by Zameer Abbas
In the spring of 2009, Syed Yahya Shah came to see me, a budding government official, in Gilgit. We were working on his citation for a certain award. Our first meeting panned out to much more than the award recommendation. He talked about sectarianism and the narrow interpretation of Islam for nominal gains by the clergy. Gilgit was then reeling under what’s popularly known as ‘tension’ or sectarian violence. His criticism of those fanning the violence in the name of religion was unusually fresh and thought-provoking. He believed those who peddled hate speeches did it for power and self-aggrandizement and never for any ideological reckoning. In his view, there was no room for such thinking but then masses had been bewitched into believing it.
I soon got transferred and the award recommendation never materialized even though he never needed any award as in the words of Mushtaq Yusufi “all wordily things well done carry an inherent award in themselves”. As we will see, Yahya sahib created innumerable awards for himself in the 85-years life.
The first and last meeting with him was a unique learning experience. His exuberance for reformist thinking, passion for the development of the ordinary people and weariness of obscurantist and reactionary views was palpable for everyone who met him.
One kept hearing of his pioneering initiatives in fish farming, drinking water schemes, irrigation channels, community-controlled hunting programme, women development and much more.
His pranks about the regressive religious forces in his native Nagar district, in particular, and playful commentary about the rest of the Gilgit-Baltistan, in general, are etched in everyone’s memory who knew him directly or indirectly. This was in addition to his political struggle against the power of the Mirs and Rajgi system.
Aga Yahya, as he was popularly known across GB, was born in Minapin village of district Nagar in 1936. For further education, he came to High School No. 1 Gilgit and then Edwards College Peshawar. He remained associated with development organizations such as IUCN and AKRSP mainly focusing on rural development programs. His groundbreaking contribution was duly acknowledged by the international organizations in terms of awards.
Aga Yahya, true to the words of Emerson, had realized it very early that “envy is ignorance and imitation is suicide” and a man must toil on that portion of the universe that has been granted to him. He lived his life fully and left behind a treasure trove of books about various subjects related to history, religion, development and wildlife conservation. In the words of Aristotle, “there is no experience which can be separated from right living” and it can be said that Aga Sahib knew it to the core. His life was defined by living out of the comfort zone, challenging the status quo and rebelling against the deep-seated reactionary forces of the society. In an age when regressive thinking rules the roost, Aga Sahib was a courageous voice living out and supporting forward-thinking, enlightenment and development without falling victim to the prejudices of regionalism, sectarianism and gender bias. Among his friends and acquaintances, anecdotes are rife reflecting his understanding of the surroundings. Asked about his political opponent, a religious orthodox from Nagar, he is reported to have said: “I am fighting against a huge stone blocking my way”. Once Aga Sahib predicted his chances of winning an election in the words that “Agar pathar vote dengay to mera mukhalif jeetay ga, agar log vote dengay to main jeetunga” (if stones vote my opponent will win, but if humans vote, I am the winner). His metaphor for regressive elements in society was too obvious to ignore in his behaviour.
In his passing Gilgit-Baltistan has lost a sane, reformist and pluralistic voice.
In the words of Ghalib “haq maġhfirat kare ajab āzād mard thā” (May God bless the man. He dared to be free). He passed away on April 11, 2021, and leaves behind six daughters and a son.
Zameer Abbas is a civil servant from Gilgit Baltistan and tweets @zameer_abbas