The scenic valleys of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s northern district of Chitral have been in the news for some time now — for the wrong reasons. Recently, there was news of a controversy surrounding the disputed conversion of a teenage Kalash girl. A report, by the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) in March this year, revealed the trend of trafficking Chitrali girls under the guise of ‘marriages’. Demographic, cultural and social transformations in the erstwhile isolated region indicate certain ominous trends, which might erupt in violence in the near future.
With a population of 318,689 (according to the 1998 census) and an area of 14,850 square kilometres, Chitral is linked in the northeast to Gilgit-Baltistan, southeast to Upper Dir, and northwest, west and southwest to the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan. The major communication link of Chitral with the lower parts of KP is via the Lowari Tunnel. Although announced in the 1970s, construction on the tunnel started in 2005 and was expected to be completed in 2008. The tunnel is now expected to be completed by 2017.
The mountain passes from Upper Dir and GB are usually capped with snow for half the year, while three major crossing points to Afghanistan are usually closed due to ‘security reasons’.
Chitral is unique in terms of its cultural and linguistic diversity. The major language spoken in Chitral is Khowar, but five other languages are also spoken in the upper, lower and Kalasha valleys of Chitral. Bilingualism and, sometimes, multilingualism is the norm. The uplands and midlands are mostly inhabited by Ismailis, the low lands by Sunnis, and a small part of Bumburet Valley is inhabited by the Kalash — an ancient community with a unique faith and lifestyle.
Culturally, under pressure from surrounding communities, its population is now left with only a few thousand people — it seems as if they have been turned into a museum of living individuals. The extinction of a whole culture and language is just one step away, provided the current level of pressure continues unabated.
Chitral might be the next front for sectarianism.
At present, Chitral offers a unique model of cultural, religious and linguistic coexistence for Pakistan and for other states in this region. The various, diverse communities of Chitral have developed a rich culture of intra- and inter-community dialogue and exchange. One can observe peace and composure in all their interpersonal and inter-communal interactions. The majority of people are seen to be closely engaged in community work and public service delivery. Accommodating diversity and tolerance in Chitral seems to be at its zenith presently.
Another interesting feature of the socio-cultural environment of Chitral is a comparatively open space for women. Perhaps due to the absence of tribal and traditional concepts of honour, women in Chitral have a considerable amount of freedom of movement. Women have comparatively large participation in social and political activities.
This harmonious environment and considerable space for female participation is not immune to threats and challenges. The first challenge pertains to conversion and intermarriages with non-locals. Conversions to Sunni beliefs and intermarriages with non-locals often go hand-in-hand in Chitral. The stigmatisation of beliefs other than Sunni Islam is exerting tremendous social pressures on the diverse communities of Chitral.
Intermarriages with non-locals have recently become so serious an issue that the district council of Chitral had to pass a resolution attaching conditions to intermarriages with non-locals. The AKRSP report also revealed that 74pc of marriages between Chitrali girls and non-locals turn out to be fake.
The second major challenge seems to be the trend of establishing madressahs with extremist denominations. Some of the madressahs in Shogore Valley and lower Chitral are reported to be indoctrinating intolerance. The impact of such development is seen in parts of Chitral — in the form of the non-traditional purdah and restrictions on women’s movements. It has also been reported that local madressahs in some parts are inciting noncooperation with the community work of AKRSP.
A third significant challenge to Chitral’s harmonious socio-cultural environment is the increase of evangelical activities. Coupled with such activities, one observes the securitisation of the physical environment; increased military and police check posts on all communication links inside and outside its districts, the presence of which — in such usually large numbers — pose a serious obstacle to free movement inside and outside Chitral.
Besides the tremendous loss of infrastructure during last year’s flash floods, the above factors might widen the sectarian schism in Chitral. Might the next front for extremist sectarian violence be the serene peaceful valleys of Chitral? If so, what would its ramifications be and how would it affect broader, regional stability? These hard questions need to be taken up for discussion and debate.
The writer is author of The Militant Discourse.
Published in Dawn, June 27th, 2016