PAKISTAN’S smallest ethno-religious community, the Kalash, is on the verge of extinction. What many centuries could not achieve, contemporary factors have nearly managed to accomplish. The National Commission on Human Rights sounded the alarm in a report in which it noted that the numbers of the Kalash were only around 4,000 and cited “unwilling conversions and cajoled marriages with non-Kalash” as being among the immediate threats facing the community. The document also referred to environmental stressors such as the denial of land rights which has played havoc with the pattern of their lives. As pointed out by the NCHR chairman, the lack of a culture-specific curriculum for Kalash children in the valleys of Chitral where they live is also contributing to the promotion of a cultural homogeneity. The younger generation, already deprived of adequate educational facilities, has no choice but to study from textbooks meant for adherents of the majority faith, which amounts to what he described as “conversion through subtle indoctrination”. The fact there is no written Kalasha script has further endangered the preservation of their heritage.
The precarious condition that this indigenous community finds itself in is illustrative of several aspects of our society. For one, we may pay lip service to diversity, but make no real effort to preserve it. The Kalash depend for their survival on the area’s natural resources, as they have done for several millennia; their animistic beliefs go hand in hand with a respect for nature. However, illegal logging has increased the frequency of flash floods in the valleys, and the mushrooming of hotels in the scenic location violates the Kalash’s customary property rights. Moreover, the growing tourist traffic to the area, drawn by the community’s unique rituals and its laidback culture, has brought out some of the worst instincts of the Pakistani public. Instead of keeping a respectful distance, visitors have been known to harass Kalash women and children; in essence, they treat the community as little more than exhibits on display. Some planning can yet arrest the slide: firstly, aside from addressing the problem of deforestation — a desirable course of action in any case — the customary law of the Kalash should be codified and their cultural traditions preserved and celebrated in the subjects taught to their children. Moreover, the government should consider a permit system to limit the number of visitors to the Kalash valleys so that these gentle people are not erased from Pakistan’s cultural landscape.
Published in Dawn, January 1st, 2018