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Northerners: The Political Untouchables



Irfan Kazmi

‘Untouchables’ are the outcasts who live utterly alienated in the imposed social hierarchy perversely conspicuous in India, Pakistan, Nepal, and in some other countries. The more simplistic descriptions of the Indian caste system include the 4 major castes – Brahmins, Kshatriya, Vaishyas, and Shudras (in descending order) – and the fifth category of the untouchables or “Varna” who, unlike, foreigners or tribal people, were considered a part of “Samsara” but not having a “Varna” (place in the caste system).

Can this analysis of the caste system inform our understanding of the political question surrounding Gilgit-Baltistan? Aren’t the people of Gilgit-Baltistan politically outcasts, economically destitute, and constitutionally untouchables inside Pakistan’s political hierarchy?

The analogy fits very easily at one level, one has only to look at how the people of the country are classified in the configuration of territories under Pakistan’s administration i.e., four “constitutional” provinces along a hierarchy and the untouchables/scheduled tribes and castes of Gilgit-Baltistan & Azad Jammu & Kashmir. In this sense, the Ex-FATA barely managed to become a part of the “varna” – the constitutional territories’ club – but where it lies in the hierarchy was made clear even very recently by the cuts in quotas for students.

In the case of Gilgit-Baltistan, some commentators and many local people believe that the place and ecology are geo-strategically and economically desirable but the people, the naïve natives, are expendable. If this is true, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan are kept less politically human, just like the Dalits are considered less human socially, although the social and political are derivatives of the economy and obviously intermeshed in material reality.

Moreover, just as the untouchables were restricted to occupations undesirable for the Varna castes (though many of them still remain restricted to these jobs despite the law even now), the people of Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu & Kashmir are kept in their place which was decided for them and not by them. They still wait for democratic and political rights/representation until the resolution of the Kashmir issue. Especially, in the case of Gilgit-Baltistan, whereas Azad Jammu & Kashmir enjoys nearly autonomous status, it has only been a decade since any legislative and governance authority was given to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan even if through a largely powerless Gilgit-Baltistan Assembly (GBA). They were kept untouchables effectively, out of sheer disregard for the people’s rights as humans.

Gilgit-Baltistan is riddled, for an observer, with two kinds of predicaments, to reiterate. The first is Structural – the state as the perpetrator – the second is internal divisions. Obviously, both complement each other to perpetuate the status quo and in more insidious colonial projects. As the Structure is linked internationally to the Kashmir issue and there is vibrant work on it. Therefore, I will focus on the internal repellers to political emancipation.

There are more pervert and pernicious similarities amongst the sub-continental ‘untouchables’ and northern untouchables, so to speak. These similarities are to be found among most oppressed people really. Under oppressive structures which normalize them over time, the ideology of the system creeps into the oppressed groups and creates internal fissures.

There are more than 50 sub-castes inside Dalits; they find it hard to unify, in order to, break the yoke of casteism because some Dalits deem themselves superior to other Dalits. Similarly, narrower identity groups in Gilgit-Baltistan deem themselves unique or superior to others. The political epoch demands unity and solidarity amongst different ethnicities and sects in order to overturn the status quo, reject whimsical presidential orders, resist the arbitrary land encroachments, and in short defy internal colonialism or what one scholar has termed as postcolonial colonialism. The people break themselves between ethnicities or sects. Why? We must ask.

The irony or obscenity in Gilgit-Baltistan is this ‘clash of cultures’ on a domestic level which is more lethal to the political question than the state as the perpetrator and exploiter. This brings us to the question, ‘what constitutes a nation?’ We go with the simplest definition that it is a group of people politically and economically interlinked.

Nation – not in a sense of a state-orchestrated by common beliefs and negotiated reality with boundaries which are least desirable for the people –  already exists whether anyone notices or not, but the absence of acceptance of this definition as people with same vows and griefs in popular consciousness will render perpetuating status quo or usher in a new more sinister internal colonialism. The people of Gilgit-Baltistan, I reiterate, need to consider this definition. In the material world, everything else is just bourgeoisie ideology and appropriation. 

Why have the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, not been able to unite on the question of identity or political rights 70 years on?

Sectarian element:

Scholars believe that the Cold War is to blame for the sectarianism in Pakistan. When the USSR was to be defeated, the CIA and ISI cropped up the Jihad culture. And we haven’t still hit the bottom of sectarianism. Many nationalists and Left activists have been sloganeering relentlessly against political alienation and economical exploitation in Gilgit-Baltistan since the 1980s. Johar Ali, Haider Shah Rizvi, Ehsan Advocate, Baba Jan, and numerous veteran leaders harbored political resistance against total alienation.

Some voices were nipped in the bud, incarcerated and some are still receiving threats. The religious orientation of a leader plays a vital role inside Gilgit city. Other districts are not diverse compared to Gilgit city. The textbook example of colonial ‘divide and rule’ is still conspicuous and renders itself effective in every election. Constituency GBA-1 has been plagued with this despicable sectarian politics in the last 3 or 4 elections.

On November, 16, never have anyone seen the extreme hatred against the ‘otherized’ community was sensationally tangible. Pre-poll rigging, During-poll rigging, and every other rigging were the means to defeat the other community – or the aspirant of other sects. Obviously, there were invisible hands with whims to dictate the electoral results or these hands miraculously determine the victory of the blue-eyed boy, nonetheless, this boiling hatred against each other, which is no doubt deeply embedded in society, is indicative of a problem of the popular consciousness. This vulnerability makes us what we are today. 

In the recent tragic incident at Naltar, people rushed to label the act of terrorism as sectarian violence. The Nationalists and the Left-wingers jumped to the conventional conclusion of the invisible hands functioning backdrop in order to divide and encroach the land. Both conclusions are unpersuasive and absurd taken separately. Why? Because we are reducing the causal factors of the political landscape too narrow. Of course, both explanations are, to a certain extent, correct. But what we need to do is to accept both simultaneously: no clinging to only one. That is, there exists, both an element of animosity between groups culturally – whether nurtured and not – as well as the utilization of the divisions and conflicts proactively or opportunistically by political, economic, or bureaucratic entities.

Elite or NGO element:

Propaganda and conspiracy theories related to international sway in the region cannot be sidelined. Locals bidding for the Pakistani bourgeoisie buying and harboring them lands in exotic places like Nalter, Hunza, Astore and Skardu have also deep interest in maintaining the status quo.

The influx of domestic tourism after a new peaceful/pacified phase has got the elite in Pakistan to fancy the rare landscapes for much higher prices which cannot be resisted by lower-middle-class families trying to cope with the consumerist culture in a marginalized region. If by any chance anyone resists selling their property, it’s clear what may come to the – religious and political pressure and threats. Common land, meadows, and hills, which must be preserved by society not by the government in the façade of national parks, have been gradually seized by the state outsourcing the potentiality of resources like minerals and water bodies. 

The NGO factor is becoming palpable. These organizations have monopolized economical, social, cultural, and religious influence all over Gilgit-Baltistan. Obviously, collectively these all translate into political actions – which are conformity to the status quo or rather an indifference. A whole set of work is needed to find the rationale behind NGOs but for this piece, I will, as Paulo Freire puts, simply say that NGOs are nothing but a façade of elites offering their false generosity. 


This, again, brings us to the question of internal exceptionalism. The latter means a sense of superiority to other communities or an ethnocentric/xenophobic worldview. I don’t want any trouble being specific. Every sect and ethnic group in Gilgit-Baltistan has differences relative to another across culture, political worldview, and ideology. No matter how much we try to hinder the argument that we don’t have separate cultures, especially the neo-educated ‘Yankees’ have this reluctant axiom publically. We have to accept that culture matters for an ordinary man/woman in Gilgit-Baltistan.

The more, as Freud would agree, we feel we are not, the more we are. The irony is that there is no issue being different, but the Nazi-like attitude for ‘others’ is the center of this predicament. This exceptionalism with being ignorant and devoid of clarity about other communities, their beliefs, and symbols constitutes propaganda and conspiracy theories about each other and ultimately translates into political fragmentation. To prove my point, in our childhood we used to label red ants as ‘us’ and black ants as ‘others’. It’s a shame that hundreds of innocent ants were killed in the mane of this brainwashing-from-the-cradle mechanism. We have been fighting someone else’s war. Slitting throats, we have spilled our own blood.

What’s the answer?        

Therefore, the common ancient culture orchestrated by aesthetics – music, dance, folk stories, and mythology – has also been obfuscated by this obscene sectarianism, needs to pitch in asap. It’s really hard or impractical for a man/woman from a different sect to celebrate the symbols and festivals of another sect. It can be possible in the future but obviously not today. For Hegel, a 19th-century German philosopher, aesthetics, especially music, is the greatest healer of the ‘wound of nature’. A society that is not only wounded but plagued by utmost absurd divisions needs also music to get healed. We all know that music has opened the ways for social cohesions and for a platform where people can not only tolerate and understand diversity but accept it.

Politically motivated art, especially music, has done some serious damage to popular ignorance. The spring festivals, too, celebrated recently all over Gilgit-Baltistan is a sign of hope. The problem with the Left today, who is single-handedly holding this burden of freedom and honor, is their stark negligence of culture/aesthetics as a potential common denominator or means to unify the scattered.  The Left must create an environment that caters to everyone. Where everyone feels at home and struggles for the horizon.

Light, at the end of the tunnel, is boasting, encouraging, being creative, reviving, and sharing this common heritage of aesthetics, music especially. Otherwise, I am a pessimist like Slavoj Zizek that the light at the end of the tunnel is basically the light of another turbulent train coming towards us but not whistling.             

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Irfan Kazmi studies politics and sociology at Forman Christian College Lahore. Eternally fascinated about the national question of Gilgit-Baltistan, writing has been his way of thinking and resistance. He aspires to cover themes like poverty, patriarchy, absurdism, and politics.


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