A few days back, I came across an article published by The Guardian. I was extremely shocked and bewildered to read the headline, ‘Pakistan’s polytheistic Kalash tribe threatened with death by Taliban’. The video released by the Taliban calls on Sunnis to join the fight against the Kalash people and moderate Ismaili Muslims in Chitral valley. The protagonist Taliban in the video have asked the Sunni Muslims of Chitral to join hands with their ‘holy’ cause of eliminating Ismaili Muslims and the Kalash, a polytheistic community with their unique customs and rituals, usually claimed to have been descended from the Greeks who invaded this area under Alexander the Great.
Since it is quite dangerous to make sensitive comments on the ideological orientations of people in this land of the ‘pure’, what I am interested in is highlighting the humanitarian and development projects carried out by the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) in the historically neglected valleys of Chitral. It is worth considering that, in 1986, for the first time in history, the Agha Khan Rural Support Programme (AKRSP) started functioning in the region as a catalyst for motivating the public for developmental projects: irrigation channels, mini-hydro power projects, women’s empowerment, skills development, fruit preservation and farming along modern lines. For the first time in their history, people were motivated for forming Village Organisations (VOs) and Women Village Organisations (WVO) with a structural change in the traditional makeup of society for progress and prosperity. Today, the VOs and WVOs have been clustered under Local Support Programmes (LSOs) for institutional development, with a staff of their own technically equipped for the purpose. Hundreds of educated youths are employed at these organisations. If there is some developmental progress in Chitral, the credit goes to the Agha Khan Development Network (AKDN).
AKDN also has health and educational branches in Chitral. Their health management system is so effective that today many health units, which had become dysfunctional or malfunctioned, are run by the Agha Khan Health Services (AKHS). Similarly, there are more than 50 community-based schools in Chitral. Besides these schools and vocational centres, two higher secondary schools (one in Koragh, northern Chitral, another in Singur, southern Chitral) are making invaluable contributions to quality-oriented education in the whole region. Students graduating from the above schools succeed in getting admissions to the top academic institutions of the country. Apart from highly commendable contributions to the health and education sectors, AKDN also has branches for making productive changes in the housing systems of the area, from building materials to designing and developing special appliances for cheaper uses of energy in homes.
What we infer from the above picture is that the AKDN and its subsidiary organisations are committed to bringing about socio-economic transformation in the mountainous valleys through the participatory approach for community development. Their contributions to the development of the area, from human resource development to natural resource management, are laudably productive. The health and education sectors are vital for the development of a society, which the above organisations are/have been addressing with optimum results.
What is of paramount importance to note here is that there is no conflict between Sunnis and Ismailis in Chitral. The reason is that most of them are connected through blood relations. Ethnically, though the people are heterogeneous, the dominant culture is that of peace and harmony. By temperament, the people are not prone to war and aggression. Chitral is also unique in its diversity of cultures and languages, with Wakhi in the extreme north, Wardak in the extreme south and Kalasha in the west, besides many others. Historically, the Kalasha tribe is said to have been dominant in different valleys of Chitral. Today, geographically, they are confined to three valleys, Boomburet, Roombur, and Bireer of 2,000 to 3,000 households. The Kalasha are polytheists by faith and worship wooden effigies.
There are many theories about the origins of the Kalash but, according to conventional wisdom, they come from the Greek stock, the soldiers of Alexander who remained in the valleys of the Hindu Kush after the conquering general returned to his homeland. Whatever their origin, some of their customs are really unique. For example, traditionally they used to make wooden boxes for the dead, not to bury underground but to lay them in an open space. Today, this tradition is no longer in vogue, perhaps because of the stealing of articles (of personal use by the dead in their lives) from the boxes lying in the open.
They live on goat breeding and subsistence farming, especially maize. Their orchards are famous for grapes and walnuts. They celebrate their traditional festivals given to singing and dancing and with some rituals performed under the guidance of their shamans. Every year, thousands of tourists come to Chitral to enjoy the unique and centuries-old festivals of the Kalash, celebrating seasonal changes, rites of passage and pastoral ways of living. Thus their culture, which is in danger of extinction, is not only a human asset but also a source of seasonal employment for the locals.
The presence of the Kalash in the northern areas bears witness to the fact of how diversity has been treated in the past — people coming from different ethnic and cultural origins lived together and shared the same environment even after Muslim missionaries and their converts dominated the valleys. In the whole region, the Kalash are known as harmless and joy-loving people, with zero aggression in their lives, and that their culture is a unique phenomenon for Pakistan to preserve.
In view of the above scenario, the government should be cognizant of the situation and do its utmost to protect the area against all kinds of foreign and aggressive elements, potentially threatening its centuries-old peaceful social environment, so that the people of the area may continue their efforts in peace for growth and development. The Taliban narrative is based upon ignorance, prejudice and myopic vision. The Sunni community of Chitral knows their verbal gymnastics to use Islam for power politics. The Taliban focus is on using terror as the only tool for coercing people into their ways of interpreting religion. I firmly believe the peace-loving people of Chitral will assist the security agencies in combating any threat, potential or actual, to maintain the centuries-old cultural beauty of Chitral. They will never resort to aggression in the name of any self-styled and whim-fashioned idols of religiosity.
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