Drastic progress has been made across the world in the past two centuries, in terms of education, technology and economy. Despite their struggle with issues that negatively impact society, developed economies have been at the forefront of this advancement. For instance, in 2022, the crime rate per 1,000 people in the UK was 79.2. According to Russell Contreras, the justice and race reporter at Axios, 387.8 violent crimes (murder, rape, robbery) per 100,000 inhabitants in the US were reported, in the same year.
Even with generally high literacy rates and enormous financial, technical and human resources, the world’s leading nations have been unable to significantly reduce crime rate. So although it seems implausible that there exists a region with almost zero crime rate, an anomaly does exist, and that too in a developing country such as ours.
Located in northern Pakistan, Baltistan boasts of beautiful valleys and mountains including the famous K2, the second highest mountain in the world. Comprising Skardu, Shigar, Kharmang and Ghanche, Baltistan’s total area is 31,000 km2 and the population is 303,214. During 2009-2021, negligible crime rate was reported here. In Ghanche, that has a population of 160,000, no crime was reported during 2007-2017. “The crime rate here is quite negligible,” confirms chief of police Jan Muhammad in Nisar Ali’s report in the April 14, 2021 edition of Arab News. Ghanche has not seen an armed robbery or serious crime such as murder in the past decade and the last reported murder took place some 15 years ago.
Baltistan isn’t coincidentally a safe region. It’s because of some particular factors that this region gets to enjoy its safe-place reputation. A number of psychological theories may be used to explain why the crime rate is low in Baltistan.
History and geography
Since centuries, Baltistan comprises small, independent valley states connected by blood relations of its rulers or rajas, trade, common beliefs, and cultural and linguistic bonds. During the 14th century, Muslim scholars from Kashmir crossed Baltistan’s mountainous terrain to spread Islam. By the end of the 17th century, the Noorbakhshi Sufi order and the Shia Islamic faith became dominant. The Twelver Shia Muslims comprise over 90% of the Skardu’s population, while the Noorbakhshis make the majority in Khaplu. Religious ideology and cultural traditions are strong among the tight knit communities of Baltistan comprising mainly of Twelver Shia Islamic and Sufi Noorbakhshi backgrounds, with a minor presence of Sunni Muslims.
Landlocked between two mighty mountain ranges such as the Himalayas and Karakorum, the region is only open to the outer world for three months in summer. In the 1960s, with the construction of a jeep road and subsequently better road infrastructure, the region saw a major exposure to the outside world and an influx of domestic and international tourists.
Rich Balti culture
The Baltis enjoy a rich culture of sword, broqchhos, yakkha and ghazal dances. When a raja gets married, the sneopa, a marriage-procession dance is performed by pachones or twelve wazirs who accompany the bride.
Indigenous to the Karakoram region, polo is the traditional and a popular sport in Baltistan since the 15th century. The Maqpon rulers introduced it to other valleys during conquests beyond Gilgit and Chitral. A polo competition is regularly held in Baltistan, which reinforces the comunities’ social bond.
Balti architecture has Tibetan and Mughal influences, while its monastic architecture reflects the Buddhist imprint, so Buddhist-style wall paintings adorn forts and Sufi khanqahs. Buddhism is known for tolerance and Sufi and Shia Islamic ideologies are known to be pluralistic and inclusive in their non-violent attitude towards other sects and religions.
A common cultural heritage can nurture and strengthen friendships, enable communities to celebrate their heritage, and provides a safe way to discuss and solve social problems (BetterTogether, 2001). This is how the Baltis have built their social capital, unique ethnic identity, group cohesion and social bonds.
Social bond theory
Travis Hirschi’s social bond theory is a major paradigm in criminology. According to this theory, individuals form social bonds in formal or informal groups, based on attachment, commitment, involvement, and belief. This way they control their behaviour when temptation to become involved in criminal activities arises. Strong identification of natives in social groups helps people to hold a strong belief in their social moral system. This ensures a civilised society where the community as a whole adheres to and safeguards social standards.
The Baltis’ unique ethnic identity and geographical isolation is conducive for them to form strong bonds with family members, relatives and friends. According to Abbas (2021), if someone finds cash, a bag, or a lost wallet in Ghanche, an advertisement is put up or an announcement is made in the mosque to ensure that the lost property is returned to the owner promptly. Often, people leave their homes and shops unlocked because there is no concept of robbery or theft.
Social identity theory
The inclination to not indulge in criminal activities can also be explained by the Social Identity Theory, according to which, collective or social identity is a source of norms of conformity or deviance. A strong belief in the social moral system enables the people of Baltistan to strictly adhere to the norms of conformity so there is a low tendency to engage in deviant behaviour. The harsh terrain and climate reinforce their religious ideology, and the smaller size of their population, and the valley-based community system reinforces their commitment to ethnic and cultural norms.
Basic values and moral foundation theories
Shalom H. Schwartz’s theory of basic values may also be used to explain the low crime rate in Baltistan. Schwartz emphasises the value of conformity to avoid all such behaviours that could harm others and violate norms). A social structure and environment of basic values motivates individuals to behave in a manner approved by their social group and reflects in their behaviours, such as the tendency among the Baltis to refrain from criminal activities. The Shia and Sufi clerics in Baltistan have particularly played a key role in character building of their communities.
Despite some pockets of socio-economic poverty, generally, the Baltis are not greedy by nature and are content with what they have. The value of benevolence-concern for social welfare points at not only their tendency to avoid causing any harm to their community or region, but also to take care of the mountaineers and tourists who visit their region.
Similarly, the moral foundation theory explains the role of moral foundations common across communities and nations. The five moral foundations are: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authority/respect, and purity/sanctity.
People of Baltistan have a strong identification with their region and its unique culture. They consider all inhabitants of their region as their ingroup. Crime always has a victim and, therefore, engaging in crime would tantamount to negatively affecting the ingroup and it would question the ingroup loyalty of the person committing the crime. In the case of Baltistan, we can posit that because of the relatively smaller-sized population, people mostly identify with the same ingroup (i.e., Balti or Shia Muslims) and are stronger on the ingroup/loyalty foundation. This loyalty towards other members of the society acts as a deterrent for crime.
Negative external impact
Baltistan’s low crime rate makes it a brilliant case study to address increasing crime rate not only in the country as well as in other parts of the world. But the fact that the peaceful region is being negatively impacted by external forces must also be taken into consideration. Tourists visiting Baltistan to appreciate its beauty, also bring with them values and behaviours foreign to the Balti population and consequently the low crime rate in Baltistan may be difficult to sustain owing to frequent exposure to non-Balti cultures and visitors. A longitudinal analysis of the impact of tourism on crime rate pattern in Baltistan can be empirically investigated by future researchers.
In order to safeguard the tremendous tourist potential of this beautiful region from the negative external impact, policy makers and law enforcers should pay attention to mitigate the adverse external influences on the region even if it requires novel intervention. Let Baltistan enjoy its reputation of being the safest place to be, a heaven on earth.
Seher Zareen and Muhammad Adbullah are PhD students at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS). Jawad Syed is a professor of organisational behavior and leadership at the same university. All information and facts provided are the sole responsibility of the writers.