Is Shandur disputed?

Is Shandur disputed?

Zar Alam Khan (Originally published in Dawn in 2008)

As the annual Shandur festival draws nearer, a controversy between the Northern Areas (N.As) administration and Chitral over some meadows and pastures on the 10,500-foot-high pass has overshadowed the preparations, threatening even the future of the now worldwide popular event.

The dispute between the locals of Laspur, a valley in Mastuj area of Chitral, and Ghizer district of Gilgit has a long history. But the Northern Areas administration’s claim over the whole Shandur pass cropped up after the polo festival was given official status in 1982 and the event started attracting tourists from all over the world.

Later, the Northern Areas administration unsuccessfully tried to take over the management of the festival from Chitral. The Northern Areas has been claiming that British era `documents’ were ample proof of the demarcation of Shandur area as a boundary between Ghizer and Chitral, wherein the watershed of Shandur Lake had been declared the line separating the two districts.

They say the Langar pastures were already 15 km inside the boundaries of Ghizer; alleging that over a passage of time the Chitral administration and some officials from the NWFP posted in Gilgit attempted to tamper with the documents about the jurisdiction of Shandur. However, `historical facts’ negate such allegation of fudged demarcation. The N.As administration says Ghizer was a part of Gilgit Agency during the British Raj and in 1936 the then British Political Agent of Gilgit Agency, Mr Cobb, constructed the Shandur polo ground. This, they consider as a proof that the land was part of the Gilgit Agency.

Shandur is divided into two parts. On the one side, there are a lake, the polo ground and pasture settlements running east-west for about 10 km along the main road. This area is undisputed property of Chitral. The pasture huts and settlements belong to the people of Laspur in Chitral. The second portion runs south-north and is called Langar or Kukush that had timber forest in the past and was jointly used by the people of Ghizer and Laspur.

According to prominent scholar and researcher Dr Inayatullah Faizi, there has been no controversy over Shandur polo ground, Shandur Lake and the summer pasture of the valley and the area has remained an integral part of Chitral since long. Hundreds of summer huts set up by people from Laspur in Shandur also negate the claim of the people of Northern Areas. In 1959, he says, the number of huts there was 344, which rose to 479 in 2007 and was still growing.

Occasionally, however, there had been some disputes between the people of Laspur and Ghizer over the pasture of Langar which, according to the people of Northern Areas, is located 15 kilometers inside Gilgit borders. As a result, Jirgas of elders and officials of both the sides were held in 1914 and 1959 to work out modalities for grazing cattle in the pasture and for using firewood and timber of the Langar forest, he told ChitralToday. The 1959 Jirga allowed both the people of Laspur and Ghizer to graze their cattle in the pasture.

It, however, specifically allowed the people of Laspur to also use firewood and recognized their right on timber of the forest. However, to contain the growing pace of deforestation in Langar, the Jirga decided that timber would be used for the repair or construction of the summer huts only.

As far as the use of wood to repair the existing huts was concerned, the people of Laspur were allowed to take woods from the forest freely. But for construction of new huts, they were bound to obtain permission to cut wood from the governors of Ghizer and Mastuj of Chitral. The verdict amply negated the claim that Langar pasture was located some 15km inside the boundaries of Gilgit, according to Dr Faizi.

“The second proof that Shandur meadows, lake and the areas were integral part of Chitral and have never been disputed is that in 1914 Shujaul Mulk, the Mehtar (ruler) of the then princely state of Chitral, got constructed a summer palace at the bank of Shandur Lake near Mas Junali (moony polo ground) and a boat was also placed there. The summer palace existed there till 1959, when it collapsed due to poor maintenance. The ruins and rubble can still be seen there.” Dr Faizi also ridicules the claim of the Northern Areas administration that Mr Cobb constructed the Shandur polo ground. He says Mr Cobb was in the area from 1920 to 1937 while the polo ground existed in Shandur even before 1440.

“Col Lockhart visited Shandur in 1876 and mentioned in his report the existence of a polo ground in Shandur,” he says. “Mr Cobb was a polo fan and he used to come to Shandur for playing the game on the invitation of Mehtar of Chitral in moon light. He had nothing to do with the construction of the polo ground in Shandur,” he argues. In 2001, the matter was taken to the ministries of states and frontier region (Safron) and interior. In July 2003, a Jirga was held in Safron, wherein the NWFP government persuaded the ministry that Shandur was an integral part of Chitral. The NWFP government gave three arguments to substantiate its point:

In the Land Commission’s report of 1975, the two polo grounds of Shandur were mentioned as the property of the NWFP government; the summer huts of the people of Laspur and Chitral are present in the meadows of Shandur, and a checkpost of the Frontier Corps (FC) is also located on the pass. About the sudden flare-up in the controversy, some people on both sides of the Shandur pass say it is a handiwork of elements trying to create a rift between the people of Chitral and the Northern Areas. They also point fingers at the Indian lobby for being active behind the controversy.

“Through a conspiracy, the lobby is attempting to expand the Gilgit border westward.” Notwithstanding the causes of the controversy, the dispute would create law and order situation in the region besides badly affecting its growing tourism industry.   (Published in ChitralToday on June 10, 2012).