Tue. Oct 27th, 2020

[Opinion] The invisible region

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.

5 thoughts on “[Opinion] The invisible region

  1. If any body serious check Pakistan Map, Gilgit-Baltistan seems North of India not Pakistan.so that clear Gilgit-Baltistan is Part of Kashmir but unfortunetly the people of Kashmir says Gilgit-Baltistan is with us but not invovle or permission in Kashmir assembly.
    still its not clear Gilgit is part of China nor India and Nor probally Pakistan………

    Best Wishes

    From

    Roomi Farhat Beig Sostiq

  2. I WAS REALLY SHOCKED TO SEE ONCE A MAP OF INDIA AT ONE OF A BOOK SOTRES IN DUBAI ,THE BOOKSELLER WAS INDIAN AND WAS SELLING SCHOOL BOOKS FOR INDIAN SCHOOLS

    WHAT SURPRISED ME?

    WHEN MY EYES CATCH THE MAP FOR INDIA AT THE BOOK STORE WHICH WAS PLACE ON THE WINDOW AND HERE I LOOKED MY MOTHER LAND HUNZA.SHOWING IN THE MAP THAT THE REGION OF ALL GILGIT BALTISTAN INCLUDING HUNZA IS OFFICIALY SHOWN IN THE MAP AS PART OF INDIA

    WHAT SHOCKED ME?

    I WAS STILL SURPRISED TO THIS, THAN I WENT INSIDE TO ASK THE BOOKSELLER IF I CAN BUY MAP OF INDIAN HE TOLD ME HES HAVING GEOGRAPHY BOOK FOR CLASS 6TH

    WHY GOT CONFUSED?

    I PURCHASED THE BOOK FROM THE BOOK STORE LOOKING IN TO GEOGRAPHY BOOK FOR 6TH CLASS INDIAN SCHOOL AND I FOUND THAT OFFICIALY IN THE MAP OF INDIA I THE RESIDENT OF GIILGIT AND BALTISTAN BELONG TO INDIA

    WHY IS THIS SO?

    THIS QUESTION CAME TO MY MIND .

    BUT WHY?

    I AM HOLDING AN OFFICIAL PAKISTAN GOVT PASSPORT AND ITS COLOR IS GREEN AND MY MOTHER COUNTRY IS PAKISITAN I AM BORN AND BROUTH UP FROM PAKISTAN.THAN WHY INDIAN MAP IS OFFICIAL DECLARING THAT I AM FROM INDIA WHERE AS I AM HOLDING MY LOVELY GREEN PASSPORT AND GREEN NATIONAL IDENTITY CARD.

    DO WE HAVE?

    ANY REASON FOR THIS ,WHOS GIVEN RIGHT TO WHICH COUNTRY AND WHY DOES THIS HAPPEN AND THERE IS NO ANY HUMAN RIGHTS IN THIS WORLD THAT WE ARE INDEPENDENT AND DONT WE HAVE THE RIGHTS TO HOLD OUR IDENTITY???

    WHY MORE THAN 60YRS

    WHY DOES GOVT OF PAKISTAN.KEEP IS IN DARK
    WHY DONT WE HAVE THE EQUAL RIGHTS WHERE AS OUR MAN FROM GILGIT AND BALTISTAN ARE GIVING THEIR LIFE IN ARMY OR ANY FIELD ALWAYS ON THE FRONT LINE,NAMES LIKE SHAHEED LALKEHJAN FROM SAME AREAS BUT STILL WE ARE NOT GIVEN OUR RIGHTS OF VOTE AND RIGHTS OF VOTE AND COREECT STATUS IN OUR COUNTRY

    I HOPE OUR COUNTRY OUR MOTHER LAND GREAT PAKISTAN WILL DO ITS BEST FROM NOW IN GIVING US THE RIGHTS TO VOTE AND RIGHTS TO HAVE SEAT IN THE PARLIAMENT OF PAKISTAN

    PAKISTAN ZINDA ABAD…PAKISTAN PAHINDA ABAD

    NOTE.IF ANY ONE NEEDS THE GEOGRAPHY BOOK I WILL BE MORE THAN HAPPY TO GIVE YOU THE 6TH CLASS INDIAN GEOGRAPHY BOOK TO CHECK IT YOURSELF

    THANKS

    KD.

  3. I pay tribute to ms Nosheen for writtng such a wonderful article regarding G-B and pakistani tyrannies. Dears, pakistanis kept us concealed from the rest of the world for a long time and during this colonial occupation, pakistani govt worked hard to spread sectarianism amongst the peaceful people of G-B and constrcted some strong religious factions,which are now have become da pain in the neck for us. Now, the main reason put forth by pakis in depriving us from our basic himan rights is that, we’re divided into factionsa nd we’re not capable of running any sytem..!!!

    Pakistanis say, G-B is not da part of pakisyan and cant be a part of it, and there are som international complexities in doing so, my demand is that Why don’t they tell our peple the nature of those int. difficulties..!!! or else, we should research and fin it out by our-selves.

  4. Dear Nousheen

    Nice to read your artical, for the second time on PT. I remmember they days when you were carrying your reseach in Gilgit and we had debated such issues. I am sure you will continue to work on Gilgit-Baltistan. When some time you are here in Islamabad, let me know

    Salman
    Islamabad

  5. we are the only pakistani.we are appreciating the package given by the ppp government
    on behalf of psf gulmit odver unit

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