Week 7 – MacDonald – Memories of Tibet: Transnationalism, Transculturation and the
Production of Cultural identity in Northern Pakistan
Localized cultural identity movements emerging in much of the world are often described as a
retreat into “roots” and represented as a response to the threat of some vague set of processes
known as “globalization.”
But such representations obscure the role of multiple transnational pathways in supporting
localized movements that claim to act in defense of particular models of place and culture.
Formerly part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, Baltistan is now a region of the Federally
Administered Northern Areas of Pakistan (FANA)
Over the past ten years, an incipient movement, centered on a concern with the erosion of
cultural identity, has grown in the urban centers of Baltistan
This movement, like many others, is very much grounded in what are represented as essential
qualities of people and place. In this case, cultural activists rely rhetorically on a “golden age”
associated with a historical Tibetan presence in the region to assert an essential identity of
culture and place that confers qualities of serenity, justice and hospitality, among others.5 But
this assertion disguises what is in practice an attempt to reshape identity.
the cultural activism that is emerging in Baltistan is facilitated by transnational exchanges of
people and information
This case is unique in at least 3 respects:
1.) the production and dissemination of information occurs largely in the absence of internet
technology and widespread migration
2.) Second, it occurs in the context of a predominantly conservative Shi’a population
3.) And third, through a kind of auto-orientalism, it is appropriating and reproducing
stereotypic representations of “Tibetan-ness” in an effort to construct an “authentic”
cultural identity that can be deployed to distinguish Baltistan from dominant negative
Western representations of Pakistan. It also, to some extent, seeks to graft the stereotypic
qualities of Buddhism onto Islam as it is practiced in the area
as the potential for contact between Baltis on both sides of the line of control (LOC) has
heightened in the wake of the Kargil crisis, incipient transborder identity formations are
beginning to emerge.
Encountering Identity in Baltistan – 193
194 – BCF (Baltistan Cultural Foundation) a nongovernmental organization (NGO) It had a
board of directors composed of local intellectuals and elites, a source of funding, and program
objectives that pointed to a serious drive to engage in the shaping of cultural identity.
Initially BCF projects focused on the promotion of a Tibetan script, the preservation of Buddhist
monuments, the production of cultural shows, the establishment of a heritage museum, and the
development of curricular materials for local schools. Indeed, the BCF is grounded in a statement
of mission that: “seeks to preserve the Balti- Tibetan culture
195-Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan (AKCSP), it has acquired the backing of more
mainstream international development organizations.10 It is also an organization that, until
recently, united a diverse set of actors and political goals—ranging from political autonomy to
securing a stable tourist economy—around a common political objective: to “protect the cultural
heritage of Baltistan.”
Political Opportunity Structures and the Mobilization of Culture
Political Alienation and the Space for “Culture” - 196
Perhaps the most significant opportunity encouraging culturally grounded collective action in
northern Pakistan has been the declining power of federalist ideologies of nationalism
198- In essence the federal administration fears that legitimating the provincial and constitutional
status of FANA within the state of Pakistan amounts to a de facto acceptance of the Line of
Control as a permanent international border, undermining the call for a plebiscite to determine
the future political status of the region
the continuing failure of the state to extend constitutional guarantees to the residents of Baltistan
has generated strong feelings of political alienation.
200 - As one old man told me:
In the past the Kashmiris forced us to work. They forced us and they beat us, using the police and
the army. But with the creation of Pakistan I became free. I am very satisfied. There is no tension
compared with the past. Perhaps there is tension for the new generation because they have not
witnessed the past. Otherwise they would also see that we now have a good life.
This remark speaks to the relative qualities of history, and it is clear that the contemporary
reworking of historical significance is a direct response to feelings of political alienation and a
focus on culture arises precisely because of the alienation that leaves people with no recourse to
political means of accessing the guarantees of citizenship
Mobility, Transculturation and the Mobilization of “Culture”
The actions of the BSF, among other groups, reveals how—as Gramsci pointed out—culture is a
primary site of political and educational struggle, and how political alienation underlies another
political opportunity: the ability to mobilize culture as a primary site for political struggle.
201- Cultural activists in Baltistan—including members of the BSF and the BCF—invoke threats
to Balti language and culture as a means of mobilizing political support. Such threats include an
increasing prevalence of traders from other areas of Pakistan in local markets, and state attempts
to generate a nationalist basis for cultural identity through the control of social institutions
This strategic construction of a threat allows cultural activists to rhetorically justify their actions
as an attempt to protect pure Balti culture and language, However, in doing so they are deploying
a concept of culture that is relatively new in Baltistan, and one has been brought into the region
through a number of routes.
One of these routes has been through the increasing migration of men to lowland Pakistan for
work or study.
Given the marginal position (both politically and geographically) of Baltistan within Pakistan,
these men typically encounter various forms of discrimination, and are constantly in a position of
needing to explain who they are in cultural terms. Men mention three specific effects of this
One has been the need to explain one’s identity to those not familiar with it. Having to explain or
document who you are, in your own country, to unfamiliar others opens up spaces of
contradictions and categories for questioning (and objectification).
These are the categories through which individuals learn what “culture” means, and through
which they learn to talk about culture.
They also witness the way in which cultural identity is used by self-described cultural groups
(e.g., “Punjabis,” “Sindhis,” “Mohajirs”) to structure nationalist politics in Pakistan.
Notably, they associate a third effect of the encounter with the other two; describing how a form
of solidarity grounded in cultural identity emerges in sites outside of Baltistan as experiences of
discrimination and alienation generate a desire, and an instrumental interest, in associating as a
“cultural” group. In essence, they come to realize the material and political benefits that derive,
within new socio-cultural contexts, from developing a critical mass of individuals who share a
common cultural identity.
Another route through which new, and politicized, understandings of culture enter Baltistan is the
travels of young Balti development workers sent abroad to study or on assignment. These travels
facilitate a number of encounters that transform understandings of culture. Particularly through
educational programs examples of the instrumental use of culture as a mode of defence against
Week 7 macdonald memories of tibet: transnationalism, transculturation and the. Localized cultural identity movements emerging in much of the world are often described as a retreat into roots and represented as a response to the threat of some vague set of processes known as globalization. But such representations obscure the role of multiple transnational pathways in supporting localized movements that claim to act in defense of particular models of place and culture. Formerly part of the state of jammu and kashmir, baltistan is now a region of the federally. Over the past ten years, an incipient movement, centered on a concern with the erosion of cultural identity, has grown in the urban centers of baltistan. This movement, like many others, is very much grounded in what are represented as essential qualities of people and place. 192 the cultural activism that is emerging in baltistan is facilitated by transnational exchanges of people and information.