Identity debates

Aziz Ali Dad

Historically, different cultural groups of what is now Pakistan followed diverse origins, but the creation of Pakistan brought heterogeneous cultural identities under the identity of a single state.

Being a post-colonial state, Pakistan resorted to a modern narrative that espouses a single identity of the nation-state. The incompatibility of the state’s narrative of identity with its cultural components fuels tension between the state and cultural/regional groups. Coupled with this, the increasing influence of globalisation and modernisation is bringing about drastic changes in the old order and provides only a base of shifting sands for identity formation. As a result, each cultural group in Pakistan faces identity crises within as well.

Like other regions of Pakistan, Gilgit-Baltistan is also not immune to the ‘identity crises’ faced by Pakistani society in general. Historically Gilgit-Baltistan was more influenced by momentous events in the neighbouring polities of Inner and High Asia than South Asia.

It remained immune from events that engulfed much of South Asia. With the arrival of the British, Gilgit-Baltistan was exposed to exogenous ideas, lifestyle, market forces and modern mode of governance. Increasing interaction with the outside world and ideas enabled Gilgit-Baltistan to overcome limitations imposed by factors specific to its geography and cultural ethos.

Owing to major political upheavals and new demarcation of boundaries on the basis of nation-states and dissolution of traditional structure of governance, the region lost it cultural units as well as multiple centres of local power. In order to assert their uniqueness in the new order, different cultural groups strive to connect with regions that have a ‘glorious’ past.

The intellectual challenges posed by modern developments were beyond the grasp of the existing framework to make sense. Bereft of traditional order, people started to search for their roots. The outcome of local discourse among diverse linguistic and racial groups about origin and identity came in the shape of exotic interpretations and theories. That is why people belonging to different linguistic groups find their origins in exogenous lands.

Linguistically Gilgit-Baltistan is home to eight major languages – Balti, Brushashki, Domaaki, Gujri, Khowar, Shina, Ughur and Wakhi. Balti is a Tibetan language spoken in Baltistan, which is also called ‘Tibet-e-khurd (Little Tibet).

It is important to highlight that Baltistan experienced the longest strife in its history in the shape of the altercation between the local Balti religion of Bon Chos and Buddhism from Tibet. In the struggle for power Buddhism supported the Tibetans. The confrontation between both eventually turned into civil war in the 8th century and continued until the 16th century. Eventually, Buddhism wiped out Bon Chos. Instead of basing their roots in the region, the politics and discourse of Balti identity declare Balti people as Tibetans. The Tibetan identity marker drives a wedge among the multi-racial/lingual communities of Gilgit-Baltistan.

Identity crisis led a section of Brushashki speakers of Hunza to associate themselves with Alexander the Great. The efforts to establish roots of origin have not remained confined to the level of local narrative but also remained connected with power centres, which try to wield their influence in the region on cultural basis. In 2008 a delegation from Hunza was welcomed by Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski, who proclaimed the people of Hunza as Macedonians and descendants of Alexander the Great.

Another school of thought has propounded a theory that the people of Hunza originated from Hungary. During the last two decades a group finds roots of Hunzukuch in Mesopotamia. However, the Brushashki speakers of Nagar and Yasin have not associated themselves with exotic speculations regarding identity. Though the Brusho (Brushaskhi speakers) of these regions are ‘absentee stakeholders’ in the identity debate, they will ultimately be defined by the current formative narrative once it becomes populist.

Shina speakers are from different races and sects. In the second half of the last century some notables of the Sheen race tried to link themselves with the Quraysh tribe in Suadi Arabia. Shina is an Indo-Aryan language. Given the history of Dards (Shina speakers) and the Shina language, this theory seems to be a figment of imagination. This theory denotes a shift in identity base from race to religion.

At the moment the epicentre of sectarian strife and killing in Gilgit, Diamer and Kohistan are the Shina-speaking areas. Because of the divisions along sectarian lines, the social fabric of Shina-speaking communities in Gilgit has been badly destroyed. Other forms of local and traditional solidarities disappear under the influence of sectarian identity.

Little is known about Wakhi speakers in Pakistan. The Wakhi community is divided between the border areas around Wakhan corridor in Afghanistan. They inhabit the northern-most valleys of Pakistan. Since the emergence of Tajikistan as an independent state, the young Wakhi-speaking generation started to add ‘Tajik’ to their names. This is the generation that established the ‘Wakhi/Tajik Cultural Association’ in 1991.

The epithet of ‘Tajik’ is applied to Wakhi speakers by the Uyghur and Chinese in the Xinjiang province. Wakhi speakers in Tajikistan are a part of the diverse linguistic communities of Gorno-Badakhshan. Despite its translocation, the word Tajik has taken root in the local narrative of identity and culture in Gilgit. The new identity marker of Tajik creates ripples in the existing cultural arrangements and power relations. Last month two members from district Nagar and the speaker of the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly (GBLA) accused the ‘Wakhi/Tajik Cultural Association’ and organisers of the recently held ‘Silk Route Festival’ of introducing Tajik culture in the region.

Among the various languages of Gilgit-Baltistan, Domaaki is the only one that is moribund. Doms (Domaaki speakers) are the artisan class of Gilgit, but traditionally they were the most marginalised community in the region. Because of the shame associated with their identity and the local cultural attitudes towards them, Doms preferred to subsume their identity in dominant linguistic communities. With the complete identity shift of Domaaki speakers, precious indigenous knowledge has also perished.

The case of Khowar speakers regarding identity is different from the other linguistic groups. Their narrative in literature, especially poetry, is all about either the beauty of nature and the beloved or the cruelty of providence and the royal family. While other linguistic communities in Gilgit-Baltistan sing about exotic/exogenous origins, Khowar speakers in Gilgit and Chitral prefer to be rooted in the land.

It is a great achievement of Gilgit-Baltistan that it has not only given birth to diverse languages, but also weaved a web of meaning commonly shared and understood by all the members of the polyglot society. A salient feature of narratives of origins and identity of different linguistic/racial groups in Gilgit-Baltistan is that each group is indulged in a monologue and there is no dialogue taking place. This will pave the way for a monolingual society.

Endeavours by the aforementioned linguistic communities to identify themselves with exogenous lands and personalities will only alienate them from the very land they inhabit. Unfortunately, the existing narratives of identity by different linguistic communities in Gilgit-Baltistan are only uprooting the local people from their own land.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad. Email: azizalidad@gmail.com

Courtesy: The News 

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