The Tribe of Kalash, also known as Kafir (non-believer) / Siyah Posh (Black Robed) approximately around 3,000 in number today, claim to be the descendants of Alexander’s army. However, their origin has remained a mystery and research is still on at various levels to identify their historical and biological ancestry. Many Kalash people believe their ancestors came to the area from a distant place known as Tsiyam, which the Kalash priests and bards invoke in their songs during festivals. Nevertheless, no one really knows where the place actually was or currently is.
The Kalash people are animists, nature worshippers and refuse to convert to Islam. It is this emphasis on non-conversion that can be perceived as the root cause of their marginalisation in the region. Before we go into an elaborate analysis of the current situation of the Kalash people, it is important to understand the ethnic and sectarian backdrop of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. For a long time, Pakistan has been known to abhor the recognition of various ethnic identities. This in many ways resulted in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 and the various insurgencies that plague the country even to this date. Within its own fabric, because of an unwritten policy of ‘othering’, the country has alienated its minorities be it the Muhajirs, Balochis, Shias, Ahmadis, Ismailis, so on and so forth. As described above, with a scanty population of 3,000 people, the Kalash are not even 1% of the population; but the uniqueness of their being and their composite history and heritage adds immense value to the vast landmass they belong to, which once upon a time was home to not only Islam but also Buddhism, Hinduism and other animistic religions. With this background, the Kalash people can be understood as being ethnically marginal while constituting a demographically insignificant minority in a nation created on the grounds of religion.
Pakistan’s Ethno-Religious Structure:
On records, Pakistan is a multi-ethnic, linguistic and religious country. Each province is associated with a certain ‘dominant’ ethnic group, and their corresponding language – Punjab with the Punjabis, Sindh with the Sindhis, Balochistan with the Balochis and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP, renamed from North-West Frontier Province under the 18th amendment of 1973 Constitution) with the Pashtuns. The ‘other’ groups in these provinces are Muhajirs/ Mohajir, Baloch, Pashtun in Sindh; Saraikis, Sindhis, Brahvi and Pashtun in Balochistan; Siraikis in Punjab and Hindo and Saraikis in the Tribal areas. According to the CIA World Fact book (as updated on 16th April 2013), the percentage of Punjabis in Pakistan is 44.68, Pashtuns 15.42, Sindhis 14.1, Saraikis 8.38, Muhajirs 7.57, Balochis 3.57 and others 6.28. In terms of religious diversity, according to estimates compiled from the CIA World Factbook and Pakistan Bureau of Statistics Pakistan has 96.28% Muslims of which 85–90% are Sunnis, 10–15% Shias; 0.22% Ahmadi; 1.59% Christian and 1.60% Hindu population. Interestingly, while the Constitution establishes Islam as the state religion, Articles 20-22 protect the rights of freedom of religion and religious education & Articles 26 and 27 prohibit discrimination based on religion in relation to access to public places and provision of public services. Despite these constitutional safeguards it is widely known that any open support to forms of exclusiveness whether linguistic, ethnic or religious, causes much blood-shed within Pakistan.
Sometime in April 2017, a provincial court in Peshawar officially recognized the Kalash community as a separate ethnic and religious group. Recognition was the culmination of a long fight in the predominantly Islamic country, where religious and other minorities often come under scrutiny by authorities and even attack by militants. However, the common perception within Pakistan, is that the state is not ethnically neutral and the dominant linguistic group is that of the Punjabis. The key institution where this preponderance is most apparent is the army particularly at the highest level. The reason for Punjabis’ relative contentment within the country has been their overwhelming representation in the state apparatus both in terms of the military and the civil bureaucracy as well as in sectors like business, commerce and industry. Moreover, after the secession of East Pakistan in 1971, they became a predominant majority in terms of provincial share further consolidating their hold over governance within the country.
Over the years, Pakistan’s fundamental problem has been its fractured national unity, polarised as it has been with ethnic and sectarian differences. The central point here is poor governance, economic disparities and fragmented society & eliciting alliances for personal and not collective gains. The ethnic tension of Pakistan is also entwined with the confusing federal identity of the country. In the Lahore Resolution of March 23, 1940, the Muslim League had maintained that ‘the federating units of Pakistan would be autonomous and sovereign’. That is why throughout the history of independent Pakistan this aspect of the Resolution has nearly always been quoted by advocates of the autonomy of federating units. The Resolution also mentioned that the central government would be limited to defence, foreign affairs, foreign trade, communications and currency. In a way, history does explain why ethnic tensions are built into the very political fabric of Pakistan. The Pakistani state that emerged from the partition of 1947 tried to put together warring ethnic groups that had never before been united in the same polity prior to the arrival of the British. As is known, it continues to be an effort in progress even today.
Who are the Kalash people?
Speaking in strictly scientific terms, human populations show subtle allele-frequency differences across geographical spaces and according to available methods individuals tend to be clustered based on their genetic information into groups that correspond to their respective geographical regions. In an early global survey of this kind, five clusters were identified (1) Africans, (2) a widespread group including Europeans, Middle Easterners, and South Asians, (3) East Asians, (4) Oceanians, and (5) Native Americans. However, when the divisions were increased to include a sixth group: it comprised only of a single population, that of the Kalash.
As has been mentioned earlier, the Kalash are an isolated South Asian population of Indo-European speakers residing in the Hindu Kush mountain valleys in the northwestern part of Pakistan, near the Afghanistan border. They represent a religious minority with unique and rich cultural traditions. As their number is constantly shrinking, the Kalash people are found to be staying in three valleys of the Hindu Kush: Rumbur, Bumburet and Birir in the Chitral district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The Rumbur and Bumburet grouping form a single culture due to similarities in their cultural practices, while the Birir grouping being the most traditional one of the three, forms a separate culture of its own. The region is at the crossroads of what is known as the Nuristan province of Afghanistan in the west, Swat and Gilgit in the east, Pamir Knot in the north and Lowari Pass in the south. The Kalash language is said to be part of the Dardic group of Indo-Aryan languages. As per UNESCO, the language is listed as being critically endangered as like many other tribal languages all over the world, Kalash has no proper script. On its part, even the Government of Pakistan has made no effort to document and keep a record of this unique language. What is even worse is that till date there does not exist a single standard text devoted solely to this culture.
In terms of religious practices, the major deities worshipped by the Kalash people are: Sajigor, Mahandeo, Balumain, Dezalik, Ingaw and Jestak. Two types of religious events characterize Kalash society. The first kind may be considered to be religious as well as ceremonial with singing and dancing, while the second kind may be understood as being purely religious without any such merrymaking. Their major festivals include: Joshi, Chaumos, Uchaw and Pul/Poh.
Living within an Islamic State, pressure to convert to Islam has always been there on the Kalash & has existed for nearly centuries. In fact, at one point in time, the Kalash people had similarities in traditions and cultural practices with the local people of neighbouring Nuristan province of Afghanistan. Interestingly this area was known as Kafiristan- land of the Kafir. The Kalash who live today in the valleys of Hindu Kush are the last survivors amongst the people of Kafiristan, an area that once encompassed entire northwest Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan before the region was divided by the Durand Line, the border established between Afghanistan and British India in the 19thcentury. It is believed that in 1895 Amir (King) Abdur Rahman Khan, the king of Afghanistan, conquered the area and forced the inhabitants to convert to Islam. Known as the “Iron Amir,” he proceeded to name the area Nuristan, or the “Land of Celestial Light”. Around this time, the Kalash were brutally conquered; their ancient temples and wooden idols were destroyed; their women were forced to burn their folk costumes and wear the burqa or veil, and scores of people were converted at sword point to Islam. Fifty years later, two Kalash valleys of Jinjeret kuh and Urtsun were forced to adopt Islam. However, three remaining valleys could be saved from this tyranny apparently because the Prince of Chitral preferred to use them as slaves in the way they existed. Nevertheless as per records, over the past few decades, almost 50% of the total population in Kalash has converted to Islam.
Significant issues for the Kalash people:
Preservation of their identity– Pakistan inherited a very diverse populace, both ethnically and religiously. However, the religious fundamentalist groups have insisted on calling it an Islamic nation of a particular kind ignoring the thousands of years of history of communities and nations that the region once belonged to. The Kalash are one of the few living indigenous cultures still surviving in the world. But they are struggling to save their rich and ancient heritage caught between the Taliban on one side along the border with Afghanistan, and other fundamentalist socio-economic and religious forces on the other side thriving in Pakistan. With the non-Kalash population overwhelming them at every level, they face serious threats of extinction. The immediate threats include their unwillingness to convert to Islam and cajoled marriages of Kalash women with non-Kalashmen.
Preservation of the forest as part of their dwelling– Rampant cutting of wooden logs is another aspect impacting the lifestyle of the Kalash people in a serious manner. As a tribe, they are known to depend heavily on forests for their livelihood as well as for their rituals & cultural practices. Interestingly, they are considered legal collective owners of forest lands in the three valleys they live as per the local customs. However, in recent times, non-Kalash residents have started claiming ownership rights which they are too small in number to effectively refute. According to NCHR Report, dated 2017, the most urgent complaint of the Kalash elders is that they are being deprived of their centuries-old claims of ownership over the Silver Oak forests in the Kalash Valleys. The forests, the report points out, are important economically as well to the tribe, not to forget its religious significance. Loss of ownership to these directly translates into loss of livelihood.But, in complete disregard to the ancient practices, the land revenue officials seem to have told them that the Silver Oak forests are part of “Shamilaat”, which means that a Kalash family cannot exercise its privileged right over the forest rather it would have to share the forest with all the concerned land owners (Muslims and non-Kalash residents) of the area.
Government schools in the valley– With the overt pretext of imparting education to children and mainstreaming them, the schools in the area it is alleged have been trying to alienate the young pupils from the Kalash way of life. By emphasizing only on the teachings of Allah in Arabic, a sense of inferiority is being deliberately imbibed amongst these students regarding their own religion. The marginal improvement caused due to education in these three valleys in a way is at the cost of danger to their indigenous non-Islamic culture. The elderly people in the community have expressed worry that the advent of modern lifestyle and the younger generation’s proximity to Islamic way of life and teachings (when they go to school) are likely to usher in many irreversible changes which could potentially wipe out their uniqueness so carefully preserved. Activists also complain the rate of conversions is growing by the year because in the absence of a curriculum for the minority community in government schools, Kalash students are forced to opt for Islamic studies.
Problem of connectivity– The absence of a proper road to link the valleys to the rest of the country has over the years discouraged local and foreign tourists to show up in large numbers at their annual festivals. It also makes it enormously difficult for the community to transport patients to hospitals in Chitral for treatment during medical emergency. Though in 2017, the Lowari Tunnel, connecting Chitral, where the Kalash live, to the district of Upper Dir was formally inaugurated,the Kalash themselves, however, hardly get any benefit from related businesses as these enterprises are largely controlled by non-Kalash people. The dilapidated condition of the roads leading to the three valleys are in a stark contrast to the scale and quality of the project implemented at Lowari Tunnel, clearly reflecting how Pakistan treats its minorities. The hazardous road conditions are a major impediment to the socio-economic welfare of the entire population that is battling numerous difficulties to survive in the region.
Danger the community is experiencing:
Ironically, the Pakistani establishment often uses these colorfully dressed tribal people to demonstrate the country’s diversity. This is in sharp contrast to their not so colourful reality of oppression and discrimination in the hands of the majority community. Today the Kalash people face massive pressure from surrounding Islamic communities who are constantly pushing towards Islamization of the three valleys inhabiting this tribe. That, coupled with the fact that the valleys are in a region where the Pakistani government has de-facto no control, makes the future of the ancient culture of the Kalash unknown. As the Kalash do not believe in divine books and messengers, ‘their disbelief’ makes them kafir or infidels in the eyes of the dominant Muslim community.
As early as 1992, a study conducted by Institute for Current World Affairs, specified the risks involved in the existence of a separate animist Kalash identity in the valleys inhabited by them. It states how local non-Kalash people, both Muslims and Christian missionaries frequently put financial pressure and provided incentives to these people for religious conversion. Local Muslims are even known to have attempted to force Kalash people to convert to Islam & give up their lands in exchange for debt forgiveness. Christian missionaries have also lured the individual Kalash families with electricity and stipend for the children. Interestingly, the report further states that as conversion through missionaries is illegal in Pakistan, these Christians visit the valleys posing as artists, refusing to divulge their actual source of income.
The poor economic conditions of these people are also used as a tool for conversion in exchange for jobs. Activists and researchers also note that the Kalash settlements are being rapidly encircled by a growing Muslim population as over the years the community has lost control over large parts of their lands through sale or mortgage. Thus socio-economic deprivation is an important factor accountable for the community’s decline. This problem has its sociological effects driving Kalash women to marry outside the community. Increasingly, it seems Kalash women marry non-Kalash men with the stated intention of having a better life, and eventually, the women convert to Islam, giving up their original way of life.
In recent times, the Afghan conflict and the frantic efforts at Islamization have posed dangers to the survival of the Kalash. In the 1980s, the people got the first taste of things to come when some Tablighi zealots illegally occupied a large cultivated piece of their land in Bumburet and built a mosque. What happened after that is not hard to discover. The Afghan refugees and the Pathan Tablighi parties seized nearly 70% of their land during the period, 1981 to 1995. The first effect of the Afghanistan jihad for the Kalash was the decimation of their forests and wildlife by the refugees. As the vegetation grew sparse, their cattle met the same fate as their forests, and the traditional Kalash means of livelihood were irreparably destroyed. Unfortunately, once the Afghan refugees and the Tablighis became entrenched in Chitral, the forced conversions also began. Gun-toting Tablighis made it clear that in order to live in Pakistan, the Kalash must convert to Islam.
Post 9/11 the situation has been very tense for the Kalash resulting in an existential crisis. Following US operations in the neighbouring Nuristan province of Afghanistan, scores of Taliban militants were rushed out into the district of Chitral, causing enormous threat to the locals. In 2009, a Taliban unit entered into the valleys at night and kidnapped a Greek teacher, Lerounis. He was taken swiftly across the Afghan border to Nuristan, and his ransom, thought to be up to £1million, was paid and he returned to Greece. The Taliban also released a 50-minute video on February 2, 2014, announcing an ‘armed struggle’ against the Kalash and Ismaili Muslims in the Chitral Valley and calling on Sunnis to support their cause. In another such incident, in July 2016, Taliban, attacked Kalash shepherds in Bumburet Valley. Most of the Kalash ran; and the Taliban slaughtered two shepherds and herded almost their 300 sheep across the border to Nuristan.
It is apparent that the pressure from the dominant religion is no doubt causing change in the behavioural pattern of these people, especially their future, their children. Kalash children are not taught about their own culture, religion, or history in schools, where most of the teachers are Muslims. As reported in April, 2019, calls to pray now ring five times a day from 18 mosques across the Bumburet valley, the result of a boom in the construction of Muslim houses of worship. The swelling influence of Islam in the area has alarmed many in the Kalash community who worry that their traditional way of life is slipping away right before their eyes.
The Kalash people are the last of the surviving indigenous communities of the Hindu Kush. They are the remnants of what was once a unique region with varied culture marked by beautiful valleys, orchards, mountains and rivers. The aggressive Islamization and the apathy of the State are two aspects rapidly engulfing the local people within the fold of a regimented religion. The meager population of the Kalash, and the surrounding hostile habitat have created tremendous pressure as they increasingly become less celebratory of their own religious festivities and rituals. Battling an existential crisis, it is ironical that those with no understanding of peaceful co-existence put the Kalash to scrutiny over their very ethos and way of life.