by Nosheen Ali
The territory commonly known as the “The Northern Areas of Pakistan” – or Shumali Ilaqajaat – has now been renamed Gilgit-Baltistan through a reforms package. What does it mean to live for sixty years in a country not only without constitutional rights, but also with a cryptic geographical label of “Northern Areas” instead of a rooted, regional name? This invisibilizing label has been a central aspect of the region’s political marginality in Pakistan, not a side, insignificant detail.
The term “Northern Areas” reduced the region to a mere component of Pakistan, denying a sense of regional identity that would be embodied by historically and locally significant names such as “Gilgit-Baltistan” or “Boloristan.” It constituted a further form of erasure because of the effect of non-specificity that it creates: it seems like a reference to a general geographical space, rather than the name of a particular demarcated place. Not surprisingly, it is often interpreted as an allusion to areas in the north of Pakistan, instead of being recognized as an identifier for a specific administrative unit of Pakistan called the Northern Areas. Moreover, due to similar geographical labeling, the region of Northern Areas is also commonly confused with the North-West Frontier Province which is adjacent to the Northern Areas. People living outside of the Northern Areas further tend to confuse the region with the geographically un-contiguous region called Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and specifically the territory of “Wana,” presumably because the names of these regions are similar to the official name Federally Administered Northern Areas and acronym “FANA” of the Northern Areas. Together with the already vague and mystifying nature of the name “Northern Areas,” such conflations have served to obscure the existence and identity of the actual region of the Northern Areas.
These ambiguities have been reinforced through public and private school textbooks, maps, and media discourses in Pakistan which routinely misrepresent the region of Gilgit-Baltistan, or eclipse it altogether. Sometimes, the region is obliquely present in the “Geography” section of textbooks where mountains such as Nanga Parbat and K-2 are described as epitomizing the natural beauty of Pakistan, but the fact that these are located in Gilgit-Baltistan is not acknowledged. Moreover, the fact that the region has remained deprived of fundamental rights as a result of the Kashmir conflict remains absent both from discourses on the politics of Pakistan as well as on the Kashmir issue. Likewise, the region’s diverse linguistic and ethnic groups – such as the Shina, Balti, Burushaski, Wakhi and Khowar – remain unmentioned in depictions of the “people” of Pakistan.
This representational illegibility of the Northern Areas – now Gilgit-Baltistan – has alienated the region’s people, while producing other serious consequences. For example, Gilgit-Baltistan has nothing to do with the rise of militancy in the north-western regions of Pakistan such as Swat or Waziristan, nor has there been any military campaign in the region as part of the “war on terror.” Yet because the region of “Northern Areas” remains unknown in people’s minds and is easily confused with FATA or NWFP, it has come to be seen as a dangerous territory thriving with militants in the public imagination. This misleading impression has drastically affected international travel to the beautiful and peaceful region of Gilgit-Baltistan, and thus severely affected the region’s tourism-dependent economy. Even people within Pakistan have avoided traveling to the popular destinations of Gilgit, Hunza, and Skardu, and those who do are commonly asked by worried friends and family: “Is it really safe to go there?”
The invisibility of the Northern Areas in the cognitive map of Pakistan has also affected people in the region at a most personal level. When people from Gilgit-Baltistan study or work elsewhere in Pakistan – and there is a strong trend of out-migrations particularly in the winter months – they feel an acute crisis of identity as they are unable to identify themselves in terms that are recognized by other Pakistanis. Saying “Northern Areas” unsurprisingly draws blank stares, so most people end up saying they are from Gilgit or Hunza as these might be more familiar. But when asked where is Gilgit or Hunza, people have to say shumali ilaqajaat (Northern Areas) and get trapped again.
To circumvent the issue of clarifying what exactly the Northern Areas is, an NGO worker from Gilgit working in Islamabad once told me that he had started specifying Peshawar as his place of origin. As he put it: “People are likely to think that I am from somewhere around there either way, even if I say Gilgit, Hunza, Skardu, or the Northern Areas, which are far from Peshawar and have nothing to do with it. But Peshawar is readily understood.” In the current context, however, where people associated with NWFP or any “northern” region are demeaningly stereotyped as ignorant and extremist – especially in Karachi – a student from Hunza has come up with an innovative solution: he now says he is from Central Asia.
Most importantly, living in a territory in cognito such as the Northern Areas has posed severe difficulties for political and civil rights groups who have been struggling to raise awareness about the disempowerment of their region. A local politician from Gilgit once said to me, “Our name does not even sound like the name of a place, so how will we talk about its rights? Is naam nay humain benaam kar dia hai (this name has rendered us unknown)”.
The ignorance about the region and its political status runs so deep that like ordinary Pakistanis, several state officials are also unaware of what the Northern Areas is, where it is located, and how it is in a constitutional limbo for 60 years such that it is denied even basic rights like the right to vote, to have representation in Parliament, and to appeal judicial decisions in a higher court. One popular narrative that has been repeated to me several times goes something like this: “A delegation from the Northern Areas went to Prime Minister Junejo in 1986 to demand constitutional rights, and especially the right to representation in Parliament. He said, ‘What rights? Of course you have rights. How can you not have rights?’ The delegation responded: ‘That’s exactly our point. How can we not have rights?’ Apparently, he had confused the Northern Areas with NWFP. What hope do we have, if even our Prime Minister does not know about our status?”
Such narratives were related to me with a sense of amusement, but also with undertones of cynical bitterness. It often seemed to me that the humor or sarcasm with which Gilgitis commented on their political oblivion offered a way to hide their anger, or deal with it.
Despite the callous, colonial treatment meted out to the region by the Pakistan state, most people in Gilgit-Baltistan remain intensely patriotic. The region is the only territory in Pakistan that actually fought a war to become part of Pakistan, and hundreds of soldiers from the region have since sacrificed their lives while serving in the Pakistani army. In return, yet another package has been “announced” for the region with hollow claims of autonomy, through the same non-participatory and non-Parliamentary process that people in the region so resent. If it has taken decades for Pakistan to merely acknowledge the name of the region – that too through an undemocratic process – we cannot blame the region’s people for their sense of disillusionment with the federation, and we should also not be surprised at the emergence of more assertive, nationalist groups in the region. One hopes though that the change of name from Northern Areas to Gilgit-Baltistan services the aspirations of the region, and translates into a sense of place for the region’s people according to their wishes.
The above article was published in Herald magazine of the DAWN Media Group. It is being posted with permission of the writer. Nosheen is currently a post doctoral researcher at Stanford University.