THE recent clash between the Kalash community and their more numerous Muslim neighbours, caused by a girl’s change of faith, appears to have been amicably resolved. However, the incident should awaken the government and the people both to their duty to save the tiny Kalash minority from extinction.
This month’s attack on the Kalash again brought out their tradition of tolerance. Reena, a 14-year-old Kalash girl, was reported to have converted to Islam and chosen to stay with a Muslim family. Then she went back to her parents’ home and complained of having been forcibly converted. This enraged the Muslim neighbours and they attacked Kalash homes. The authorities intervened and the parties agreed to respect the girl’s wishes. The matter ended when the girl deposed before a magistrate that she had adopted Islam of her own free will, and her family accepted her choice.
The affair highlighted the Kalash tradition of treating change of religion as something normal. Reena’s own uncle and aunt had embraced Islam before her. For some time, however, the Kalash have been showing signs of anxiety at the rate of conversions. In January this year, 12 Kalashas were reported to have converted to Islam within a month. According to a spokesman of the Kalash People’s Development Network, about 100 Kalashas embraced Islam over the past few years.
The state must ensure that minorities are not driven to give up their faith by denial of their rights.
Once a large community that ruled the Chitral region, the Kalash population has shrunk to about 3,000 heads. They are also reported to have lost control of a large part of their lands through sale to Muslims or otherwise. In this situation their fears of extinction cannot be summarily dismissed.
The matter of conversion is not as simple as it is sometimes made out to be, especially by some Muslim clerics who run conversion services. One of them once declared that the Kalash girls were turning to Islam as they had become aware of the difference between right and wrong. Another view is that educated Kalash girls change their faith to improve their marital prospects. Such statements cannot conceal the fact that members of religious minorities are under economic and social pressure to give up their status as second- or third-class citizens and join the privileged Muslim community.
Thus while one has no quarrel with voluntary conversions, the state must ensure that minorities are not driven to give up their faith by denial of their rights or unbearable discrimination in social and economic terms. Such conversions are perhaps not welcome in Islam either. Besides, the question whether minors should be considered competent to change their religion needs to be resolved.
Unfortunately, there have been reasons to discount the narrative of all conversions to Islam being free and voluntary. Two years ago, the Supreme Court took suo motu action on reports of threats to the Kalash to convert to Islam or face death. The court accepted the explanation of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government that the threat mentioned in news reports was not new and that an old story had been “picked up by some sections of media for vested interests [sic]”.
All this was based on a report from the Malakand commissioner who had gone to a Kalash village and was able to report that “the representatives of the Kalash minority expressed complete satisfaction over the response of the administration and they were satisfied with the security arrangements in the valleys”.
The commissioner’s report, as reproduced in the Supreme Court’s landmark judgment of June 2014, devotes more space to the deployment of security forces near the Kalash villages and along the border with Afghanistan than to the question of conversions or the Kalash people’s rights in general. These security arrangements are important because the danger of incursions by zealots from across the border cannot be ignored.
In terms of the 2014 judgment, the Supreme Court maintains “a separate file to be placed before a three-member bench to ensure that this judgment be given effect to in letter and spirit and the said bench may also entertain complaints/ petitions relatable to the violation of fundamental rights of minorities in the country”. It may not be unfair to expect this Supreme Court bench to ask the Malakand commissioner to file periodic reports on the condition of the Kalash community. The friends of the Kalash people may also approach the court if they notice anything objectionable.
But guaranteeing the Kalash security against violence is a smaller part of the state’s duty to them. A more important part is the state obligation to ensure that the Kalash can go on living as freely as they wish to, subject only to the laws of change dictated by time and improvement in human consciousness.
The colourful Kalash community, with its tradition of music, love and freedom for the youth, is a precious flower in the national bouquet. It is an integral part of the pluralist society that Pakistan is, and must always remain so, and its culture must be protected against all possible attacks, for it is a most valuable part of the Pakistani people’s heritage.
It is said that efforts to get the Kalash culture included in the Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List, that began in 2008, have got lost in Islamabad’s dustbins. Those responsible for cultural heritage and minorities’ affairs in the federal ministry and their counterparts in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa administration must get together to devise means of protecting the Kalash heritage and cultural practices under Unesco’s guidance. At the same time, they should develop their own plans to document Kalash cultural practices and organise a cell to monitor any changes in the community’s festivals and rituals.
Civil society, sadly enough, has by and large been guilty of ignoring the Kalash. None of its reports on the status of minorities issued recently touched on the plight of the Kalash people. This too must change.
Published in Dawn, June 23rd, 2016