Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) forms a single cultural unit because of its shared geography, historical memory and collective unconsciousness. The cohabitation of people within the same geographical space and cultural sphere has enabled local communities to develop a shared indigenous worldview.
This worldview has informed the traditional structures of governance and the social contract for centuries. However, the autochthonous conceptual framework of the world has started to wane after the region was exposed to modernity, modernisation and globalisation.
The changes in the political, social and economic structures of GB have drastically altered the function of social institutions and impacted people. This has resulted in a rupture that manifests itself in altered perceptions; a disconnect between the individual and society; spiritual and moral fractures; and the breakdown of communication and the social contract. The increasing trend of suicides among the youth in GB is symptomatic of a deep social crisis that ensues from spiritual fractures and social fissures.
The issue of suicides among the youth is even more alarming because people are either in denial or simply unaware of the malaise within society that makes young people suicidal. Last week, a 13-year-old girl in Hunza committed suicide over an incident at her school. In 2017, 23 people committed suicide in Ghizer district alone. These incidents reflect the demise of the traditional social contract that helped individuals connect with the social fabric.
Various institutions, entities and actors in society seem to have drained the youth of their dreams; thwarted self-actualisation; alienated individuals from society; and ultimately compelled the youth to take their own lives.
Introspection is needed to explore the possible causes of suicides in Gilgit-Baltistan. But a society that is in denial lacks the courage to explore the demons within it. As a result, the easiest explanation is to attribute all social ills to the proponents of change. Instead of diagnosing what has gone wrong in society, our guardians create scapegoats in the form of women, young people and vulnerable groups and accuse them of defiling the social structure. This attitude is the product of an inverted mind that tends to focus on the symptoms and fails to address the root cause of an illness.
In the context of Gilgit-Baltistan, the situation has been further aggravated because the existing institutions have readymade explanations about the increase in the suicide rate, but know little about its possible causes. As a result, a peculiar situation has arisen where the healer is providing a cure without having any knowledge of the illness. The reasons that have been proposed to explain the incidence of suicide lack a clear understanding of the problem, and have imposed an onerous burden on young people.
To understand the existing conditions of the youth in Gilgit-Baltistan, we need to analyse what has happened to society at the collective level, and assess its impacts on young people. At the collective level, the traditional worldview in Gilgit-Baltistan connected society, nature and the self under a single moral framework. This way of seeing the world infuses every animate and inanimate object with meaning and soul.
If viewed in this manner, the whole universe appears to be the womb that provides security to every individual. The respect shown for elders and the dominance of the spirit of our ancestors on the social milieu of Gilgit-Baltistan are a sign of this ontological security.
Now, this form of traditional security has melted under the pressure of modernity. With the disenchantment of the traditional worldview, the new generation have cut the umbilical cord of motherly traditions to assert their individuality. One of the key attractions of modernity is that it has provided a space for the individual to emerge. According to Erich Fromm, this freedom also entrusted individuals with a greater burden: the loss of security. This ultimately fuels loneliness and isolation, which Fromm refers to as ‘basic anxiety’.
Mutations within the human condition and the changes that it brings in the structure of experiencing the world propels people to find alternatives. Owing to intellectual poverty and the absence of a modern vocabulary, the youth of Gilgit-Baltistan have become free-floating entities in the vacuum of existence. A rudderless or blind existence leads to destructive behaviour at the individual and social levels. Neuroses, tension, stress, schizophrenia, social conflict and the emergence of cults are symptoms of a poisonous social habitus.
In Gilgit-Baltistan, the strong façade of a crumbling society is kept intact by the institutions and entities that claim to be the guardians of tradition. Nevertheless, its noxious impact has entered at the individual level by creating fractures between the youth and the dominant narratives, institutions, entities and customs.
Owing to the control of diehard guardians on society, the social and mental space is constricted for the expanding mind of the youth that is forming new horizons by gaining exposure to exogenous ideas, lifestyles and the experience of an uprooted existence.
Today, the new generation of Gilgit-Baltistan form their perspective of society, the self and the world through experiences of modernity and globalisation rather than traditions that are tucked within the faded memory of their elders. The youth tend to feel at home with the new language in the time of modernity because its vocabulary has an elective affinity with their life.
The communication breakdown between the old and new generation occurs because the former resurrects the vocabulary of tradition that does not resonate with the lived experience of the youth. The social realm is, therefore, in the grip of a clash whereby the dying mind of traditions has cramped the space for the emerging vocabulary of modernity by dominating the social space.
Even the reflections of local intellectuals about ruptures, fissures and fractures in society tend to adhere to traditional perspectives. Most local intellectuals – like their parents, religious leaders and elders – blame the youth for deviating from the traditional ethos of society. In addition, parents tend to deprive children of a bright future. Instead of allowing their children to live their own dreams, they try to transfer their own aspirations onto them.
This shows that there is a failure on the part of existing social institutions to enable the youth to achieve self-actualisation. Parents, religious leaders, intellectuals, healers, teachers and the cultural ethos have collectively failed in this regard. All these factors, including education, must be seen as part of the problem and not the solution. Instead of involving the youth in the nexus of community relations, the dominating entities and institutions dislocate the individual from his or her environment and produces existential alienation. Anthony Giddens is of the view that such a situation “is closely associated with the most characteristic of psychological state of the suicide: an unbearable feeling of loneliness”.
The current trend of suicides is a form of protest by the suffocated self that finds itself in a society that creates a suicidal ambience. Reflecting on the issue of suicide, a social worker from Hunza told this writer that: “our existing educational beliefs and practices do not produce young people who are able to find their fulfilment from within. Similarly, the influence of parents and society on the youth is crippling, instead of enabling. Those whose world becomes too suffocated for them to breathe end up committing suicide”.
The communication breakdown is not limited to the interaction between the old and new generation. There is also a lack of communication among the youth. This has resulted in a culture of silence that pushes an individual towards isolation. In order to address the maddening silence and stem the trend of suicide among youth in Gilgit-Baltistan, a culture of conversation and dialogue needs to be developed at formal and informal spaces.
Instead of asking young people to choose the path of cut-throat competition in the education sector or the job market, they should be instilled with a “beatific vision” of life where every energy and activity is geared to enable the new generation to live their life fruitfully. This can be done by shifting the basis of being from what Erich Fromm refers to as the mode of having to the mode of being.
The writer is a freelance
columnist based in Gilgit.