By: Murtaza Razvi
Is there a connection between the absence of madressahs and guns and that of violence in the public sphere? The election campaign’s images coming out of Gilgit-Baltistan are just old world enthralling. The region is set to go to the polls on Nov 12, and big and small leaders of political parties like the PPP, the PML-N and –Q, the MQM and others have been holding mammoth election rallies throughout the region. Conspicuous by its absence from the scene is the self-righteous religious brigade comprising the erstwhile MMA, the short-lived conglomerate of six religious parties, which was the creation of the Musharraf enterprise.
The national and local leaders addressing the rallies do not seem to have an overbearing presence of security cordons around them. They are seen holding forth from behind an old-fashioned podium without the bullet proof glass to protect them from a potential terrorist. This is old world Pakistan, if anyone’s memory serves them right. My friend and a fellow blogger, Nadeem F. Paracha, keeps telling us that it was a religious right’s student wing that first brought violence to campuses in Pakistan back in the 1960s.
Now seeing the absence of such elements from the election campaign in Gilgit-Baltistan, I am finally waking up to the potency of his claim. There are no firearms, hence no aerial firing and no overbearing personal security guards protecting the leaders who have converged on the region to lead their supporters.
Likewise, the religious lexicon of the political debate that is now so common in politics in the rest of the country is also missing. Instead, the leaders have chosen to talk about the underdeveloped and for long neglected region’s real issues that affect the people’s everyday lives. This makes you marvel at how the same agenda gets subverted by an overdose of religious sentiment that directly links up with anti-Americanism and the many conspiracy theories about an Israel-US-India nexus trying to push Pakistan and its nuclear programme into an abyss, when the same leaders address Pakistanis elsewhere. You also wonder that if they can keep their sanity in Gilgit-Baltistan, why can’t they do the same everywhere else. Is it the mullahs, with their obscurantist, xenophobic rhetoric, who subvert the entire democratic debate by pushing the secular parties to dragging religion into everything they have to say? Are the politicians also so gullible?
I am reminded of the poet Iqbal who composed a beautiful poem on the subject. It starts with a scene in the presence of God who has just ordered a mullah to be taken to paradise. The poet marvels at the decision, unable to understand what the mullah will do in paradise. The punch line verse I am referring to runs thus: Hai bad-amoozi-i-aqwaam o melel kaam iss ka; aur jannat mein na masjid na kalisa na kunisht (His job is to malign and pit peoples and nations against one another; and paradise has no mosque, no church, no temple). And given its natural splendour, Gilgit-Baltistan is paradise no less.
It is also paradise because of the absence of the freak turf war between religious parties. Time was under General Zia’s rule when sectarian and born-again Islamic parties had tried to bulldoze their agenda of an intolerant, extremist creed into the region, which has a majority non-Sunni population. Entire villages were attacked in the dead of the night by armed lashkars in the Gilgit area; the assailants woke you up from sleep and demanded you recite the kalema, as they told you, or face the sword. Dozens died in the assaults; many were even burnt alive. But then that wave of terror subsided as government ensured that such people were not allowed entry into Gilgit-Baltistan.
The indigenous people in the region comprise speakers of several languages and practice four wider faiths. There are the Shina speakers in Gilgit proper, Burushaski speakers in Hunza, Nagar and Gojal, Wakhi speakers in the upper Hunza valley, and then the mainstream Balti speakers spread across Baltistan. There are Ismailis, Twelver Shias, the followers of Noor Bakhsh (a halfway house between Twelver Shia and the Barelvi school of Sunni thought), and a sprinkling of mainstream Sunnis. They have lived peacefully in the region for centuries, even practicing inter-faith marriages. If there’s one place in Pakistan where Islam is in no danger, it is Gilgit-Baltistan; hence the absence of the self-styled defenders of the faith there.
The few small seminaries there are in the region remain the poor man’s innocuous neighbourhood madressahs that teach the children how to read the Quran and little else besides.
There are no petro-dollar grants coming in from the Gulf countries to support them nor is there a beeline of pushy mullahs to get government grants from the Auqaf Department.
Religion retains its pristine spiritual beauty and simplicity, which was the norm across Pakistan until the 1970s, despite the religious parties which had started flexing their muscles for public mind and space in the 1960s, but nothing beyond that.
The Aga Khan Foundation has done wonders over the years to make basic amenities available to people across the region, even in the vast areas that do not have Ismaili population. Water and sanitation works, the building of tertiary roads, education, healthcare centres and vocational institutes are the sectors where co-operative rather than competitive module of development has been applied, and the results are showing. It is now up to the government to build on the basic spade work that has already been done there.
The absence of coercion and xenophobia — that have come to define life in the rest of the country — makes Gilgit-Baltistan a refreshing exception, and a model for the rest of the country to follow. It is hoped that the election to the Gilgit-Baltistan legislative assembly will also lead to the people of this region acquiring representation in Pakistan’s parliament.
Even more so, it is also hoped that Gilgit-Baltistan will retain and strengthen their own people’s culture of tolerance and acceptance of diversity, and not fall for jingoistic and obscurantist rhetoric of safeguarding the country’s ideological frontiers and the like, which some politicians having sympathies elsewhere may try to dupe them with. That’s definitely not the way to go.