Volume 3, No. 9, September 2021
Editor: Rashed Rahman
Nosheen Ali’s ambitious, wide-ranging, and passionately polemical book begins with a remarkable claim. Contra James Scott’s famous argument (Scott 1998) that upland hill communities throughout Southeast Asia and Northeast India fear and hate the state and seek to avoid it at all costs, Ali says that the people in the mountainous region of Pakistan’s Northeastern frontier with China love the state and passionately wish to be embraced by it in return. Their yearning is expressed as a desire to surrender and serve, and coincides with an “ethic of piety and collective oneness” (Ali: 3). According to Ali, this form of love is deeply engrained in South Asian culture, and was historically embodied by great leaders like Gandhi and Khan (see Banerjee 2001).
For Ali, the fundamental problem is that the Pakistani state does not return the love offered by the people of Gilgit-Baltistan. Instead it questions their loyalty and pursues a selfish, immoral, and ultimately destructive agenda in the region. The state justifies its behaviour by asserting that the people of Gilgit-Baltistan must be strictly controlled and monitored because the region is within the disputed border zone of Jammu-Kashmir and is the only area in Pakistan where Sunni Muslims are a minority (twelver Shi’as make up three-quarters of the population and there is a sizable Ismaili Shi’a presence as well as other smaller Muslim minority sects). Ali recognises the anxieties aroused in Pakistan by the existence of this conflict zone within its disputed borders, but stresses that the uncertain and ambiguous status of Gilgit-Baltistan coincides with paranoid and grandiose delusions within Pakistan’s military and state apparatus that are equivalent to and as pernicious as the endless ‘war on terror’ in the United States. In fact, one of her major theoretical arguments is that Pakistan is the “shadowland” of the militaristic USA, which has co-opted Pakistan as a tool in its geopolitical agenda of “globalising terror, violence and extremism in the world” (Ali: 244).
How did Ali reach this dispiriting conclusion? Prior to beginning her dissertation research in 2003, the author, a native of Karachi and an Ismaili Muslim, spent time in Gilgit-Baltistan as a tourist and later as a development worker. Because of her background and local experience, she naively supposed she would be welcomed as a sympathetic insider. Instead, she was charged with being callous, like all ‘you Pakistanis.’ Worse, she was suspected of being a spy, either for India, or Pakistan, or even for the USA (she did her graduate work at Cornell). After receiving warnings that her life was in danger, she cut her fieldwork short. Love, in this instance, seems to have been in short supply. Why this should be the case is the question that animated her research.
It may be that her limited fieldwork accounts for the fact that, despite her intent to explore the “lived experience” of local people, there is little in her book about her informants’ daily lives (for a recent survey of anthropological research in the region, see Sökefeld 2014). But this lack is more than adequately compensated by Ali’s use of a variety of textual and historical material to argue her case about the destructive relationship of the Pakistani state to Gilgit-Baltistan.
She begins by showing some of the ways the region has been “unseen” in Pakistan “through ambiguous, contradictory modes of representation…that serve to invisibilise the region, its people, and their political marginalisation” (Ali: 32). These include non-specific maps, shifts in terminology for the area, the suppression of census data, and official texts that highlight the region’s picturesque mountains while ignoring its people. This purposeful erasure means that Pakistanis often do not know where Gilgit-Baltistan is. Even some visiting Pakistani bureaucrats are under the impression that the Northern Areas are somewhere near Peshawar or close to Chitral. She then shows that this “illegibility” coincides with the authoritarian and unresponsive nature of the administration, which is headed by a non-local unelected chief executive who only answers to the minister of Kashmir Affairs (also unelected and non-local), thus effectively suppressing local discourse and democratic resistance. Again countering Scott, she concludes: “In some ways…it is better to be seen by the nation and state than to remain unseen altogether” (Ali: 71).
Next, she interrogates how local loyalty to the uncaring and often actively hostile Pakistani state has been inculcated. She contends that a tradition of military service dating from colonial times has created an “economy of feelings” wherein martyrdom while fighting for Pakistan remains highly valued, even though many soldiers’ lives have been wasted in futile attacks on India. At the same time, a pervasive state surveillance regime, with the aid of an army of hired informers, has cultivated suspicion and sectarianism by assuming that everyone – but especially a Shi’a – is potentially a foreign agent. The end result is replacement of what local people say was a tradition of cross-communal tolerance with an insidious atmosphere of suspicion and fear.
As evidence of this toxic environment, she revisits the riots of 2004-5 in which nearly one hundred people died in protests against the state-mandated imposition of textbooks that ignored Shi’a practices (she notes that the government did eventually respond by withdrawing the offending books). Ali concludes that the “sectarian imaginary” promoted by the state has been extended to include all collective activities, which leads to the suspicion that other sects are being favoured and to demands that every official position must be “balanced” by installation of both a Sunni and a Shi’a candidate (what happens to other minority candidates is not clear). But all is not lost. These divisive pressures have been resisted through widespread attendance at unifying activities such as polo matches (see Azoy 2003 for a parallel study of buzkashi in Afghanistan), as well as participation in public seminars, development related activities, and poetry festivals where cultural commonalities, spirituality, and the pursuit of peace and harmony are celebrated and experienced by audience and performer alike (see Sharifi 2019 for description of a similar poetry festival in Afghanistan).
The fifth chapter moves away from the urban setting of Gilgit to the remote and picturesque mountainous territory traditionally under the control of the small Ismaili village of Shimshal on the Chinese border. The Pakistani state, in tandem with international conservation agencies, planned to turn the region into a vast, bureaucratically administered national park and to eliminate indigenous practices of herding and hunting. The people of Shimshal were able to successfully resist this takeover by arguing for the value of existing local practices and for the efficacy of their own religious ideals of stewardship. But, as Ali realises, this meant that villagers had to learn to make their claims and self-presentations in the modern jargon of development (for other examples, see Niezen 2003). As Ali writes, “Shimshali Muslims blend their affection for their rural life-world with a cosmopolitan understanding of self and future” (Ali: 213). She also ruefully admits that the adoption of cosmopolitan understandings means that nowadays very few Shimshali are willing to spend their lives herding livestock. The ultimate outcome of this battle therefore remains in doubt, as the Shimshali, ironically, have been transformed by their struggle to remain the same.
The book closes with an analysis of the covert assumptions and negative implications of Greg Mortenson’s 2006 bestseller Three Cups of Tea – a book now thoroughly discredited (partly through Ali’s own efforts). Ali says that this book is still extremely popular in the USA, thus demonstrating Americans’ continued willingness to accept lies and racist clichés about Islam and to congratulate themselves on their humanity and generosity, while also supporting the global terror campaign that the United States continues to wage against Muslims worldwide. I generally agree with Ali’s critique of the book and its message, but I don’t think it is still widely read. As far as I can discover, the last edition (a young people’s version) was published in 2010, in England. Evidently it has sunk into the obscurity it deserves.
I also generally agree with her closing plea for Americans to add their voices to the chorus of protest against “a political economy of militarism within which an intelligencising of domestic and foreign policy and a delusional regime of surveillance has become normative” (Ali: 262). But she ignores the fact that many Americans have already added their voices to the chorus opposing unwinnable wars and the imposition of a surveillance state. In fact, there is a long American tradition of resistance to any involvement in foreign affairs and of opposition to every government effort to police private life.
If imperialism, militarisation, paranoia, and grandiosity are not essential expressions of American national character, what then is the cause of the rise of the dangerous “delusional states” that Ali descries spreading insanity into the remote valleys and mountains of Gilgit-Baltistan? From my perspective, the evolution of increased complexity at every structural level, not just in the USA, but also globally, coincides with a general fear of instability, ambiguity, contradiction, and systemic collapse, and a corresponding desire for absolute control. The delusional states Ali describes so well are symptoms of this existential malaise, which is not located in any particular nation, but is at its most dense, most irrational, and most dangerous wherever power is most concentrated.
Azoy, W., 2003. Buzkashi. Waveland Press.
Banerjee, M., 2000. The Pathan Unarmed: Opposition and Memory in the North West Frontier. Oxford University Press.
Niezen, R., 2003. The Origins of Indigenism: Human Rights and the Politics of Identity. University of California Press.
Scott, J., 1998. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. Yale University Press.
Sharifi, M. O., 2019. The Nauroz Festival as a Social Site: Understanding Faith, Ethnicity and Nation-Ness In Afghanistan. Ph.D Thesis, Department of Anthropology, Boston University.
Sökefeld, M., 2014. Anthropology of Gilgit-Baltistan: Introduction. Ethnoscripts 16 (1), pp 1-22.