Pakistan: Kalash minority threatened by Islamist extremism

Smallest ethnic & religious community in Pakistan is fighting for survival


By Arsalan Barijo. Edited with additional reporting by Peter Tatchell

London & Islamabad – 18 October 2017


The smallest ethnic and religious community in Pakistan is fighting for the survival of its culture, in the face of religious extremism, forced conversion, ‘colonisation’ by Sunni Muslim settlers and Taliban attacks.

The Kalash are a Dardic indigenous people who live primarily in the Kalash Valley, in the Chitral District of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan. They follow their own distinct traditions and belief systems. They are a polytheistic non-Muslim people who practice a form of ancient Hinduism infused with old pagan and animist beliefs. For centuries, they have maintained a totally separate culture from the Muslim majority in the country.

In the 1900’s the Kalash were a majority in Chitral District. Now the situation has changed. Only around 4,000 Kalash people survive in the valley. As a result of inward migration by Muslims, the once majority Kalash have now become a minority.

Some (not all) of these migrants are attempting to impose their Sunni faith on the Kalash people. There have been many pressured and forced conversions to Islam; resulting in clashes between Muslims and Kalashis in June 2016. This was not first such incident. Kalash members have often suffered Islamist threats and assaults. In 2014, the Pakistan Taliban announced an “armed struggle” against the Kalashis, demanding they convert to Islam or be killed.

The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has acknowledged that nearly 3,500 inhabitants of the Kalash Valley have had death threats from militants.

These threats and attacks continue. In August 2016, armed groups from Afghanistan’s remote province of Nuristan attacked shepherds in the high altitude pastures of the Kalash Valley in three separate incidents. In one such assault, they stole around 400 animals and killed two Kalash shepherds who resisted the attack.

For the Kalash, who survive on goat meat and milk during the long winter months, such robberies are a life-threatening loss. Their livestock also play an important role in Kalash festivals, which are a part of their unique culture and religion.

Despite the Government having set up an army check post in the area, the attacks have continued without hindrance. Adequate measures have not been taken to provide security to this indigenous community and to protect them from Islamist violence and forced conversions to Islam.

Articles 28 and 36 of the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan state:

“Article 28. Preservation of language, script and culture – Subject to Article 251 any section of citizens having a distinct language, script or culture shall have the right to preserve and promote the same and subject to law, establish institutions for that purpose….

“Article 36. Protection of minorities — The State shall safeguard the legitimate rights and interests of minorities, including their due representation in the Federal and Provincial services.”

On one side, the State has given rights and protection to religious minorities in the Constitution. On the other hand, the State’s own department, NADRA (National Database and Registration Authority), includes all religions but not that of the Kalash; denying their identity as a legitimate indigenous ethnic and religious minority.

The Kalash people, in order to protest against discrimination and the denial of their rights, boycotted the general election of 2013.

The oppression of the Kalash was highlighted in a letter to Critical, which is reproduced in full here:

“The Kalash, the indigenous and original inhabitants of Chitral, are still being deprived of their constitutional rights in the following way:

1. Our religion is not included in the list of religions and we are being forced to show Buddhism or Islam as our religion.
2. Kalash students are being taught Islamiat (Islamic religious studies)
 in schools, whereas they should be taught ethics instead of Islamiat.
3. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government has included 12 languages to be taught in schools but Kalash language hasn’t been included, despite the fact that we have developed our text books up to grade 18.

All these issues are leading to more and more conversions to Islam and the tribe is endangered. Islam does not allow suppressing minorities; it rather instructs to protect them. Help preserve the Kalash from extinction.”

Based on the UN General Assembly resolutions, the Kalash community and its culture should be declared a UNESCO World Heritage site, in order to protect and conserve them.

The Kalash want the subject of ethics introduced in Kalash Valley schools instead of Islamiat, to halt the pressured or forced conversion of Kalash youth by Muslim teachers.

The Government of Pakistan and UNESCO are being called on to give international exposure and support to the Kalash ethnic-religious community, by arranging foreign visits, funding Kalash cultural projects and by appropriate development aid in accordance with Kalash priorities.

In order to ensure political representation, the Government of Pakistan should allocate a separate seat for the Kalash minority in both the Provincial and National Assemblies.

To remedy centuries of exclusion, marginalisation and discrimination, the Government is also being urged to introduce a quota system for Kalash employment in government departments, and to also allocate a quota and scholarship programme for Kalash students in professional colleges and universities.

The non-recognition of the Kalash religion in the NADRA database needs to be remedied.

The declaration of the founder of Pakistan, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, in his address to the Constituent Assembly on 11 August 1947, is pertinent and still relevant:

“You are free: you are free to go to your temples; you are free to go to your mosques or to any other places of worship in the State of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion, caste or creed that has nothing to do with the business of the State… We are starting with this fundamental principle: that we are all citizens and equal citizens of one State. Now I think we should keep that in front of us as our ideal and you will find that in course of time Hindus would cease to be Hindus and Muslims would cease to be Muslims, not so in the religious sense because that is the personal faith of each individual, but in the political sense as a citizen of the State.”

  • This article is based on a commentary by Arsalan Barijo that was originally published by the Asian Human Rights Commission: @humanrightsasia This edited version is published with the kind permission of the AHRC.