In the north of Pakistan lies Gilgit-Baltistan, a Shia-majority region of Sunni-dominated Pakistan, and a contested border area that forms part of disputed Kashmir. Though typically seen as an idyllic paradise, many overlook how the region is governed as a suspect security zone.
We spoke with Nosheen Ali, author of Delusional States: Feeling Rule and Development in Pakistan’s Northern Frontier, to learn more about the region of Gilgit-Baltistan, its people, and the challenges they face. Ali will speak at the Mittal Institute’s upcoming seminar on Friday, October 25, alongside Professor Ali Asani, Professor of Indo-Muslim Religion and Cultures at Harvard University.
In your book, Delusional States: Feeling Rule and Development in Pakistan’s Northern Frontier, you delve into the struggle between India and Pakistan over Kashmir and how emotion and nationalism have fueled the conflict. What does an ethnographic approach to the conflict reveal about the region and its population?
A fine-grained, ethnographic account illuminates the aspirations, struggles, and concerns of the inhabitants of Gilgit-Baltistan, who are often rendered invisible — both in the larger policy discourses on Kashmir, as well as in nationalist valorizations of their region as a quintessential tourist “paradise.” This reduction of place to pictorial beauty, territory, symbol, and unpeopled landscape is in fact a grave dilemma facing people across all regions implicated in the disputed borderland of Kashmir. Their voices are simply disregarded in popular framings of the issue as a two-state conflict between India and Pakistan.
In my ethnographic study, hence, I illuminate the voices of political activists, journalists, students, poets, politicians, pastoralists, and preachers. I strive to bring forth perspectives across sect, gender, and class. I argue that citizen-subjects in the region are demanding inclusion not only in terms of political rights — an aspect that over-determines the discourse on Kashmir — but also through struggles for religious recognition and ecological sovereignty, which they feel is integral to a meaningful life of dignity.
How do you think the recent events in the region will affect Gilgit-Baltistan?
Gilgit-Baltistan has a distinct dynamic vis-a-vis the Kashmir conflict, whereby people in the region yearn more for ethical belonging within a callous Pakistani state than to cede away from it. While the region is ruled as a security zone and is intensely repressed, as I discuss in my book, it is also striking how every time India deepens its occupation of the territory of Kashmir it controls, its propagandists simultaneously hype up human rights abuses in Gilgit-Baltistan as a mode of distraction — and this has happened this time again.
The current siege and lockdown in Kashmir heighten the anger on both sides and bring Pakistan and India closer to war than to peace. We have already seen an increase in the violence against villagers on both sides of the Line of Control, and Pakistan has also intensified its own policing regimes and political violence in Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan since August 5th. There is simply no other way out than to listen to Kashmiri voices, demilitarize, and resist toxic nationalisms that have converted Kashmir into an arrogant bro-fight for land for more than seven decades.
What are the challenges that the population of Gilgit-Baltistan faces when it comes to social change?
Gilgit-Baltistan is a vast, predominantly rural mountainous landscape of around 1.8 million people, with diverse histories, ethnicities, and languages. As the only Shia-majority region of Pakistan, one that is imbricated in the Kashmir dispute and also now the key site of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), citizens in the region are simultaneously border, religious, and environmental subjects. One of the key challenges faced by the region is that because of its location and complex sociality, the region has been subjected to the twin processes of militarization and sectarianization by the Pakistani state.
An intense regime of monitoring and surveillance has become entrenched, and secular-nationalist aspirations are routinely crushed through intimidation or “divide-and-conquer” tactics. Against these divisive forms of state rule, people in the region have continuously engaged in ethical-political struggles for a progressive future for their land and its people, bravely facing multiple forms of repression and injustice. In the book, I pay special attention to poetic, faith-based, and ecological social movements that take place in the shadow of the Kashmir conflict, and are under-studied as forms of resistance. ☆
☆ All opinions expressed by our interview subjects are their own and do not reflect the views of the Mittal Institute and its staff.