Mon. Sep 26th, 2022

Cultural ambivalence in Gilgit-Baltistan

By Aziz Ali Dad

Humans are the only living beings that have succeeded in overcoming the limits imposed by instinct. This has helped them develop a worldview that fuels a better understanding of self, society and the world. It is this worldview that knits every dimension of society into a symbolic whole called culture. The traditional culture of Gilgit-Baltistan developed in an organic way in a situation of relative isolation from the rest of the world.

However, the isolated position of Gilgit-Baltistan started to change with the growing exposure to the outside world in modern times. It has exposed the region to exogenous lifestyles, people, ideas and institutions. Coupled with these elements, the process of modernisation during the last four decades has brought about drastic changes in perception.

In the cultural context of Gilgit-Baltistan, the rupture with continuity was not a uniform process across different spheres of life. It has rather occurred in a hybrid form whereby some spheres of life experienced rapid changes and gave way to new things while some elements of traditional worldview have been reinvigorated by the very forces of modernity. As a result, the outlook of society has become ambivalent towards modernity. The ambivalent mind has given birth to a paranoid culture where the mind remains trapped in the old framework of perceiving things while the new realities of the world exist somewhere else. This split is so deep that it has permeated into the public space, education and morals of society.

Antonio Gramsci in his book, Prison Notebook, identifies the root cause of such a cultural crisis “precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear”. In other words, culture in Gilgit-Baltistan is suffering from psychological nausea where it cannot throw out the old and fails to swallow the new. The morbid symptoms of this culture manifests in a diffused form in different sites and spaces of society.

The ambivalent position of Gilgit-Baltistan in the overall power dispensation of Pakistan contributes to a split in the social mindset wherein political deprivation is pushed into the unconscious to woo power consciously. That political unconscious gives birth to a psychological mechanism, which compels locals at the helm of power to consciously display power to hide their inherent inferiority in terms of power. It is this deprivation and inferiority at the deeper recesses of their psyche that goads some people, who are entrusted with the collective will of the people, to leave the public in the lurch by opting for lucrative positions doled out by the government.

Since the elected representatives are enamoured of the very apparatus that has deprived people of their identity, the emergence of a modern social contract in Gilgit-Baltistan is continuously delayed. The yawning gap between the people and their collective will provides the power with an opportunity to intervene in social and political sites to install its strategies of control in the psyche of Gilgit-Baltistan.

Another site of the manifestation of a split-personality syndrome in the Gilgit-Baltistan’s culture is apparent in the disconnect between the self and education. During the last three decades, the region has witnessed a phenomenal increase in literacy. The primary purpose of education is to groom good citizens who can achieve self-actualisation. It is the university that creates a new self from the crude self by infusing a new vision in its pupils so that they can steer society’s direction  on the path of illumination and enlightenment.

Hakim Sanai has exquisitely captured the dialectics of knowledge and the creation of new self in the following words: “Ignorance is better than that knowledge which fails to rob you of your own self.” The unselfing of the self is done by robbing students of the mindset that was nurtured in a narrow sectarian, linguistic, regional and racial milieu.

Currently, a large number of students from Gilgit-Baltistan are pursuing education in the major universities in Pakistan. In 2002, the Karakoram International University (KIU) was established in Gilgit. It was hoped that the educated generation would play an instrumental role in social change and cure society from the ills that have been afflicting it for so long. But instead of infusing a new vision and perspective into society, the educated lot has reinforced old and existing biases by espousing the dominant narrative purveyed by obscurantist forces in Gilgit-Baltistan.

This is visible in the case of the KIU, where the only island of knowledge in the region is inundated by the general opinion of society. Instead of steering the course of society outside its walls, the KIU itself has been gobbled up by the cultural mindset. It can be said that knowledge has not been internalised by the self. Instead, it is instrumentally employed to strengthen parochial ideas, obsolete worldviews and dogmatic forces of society. This shows a split between the self and education.

The ambivalent mindset has permeated into the region’s value system. In terms of values, Gilgit-Baltistan is faced with a paradoxical situation. Instead of opening the doors and windows of society, the process of modernisation and urbanisation has led to a mindset where fear informs social relationship and roles. This is evident in the dominance of a macho culture where men boast about their intrepidity but shudder at the sight of ‘others’ in their territory and the presence of women in public spaces. It is this scared mind which has turned solid spaces in Gilgit city and other villages into no-go areas for the ‘other’ who do not subscribe to a particular religious identity.

A similar mindset has manufactured a dual morality for the private and public domains. The duality in morals has enabled most men of Gilgit-Baltistan to accommodate both the devil and the angel in themselves. This is discernible in the not-so-pious perception of men towards women in public as opposed to the pious morals upheld for women at home. For women, the public space is still a forbidden place because it is polluted with the dirty gaze of men whose eyes only ooze saintly sentiments for their own family. As a corollary, the mental and physical space for women has been squeezed by patriarchal morals.

In the vortex of a sea-change in the society of Gilgit-Baltistan, an anachronistic mentality and culture has been formed. Such a culture feeds on its own children to keep the chimera of collective imagination called culture alive and protect old but decaying certainties. Victims of this culture come to the fore through the increasing cases of suicide among women, honour killings, sectarian strife, misogyny, child abuse and powerless potentates.

Speaking about the deep fear of change among people, Fyodor Dostoevsky said, “Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most”. The mentality in Gilgit-Baltistan is a brainchild of the fearful father of tradition that dares not to take new steps in new directions. So weak is this mind that it fears that the whole edifice of society, honour, values and manhood can collapse with an earthquake produced by a few dancing steps of women at a public gathering. Such a mind cannot dare to take a step for change. In order to get rid of this state of ambivalence and its resultant aliments, it is vital to delegitimise the very vocabulary that has entangled people in its invisible tentacles.

Our souls are what our words are. The process of delegitimisation starts with the rejection of the parochial narrative prevalent in society and coining new words that can liberate soul and mind. Only an open mind and a confident soul can enable us to get rid of the cultural morbidity that is gnawing at our social body and collective consciousness.

The writer is a freelance columnist based in Gilgit. Email:

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