Treading the Sacred Linguistic Landscape of Gilgit-Baltistan

By Shah Zaman 

Understanding the social fabric of Gilgit-Baltistan requires a deep dive into its ethnic diversity. This mountainous region, a vibrant cultural mosaic, has been home to various ethnicities for centuries, offering a rich tapestry for social scientists. The urge for identity, deeply rooted in ethnicity, is so strong that no political, economic, or religious force could supersede it. For instance, the Burushos in Yasin, Nagar, and Hunza find a common cultural thread binding them despite a glacier and a river separating them.

Nation states, in the past, around the region marked their borders disrupting the ethnic identities of the mountain communities. Yet, the veins of ethnic relations extend beyond these borders reaching as far as Pamir, Tibet, and Srinagar. The recent debate about developing a language curriculum and the choice of a lanugage for a common script stirred a discussion among the new generation in Gilgit-Baltistan. Let’s discuss about some possible ways of how it can be effective.

To appreciate the complexity of this issue, let’s delve into the linguistic landscape through data:

In Gilgit Baltistan’s three administrative divisions over 74,000 households speak Balti, followed closely by 70,000 Shina-speaking households and 33,512 Burushaski-speaking ones. Khowar and Wakhi, though less prevalent, shares 3% and 2% of the linguistic landscape in the region. Other languages, including Domaki, Gojjri, and Urdu, represent 4%. Balti is the most spoken language in Baltistan, Shina in Diamer, and Burushaski in Gilgit Division.

Note: The data below is based on household multi indicator cluster survey 2017, and the writer used 2017 census data for estimation

S/No Languages Baltistan Diamer Gilgit Total Estimated HH 2017 Estimated Number of Speakers 2017 Percentage
1 Balti 2346 1 9 2356 74486 566091 38
2 Shina 211 1100 917 2228 70439 535336 36
3 Brushaski 2 1 1057 1060 33512 254693 17
4 Khowar 1 0 195 196 6197 47094 3
5 Wakhi 0 0 154 154 4869 37003 2
6 Other Languages  










52621 4
   Total 2607 1190 2416 6213 196426 14,92,838 100

District-wise, Balti is the leading language in Skardu, Ghanche, Kharmang and Shigar, Shina in Astore, Diamer, Ghizer and Gilgit while Burushaski is widely spoken across Hunza and Nagar.

S/No Districts/


Balti Shina Burushaski Khowar Wakhi Other Languages Total HH Estimated HH 2017
1 Astore 0 602 0 0 0 3 605 19127
2 Sikardu 496 131 2 1 0 16 646 20423
3 Diamer 1 498 1 0 0 85 585 18495
4 Ghanche 707 0 0 0 0 1 708 22384
5 Ghizer 1 244 117 177 6 46 591 18685
6 Gilgit 7 461 80 17 8 38 611 19317
7 Hunza  0 64 389 1 140 0 594 18780
8 Kharmang 495 77 0 0 0 29 601 19001
9 Nagar 1 148 471 0 0 0 620 19602
10 Shigar 648 3 0 0 0 1 652 20613
  Total 2356 2228 1060 196 154 219 6213 196426

Having looked at the data, now let’s get into the debate.

This linguistic diversity prompts an important question: what should be the state/regional language of Gilgit Baltistan?

A democratic approach would suggest Balti, the language of majority in the region. However, Balti is almost non-existent in six of the ten districts and is the dominant language in one of the three administrative divisions, which could cause controversy. Shina, fairly distributed in 9 districts and all three divisions, will spark a similar debate.

Why not choose one language in each division and adopt a model of multiple state languages?

The idea of multiple state languages seems romantic and aligns well with the overly stated, highly misunderstood, principle of “diversity is strength.” This approach would recognize three major languages, each in a different division. However, the predominance of Burushaski in the Hunza, Nagar, and Yasin regions of the Gilgit Division slightly skews the data. This, in turn, risks marginalizing Shina speakers in Punial, Gilgit, and Nagar districts. In this debate, we have lost about the representation of minor languages like Khowar and Wakhi, and the endangered languages, Domaki and Gojri.

Hence, the intricate web of languages in Gilgit Baltistan reveals that neither a single nor multiple language policies can truly represent the region’s diverse linguistic tapestry. Any attempt to enforce a uniform language policy could be perceived as a form of oppression, overshadowing the colonial “art” of divide and rule.

It is critical to understand that “diversity is strength”, much like “knowledge is power”, is a double-edged sword. Diversity can become a divisive threat without inclusion, undermining unity in regions like Gilgit Baltistan.

In a rapidly globalizing world, Chinese and English are endangering local languages at an unprecedented scale. Domaki and Gojri just indicate a similar trend among other language in Gilgit Baltistan. This war of cultural hegemony in the era of a new great game necessitates equal opportunities for growth and protection to all our languages.

Adopting emergency measures for our critically endangered languages and granting equal status to all local languages could provide an intriguing case study for social scientists.

In conclusion, the language policy in Gilgit Baltistan is a delicate matter, requiring the engagement of all stakeholders. Any policy favoring one language over others could have significant repercussions, potentially leading to a never-ending cycle of counterbalancing measures. Policymakers and native speakers, particularly of the three major languages, must tread carefully in this sacred linguistic space, ensuring all steps are inclusive and respectful of the region’s rich heritage. A proactive step might involve gathering a representative group of leading linguists from all ethnic groups in the region for a comprehensive focus group discussion.

The writer is a PhD student at a university in the United States. 

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