible in the first row of the reception ceremony of Ayub’s visit, standing with other notables of his time.

Libbi (derived from ‘levies’) was another nomination by the ruler of the state. It was actually the provision of allowance to strong supporters and loyalists. Libbi allowance was given to close clansmen/relatives of notables. In some cases, it carried on from father to son. In another instance, after the death of a Libbi (person receiving the levies allowance), it even got carried from husband to wife.

Another important component used politically by the ruler of Hunza was a strong network of foster relationships formed in different villages. Schomberg in his book Between the Indus and the Oxus (1935) states that: “The children of the mirs and his sons are invariably at once taken away and given to someone outside the palace to nurse”. This “someone” were none other than families of notables of the state. This was a political move by the ruler of Hunza who surely needed a strong network of loyalists to strengthen his grip over the state and deter any offensive move both with and outside the ruling family.

Front row- left to right: Muhammad Nida (Yarpa and later Arbab), Yarpa Himayat Shah, Arbab Muhammad Raza Beg and Uyum Naubahar Shah- 1960s. Source: Photo provided by the author

There is a dire need to examine roles of various other functionaries of the Hunza state. For instance, Secretary of State, Vakil Kashmir, Munshis and the Khalifas need to be examined in order to get better insight of working of the state. Hunza state was abolished in 1974 and a new system was introduced. Sadly, a comparative study of the old and the new political system is also missing from much of the academic discourse. For credible research on Hunza state, documentation of oral history would certainly help in comprehending the governance structure, administrative intricacies and political linkages of the past.

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