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I Belong To a Disputed Territory, Gilgit-Baltistan

By Amir Hussain

December 21, 2018

“I cannot afford to think about big political issues but I know that I carry the identity of Pakistan and I am told that I belong to a disputed territory. Is it my birth fault that my opinion does not count when decisions about me and future of my children are made as if I do not exist?

“Am I not a citizen of any country and what should I tell my children; where do they belong? What happened to the sacrifices rendered by my forefathers who fought valiantly to liberate their territory from colonial masters? Is it the only story that I can be proud of? My children will ask me what I did to defend my birth right of living like a free citizen of a country. I hope that one day I will be proud of being a full citizen of my country. I will then a have story to share with my children and my grandchildren with pride...”

This is a simple but very powerful message shared on Facebook by a young farmer from Gilgit-Baltistan. The message of the young man is full of meaning and represents the feelings of many young people who are politically alienated amidst all the broken promises of the political mainstreaming of Gilgit-Baltistan. Who knows better than a toiling farmer the hardship of life in a mountainous region with dilapidated infrastructure where his produce goes wasted? Whatever he produces cannot reach the market and his hard work does not pay off.

The young farmer was told that the promise of a fifth province would bring about a new dawn of prosperity, improved infrastructure and well-developed markets. He would have a share in the national economy and his potatoes would be transported to the ‘down markets’ and he would have enough money to pay for the education of his school-going children. He was also told that the rugged mountains of his valley had precious stones and minerals of billions of rupees were buried under those mighty rocks. And that the Indus River gushing through his village could produce thousands of megawatts of electricity.

The young farmer is a graduate from a prestigious national university but all his academic achievements are of no worth for they do not bring a single penny to relieve his suffering. He then looks around and finds out that most of his university fellows are not any better off than him and he has to be content with the vocation of his foregathers – growing potatoes for a living. He is perturbed when he reads the stories of the sacrifices of his forefathers to win liberation for their children. His forefathers had a story to be proud of. What does he have to share other than his experience of growing potatoes?

His wretchedness may transform into a political voice to take him away from his simple life into the quagmire of the complexities of the politics of identity. The sense of being victimised and deprived has gained some momentum among young people in Gilgit-Baltistan; these young people are exposed to national and international debates on democracy and citizenship. Pessimism among them stems from deteriorating living conditions in which the ideals of a better life are dashed by unemployment and the stifling of self-expression.

For more than 70 years of their history since the liberation of the area from the Dogra rulers, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan have displayed unprecedented allegiance to their country. Their hope of integration into the political mainstream of Pakistan has not faded away yet. What could be a better example of the patriotism of the people of Gilgit-Baltistan than their enduring struggle of more than 70 years for integration with their country? Will their struggle be awarded? That is an important question for the political leaders and policymakers of this country.

The young farmer had dreams and aspirations to be an ideal son when his parents invested everything that they had to give him some decent education. However, that has not helped him break the yoke of intergenerational poverty. The young man cannot face his ailing father who needs care and attention. In the shining eyes of his physically emaciated octogenarian father there is anger but he does not find the ways to vent it out. Sometimes he scolds his son but he then realises that his toiling son has no one to share his miseries. A few days ago, in his neighbourhood a young educated boy committed suicide after being scolded by his father for not having a job. Our young farmer does not look suicidal, but he is certainly gravitating towards a political narrative of victimhood and deprivation.

It goes without saying that there are thousands of young people in Gilgit-Baltistan who enter the job market each year after graduating from various national and international universities, but find themselves embroiled in a messy world of unemployment and hopelessness. The altruistic ideals of serving their compatriots are gradually turned into agony and anger in the face of the social stigma of being jobless. An educated society without opportunities becomes the breeding ground for political radicalisation. Those who internalise these social stigmas and estrangement also become vulnerable to suicidal tendencies.

How does all this relate to the political discourse of identity and integration? Well, apparently, there seems to be no visible link between the politics of identity, and wretchedness and education. When an educated young person becomes aware of broader political ideals like democracy, citizenship and political identity he/she becomes perturbed by the liminal existence in a society without a political identity.

In search of a meaningful life, a young educated person would be desperate to be associated or identified with a larger political solidarity. In search of recognition and political identity, this educated young person can easily get carried away by the continued hammering of the political slogans of deprivation and victimhood.

When the human instinct of associated identity becomes challenged, it finds political expression in the larger goal of self-actualisation. When the social stigma of victimhood grows into political expression, it resonates well with every educated but stigmatised young man and woman. The energy and enthusiasm of the youth is diverted towards the politics of vengeance and hence radicalisation finds strong following amidst despair and poverty. The personality of an idealistic educated young person splits between altruism and vengeance and mutates into collective political expression. When you educate your children and you do not provide them with appropriate opportunities you will have split personalities whose spirit of vengeance can outdo all altruism.

The young potato-grower has neither been a political activist nor a critical thinker but the way he has articulated his ideas hints at the many interesting inside stories of growing political discontent in Gilgit-Baltistan. It also tells the story of failing institutions, broken promises and myopic vision of political leaders and policymakers who have failed to read the simmering political discontent. Let us accept that we cannot leave 16 million educated people in political limbo in the 21st century.

Amir Hussain is a senior social development and policy adviser, and a freelance columnist based in Islamabad.