As elections approach, the Kalash call out for recognition

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We may never know whether the Kalash people, who live in K-P’s Chitral district, are in fact the descendants of Alexander the Great’s army. Nor are we likely to ever trace the true origins of their religion and mythology. But what the Kalash people themselves are most concerned with, as the general elections approach, is the fact that they have little or no say in the country they call home.

Today, the community is only 4,000 people strong, of whom only 1,800 are registered voters. It nevertheless makes up a sizeable chunk of the 11,000 people residing in the remote valleys of Birir, Rambur and Bambouret.

In this election however, they may not vote at all. According to a local newspaper, Kalash elders are threatening a poll boycott unless the computerised identity cards have a specific column for their religion, Kalasha.

“The Kalash religion is not officially recognised,” says Luke Rehmat Kalash, a social worker and head of Kalash People Development Network (KPDN).

“In order to get Computerised National Identity Cards (CNICs) or passports, we have to tick off one of the recognised religions, such as Islam, Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism, or tick off ‘other’.”

Luke adds that it was the advent of the Computerised National Identity Card that alienated more of the community.

“Before, we would write ‘Kalasha’ under the religion section. The ID cards were made manually so it wasn’t a problem. However, after the introduction of the computerised ID, this option has been taken from us. Now, the Kalash have no religious identity in this country,” he says.

However, according to NADRA spokesperson Naz Shoeb, the authority cannot be fully blamed for this exclusion.

“NADRA can only print those religions that are recognised in the Constitution of Pakistan. However, NADRA has no objection in adding the religion provided legal requirements are met,” she said.

Article 260 (3) (a) of the Constitution of Pakistan mentions Hindus, Chirstians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis, Bahais, Ahmadis and scheduled castes as non-Muslims, but there is no mention of the Kalash.

As for now, the KPDN has submitted community signatures, complemented by online petitions, to the National Database and Registration Authority (NARDA), in a bid to have their religion recognised. The group has also urged Parliament to legislate in this regard.

Wazir Zada, a Kalash social worker, says that having a religious identity of choice is a basic human right.

“Kalasha are a living civilization and should be acknowledged as such,” says Wazir.

He reveals that the community has also submitted petitions with the interior and foreign affairs ministers. So far, nothing has been done.

“Recently, I was asked at an interview at the US Embassy what the ‘other’ in the religion column means,” he said. “We are Pakistanis and our identity should not only be acknowledged, but also respected.”

The Kalash say they were happier when they were able to vote for an MNA directly, but now, minority candidates are nominated by political parties, and they feel they lose out this way.

Wazir Zada was himself nominated by the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf as a candidate for one of the two reserved seats for minorities in the K-P assembly, but as he was low in the priority list, his name does not appear in the final ECP document.

In a press conference, Kalash elders held former president Musharraf responsible for their condition and demanded the government restore the 1973 constitutional provisions for the rights of minorities, while also calling for the Kalash religion to be recognised officially. If these demands are not met, they said the Kalash would have no option but to boycott the elections.