The Kalash, the Fading Community of Pakistan


Justice ® Ali Nawaz Chohan

I visited the Kalash valley to study the culture and difficulties being faced by the Kalash people. When I asked a convert as why he had changed his religion. His reply was that he had no other choice as this was a matter of his survival. The Kalash need immediate attention of the KPK Government as well as the Federal government for protection of their unique culture/civilization.

The British account of the Kalash reflects a certain degree of discrimination and stigmatization of Kalash people. According to “Military Report and Gazetteer on Chitral, 1928” Kalash was once the rulers of the “whole Chitral but were gradually driven into their present narrow limits.

The Kalashis are a very degraded branch of the Kafir race. It may be noted as showing the former subordinate position of the Kalash Kafirs, that a Kam Kafir on his way to Chitral walks into a Kalash village and claims his food, etc, as a matter of right…

 The Kalash at present do a great deal of dirty work for the mehtar”. This British version of Kalash provides important insight into the historical marginalization of this community and indicates that they may be vulnerable to further exploitation in recent times.

The advance of Islam into the mountains, starting from the sixteenth century, gradually brought about the conversion of the whole area by the end of the nineteenth, with the sole exception of the Kalasha of Chitral who still practice their ancient religion to this day. Although paraded and exhibited for decades, by Pakistan’s Government and media, as a well preserved, happy and hospitable indigenous stock of people, the Kalash have rarely came under the microscope in terms of their socioeconomic problems. For decades, the Kalash made the headlines only for the celebration of their seasonal festivals, as if they had no life, needs and requirements except merry making and dancing. But recently, focus of the mainstream human rights discourse in Pakistan has shifted to the genuine problems of the Kalash after the realization that there may not be any indigenous culture left to celebrate due to the rapid conversions of the Kalash people to Islam and the increasing number of Muslim settlers in the valleys of Bumburate, Rambur and Birir.

 The aforesaid demographic changes in Kafiristan can be attributed to the encirclement of Kafirs by Islam for the past three centuries and the ensuing cultural diffusion i.e. the spread of cultural beliefs and social activities from one group to another.

 All the material and ideological transgressions and encroachments from the Indian subcontinent and Afghanistan have gradually withered away the traditional ways of Kalash community. The traditional festivals of Kalashas, holding great religious and spiritual significance are Zhoshi, Ratnat, Po’n’(Phool), Chawmos and Madaik.

However, Kalashas are facing difficulties in celebrating these festivals in some form or the other because of security situation, pressure from nonKalasha neighbours and inappropriate behaviour of the tourists. For instance, the festival of Ratnat has not been celebrated for the past 10 years. Similarly, the festival of Rhuzhias, celebrated to punish the King Satan, is only celebrated in Birir after three years.

In Bumburate, this festival is known as “Bhutrmishek” but has been abandoned since many years. Moreover, my interaction with the Kalash revealed that there are multiple socioeconomic factors and pressures, which may be nudging Kalashas towards abandonment of their culture and religion such as land grabbing, intolerance towards religious minorities in Pakistan, the looming threat of border incursions by Taliban into Chitral from Afghanistan, limited opportunities of socio-economic progress and poor infrastructure of roads, health and education.

The Kalash, today, face a lot of pressure on this culture and with the non-Kalash population overwhelming them, they face threats of extinction. Some of the immediate threats are unwilling conversions and cajoled marriages with non-Kalash.

They have become vulnerable in this context because it is an open society and women partake with men, the husbandry, and all the rest of day-to-day life. They join in music and dance as a part of their festivity and because of their accessibility they are exploited. Another is the settlement of land, which took place about five years back and in which they did not participate – with a protest – that has taken away their rights in land and forest.

Their customary law is a spoken word, which will ultimately be forgotten if it is not recorded. Since they do not have a script, a methodology has to be evolved for codification of their customary law before some of the well-versed elders in the matter die. I have offered to codify the customary law, based on my experience of the GAMBIA where I was the Chief Justice. I’m still awaiting the response from the KPK government. In the meanwhile, the Kalash contrary to their beliefs are being made to read Islamic history.

The education system is the same as for the Muslims of the KPK. As there is no specific operational quota for their employment in government services this is causing hardship. No standard college exists in the valleys of the Kalash. The school education is also poor. Unfortunately, the Kalash are not taught anything of their culture. Is it conversion through subtle indoctrination? Or is it lack interest on the part of the provincial government or the Ministry of Heritage in the federation? This conundrum shall have to be answered.

Now we have about 4,000 of the Kalash reflecting diversity and uniqueness of a culture bedecked in the beautiful valleys of the Kalash; handsome people with pretty dress and wonderful health needs the caress of the state for their preservation.

 I think their preservation is like a S.O.S. call and it cannot be overlooked. The Kalash are a people and a culture from which there is much yet to learn, but if these problems are not resolved it will be very hard for Kalash culture to thrive. The time for Kalash is now and there is not a moment to waste, for we fear that there is much to lose. As an example of the diversity of our great nation, it is on individuals and institutions to raise their voices in unison to protect the rights of a minority that has prospered in these valleys for centuries and now are face-to-face with an existential threat.

 Justice (R) AliNawaz chowhan Formerly Chief Justice of The Gambia, Intl judge of the UN at the Hague, Chairman NCHR Pakistan, Justice Lahore High Court, visiting scholar to intl. Universities ,co.chair UNESCO legal board etc.