The Plight of Kashmir's Dards

 
 

Gurez valley is located in the farthest north of Indian-administered Kashmir. Home to 25,000 Dards, who are part of a wider group of Dardic-speaking people spread across the northern areas of Pakistan and Ladakh as well as parts of Afghanistan, Gurez valley remains very isolated – partly because it is enclosed by snow-capped mountains and partly because it is dangerously close to the Line of Control between India and Pakistan. Frequent shelling in this zone between the two South Asian neighbours has not only made this beautiful valley largely inaccessible to visitors, but also to the Dard Shin villagers who have had to flee their homes on the many occasions when hostilities between India and Pakistan spike.

The Dard Shins are believed to be the descendants of the early Aryan settlers who arrived more than two thousand years ago. References to them can be traced back to the writings of Herodotus.

Easily one of the most beautiful parts of the Kashmir valley, Gurez was a favourite spot for Jawaharlal Nehru and his daughter Indira Gandhi. It is a land once renowned for its art and legends, where a mountain is named after the medieval poet Habba Khatoon.

The valley has a rich farming tradition, being the floodplains of the Kishanganga river that cuts through its length. In recent times, however, India and Pakistan have been in a race to harness the power of the Kishanganga. India had plans to construct a 103 metre hydroelectric power project on the river, which would have flooded major parts of the valley and forced residents to relocate, abandoning their homes. Due to stiff resistance from the Dards and also from Pakistan, which is constructing another dam downstream, the revised proposal has been for a 37 metre dam, set for completion in 2016. The Dard Shins are still worried that though the construction will temporarily bring work and money to the villagers, around 2000 of them will be homeless when the project is complete and much of their multicrop agricultural land will be submerged. There is growing concern that the dam and the resultant dislocation will jeopardise the survival of the cultural heritage of the Dards and their distinctive language, Shina.

The Plight of Kashmir's Dards
A Dard woman in front of her traditional home in Kotwali village in upper Gurez valley. The life of the Dard Shins is centered around agriculture and livestock.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Plight of Kashmir's Dards
A Dard teenager in a playful mood. Most children attend school and the literacy rate is about 64 percent.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Plight of Kashmir's Dards
The Dard Shins have been a tight-knit community for generations. Now they worry that dislocation will destroy their social and familial patterns.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Plight of Kashmir's Dards
Gurez children carrying firewood for their homes. The Dard Shins utilize indigenous knowledge to use the wood of the valley as fuel in a sustainable way.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Plight of Kashmir's Dards
The Dards have traditionally used local wood to make household furniture. They fear that the submersion of the land after the construction of the dam will mean a loss of this forest land and their cultural heritage of fine woodcraft.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Plight of Kashmir's Dards
A Dard Shin couple working in their fields in the post harvest season.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Plight of Kashmir's Dards
The floodplains of Kishanganga river, irrigated by glacial snowmelt, make Gurez valley a rich agricultural region with multiple crop patterns.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Plight of Kashmir's Dards
The meandering waters of the Kishanganga, the lifeline of the ancient valley, are expected to lose much of their volume once the hydroelectric power project is completed. The impact on the farming practices of the people of the valley will be profound.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Plight of Kashmir's Dards
The proposed hydroelectric power project in the fragile Himalayan zone is likely to increase the risk of seismic activity. The resultant earthquakes could be large enough to destroy the vernacular log huts of the Dards.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Plight of Kashmir's Dards
Modern devices like satellite televisions are now seen in some Dard Shin homes. They are mostly run on solar power and the villagers are not keen to replace this traditional source of energy with that of hydroelectric power generated by the proposed project.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Plight of Kashmir's Dards
Mohammed Aslam Khan, who has never before seen a traveller in his part of the world, in front of his traditional log home in Burnoi village in Tilail, at the farthest north of the valley.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Plight of Kashmir's Dards
A Dard Shin shepherd family inside their home.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
The Plight of Kashmir's Dards
Two little girls on their way to school, a few kilometers away from the Line of Control.
Image Credit: Sugato Mukherjee
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