“Owing to the depth and extreme narrowness of the valley in which the Indus has cut its bed through the mountains, it was not possible from our route to sight any high peaks already fixed by triangulation over great distances,” wrote Aurel Stein in 1942.
This route now falls under the section of the Karakoram Highway (KKH) that stretches from Besham towards Gilgit. This portion of the highway goes into a deep gorge surrounded by rugged mountains with River Indus flowing below it. From Besham to Gilgit – the headquarters of the quasi-province Gilgit-Baltistan – the dangerously-bending road is about 350 kilometres long, of which about 170 kilometres comes within Kohistan. It passes through a deep narrow gorge, which Stein has mentioned in his account of his journey to these mountains and valleys in 1941.
When Stein was travelling through the region, no proper road had been built. The KKH was constructed over a period of 20 years and was opened in 1979. Travelling along this route is scary and tiresome. It is difficult to see the beautiful tributary valleys that fall into River Indus, with narrow passages at the confluences. This is the reason why tourists are often bewildered to find that this valley with high mountains has only a few villages and towns.
The valleys used to be ruled by tribal lords at a time when these areas were referred to as ‘Yaghistan’ – a land without law. Kohistan mainly remained isolated from the rest of the Dardic region where invaders from Afghanistan and Kashmir embarked on their adventures. The people of the region converted to Islam and did away with their identity as ‘kafirs’ – a term used by invaders and preachers to capture land by driving away indigenous people of the Hindu Kush –in the 15th and 16th centuries.
The interplay of colonisation continued till Indus Kohistan was brought under the direct rule of the Swat State in 1940. A number of forts were built in the valleys, with the Gabrial Fort in Kandia Valley being the last fort of the Swat State. This area along with the mountains and valleys on the western bank of River Indus and the boundary of Tangir Valley fell under the Swat State until it was administratively merged with the eastern part and became Kohistan.
The entire Kohistan region comprises Dardic people who speak distinct languages. Kohistani and Shina (especially a dialect of Shina that is spoken in Gilgit and Chilas and usually referred to as Shina Kohistani by ethnographers) are the two major languages that are spoken in the region while Bateri and Chiliso are the minor languages. Gujars have settled in Kohistan while a couple of hamlets belong to Pakhtun settlers. Shina is spoken in the valleys and villages of Eastern Kohistan whereas Kohistani is widely spoken in the western part of the region, including Kandia Valley.
There is little or no credible research on the history and culture of Kohistan, except for a few studies and surveys on its languages and genealogies. For the rest of Pakistan, it remains a sealed valley. The Indus gorge in the valley is merely a pass between Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan for many Pakistanis. Nevertheless, it has beautiful valleys that are lush green and replete with precious forests. Duber, Pattan, Komila, Sio, Kandia, Kolai, Palas, Dassu, Sumar, Sazin, Jalkot, Supat and Harban are some of the famous valleys in the region.
The Kandia and Duber valleys meet the valleys of Kalam and Bahrain in Swat whereas Kandia also leads to Yasin in Ghizer and Tangir in Gilgit-Baltistan. These valleys have tremendous potential as tourist sites. But it is difficult to gain access to high pastures in these valleys .
Kohistan has been continuously neglected by successive governments and development agencies. The media doesn’t provide due coverage to the region and often reinforces the negative perceptions that the world has about it – especially in the wake of the Kohistan video scandal in which the perpetrators were acquitted by the apex court.
The only interest that successive governments have shown in this closed valley is to extract its timber reserves, and engineer politics. The people are left at the mercy of illiterate religious leaders and the traditional maliks (village chiefs) who adhere to political norms that were prevalent in the days of ‘Yaghistan’. Many of these tribal leaders were empowered by the ruler of the Swat State. Given the failure of the modern state in mainstreaming this sealed valley, it did not see any visible socio-cultural changes.
Today, many regard the people of Kohistan as rigid, conservative and averse to education. Although this is a grossly exaggerated view, certain social ills cannot be underestimated. A local observer in Dassu told this writer that two out of the three high schools for girls in the entire valley are non-functional because “people do not want to send their daughters to schools”.
A recent report issued by the KP government states that 42 primary schools, including 39 for girls, are non-functional in Kohistan. The locals have complained that teachers, who have been appointed on the basis of political decision-making, do not perform their duties and instead take on other jobs. According to a report on education in KP between 2013 and 2018 by Alif Ailaan, Kohistan has the lowest ranking in term of education in the province and is on the 141st position in the overall national ranking. The district has also performed poorly in the Human Development Index.
From Duber to Diamer, large heaps of precious timber are strewn on the roadside. This is largely because of the pending cases between timber contractors and the government; the feuds and cases among the royalty holders; and the criminal negligence by the government. These challenges have resulted in the waste of timber worth billions of rupees.
However, the current KP government has acted fast in making new administrative units in Kohistan to allegedly appease political affiliates in the region. Kohistan has a population of only 800,000 people. And yet, it has divided into three districts: Lower Kohistan; Upper Kohistan; and Kolai-Palas. Locals believe that this decision was taken at the behest of PTI leader Zargul Khan, who was elected unopposed from Kolai-Palas after the JUI-F MPA joined the PTI and resigned from his seat. They believe that Zargul Khan is going to contest for the National Assembly seat from Kohistan.
The indifference to education; socio-cultural change; and human development is an oft-narrated reason cited by the government for not undertaking initiatives in these areas. But such social outcomes are a corollary of this excuse. If social ills persist, then it reflects the failure of the state.
The state has a responsibility to discourage people from following traditions that do not conform with human rights. Areas like Kohistan need the attention of the state on an equity basis as they lag far behind the rest of the country. The creation of three districts and other administrative units are welcome steps as long as they bring more schools, colleges, roads and hospitals into the region and ensure that an equipped district administration is in place.
The situation in Kohistan is dismal. But there is a desire in society, especially among the youth, for change. Youth activists need to be encouraged and their connection with the rest of Pakistan needs to be strengthened through all means of communication.
The writer heads an independent organisation dealing with education and development in Swat.