The contemporary society of Gilgit is undergoing an existential crisis begotten by drastic changes and ruptures caused by the forces of modernisation. For the last four decades it has been exposed to a medley of forces which are exogenous, but which have given birth to trends endogenous to the society. These changes have enabled people to get rid of a few institutions and actors that were impediments to progress.
The process of rationalisation in Gilgit-Baltistan set in during the British rule in the shape of modern institutions, but it did not encompass the whole society; rather it was limited to a few people who were associated with the colonial machinery.
The construction of the Karakorum Highway (KKH) and dissolution of local principalities were the biggest changes in the modern history of Gilgit-Baltistan. Previously, modern communication and travel was a luxury afforded by a privileged few. The KKH and concomitant developments in communication have facilitated easy flow of people, goods and ideas. At the same time Gilgit-Baltistan witnessed huge investments in social development through the public and private sectors. The region witnessed unparalleled development in different spheres of life. Increase in literacy rates in some of the areas of Gilgit-Baltistan is one of the hallmarks of the development process that took place during the last four decades.
All the aforementioned developments in Gilgit-Baltistan took place on the heel of dissolution of local power structures. The new configuration of power relations and social setup within the context of rationalised institutions has far-reaching implications on the social and cultural fabric of the region. Disintegration of the old power structures led to disappearance of spaces associated with the old system. The new order of things has provided opportunities to a large section of the population whose development was stunted because of immutable power relations, rigid social stratification and parochial cultural ethos.
Expansion of mass education in the region has increased the overall literacy rate in Gilgit-Baltistan. Hunza and Ghizer are among those regions that have immensely benefited from new education facilities. These benefits are palpable in higher literacy rates among women. Concomitant with the increase in literacy rate among women, Ghizer is witnessing a sudden increase in suicides among women, especially in the younger generation.
Aziz Ahmed and Sultan Rahim Barcha carried out a study ‘Female suicide rates in Ghizer’ in 2005. According to their calculations from 2000 to 2004, 49 women committed suicide in the Ghizer district. The subsequent years saw rapid increase in suicide rates. According to media reports, from 2005 to 2011, about 340 women committed suicides. Despite the gravity of the situation no research has been undertaken to identify the possible socio-psychological causes of female suicides in Ghizer.
In order to understand female suicides it is important to take into consideration the paradoxical interface between tradition and modernity, and the non-linear relationship between them. In the particular context of Gilgit, modernity has empowered the mind, but could not provide space to celebrate freedom.
Modernity in Gilgit-Baltistan has not taken root in a pure form rather it has taken a hybrid shape. It is this hybrid nature of modernity in the local setting that gives birth to a paradoxical situation where increasing modernisation led to the disappearance of all the spaces. The situation is further aggravated by the fading of old spaces for women. Now the situation is such that the mind is free of old clutches and fetters, but it cannot not carve out new spaces to express and manifest itself.
The existing social structures in Gilgit-Baltistan lack new resources for intellectual invigoration, whereas the younger generation is incessantly exposed to modern mediums which not only broadens their mental horizons, but also enlarges the sphere of interaction and affiliation with trans-cultural ideas and groups respectively. TV channels, cable networks, the internet, Facebook, new disciplines, universities, mobile phones, Twitter and other forms of communication render the traditional mode of transmission, affiliation and knowledge obsolete.
Engagement with modern modes of knowledge and communication produces new self and consciousness which do not have a local locus. This makes the younger generation more relevant to modern economy and institutions than the ones who claim to be the vanguard of the tradition and culture that failed to accommodate the needs and aspirations of the new generation. In desperation the only way for the youth is to revolt or commit suicide. This is symptomatic of a desperation turned inward – however, it may not be long when it will turn outward to challenge the status quo. The youth bulge in Gilgit-Baltistan provides an immense pool of passion and psychological resources for such a change – for better or worse.
Other than Ghizer, the region of Hunza in Gilgit-Baltistan has witnessed an increase in the number of suicides not because of old social attitudes, but owing to a new cultural ethos which prizes success over everything else. Hunza has developed a culture of worshipping success and demonising underachievers. Parents exert too much pressure on their children to be successful. In this competition-obsessed society of Hunza under-performance has become an anathema.
As Bertrand Russell said: “The trouble does not lie simply with the individual, nor can a single individual prevent it in his own isolated case. The trouble arises from the generally received philosophy of life, according to which life is a contest, a competition, in which respect is to be accorded to the victor.”
Today, the competitive mind in Hunza has begun to reveal its pernicious impact on society in the shape of increasing suicides and stress among students. In one incident three schoolgirls jumped into a river when they failed in the matriculation exams. In other cases male students ended their lives after learning about their failure in class. Families, peers and the rest of society look down upon students who underperform. Such an ambience squeezes breathing space for young people. Ultimately, some of them decide to take their lives.
The link between suicide and modernisation in Gilgit-Baltistan depicts a paradoxical situation where successful individuals are on the path to progress, whereas at the collective level the society is treading on a suicidal path. Given the seriousness of the issue, there is a dire need to create a working arrangement between diverse people with different abilities and aptitudes. This can be done by changing their worldview, which is based on the narrow concepts of competition and success on the one hand, and providing diverse ways to individuals for actualisation of the ‘self’ in society on the other. The diversity of ways in self actualisation can lead to the creation of an open society.