Flying out of Gilgit last Sunday on a sparkling morning there was a sense of realisation that I had left another country. I wrote last week of the changes in Gilgit-Baltistan since my last visit, of how they were for the most part positive and flagged up a potential problem in the future with youth unemployment — but that is only part of the story.
The changes are profound and they are part of an ongoing process, it is not as if they have been made once and for all and then everything stops at whatever the new position is. They are progressive in virtually every sense of the word, from the role of women in a range of cultures across the region, to trade and industry and international relations. Not unnaturally the people of the area, particularly Gilgit, Nagar and Hunza look northwards to China which for many years and for its own reasons has been the benefactor. The giant mostly friendly uncle that exercises a discreet — and not so discreet — guiding hand. For many of those living in G-B Pakistan is, quite literally, another country. And China less so.
Setting unsourced stories aside it is clear from the conversations that I had that there were high levels of awareness of what is going on in and around the homelands of the inhabitants, and that there is very much a sense of cultural unity at least strongly latent if not already developed. People are finding new ways to work together rather than fight one another and that is going to be a powerful determinant of their long-term futures.
Although not featuring large in local political life today, the small nationalist parties have clung on to life as the mainstream parties try to make the best of having no clout in the corridors of power down-country. They are unlikely ever to have a mainstream future but they are able to act as the irritants that whilst not protogenic pearls do serve as change-catalysts rather than as stand-alone change agents themselves.
Perhaps as a reaction to the deadlock that embraces all parts of the country that are still unhealed from the wounds of Partition, it is local bodies and institutions that in a newly minted atmosphere of peace, are re-finding and refining themselves. There is a pragmatic realisation that the unresolved legacy of Partition has to be worked around and that a local or national solution to the areas status — not a province of Pakistan and not likely to be one in the foreseeable future — is not on the horizon.
The tiny team — 43 was the number mentioned to me — of UN observers buzz around here and there, their flags and pennants looking distinctly faded and in need of replacement. Nobody seemed to know — or care — what they were supposed to be doing. Irrelevant or not they are an ever-visible reminder that if the region is to have any sense of its own mastery then there has to be a rethink around the business — very much the business — of daily life.
It is the political impotence of the faux-institutions set up over the years by the governments in Islamabad that paradoxically is promoting the growth and expansion of what started in the 80’s and 90’s as grassroots local organisations and now are moving on to the next stage of development. And this time around it may be fast-forwards rather than the slow burn of the past.
The absence of conflict provides fertile soil to germinate in, and I overheard some detailed discussions as to how some of the obvious gaps may be plugged and who should do the plugging. I found a willingness to collaborate, for hitherto at-odds groups and institutions to work together, for some genuinely out-of-the-box thinking to emerge as the realisation dawned that the creation of opportunity was so much easier if it was not encumbered by being viewed down a gun barrel.
Geopolitical resolution is yet far away for the people of G-B, but a nexus of development paths ranging from the macro of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to the micro of the tiny puttoo weaving project for women entrepreneurs in the remote village of Hopar, is creating a fast emerging future.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 29th, 2016.