Pakistani migration patterns have principally been analysed either in relation to integration and social cohesion in European countries, or in the context of international migration to the Gulf states. There has been little attention to internal migration in Pakistan. In the studies that have been carried out, migrants have been perceived as labour migrants, pushed out from their rural environments due to economic hardship and landlessness, or pulled by actual or supposed opportunities in Karachi and in the cities of Punjab. Whereas present day internal migration patterns in Pakistan have largely evolved since Partition in 1947, there has been little emphasis on how this reshaping of the political landscape has impacted migration dynamics. I will here, based on fieldwork carried out in Thalay, a mountain valley in Baltistan, and among Balti migrants in Karachi, examine the relationship between Pakistani state-building and Balti migration practices.

Baltistan is a high altitude mountain area, covering some 25,000 square kilometres and situated in the Karakorum Mountains. Classified as a mountain desert, with subsistence farming contingent on access to glacial melt water for irrigation, the scarceness of the local resource base has historically curtailed the number of people that the land can support. Early western explorers of the late 19th century referred to the local population as ‘overflowing’, and described chance encounters with Balti migrants [en route to Simla], ‘…clothed in filthy and scanty rags, and of a half-starved appearance’ (Knight, 1905). Since then, the Balti population has tripled, to approximately 300,000 in 2000, with the local population increasingly forced to look beyond the region for means of subsistence.

At the same time, the Balti room for manoeuvre has changed dramatically since 1947. Baltistan is part of the disputed territory of Kashmir, and is located immediately north of the Line of Control dividing Pakistani and Indian-held Kashmir. Due to the ongoing conflict over Kashmir, the Balti population has seen its traditional routes of trade and migration to southern Kashmir cut. Instead, a physical and political infrastructure has emerged that construes Baltistan as an integrated part of Pakistan (though never officially recognised as such).

Most significantly, however, an all-year access route was constructed through the Indus Gorge in the early 1980s, linking the regional capital of Skardu to the Karakorum Highway and the Pakistani plains. A route previously only rarely used, as it passed through territory controlled by Sunni Muslim tribes (the Baltis are Shi’is and Nurbakshis), this has become a lifeline, providing food supplies from down country and a way out for Balti labour migrants who leave during the bitterly cold winter period. This seasonal migration is a recurring move which most households in the valley engage in, typically heading towards the regional centre of Gilgit, an eight hour bus journey away, or to coal mines in northern Punjab. Going away over winter thus becomes part of a subsistence cycle, solidly integrated in the totality of things to do to make a living.

Less recognisable, and only indirectly part of a subsistence strategy, are the long-term moves away from the mountain region – mostly to Karachi, home to an estimated 8 to 10 per cent of the Balti population. Seen from the mountain villages, the moves were explained as long-term investments. Young men would go to Karachi for educational purposes, in order to qualify for a job in government service on their return. The prospect of government service is key here, with many using the same metaphor: “A private job is like the snow; when it is melted, it is over. A government job is a fountain; it lasts forever.” “Forever” translated into the certainty of a monthly salary, a significant lump sum payable upon retirement, and a modest monthly pension. Pensioners – retired from the army or from government service – were living proof of the ‘fountain’. But unemployed graduates were aplenty in the valley, waiting for vacant positions.

The picture looked somewhat different among Balti migrants in Karachi. “You finish studies, you go home, that’s the system,” was how Ali, a migrant from Thalay, explained it to me. Except, he didn’t. 26 years old, Ali had moved to Karachi eight years prior. After finishing his studies, he had been working as a typist, living in shared accommodation with other migrants from Thalay. The pressure was on, however. Like most Balti migrants in Karachi, Ali had married during a visit back home, and his wife and baby son were now living in his father’s house.

Ali would eventually go back to Thalay and take up the job in government service that his father – with good connections and a solid bribe – had secured for him. Others would be in a similar situation, torn between expectations from home and opportunities in a now familiar urban context. “What is there for me to do there?” was what many would argue. Altogether, two-thirds of the 32 Balti migrants I interviewed in Karachi had spent more than ten years in the city, and most of them had eventually moved their families to the city.

But Balti migration to Karachi cannot be reduced to the sum of individual trajectories of return or consolidation. It is also in Karachi – at a distance from the villages and valleys that constitute the primary points of identification – that the idea of Baltistan as a political entity is emerging. Protesting against a status quo where Baltistan is controlled by Pakistan without the Baltis being accepted as Pakistani citizens, immigrants from Baltistan have demonstrated against Pakistani domination and in favour of closer ties with Ladakh, in Indian-held Kashmir.

In conclusion, the mechanisms of Pakistani state-building have clearly impacted the nature of, and motivations behind, Balti migration practices – to the point where these mechanisms are being questioned. So whereas the initial move to Karachi would seem driven by an ambition to avail oneself of livelihood opportunities brought about by the Pakistani state-building process, it is also here, at a distance from Baltistan, that questions emerge concerning Baltistan’s place within the Pakistani state.


Knight, E. F. (1905) Where Three Empires Meet, London: Spottiswoode & Co.

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