The dictionary defines the word “indigenous” as:

1.  originating in and characteristic of a particular region or country; native

2.  innate; inherent; natural

But in reality how do we define an indigenous Pakistani? Just stating they are the natives of the land is not enough because the very foundation of this country was allegedly Islam, hence a native is a Muslim. The indigenous groups in essence are perhaps those who are not in the ambit of the mainstream “Muslim” society and whose states of affairs remains repulsive to the hard orthodoxy; which on demand of powerful clergy wants to suppress diversity. Without appeasing the majority, political maneuvering cannot be swayed in favor of an electing party.

Unlike here, where religion plays a determining role, the west defines this term without the need for religious references. Maybe, this definition better suits our subject here.  Some may even feel offended if I mentioned that included in the group in, lieu of the constitution, are an entire section who were declared non-Muslims, making their electioneering harder; besides, their Passports/ID cards do not allow them the basic human dignity they deserve as equal citizens of Pakistan.

Indigenous group, in our context, may also be defined as anyone who is considered a social outcast, like the Jhugiwala commonly referred to as Chaangars in a derogatory way.  Moreover, we have the Kanjars and the Marasis, the outcasts of the society, who have perhaps produced the most beautiful dance performances and classical music the world over.  But they remain neglected due to lack of recognition offered to them.  There are also many Gujjer families that lead semi nomadic lives with their cattle; migrating to the Potohar ranges for better food and nutrition during the winters. Their dire needs begin with a basic schooling system for their children, mobile health services and the persuasion of their elders for its acceptance.  But no serious efforts are made in this direction.

Several major indigenous groups can still be found in Pakistan. A lot of these inhabit the northern areas of the country, like the  Kashmiris, Hindkowans, Kalash, Ismailis, Burusho, Brahui, Khowar, Shina, and Turwalis.  The groups in Gilgit-Baltistan, Kohistan, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (the Shina and Dardic) can also be found in India. Many indigenous tribes also live in Sindh and Baluchistan, the most prominent ones in terms of lifestyle are the tribes from Makran. Most of their languages are documented and scripted, however others face serious threat of extinction due to lack of documentation. Although some effort is made in scripting their languages, like in the Dardic Kalash, thanks to the tireless effort of Kalash Development Network working in the Chitral-Kalash valleys.

In terms of the constitution, it is only the Hindus, Christians and Ahmadis (though they are a Muslim sect) who are recognized as religious minorities, whereas no religious recognition is accorded to any of the other indigenous groups. They face serious legal and social degradation, and challenges that remain outside the official “minority” ambit.  Moreover only the recognized religious minorities can avail increases in Provincial and National Assembly seats; hence the indigenous are lesser beneficiaries as they have to compete for general seats.  This can be exemplified by the fact that the Kalash are still struggling to enlist their religion in the NADRA for issuance of National ID cards.

In another example, the indigenous groups are openly exploited by the Government Department.  For example, vast forest lands have been sold by the Joint Forest Management Committee (JFMC) to contractors who are destroying the forests in the Kalash valleys, the population of which depends heavily on the woods for livelihood.  The Government supported forest mafia is not only stealing wood, but is also harassing the Gujjer tribes in the higher pastures of Astore Valley down to lower areas while passing through Azad Kashmir.

It is also noted that Pakistan has not ratified international covenants regarding their protection, hence allowing their lives to be made more miserable by the mafias and the lawless.  This creates a sense of alienation and resentment among our indigenous groups rather than feeling a part of a nation. It is the lack of commonsense and indifference on the part of the government that encourages their legal recognition only superficially.  Their real rights are neglected and this affects the general economy and doesn’t allow for the country to prosper as they don’t participate in economic enterprise. The lack of dignity is pushing Pakistan backwards. Also on the international front where Pakistan is already looked down upon, this issue also adds salt to the wound.  Diversity in Pakistan is unfortunately dishonored by the powerful religious even if it’s in the corner of the street where their mosque delivers unchecked sermons against the lifestyles of our indigenous groups.

A nation can never prosper unless it improves its legislation to protect all its citizens, especially those who are vulnerable and endangered.  Our government shows little concern about the nexus government bodies, the forest rangers and the timber mafias have formed that harass our indigenous groups who lack legal protection in the country.

These groups remain helpless. Quite recently, the Tehrik-e-Taliban has threatened the Kalasha and the Ismaelis to embrace Islam or face dire consequences.  Despite frequent attacks and theft of cattle, their main source of income, there is no protection provided to them.

It is high time that something gets done, lest we lose our identity that is based on the diversity of the people that makes Pakistan beautiful.

 The writer is a freelance columnist.

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