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Culture affinity and borders

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[author image=”” ]Aziza Ali Dad is a freelance columnist with educational background in philosophy and social science. Email:[/author]

The process of state building in Pakistan has not followed a uniform policy; rather it is necessitated by contingent needs and demands. That helped the state to tackle the issue temporary, but in the long run it has proved to be detrimental not only for the country but also to the inter-regional and provincial harmony.

This is evident in the case of border disputes between Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The disputes over borders between the two regions are not a sole making of the Pakistani state, but have roots in colonial and post-colonial times.

The Chitral and Gilgit regions shared common history and culture, but after the conquest of Chitral the British included Chitral in the Malakand Agency. In the following century it remained under different administrative arrangements in the different cultural milieu of the then NWFP. That resulted in the scuttling of interface with the diverse linguistic and ethnic groups that form the cultural mosaic of Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral. It was this cultural interface in diverse cultural and social settings that enabled different valleys and linguistic groups to form a symbiotic relationship and identity.

But the gradual drifting away of both Chitral and Gilgit from the common space of culture has provided an opportunity for administrative borders to supersede cultural identities. Hence, administrative borders have become markers of identities and turned into fault lines over which new edifices of identity are constructed. This is not to suggest that the border disputes between different valleys of Gilgit-Baltistan and Chitral did not exist historically. Rather, the fact is that the very common space in the last 69 years has turned into a fault line. For example, the Shandur pass was a point for the annual gathering of polo teams from Chitral and Gilgit. Unfortunately, in the last 40 years it has become a bone of contention between the two regions.

Similarly, Shinaki Kohistan in KP is inhabited by people with tribal, linguistic and kinship relations with the rest of Gilgit, Diamer in particular. These organic ties enabled some prominent figures from Diamer to get elected into the provincial and national assemblies from Kohistan, though they are deprived of such right in Gilgit-Baltistan.

Unlike, other valleys of Gilgit-Baltistan, the regions of Kohistan, Dangir and Darel remained headless states in which the tribal council was responsible for running affairs. These tribes resisted any centralised authority. Because of this the British in colonial time dubbed this region as Yasghistan ‘the rebellious land’ or ‘land of the ungoverned’. In fact, the British failed to understand the egalitarian nature of the tribal council and its opposition to a single head of state or society.

The functioning of these societies under a headless system/rule gave birth to a distinct social, political and economic setup and outlook of the people. At the same time it provided structural affinity to the societies of Kohistan, Tangir and Darel. This affinity remained intact despite the gradual opening of these regions to the outside world. In 1937 Kohistan was handed over to the Wali-e-Swat because of chronic opposition to autocracy.

Despite becoming subservient to exogenous rule and culture, and a new system, Kohistan retain its distinct identity. After the dissolution of the Swat state in 1969, Kohsitan was given the status of district but remained under the administrative control of what was then NWFP. Since NWFP was part of the power dispensation of Pakistan, Kohistan drifted towards the centres with modern power arrangements. This has created a wedge between Diamer and Kohistan. The severing of both regions along administrative lines has propelled both regions on different courses.

With the inception of the Diamer-Bhasha Dam local tribes from both districts have turned against each other. This conflict is not a revival of old disputes, but triggered by financial benefits accrued in the shape of compensation from lands and royalties. While tension between two regions had been escalating for the last one decade, the state remained a silent spectator apart from establishing a boundary commission that has not shared its findings with the public.

The absence of the proactive role of the state in dispute resolution resulted in the loss of precious lives in fierce clashes between the tribes of Kohistan and Diamer last year. There are reports that an influential cleric from Gilgit has brokered a truce between the warring tribes. This is really a laudable effort, but the primary irritant remains the same and continues to be so as the dispute essentially stems from the country’s ambiguous policies about borders between its different administrative units who share the same culture and history but live under different political dispensations.

For the resolution of border disputes between Gilgit-Baltistan and KP, the government ought to take into consideration historical and cultural affinities and different solutions. The boundary dispute between Chitral and Gilgit over the Shandur pass can be resolved by declaring it a national park to be managed by both regions. In case of the Diamer-Bhasha project, Gilgit-Baltistan stand to lose 95 percent of its land to the dam, but it will get only 50 percent of royalty from the Diamer-Bhasha project.

The royalty row over the Diamer-Bhasha Dam is enmeshed with the constitution and administrative setup that does not cover Gilgit-Baltistan. It makes the region an anomaly because the rules promulgated in Kohistan and Chitral are different from those in Gilgit-Baltistan. It is the duty of the incumbent government of Gilgit-Baltistan to prepare its case of borders well. Since the PML-N has government in the centre and Gilgit-Baltistan, the regional government is in a better place to defend its case. If the current regional government fails to protect the borders and economic rights of Gilgit-Baltistan, then it will undo its reason of existence.

To extricate itself from this intractable problem the government needs to clearly delineate the borders by taking into confidence all stakeholders. The vacuum created by the absence of the state gives leeway to other local and non-traditional actors to take charge of matters and issues of national interests in their hand. So far decisions about border disputes between Gilgit-Baltistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are informed by political expediencies, which put long overdue issues in abeyance. Today administrative borders have become fault lines between regions.

Culture can prove to be a binding force in the resolution of disputes. A decision that is apathetic to culture and history will only create an incendiary situation, the fires of which cannot be controlled through temporary fire-fighting measures.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Gilgit. Email:

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