Shandur Polo Festival: Imperialism and the VIPs

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Shandur polo festival is a major event that the locals of Chitral and Gilgit Baltistan wait for the whole year to enjoy and to welcome guests from different parts of the world. Unfortunately, over the last few years, this event has become very suffocating for the locals due to the imperialist mindset that has been put in the administration of the event. Shandur belongs to the locals but the administration of Shandur polo festival totally degrades and exterminates the locals of Gilgit and Chitral. There is an explicit VIP culture that is vividly expressed throughout the event. It is a shame that none of the locals or very few can fulfil this very idea of VIP and rest are pushed away from the administration and even watching the games. This open segregation of the locals and the VIPs coming from downtown who belong to specific families in the high offices and military is an open joke with the people who have carried this festival with them over hundreds of years. It is widely said that the people of the north are very hospitable and humble, but in the current situation, these very qualities have to lead to a power discourse which the administration has used to totally suppress the local in every possible way. If it is about the hospitality, we, the people of the north, never discriminate among our guests rather every guest who comes to our land is equally respected irrespective of their power and wealth. This very idea of introducing VIP culture is against our cultural norms and traditions, but the administration has been blind towards it.

When you enter Shandur during the polo festival, you will see an area of camps that are specifically called the VIP camping site. This area is wired to keep away the non-VIPS or the locals and has full security around the camping area as if it is some battleground where the security must protect the elites. The locals are advised to camp anywhere outside this circle and are not given any of the facilities. On the other hand, this VIP area has a number of washrooms, water tapes, kitchen facilities and much more. This clear exclusion of the locals in providing facilities must make the administration think that the festival is alive because of them who have opened their home and hearts for the outsiders and they deserve a tiny amount of the budget to provide some facilities like washrooms and water in their camping sites as well, but the imperialist mindset would not consider the locals to be good enough to be cared for. This mindset goes back to the colonial era where such desperate segregations were made by the Goras and were totally legitimized considering the locals to be treated in a degraded way. It is no different than the mission civillisatrice of the 15th- 20th century when indigenous people were dominated mentally and physically by the colonial powers. This is the mindset that prevails in our post-colonial society even today while overthrowing the beautiful indigenous thought process of the locals which is based on respect and equality for humans. In fact, such an approach of domination and deprivation of the locals is very similar to the white man’s burden of 1899 except that the burden is on the high officials of the country and their families.

On the day of final, I witnessed that hundreds of locals were not allowed entry into the VIP seating area although they had some invitation cards with them. They were told there are special VIP cards that you must take with you to be able to sit on certain seating. Some of the security members were extremely rude to the locals although the security people belonged to lower towns. All the family members of the high official got through the security like kings and queens, while the families of the polo players and other notables among the locals were thrown out. I was personally told by a security person that “I must listen to his order” to which of course I protested but it was of no use. This form of coercion of the security people while coming to our own land reminds me of the Chitrali proverb “Berio khalaw giti duro khalawo daler”. On our way back, we were stopped for twenty minutes because some VIPs were to leave Shandur. We were stopped on the roads because our vehicle was too close to the VIPs’ cars. We had to reach Mastuj to catch another vehicle and this kind of crazy protocol to disturb the locals is a shame for the so-called VIPs.

Shandur polo festival is one of the national and international events where the northern areas can show their culture to the rest of the world. The atmosphere that is built in Shandur depicts zero reflection of the culture as the content of the speeches and commentary has to show nationalistic dominance and violence. The parachute performers and motor gliders are up in the sky and the commentator talks about the brave jawans taking over the world and they use all the military poetry that is available. You will see no difference between the Shandur festival commentary and the defence day commentary on the 23rd of March. This is not even close to how a person who knows about the culture of Chitral or Gilgit would talk about things. We are all accepting and proud of our jawans fighting for this nation, but I think that such indigenous festivals should be forgiven of this hegemonic discourse and let the local language and sense of love and prosperity speak instead. Similarly, all the chief guests and special guests coming to watch these games are always high officials; which is fine but at times the great polo players like Arastu, Bulbul Jan, etc. should also be acknowledged as chief guests in Shandur because they are the most relevant important personalities for this event.

One of the hypes that are attached with the Shandur polo festival is that it brings tourism and business opportunities. Indeed, it does; but unfortunately, the locals again do not get a tiny bit of this benefit. The VIPs are facilitated by the giants of Chitral in their hotels and as tour guides. The locals of Laspur and Chitral cannot even open shops in Shandur because of the administrative hurdles. I, along with other local university friends from Chitral and Gilgit, wanted to do a small business of marketing in Shandur but it took us a whole week to get a NOC that literally limited us to a stall. If university students cannot find their way around of doing business in Shandur, how do we expect the locals to benefit from the business opportunities? I attended a business conference on the second day of Shandur and it was funny to see that there was no representation of the locals. These big heads need to empower the local entrepreneurs instead of arranging such events where the locals are just the ones who clap for the national departments. I heard of a protest organized by locals against this exploitation of their land and resources but it was of no use. Shortly, all the benefit the locals get from this event is the dust and dirt that is left behind.

The final aspect of imperialism that is the most dangerous is that the administration gives zero damn about the environment and wildlife of Shandur. It is a mere exploitation of our land where a show is put up for the VIPs and once they leave, nobody cares about the garbage and dirt that people leave behind. It is important to note that Shandur is a pasture where the locals take their cattle for months and they live there. I saw cows eating plastic right after the event as we were voluntarily cleaning the area through Chitral Heritage and Environmental Protection Society (CHEPS). There are tons and tons of plastic bottles, bags and much more that will take years to degrade and the administration does not care about it. The cows and goats of the locals will eat these remains and many of them are reported to die because of these environmental hazards. We often forget that Shandur is not a place of enjoyment, rather we share this space with the wildlife there which directly or indirectly suffer from our anthropogenic attitude. One of the most disappointing activities that have been put in Shandur festival is the fancy firework which costs a huge ton of money. This activity has no connection with our traditions and it is quite dangerous for the region because the resonance from the loud sound of the firework can cause in the breakdown of glaciers. The loud sound of firework is also very discomforting for the horses and other cattle that are present in the vicinity. I was sitting with some of the polo players this year when the firework was going on and they were really concerned that their horses would be afraid and flee their assigned places. The point is that this budget of firework can really be used for the post-event cleanliness drive if the administration is not willing to assign a separate budget for environmental care.

This whole article might be a useless cry or to make it more relevant, it can be “khanchtu birmogh ulek”, but these are the sentiments of the locals about the VIP culture in Shandur festival. We demand that the 4 crore rupees that are assigned for this event by the tourism department should be used to make the seating and camping facilities better and equal for all and there should be no VIP spaces. The organization of the event must be in close coordination with the local people to give a better taste of the festival that belongs to the northern areas. The business opportunities must benefit the locals and they should not have to face all the hurdle of NOC and paperwork. The care for the environment of Shandur must be kept at high priority as this place should be saved for generations to come. We, Chitralis and Gilgitis, want this event to happen with more zeal and celebration and we are more than happy to have guests come to visit us in Shandur, but all of this must not come at the cost of degrading the locals and imposing VIP culture on us on our own land. We have a culture that is based on love and equality for all human beings irrespective of their financial background or status. If these demands are not taken into consideration, the last option we would be left with is the boycott of the festival which we do not want at any cost and we hope that these points will be taken into consideration in Shandur festival next year and other festivals of similar nature.

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