by Mutabiat Shah
One can’t agree more with Raja Zafar on the points he has raised in his rejoinder to a news item. ‘Northern Areas’, the misnomer for the erstwhile Gilgit – Baltistan, has been damaging economic interests and tarnishing its image for the last many decades. The people of the area have never accepted the term ‘northern areas’ as a name for their region, because it is a super-imposed one and does not signify any of the characteristics of the area. This name has also created an identity crisis for the people, with some serious political implications for the people of this region…The ambiguity lies at the core of term northern areas which tends to hide the constitutional and political non-representative nature of the area and can potentially divert the attention of international community from the real issues faced by the people of this region. The national media has contributed to make the ambiguity fussier by excluding this region even from the vague portrayal of the northern parts of NWFP and parts of AKJ as northern areas. In media parlance, the area is an anonymity, even it does not exist on the face of earth. This sense of deprivation expressed in identity politics of the people of this region can further be aggravated if its existence is not recognized with an all encompassing name to reflect its distinguished character.
The current name therefore needs to be replaced, soon, with a suitable and representative one. There have been efforts to change the name in question, but there seems to be no consensus on a single name so far. It is never too late, as they say. Efforts are however still continuing to come up with a suitable name, and this endeavor from my end could be seen in the specific context of the debate over naming the northern areas.
The urgency to name this region has now gained paramount importance in the face of the converging international interests as a beginning of the Neo-Great Game. The Northern Areas (the tribal belt connected with Afghanistan, India and China) are geographically placed to be the heartland of this Neo-Great game. The people of this region, therefore, must unite under one name to have their stake in the new surge of international interests in the area.
The polemics of naming the Northern Areas have reached new heights in recent years with a plethora of options, all ending up in disagreements. The lack of consensus stems from the cultural and ethnic heterogeneity of these areas with little historical evidence to support a common name acceptable to all ethnic groups.
The context of naming an area in the modern sense comes from the collective memories of being similar regardless of cultural and political diversity. The binding force of common identity may vary from one sociopolitical context to another but the collective aspiration of human beings to create a universal system of values has constantly been witnessed in human history. Modernity is a system of meta- narrative, universal ethics and grand theories to explain historical progress, social change and political movements. Thus, modernity is a way of exploring a common nomenclature for a people living in a certain area. The art of naming an area lies in outlining the quintessential geographical features of the area that remain constant in the process of melting social and political identities. A geographically significant name has potential to ward off the ongoing controversies, and petty squabbles between political groups over the naming of the Northern Areas and hence paving way to resolve the potential conflicts shrouded in the identity crisis debate. .
Sifting through the polemical debates of naming the Northern Areas I found it rather intriguing to suggest a name with narrowly defined political connotations. Primarily, naming a people comes from the most significant characteristics that place them on a unique position in relation to others. The unique character of the Northern Areas lies in their geographical location, full of snow-capped mountains, freezing weather and coping strategies reflected in cultural practices.
The geo-climatic setting of the area gives it advantage to name without having recourse to a particular brand of political nomenclature.
I propose Zemistan as the name for the Northern Areas including all the seven districts i.e. Gilgit, Hunza/ Nagar valleys, Ghizer, Diamer, Astore, Skardu and Gangche.
Zemistan is a Wakhi word to describe the winter season and the severity of cold. There are many other Wakhi names for some of the great mountains and places within the Northern Areas and Chitral. For instance Tirich Mir means Darkness King or King of darkness in Wakhi language. Likewise Khunjrab means bloody stream and the famous Shandur pass between Gilgit and Chitral is also derived from Wakhi language, just to cite a few examples.
Zemistan, as translated from Wakhi, carries a great deal of symbolism beyond its immediate sense of winter and severity of cold. It has soothing effect, tranquility and calmness that signify pristine state of being, purity and elegance. Zemistan- the land of snow- captures the surrealism of nature and both the stiffness and tenderness of the natives whose stiffness helps to face the harsh reality of nature and whose tenderness makes them hospitable, loving and passionate. It is worth noting that over 60% of the land of the regions is believed to be covered by glaciers. Our region is home to gigantic glaciers such as Concordia, Siachin, Biafo, Buttara and many other smaller ones, outside the polar caps.
I hope that the proposed name; Zemistan would strike a chord among the thinkers of the Northern Areas and would earn popular acclaim in the face of an increasing confusion generated by media by linking this otherwise peaceful region with North West “terrorists” belt. The term of Northern Areas has created a lot of confusion in the context of terrorism and thus earning a bad name to the region, besides creating an identity crisis there.
Naming a place in geo-climatic terms is not a new practice- a tradition as old as human civilization itself. For instance, Scandinavia is derived from the geographical feature of high elevation for a group of North European countries like Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Ireland and Finland etc. Likewise the word Himalaya is a combination of Him and laya which means the abode of snow. Kohistan being a most appropriate name has already been adopted for the mountainous valleys beyond Chilas and Besham, in the downstream Indus.
Thus in the context of the Northern Areas a geographically determined name Zemistan has all the potential to unify the varying socio-cultural mosaic of its people, by giving them a name above the parochial differences and short term political gains by certain groups.
It is hoped the readers would express their honest opinion, accepting the proposed name – Zemistan to replace the current term ‘northern areas’.
The contributor is a highly experienced development professional belonging to Gojal, Hunza.