The society of Gilgit-Baltistan is on the cusp of change. It is under the influence of various forces, which are both internal and external, and a complex interplay of continuity and change. The result is the formation of new ways of seeing things, lifestyle and changes in values and the emergence of new notions of the self, sense and sensibilities.
In this process, the youth of Gilgit have become both beneficiaries and victims of modernity. One of the benefits of change is that some regions of Gilgit have achieved a phenomenal increase in literacy. However, the seamy side of change tends to appear if we examine the increasing trend of suicide in various parts of the region.
During May 2017, 10 cases of suicides in the Ghizer district were recorded by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan Chapter. In all these cases, the victims were young. There is a general perception that the suicide rate is high in Ghizer Valley while the rest of the region is immune to it. Various cases of suicide have surfaced in all areas of the Gilgit-Baltistan. However, a majority of these cases are not reported. The complete blackout of reports related to suicide and honour killing clearly shows that some parts of Gilgit-Baltistan are still in the grips of a tribal and patriarchal ethos where anything related to women is brushed under the carpet to keep the veneer of men’s honour intact from the onslaught of change brought about by modernisation.
Despite the stranglehold of the patriarchal mind on every sphere of life, suicide cases are a sign of the failure of cultural, religious, social and institutional arrangements in Gilgit. To probe the underlying causes of suicide, it is indispensable to take stock of the situation by situating the individual within the society of Gilgit and identify the factors that form his or her existential reality. It is this lifeworld that begets a mind that decides whether to live or commit suicide.
An important factor in Gilgit is the rapid transformation in every sphere of life.
Unlike the previous generation, the new generation of Gilgit is continuously exposed to novel situations and experiences because of social transformation. Therefore, the youth seek to explore other dimensions of life for self-actualisation. However, the traditional mindset and leadership are still stuck in the traditional worldview. They insist on sticking to the values, institutional structures and ideals that do not understand the emerging reality in the communication age. In other words, the aspirations and ideals of youth exceed the available capacities of social and religious institutions and values. As a result, a new sense of alienation has settled into the hearts and minds of the youth.
When a person feels absolute alienation from their family, religion, social institutions and values, he or she experiences crisis of meaning and metaphysical pathos. As a result, he or she opts for suicide. So, the act of suicide can be seen as an assertion of one’s identity against the collective ethos of society.
Unfortunately, the remedies suggested to tackle the increasing cases of suicide in Gilgit are a nonstarter. This is because the very causes are presented as a panacea for the young mind that suffers from it and wants to transcend the suffocating culture and society. For example, a section of society thinks that suicide cases are occurring because of the weaning away of the youth from religion. Proponents of this arguments claim that religion provides social cohesion whereby the individual relates to the collective identity and achieves what is called existential security of the self. This argument has affinity with the theory propounded by Emile Durkheim in his landmark book ‘Suicide’ where he propounds the view that suicide is prevalent among groups with weak forms of social control and cohesion.
However, the reality is that suicide in Gilgit is the result of a closely-knit society where the youth feels suffocated. If individuals aspire to transcend kinship-based solidarities or the prevalent ethos and ideals, they invite invisible nooses around their necks to strangle themselves. Interestingly, Durkheim finds fewer incidents of suicide among women. On the contrary, the suicide rate among women is high in parts of Gilgit.
One of the major challenges during the period of rapid transition is the disappearance of old ideals and the absence of new ideals in society of Gilgit. That is why society and its members operate within an ideological vacuum. Such a society is bound to feel the existential hole in its core and a lose sense of direction as it does not have an idea of going forward, backward, upward and downward.
With the growing exposure to global ideas, lifestyle and ideals, the youth of Gilgit begin to aspire to a lifestyle which their society does not provide spaces and opportunities for. Instead of heeding to the aspiration of the youth, the ideological guardians of society not only repress dreams but also stifle any form of transcendence to fit them in received ideals and realities. Consequently, the possibilities of diverse dimensions are reduced to create a one-dimensional self. R D Laing, in his book ‘The Divided Self’, writes: “Among one-dimensional men, it is not surprising that someone with an insistent experience of other dimensions, that he cannot entirely deny or forget, will run the risk either of being destroyed by the others, or of betraying what he knows”.
Unfortunately, the intelligentsia of Gilgit-Baltistan conjures up the same ideals of society, which are meant to create a one-dimensional self. This is done through an array of structures, which are institutional, religious and cultural. Amid this arrangement, the strangulated self finds no space and new groups with whom an individual can find existential affinity. In the end, the individual takes refuge in death by committing suicide.
Jan Ali, a populist Shina poet, pithily sums up the suffocating environment of Gilgit and its role in generating a death wish in the individual in the couplet when he exclaims” “Aday bay bayokijo meerok ga mishti, Gileet ga phat kon nayok gi mishti (Instead of leading such life, it is better to either commit suicide, or vanish from Gilgit)”
The aspirations and dreams of the youth in Gilgit are either destroyed by the existing order of things, or deviated from to conform to the uni-dimensional idea of the self dictated by society. Hence, we witness the suppression of the individual by society to keep the sanity of the collective whole intact. It is to members of such society that Carl Jung said: “Show me a sane man and I will cure him for you”. Gilgit’s society is in denial of the insanity of its social, cultural, religious and institutional structures. Instead of curing its version of collective sanity, society blames the individual agency of insanity for suicide.
From the above discussion, it can be concluded that the self of the youth in Gilgit is walking on a tight rope over the abyss. It is a dangerous walk as looking backward may distract the person from what is ahead and consign him or her to the pits of abyss. In addition, people cannot make an abode of the self in a precious place. All they need is to leave the traditions behind and cross over the present for the sake of their dreams and aspirations.
Only by getting rid of approaches that either see things in terms of pre-modern social arrangements or a reengagement with lost certainties of culture and religion and rejecting the status quo, can we create a new self in Gilgit. This will open the doors to new dreams and ecstasies for the self to celebrate. It will help the individual get rid of the normalcy imposed by society and jettison the false realities inculcated in the individual by culture, society, state and religion.
R D Laing’s observation is quite relevant to Gilgit, especially when he wrote: “Thus I would wish to emphasize that our ‘normal’ ‘adjusted’ state is too often the abdication of ecstasy, the betrayal of our true potentialities, that many of us are only too successful in acquiring a false self to adapt to false realities”.
The writer is a freelance
columnist based in Gilgit and was published in International THE NEWS