What can Achay Fatima Banoo teach us?

Photo- kahmirdailyimages.com
Photo- kahmirdailyimages.com

Most people often think of entrepreneurship as a male domain but nothing can be further from the truth. Evidence of this I found in a small piece of article about a Balti woman from Kargil, Ladakh, who showed that extra curiosity and innovative spark that lay foundations of a future successful entrepreneur.

As it is the region of Ladakh is geographically, a remote mountainous region that remains virtually cut off from rest of India during intense winter months. Heavy snow carpets all valleys of Ladakh, making life very challenging. And one of the most difficult things to find during winter months is vegetables. This has been a problem for most mountainous regions of India, where availability of vegetables become scarce due to lack of cultivable land as well as months of snow that covers whatever little cultivable land that is available.

In valleys of Ladakh, most of human habitation is located around numerous rivers that criss-cross barren and semi-desert valleys. Apart from river Indus, there are many tributaries of the river that feeds small patches of land available around river streams. Kargil town is also such urban agglomeration, located on both sides of Suru river, one of the tributaries of river Indus.

Under such difficult geographical and climatic conditions, it becomes very challenging to cultivate crops and extract maximum output from limited supply of land. And this is where Achay (Sister) Fatima Banoo’s entrepreneurial skills came in handy. Achay Fatima was an ordinary housewife with an extraordinary desire to learn about new things including latest agricultural techniques for improving crop production. It was this curiosity that brought Achay Fatima to a government established “self help” group that thought latest agricultural techniques for optimum utilisation of land. The emphasis was on various aspects of agricultural technology, ranging from selection of right seeds, maintaining fertility of soil for recurrent cultivation, environmentally friendly way of controlling pests etc.

Achay Fatima, who was till now only growing vegetables for the consumption of her own family, took the initiative to learn and teach herself about all the techniques of improving crop production. Her interest and hard work bore fruits both literally and metaphorically, when she saw an exponential increase in the production of vegetables from her kitchen garden. She was encouraged to grow vegetables on a slightly bigger scale and soon she was producing much more than for her own private consumption. This opened up an opportunity for her to explore the option of selling extra produce to local market, where there was an immense demand for fresh vegetables.

Most of the agricultural land available in Kargil is under the cultivation of food crops like wheat and barley and therefore vegetables are usually imported from Srinagar in Kashmir valley. Those vegetables are expensive and at the same time not very fresh. Achay Fatima’s vegetables were a welcome change from the existing system. Her kitchen garden produce was fresh and readily available.

This urge to learn and tap into advanced scientific knowledge helped Achay Fatima to be a successful entrepreneur and earn money that improved her family’s economic situation. And now she is also teaching other local farmers about the advanced agricultural technology to increase production from scarce agricultural land available.

Achay Fatima has shown that one does not need MBA degree to be a successful entrepreneur. All that one need is original thinking, curiosity to learn new things, hard work and a desire to do something other than the routine.

By Siddhartha Garoo

The author is a graduate of Harvard, Cambridge and Columbia University with interest in Balti culture and Central Asia region.




Hunza, Pakistan

Many years back a Hindi movie called “Delhi 6” was released. The number 6 in the movie was the zip code for the old Delhi, where the movie was set-in.

Now another 6, which is fast catching up the attention of people in a remote part of the world is ‘Hunza 6”.

The name actually denotes the nomenclature of an electoral constituency in Hunza region, a fabled valley in the laps of Karakoram Mountains of Gilgit Baltistan or GB as it is popularly known.

GB is a vast tract of beautiful land in northernmost part of Pakistan, over which there are claims but unfortunately no ownership. GB was incidentally also a part of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir before 1947.

The focus of this article is on the upcoming legislative assembly elections in GB. Although, the legislative assembly of GB has no effective powers, its formation is still a vast improvement from the previous complete ignorance of this region in political representative politics both at GB and federal level in Pakistan. It is only recently that GB’s legislative assembly has come into existence and the upcoming elections will be for the formation of GB’s second legislative assembly.

Despite the legislative assembly of GB being a rudderless institution, victory in the assembly elections serves an important symbolic purpose for various constituencies of GB. For Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Shariff’s PML-N, the party in government, wining majority in GB will be significant for two reasons; one it will further strengthen hold of Shariff government over regions of Pakistan and will also serve as a morale booster for the party that has been at the receiving end of Imran Khan’s PTI’s high profile campaign against Shariff administration.

However, away and beyond these mainstream Pakistani political parties lies a spectrum of youthful and vivacious movement of alternative political ideology, which has a complete focus on issues pertaining only to GB and its people, locally known as “nationalist” ideology. And no political constituency in GB highlights this more than the electoral constituency of “Hunza 6”, which apart from political candidates from mainstream political parties of Pakistan is also fought by the legendary youth activist, proponent of human rights and a political prisoner of GB, the great Baba Jan.

Baba Jan as the name may suggest is not a Pashtun and neither are the people of this region and therefore to associate them with Afghans would be factually incorrect. The people of this region are mix of Dardic-Tibetan ethnic groups. Baba Jan in particular can be described as an accidental activist and not a career politician.

Baba Jan’s jump into youth activism has origin in an environmental disaster that hit the region of GB in 2010. The disaster, which led many people of GB homeless, was very poorly handled by the local authorities.

Violence was used on the people who were protesting for the promised government compensation. The violence led to loss of lives, pushing an erstwhile peaceful GB into massive but peaceful protests and demonstrations led by very young and dynamic student leader, Baba Jan.

However, as is the usual tradition in India and Pakistan, instead of listening to the grievances of the people, false cases were registered by GB authorities against Baba Jan and other youth activists.  They were put into jail and tortured.

Due to massive international, Pakistan and GB wide protests, Baba Jan was eventually released from jail on a bail after spending two years in prison only to be re-arrested last year after an anti-terrorist court sentenced him to life imprisonment.

GB’s last assembly elections were won by late Benezir Bhutto’s PPP party that formed the first ever civilian government in the GB.

The PPP is not expected to do well in these elections, reflecting its national decline in Pakistan.

The main fight appears to be between ruling PML-N and Imran Khan’s PTI, both of whom have been leading a very high profile campaign. Although there are “nationalists” also in fray in almost all constituencies, the constituency of “Hunza 6” stands out because for the first time in the history of the region and perhaps also in Pakistan, Baba Jan, a political prisoner, while in jail was allowed to contest elections.

Given Baba Jan’s popularity cutting across ages, sects and ethnic groups, election contest has definitely changed equations in “Hunza 6”. The fact that Baba Jan cannot campaign has not caused any problems as young men of the constituency have taken upon themselves to make sure that Baba Jan and his principles on which he has stood are heard and appreciated by one and all in the constituency.

Young men of the constituency and outside have been charged and electrified and one can see debates even on social media about pros and cons to vote for Baba Jan. There are video appeals from activists both from GB and other parts of Pakistan in support of Baba Jan.

It is interesting to note that there is a debate among voters of “Hunza 6” if they should treat this constituency as yet another ordinary constituency or a special constituency that has an important symbolic significance. Pakistan’s mainstream political parties may be able to form the government in the GB without needing the seat of “Hunza 6”, but a victory of a serving political prisoner of reputation like Baba Jan would give voice to a political ideology, which is rooted in the soil of GB, something which is deeply required in the fast changing economic situation of the strategically located region of GB.

By Siddhartha Garoo

The author is a graduate of Harvard, Cambridge and Columbia University with interest in Balti culture and Central Asia region.


By Siddhartha Garoo

Any discussion about Jammu and Kashmir is so much dominated by what has happened and what continues to happen in Kashmir valley that little is known or understood about parts of former princely state that neither belong to Kashmir region nor to Jammu region. This vast land tract, which constitutes most of the land mass of the former princely state of Jammu & Kashmir is known by various names and is home to many distinct and proud ethnic groups with their own independent culture, history and traditions, which gets unnoticed because of the numerical strength of people from Kashmir valley and Jammu regions.

Photo source: webjazba
Photo source: webjazba

The key to understand this “other Jammu & Kashmir” lies in terms “wazarats” that was used for two main ethnic and linguistic regions of the “wazarat of Gilgit” and “wazarat of Ladakh”. These wazarats were vassal states of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir ruled by Dogra rulers of Jammu region but were administered by British government in a complicated arrangement with Dogra rulers, who still retained an overall sovereignty over both “Gilgit wazarat” as well as “Ladakh wazarat”.

Giglit wazarat constituted north western parts of this geographical entity that bordered Afghanistan and Tajik republic of Soviet Union. Although not a part of the Gilgit wazarat but geographically lying in the same enclave were princely states of Hunza and Nagar. Gilgit wazarat was and continues to be multi ethnic and multi linguistic region, where many Dardic languages like Shina and Pamiri languages like Wakhi are spoken. This is a region, which also has considerable Ismaili population, although most of the people of the region are Shia Muslims.

“Ladakh wazarat”, on the other hand was much bigger and composed primarily of people of Tibetan origin.  “Ladakh wazarat” was composed of Baltistan, Kargil and Leh and was (and continues to be) inhabited by Tibetan Shia Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists. There is confusion here with respect to what actually constituted “Baltistan”. Geographically speaking Baltistan or “Baltiyul” was a name given to a vast region where a Persian influenced dialect of Tibetan called Balti was spoken by most people. There were two main cultural centres of Balti language, one in southern part of Baltistan known as Kargil and another and much well known centre was Skardu in northern part of the Baltistan.  The region of Leh was the eastern most part of “Ladakh wazarat” and primarily inhabited by Tibetan Buddhists, who spoke a dialect of Tibetan, which later came to be known as Ladakhi.

The chaotic events of partition divided Gilgit and Ladakh wazarat in such a way that it just led to much more confusion, news names and diluted identity. Entire “Gilgit wazarat” along with the princely state of Hunza and Nagar went to newly created Pakistan along with northern part of Baltistan and its cultural capital Skardu. These combined areas were then named as “Northern Areas”, a name which gave no clue about the culture and identity of the people of the region. However this identity was restored, when this region came to be known as “Gilgit Baltistan”, which took into account cultural identities of both Gilgit and Baltistan region.

The southern part of Baltistan along with the city of Kargil as well as entire Leh region, which were parts of “Ladakh wazarat” became parts of Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. These two regions of Kargil and Leh were jointly called Ladakh, name of the former wazarat. However over time, Leh region caught attention of the rest of India much more than Kargil and the name Ladakh became synonymous with Leh. However after the traumatic events of 1999, Kargil and its people are now making their presence felt in cultural sphere and people outside Ladakh are now slowly recognizing that Ladakh means both Leh and Kargil.

This is how former wazarats are now divided between two countries as regions of Gilgit Baltistan and Ladakh, both carrying the names of former wazarats.

The author is a graduate of Harvard, Cambridge and Columbia University with interest in Balti culture and Central Asia region.



By Siddhartha Garoo

Perhaps not many people had ever heard of a place called Kargil before 1999, surely not many in the state of Jammu and Kashmir and definitely not in other parts of India. However the events of 1999 and nearly two months of deadly standoff between armies of two newly nuclear nations of India and Pakistan, made sure that the name “Kargil” get’s etched in the national consciousness of entire nations for all times to come.

The “Kargil war” has been and continues to be celebrated in movies and popular entertainment. The outcome of the war evokes feelings of patriotism and at the same time, it continues to be politicized by vested interests. But if there is one thing that never caught the imagination of outside world was its devastating impact on the people of Kargil.

Unlike its more well known sister city Leh, the region and city of Kargil remained under the shadows for a long time. Ethnically and culturally, the region was part of “Baltiyul” or “Baltistan”, a region of Balti speaking people of Tibetan origin that primarily practice Shia Islam. The region however got split between India and Pakistan during the chaos of partition. The northern Baltistan along with sister region of Gilgit went on to become “Northern Areas” of Pakistan, where as southern Baltistan along with adjoining Leh and Aksai Chin came to be known as Ladakh.

For various reasons ranging from geographical isolation to step motherly treatment by Leh and Kashmir valley and general unawareness about the region in other parts of India, Kargil remained anonymous till 1999. The year remains a watershed in many ways, most important of which was the catalysis that the events of 1999 war became in dismantling the overall isolation of this region.

But not much is known of the human loss and physiological damage that was caused to the local Balti speaking population of Kargil. Hundreds of Balti lives were lost and many civilian houses and properties were destroyed. And despite all this loss, what disappoints Balti speakers of Kargil is the general lack of recognition for their role in the events of the war.

One can blame bureaucracy or general disinterest as reasons for this non acknowledgment of the role of Balti people of Kargil, but this is not stopping younger generation of Balti youth to commemorate the culmination of the war as tribute to all those who laid their lives, whether they were from Indian army or civilians of Kargil town. And in furtherance of this desire, efforts of young Balti men like Zakir Zaidi are commendable. Zakir is organizing a marathon run, something on the lines of already well known “Ladakh marathon” held annually in Leh city. The Kargil marathon will be held on July 26th to simultaneously commemorate “Kargil Vijay Diwas”.

A generation of Balti young men and women that was born after 1999 is confidant and not afraid to take initiatives on its own and the organization of “Kargil marathon” is an example of that. It augurs well for carving out a niche for the region of Kargil that remained under shadows of many other well known cities. It’s time for the Baltis of Kargil to start making their mark.