Kohistan, the land of mountains, is a congregation of valleys surrounded and hidden by rugged mountains along River Indus from its big bend in Besham further up towards the border of Diamer, an administrative district in Gilgit-Baltistan.
The area shares its borders with the Diamer and Ghizer districts of Gilgit-Baltistan on the north and northeast, with the Mansehra district on the southeast, with District Bategram on the south and with the districts of Swat and Shangla on the west. It is the region where the high Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Western Himalaya mountain ranges meet. Before 2014, Kohistan was a single district with a land mass of about 7,492 square kilometres, making it the second largest district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP). According to the 2017 census, the total population of Kohistan is 784,711.
This land of mountains was split into two districts – the upper and lower Kohistan – in 2014. In 2017, a third district was established, named the Kohlai-Palas. Now the region comprises three administrative districts in the Hazara division of KP.
Ethnically divided, the people of Kohistan have Dardic and other distinct languages like Kohistani and Shina (a dialect of the Shina spoken in Gilgit and Chilas) as their major languages. A less known language, Bateri, is also spoken in the Batera union council on the eastern side near Besham. Like elsewhere, Gujjars also have their settlements in Kohistan. A couple of hamlets also belong to Pashtun settlers. The Shina language in Kohistan is spoken in the valleys and villages of the eastern or Himalayan Kohistan, whereas Kohistani is widely spoken in the western or Hindu Kush part including Kandia, Sio and Duber valleys.
Many Pakistanis do not know about Kohistan, especially about its beautiful valleys such as Duber, Pattan, Komila, Sio, Kandia, Kolai-Palas, Dassu, Sumar, Sazin, Jalkot, Supat, Harban, etc. It is perhaps the most marginalised valleys among all the peripheral communities in northern Pakistan. The area suffers in many ways and is a continuous victim of the neglect of successive governments and development agencies.
The only concern the successive governments have had in this closed valley is extracting timber and engineering politics. The people have been left at the mercy of poorly literate religious leaders and the traditional Maliks – village chiefs – who adhere to the ancient politics used in the days of Yaghistan (the era of lawlessness). Given the failure of the modern state in mainstreaming this rugged valley, it has not seen any visible socio-cultural change over the past century.
This has left the people of Kohistan lagging behind in terms of human development. It is mainly owing to this apathy on the part of the state that the locals are still victims of blood feuds and underdevelopment. Thus, they have become prone to a form of cultural and religious extremism. Today, many regard the people of Kohistan as rigid, conservative and adamant against acquiring education. It must be an exaggerated view, of course, yet certain social ills cannot be underestimated.
The role of the state is not only to maintain its writ through force; it is also the basic driver of civilisation. The state has the responsibility to reach out to its people and change their socio-economic conditions by providing them the necessary services. But, unfortunately, we see none of this in Kohistan and the dwellers of these valleys have virtually been left at the mercy of ignorance, poverty and rigidity.
In the three districts of Kohistan there are only two high schools for girls – one in Dassu, the headquarters of the upper Kohistan district, and another in Batera, near Besham. A recent report by the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government stated that 42 primary schools, including 39 for girls, are non-functional in Kohistan. According to Alif Ailaan’s report on KP’s educational reforms for five years, 2013-2018, the district of Kohistan ranks the lowest in the province in terms of education and is on the 141st position in the overall national ranking. The region is also said to have performed the poorest in the Human Development Index.
The primary schools previously built in Kohistan were built in areas where there was no need, leaving the needful areas and villages deprived. This was done to appease the provincial lawmakers. Presently, there are three provincial assembly seats and one National Assembly seat in the three districts of Kohistan.
The locals complain that the teachers who were politically appointed in the past do not perform their duties, and instead of teaching take up other jobs, even in overseas companies and in other agencies. The former PTI MPA from Shangla, Abdul Munim Khan, who was disqualified earlier this year, was a government school teacher in Kohistan at the time of the 2013 elections. Among other such men was Taliban commander Alam Khan. A government teacher in Kohistan, he instead used to perform his duty as an imam of a mosque in Fatehpur, Swat. He was reportedly killed in a military offensive in 2009.
Neglected peripheries like Kohistan must be at the top of the government’s priority list if they really wish to improve the indicators of their performance.
The writer heads an independentorganisation dealing with education and development in Swat.