High Asia comprises the regions of the Karakoram, Hindu Kush, Pamirs, the Himalaya and the Tibetan Plateau. Nestled among the greatest massifs in the world, this region is home to diverse cultures, languages and worldviews. Despite harsh climatic conditions, rugged terrain and challenges in inaccessibility, local communities in High Asia developed linkages with neighbouring areas and polities.
What makes this region different from Inner, West and South Asia is its rising mountains. The mountainous communities inhabiting these areas created cross-regional networks and linkages, which in their turn facilitated exchange of ideas, cultures, political institutions, architecture, music and religious traditions. This interface paved the way for the emergence of a society at the crossroads of Inner and South Asia.
Being a part of High Asia, the geography of Gilgit-Baltistan has an enormous impact on local culture, traditions, governance structure and identities. Like other parts of High Asia, Gilgit-Baltistan did not remain immune from the tumultuous changes that engulf the whole of Asia. The Great Game in the 19th Century turned the region of High Asia into a turf for the players of the Great Game.
During the Great Game, Gilgit-Baltistan functioned as a buffer zone between Tsarist Russia in Central Asia, China in High Asia and British Empire in South Asia. Until the advent of the British Empire, indigenous networks of solidarities among valley domains provided mobility and exchange between the people inhabiting High Asia.
The order of things started to change with the arrival of exogenous powers in the region. During the Great Game, Victorian Britain and Tsarist Russia tried to map the hitherto uncharted territories of High Asia. Peter Hopkirk in his book ‘The Great Game: On Secret Service in High Asia’ declares map-mapping in High Asia as “one of the principal tasks of Great Game on both sides”. Only by mapping the unknown were they able to consolidate their positions in High Asia. However, history in the 20th Century followed a different course than the one envisaged by the powers engaged in the shadowy struggle of the Great Game. The Russian and Chinese revolutions and establishment of the new state of Pakistan drastically altered not only historical borders, but also radically changed the idea of space, boundaries and identities. As a result societies in High Asia faced a rupture in their historical continuum.
Prior to the demarcation of boundaries for modern states in Central and South Asia, societies in High Asia had indigenous systems through which they managed the affairs of state, self and culture. Under the new power arrangements, they lost old certainties and institutions. At the same time they could not become part of mainstream institutions of the new state owing to their peripheral status. Bereft of wider cultural milieu spanning from Tibet to the Pamirs and Hindu Kush, local people had to reformulate their strategies to find space within the new power structure of the nation-state.
There is a strong connection between the geographical mutation of Gilgit-Baltistan and current identity crisis and political status. It is the geographical mutilation that has led to crisis in every sphere of life, including cultural and political identity. With changed scenario and new dispensation of power in place, the local populace of Gilgit-Baltistan lost locus of power within and became the periphery of the new state. Administrative systems also change our notions of identity. Living under a different administrative set-up and power arrangements in the long run influences the outlook of the people, their worldview, strategies for power, notions of identity and mundane realities.
Imposition of political geography over cultural geography, new political players, reconfiguration of states, and disruption in cultural worldview have produced perpetual crises in the mountainous communities of Gilgit-Baltistan. In this process traditional ties with Inner Asia and other regions of High Asia were skewered, which resulted in different strategies of politics. Emergence of religio-political forces in Gilgit-Baltistan has shifted the basis of identity from culture to religion. This has caused societies to jettison indigenous ways of engaging with religion and opt for a monolithic notion of Islam. At times political deprivation and identity crisis manifest increasing religiosity and nationalist discourse.
Within the overall political structure and constitutional set-up of Pakistan Gilgit-Baltistan has an ambiguous position. This ambiguity stems from the state’s policies of appending Gilgit-Baltistan with the Kashmir issue for national interests at the expense of local sentiments and aspirations. Coupled with ambiguity, the political narrative among different cultural groups of High Asia has given birth to a tendency of identity cannibalism wherein one group tries to consume the identity of others. This act of effacing others has its roots in the existential fear of extinction.
This is the case with Kashmiri nationalism vis-à-vis the political marginalised region of Gilgit-Baltistan. Although Kashmiris refuse to subsume their identity within the meta-Indian identity, their narrative of nationalism at the same time does not accept Gilgit-Baltistan as a separate cultural and political identity. The Kashmiri narrative attempts to encompass Gilgit-Baltistan under the rubric of Kashmiri nationalism.
Ironically, Kashmiri nationalism gets its raison d’être from the very colonialism of which Kashmiris themselves are victims. Thus, colonial legacy proves instrumental in supporting an argument of the colonised to colonialise the identity of the ‘Other’. Prima facie it is an inclusive narrative, but in reality it coerces a particular cultural group to subsume its identity under a meta-narrative of a local narrative. So the monolithic derive is confined not only to the state, it has permeated into regional nationalism that does not brook self-assertion of a sub-regional group for power on the basis of culture.
At the same time China, India and Pakistan try to reorient the cultural direction of societies in High Asia towards their respective power, cultural and commercial centres by constructing network of roads in the inaccessible regions. Gilgit-Baltistan is connected with South Asia through the Karakoram Highway (KKH). Recently, China and Pakistan expanded the KKH and now both the governments have signed an agreement to establish the Kashgar-Gwadar Economic Corridor.
China connected Lhasa with mainland China through a high-elevation railway in 2006. India has also extended its road network to remote areas of Himalayas. Interestingly, the organisations historically responsible for maintaining KKH and Srinagar-Leh Highway are given the name of Frontier Works Organisation (FWO) and Border Roads Organisation (BRO) respectively.
Though roads enable new factors and actors to make inroads into hitherto closed societies, they at the same time destroy old identities and recreate new ones. Hence, geopolitics is increasingly playing an important role in the formation of identities in High Asia.
Since interests of different states intersect in High Asia, the region itself has become a flashpoint among competing states. Instead of pulling the peripheries on the boundaries towards their respective power centres and reorienting cultural groups towards meta-identities, all the states with stakes in High Asia should allow communities inhabiting this region to create regional spaces for interaction with their cultural milieu across national borders.
Allowing only vehicles and goods to fill the life and experiences of people and restricting their interaction with cross-border cultural fraternity will deprive them of the human dimension that is essential for cultural efflorescence and peace.
The writer is a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.