Reflections On A Journey Through Pakistan's Northern Areas

Reflections On A Journey Through Pakistan's Northern Areas
This is the seventh and last part of my travelogue to Naran, Gilgit and Naltar valleys. It consists of impressions and sentiments gathered during visit to this grand landscape.

Pakistan’s Northern Areas are a veritable feast of natural splendour. Visitors admire its abundance of rugged mountains, snowy peaks, enchanting waterfalls, sliding glaciers, thick foliage, barren slopes, diverse rocks, hanging granite, cascading rivers, pristine lakes, winding tracks, trackless paths, sand dunes in riverbeds and giant rocks strewn across stream rapids. It is difficult to list all the elements that one comes across in this geological paradise.

On a recent visit to Naran and Gilgit, while sitting in a quiet corner of the mesmerising landscape of the Naltar Valley, this author was reminded that nature needs uninterrupted wilderness to play off its elements. Human intervention is destructive and always detrimental to evolutionary natural processes.

One comes to the curious realisation that of all living creatures, it is only the humans that play such a destructive role on this planet – and even more, that all human activities are harmful to the environment, and none is beneficial. Of all lifeforms on Mother Earth, humans are the sole species that have caused her harm on a large scale, and in immeasurable and irreversible manner. Earth has gone through many life cycles. The creation of a set of species has been followed by its near complete annihilation and then the appearance of a new set of species. Paleontologists have determined that this process of creation and extinction has repeated several times. There are several strong indications that our immense intellect can only hasten the end of the current phase of the planet. Whereas previous species lasted hundreds of millions of years, humans, merely a hundred thousand years in existence, may self-destruct much sooner.

Contemplating on the confluence of two rivers

Humans have caused immense environmental degradation to Earth’s atmosphere by adding huge amounts of carbon dioxide. Nature creates and retrieves about 100 billion tons of this gas yearly. By burning fossil fuels, humans annually pump nearly 40 billion additional tons of this gas which is irretrievable and unrecyclable. The concentration of carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere now is nearly 412 parts per million (ppm), which represents a 47 percent increase since the beginning of the industrial age. This is a devastating figure, especially considering that 120 years ago, Earth's atmosphere was in complete harmony. Humans are suffocating themselves, in addition to causing unpredictable weather patterns over much of the Earth. A series of severe storms, excessive rains and extreme draughts all over the world should be taken as final cry of anguish by nature. Unfortunately, the poorest nations like Pakistan, with least usage of fossil fuels, end up being worst affected by adverse fallout of global warming.
Passing through the picturesque city of Balakot, this author recalled that the town is the last resting place of Syed Ahmad Shaheed, his companion Shah Ismail Shaheed and about three hundred of his followers. Hailing from Rai-Bareilly in UP, Syed was a firebrand who preached a puritanical jihadist brand of Islam

The development of weapons of mass destruction is a disaster waiting to happen. Humans have not invented a weapon that they have not used, including nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. Despite many diplomatic efforts to control, reduce and abolish such weapons, they have been proliferating in numbers and becoming more destructive in technology. In early 1945, there was no nuclear device on this planet, now there are 13,080 of them. The day nuclear powers make a miscalculation, it would spell the end of the world; at least as we know it.

One of the most urgent issues facing the Global South nations like ours is that their population is increasing at an alarming rate. The number of humans on the planet now far exceeds every other animal.

Traveling through the Northern Areas of Pakistan, one finds people living in unlikely places on hill slopes where access to food, employment, utilities and education is nearly impossible. Humans are using Earth's resources at an alarming rate and need much more space to dwell as compared to all other life forms combined. Natural resources, including minerals, metals, water and agricultural land are not unlimited. Technology can delay Malthusian crises; it cannot eradicate them. The non-developed world is already experiencing the adverse effects of population explosion. A whopping 340 million people are victims of food scarcity worldwide. A day shall come when the scales would be tipped irreversibly towards large-scale extinction.

At Naran

Passing through the picturesque city of Balakot, this author recalled that the town is the last resting place of Syed Ahmad Shaheed, his companion Shah Ismail Shaheed and about three hundred of his followers. Hailing from Rai-Bareilly in UP, Syed was a firebrand who preached a puritanical jihadist brand of Islam, while opposing all other sects including Shi’ism and Sufism. He preached jihad or holy war against Ranjit Singh’s empire in Punjab, but strangely, not against the British, who were ruling his own native land. He gathered about 8,000 followers and – facilitated by the British and allowed by the Sikhs – moved into the Swabi district across the Indus.

Syed Ahmad hoped, under miscalculated belief, that the Afghans would submit to his religious zeal. He tried to force the recalcitrant residents of Peshawar to give up their culture and submit to his brand of religiosity. He paid no heed to their culture either. Perhaps he thought that he could emulate the early immigrants of Islam and convert the ferocious Pakhtuns into meek Ansars and establish his state over their back. He even styled himself as Amirul Momineen and had the Friday sermon read in his name. The Pakhtuns, however, soon got weary of his puritanical ways and expelled him and his followers out of their territory into the Sikh State. Faced with the Khalsa army in front and rebellious Pakhtuns at his back, Syed was forced to trudge up the Kaghan Valley. He was bottled up at Balakot and laid down his life in May 1831, along with about a thousand of his staunch followers. His career proves that while the people of Indus Valley are amenable to an Islamic way of life, they are averse to its stricter interpretations. The failure of the Syed in the 19th century gives hope that the Taliban would also be defeated in the 21st century.

At dawn on the day of our return, I sat at the confluence of River Kunhar and the Jheel stream, and watched the rapids as they joined forces to form a single larger torrent. The rocks in the water, some submerged completely, others only partially, had been rounded on all their faces, having lost their sharp edges to the grinding forces of fast-flowing sand-filled water. It occurred to this author that life itself was a reflection of one of those stones. As they age and negotiate the turmoil of life, humans too mellow, losing many of idiosyncrasies and peculiarities of their younger days.

Water, like time, kept rushing by as this author tried to absorb the intimidating landscape of high peaks, deep crevices, tall trees and enveloping clouds. On the daunting slopes of the surrounding hills, a few people in their fragile houses were going about their daily chores. They appeared as insignificant as the shrubs they were treading on, the sheep they were leading away and the birds that flew past. We humans style ourselves as the pick of creation and have an exaggerated opinion about ourselves, but, in long term reality, are no more significant than the inanimate or the animate objects scattered around us. Other innumerable extinct and extant species too have made significant biological progress and have proved to be significantly adaptable. Even now, there are 2.5 million ants for every human being and they coexist better than the latter, using much less resources to survive and multiply. Humans are an anomaly on Earth. The startling technological achievements that they have made since the paleolithic age are a transient phase without any permanence.

The environmental damage that humans have caused, though critical in our era, is limited to one insignificantly small speck of a celestial body that floats in space among billions of trillions of such stellar objects; some as immense as the supermassive Black Holes at the heart of galaxies and others as small as the undetectable neutrinos – all destined to live, be destroyed and then recreated in their turn by the grinding laws of nature.

Potpecko Lake in Serbia: seen here filled with trash

Earth has hosted multitude of species since the Archean Period when microorganisms appeared 4 billion years ago, or since the Cambrian era half a billion years ago that saw an explosion of modern life forms, or the Cretaceous Period 245-65 million years ago when the Dinosaurs ruled, or, more recently, since the first appearance of the primates, our ancestors, 55 million years ago. Homo Sapiens, in contrast, are only a million years old but are already hastening their demise. Humans have proved to be extremely tribal, fratricidal and self-destructive. History of wars in the last five thousand years shows that our much-avowed wisdom is limited, faulty, myopic and prone to failure.

While social structures, technology and economic tools have undergone remarkable progress in the last 5,000 years, human wisdom has stayed stagnant. Senseless warfare, subjugation, torture and suppression prove that humans have a cannibalistic disposition. It is now too late in their evolution to change course.

Human behaviour will ultimately lead to self-annihilation.

Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: