Tashakur, Khyber Jan

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The small Pashto speaking community of Kashmir is getting a new cultural lifeline as a Pakistan based Pashto channel brings them closer to mainland. No wonder Saas bahu is out and  Oolas Poolas is in. Haroon Mirani reports.

Tucked in a remote village of Ganderbal district, a small Pashto-speaking population’s language and culture is getting a lease of life, courtesy a Pakistan based Khyber television channel.

Gutlibagh represents the largest number of Pashto speaking population in Kashmir. These people, most of whom were engaged in business in the valley for decades, gradually settled here permanently. To preserve their culture, they isolated themselves from the indigenous communities and chose to live in separate villages at Gutlibagh, Mattan, Baramulla and Jammu. Pashto is spoken in Afghanistan and Frontier province of Pakistan and areas adjoining it.

Living away from the mainland, for centuries in some cases, the culture and language of the proud Pashton or Pakhtoon community in Kashmir, could not insulate itself from the influences of local, Indian and Western influences.

When community elders had resigned to the fate and lost hopes of any rejuvenation of their culture, a Pakistan based Pashto cable TV channel became their savior.

“It all happened in 2005 when the massive earthquake stuck Kashmir and Pakistan,” said Iqbal Niaz, a resident of Gutlibagh. After the earthquake devastated the area, these people, who have number of relatives in Pakistan and Pakistan administered Kashmir, were worried for them. Everybody wanted to know the fate of their relatives. “Then suddenly somebody discovered Pashto language Khyber TV. The channel broadcast from Pakistan is dedicated to Pashtons,” remembers Iqbal. “It gave them information about their relatives besides preaching Islam and showcasing Pashto culture in its purest form.”

The fame of channel spread to the entire community and soon all of around 700 households were watching Khyber TV religiously. “The channel made us realize as to how much change has crept into our culture and language. As people became avid watchers of Khyber TV, their language and pronunciation started to improve,” said Iqbal.

The channel bridged the cultural gap between the land of Pashtons and Kashmiri Pashtons. Sher Alam a local resident says, “The new generation didn’t know what the real Pashton culture was, but this channel brought them face to face with the raw Pashton culture.”
India and Pakistan

The words like Meherbani and Aaram Aaram kay saath were used with ease by these Pashtons, but after a few years into watching Khyber TV, they have gone back to their original Pashto words.

Alam says that accent of Pashtons at Gutlibagh was becoming akin to an alien speaker. “It was like a Kashmiri speaking person talking in Pashto, with a tinge of Kashmiri slang,” said Alam.

The residents of Gutlibagh prefer Pashto soap operas over the Saas, Bahu and scheming aunts drama serials dished out by the Indian entertainment TV.

The soap operas like Oolas Poolas, Mama Sitam Tashin and Khush Pursh and their characters are household names besides talk of this village. Oolas Poolas depicts the perennial fight between criminals and police while as Mama Sitam Tashin is a drama set in a typical Pashto village in Pakistan. “Mama Sitam Tashin looks like an extension of our own village,” said Iqbal. Khursh Pursh is a drama loved by people of all genres due to the inclusion of cartoon characters.

The tribes – their pride, fights and the legends of upper caste Khans in Pashto culture is all seen through these channels.

The popularity of Khyber TV, however, at times leads to arguments within families as to which channel to watch. “When there is a cricket match between India and Pakistan, we have to fight to see our favorite match as our elders usually harp on watching Khyber or other Pashto channel,” said Alam.

News is an important content of the Khyber TV, which is watched by all. “We are avid news watchers. They also relay the news of Kashmir during their news bulletins, which makes us elated,” said Iqbal. “But most of the time the news is not a good one, like violence or even Sex Scandal which was highlighted on the channel.”

Though Khyber is the most popular Channel in Gutlibagh, other Pasthu channels are watched as well. AVT Khyber is another Pashto channel seen here. Pashto programmes on Shamshad TV and PTV are also a favourite with them. The local cable operator has also started two separate Pashto cable channels on its network, where they play music and films 24X7. They bring the Pashto CD’s and DVD’s from New Delhi.

Pashto music is a rage among youth as well as elders. Although they had known famous Pashto singer Merous, but it is due to these Pashto channels that they have cherished new Pashto singers like Riyaz Khattak, Nazia Iqbal, Bakhtiyar and Zeek Afridi.

“We are a small community here and can’t have a separate channel like DD Kashir, where two half an hour (Pashto) programmes per month is a routine” said Iqbal.

According to Zahoor Ahmad, who owns the Muqaddar cable network in the area, “Earlier people used to watch PTV National in the nights because they used to broadcast the Pashto programme during those hours.”

Zahoor said that the trend has changed and now people have five dedicated Pashto channels at their disposal. “These include K2, Khyber TV, Khyber News, Shamshad TV and PTV national.”

All of these channels are free to air which makes it easier for cable operators to air the channels.

After seeing these Pashtons on TV, people feel that they have lost a lot. “We hava lost number of habits. Like, Pashtons like to have Chappati and vegetables or Dal during lunch, but we eat rice just like other Kashmiris,” said Alam. “Similarly we have incorporated number of wazwan (Kashmiri cuisine) items, which is not found in Pashto culture.”

Although Pashtons don’t indulge in extravagance during marriages but it is also far from the traditional Pashto marriage. “Our community leaders have literally fought to keep away the wazwan or the menace of dowry,” said Iqbal.

The Pashton dishes are also seeing revival. “The traditional dishes like Gulgula and Darvesh have suddenly become more tasteful and seen more often in the homes,” says Sher Alam.

Pashtons usually prefer to marry within their own community. But over the years that trend has also started to change much to the discomfort of the community elders. At least 12 Pashto men at Gutlibagh have married Kashmiri girls. But any Pashto girl is yet to marry outside the community. “They are fearsome people, they used to fight with axes and swords even up to a few years ago,” said Musadiq Ahmad, a Kashmiri neighbour living at Gutlibagh.

Pashto girls usually stay at home and when they have to venture out, the culture demands them to take their brother, father or husband along. Being at home only, they usually know only a single Pashto community and thus face difficulty in outside communication.

“But as the education level is increasing both among male and females, the trend is set to get going,” said Iqbal. “The literacy rate is increasing, with couple of our boys getting into engineering colleges.”
Earlier there was just one school but now there are dozens of schools both private as well as government schools.

The college going Pashto boys usually indulge in some fights when they are being subjected to ragging. “We fight back fiercely and it often starts big fights,” said Iqbal. “Even if we have to die we will not let anybody rag us.”

Even as the Pashtons have remained in cordial peace with Kashmiris but the last twenty years of insurgency has left deep impact on them too. “Army used to harass us and tell us that you have destroyed Afghanistan and Pakistan and now you are destroying Kashmir too,” said Iqbal. The community also lost people during the troubled period.

But there are some cultural aspects, which they have not or can never bring back. “In Pashto marriages, they engage in aerial firing with their prided Kalashnikovs,” said Iqbal. “But here we can’t do that even in our dreams,” says a smiling Iqbal while pointing towards an adjacent army camp.

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