In July, this writer was part of a four-member delegation from Gilgit-Baltistan (the ‘Northern Areas’) that travelled 1,500 km to reach Srinagar to attend the first ‘intra-Kashmir dialogue’ of its kind to have happened in 57 years. Courtesy of the Jammu & Kashmir Government, the participants got a visa extension and permission to visit Kargil, another 203 km from Srinagar. It thus took four days and 1700 km of road travel to reach Kargil from Balitstan. The direct road would have taken no more than four hours, but that route remains closed since 1948, prey to the larger animosity of India-Pakistan which has everything to do with the Kashmiris and nothing to do with the people of Gilgit-Baltistan or Kargil-Leh. The distance from Skardu, capital of Baltistan, to Kargil town is all of 173 km. There is a stone wall built over the pre-existing road where it meets the Line of Control, a barrier which has kept 7000 families apart now for nearly six decades now. This barrier has held this culturally rich and resource-laden mountain region hostage for much too long. It is time to open the Skardu-Kargil road and to let an innocent peoples enjoy their birthright of visiting each other, to begin with. Everything else will flow from this one humanitarian act of correcting a historical wrong. The peace dividend will include renewed tourism, an energised economy far beyond these steep valleys, and a confidence built on the fact that a people and landscape have been united once again, whatever may be the designation of the frontier on the ground.
Buried under the rubble of the Kashmir conflict lies a treasure strove of the Southasian mountain complex. The high Himalaya-Karakoram is to be found not in ‘Kashmir proper’ but in the cross-frontier fastness stretch from Kargil-Leh on the ‘Indian’ side to Gilgit-Baltistan on the ‘Pakistani’ side. These rugged highlands cover a vast area of 145,565 sq km of the 222, 230 sq km of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu & Kashmir. Populated by Buddhist and Muslim populations speaking a mixture of tongues, this sparsely populated region is woven by common geography, history and cultural values.
But the 1947 Partition created the LoC as an impenetrable division and the people on the two sides have suffered in silence since as larger geo-strategic considerations in New Delhi and Islamabad made mere pawns out of them. Today, as the two states gingerly proceed with their détente process, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan and Leh-Kargil are holding their breath and hoping that it will also touch their own lives. More than anything, they are waiting to see if the road between Kargil and Skardu, and also one between Khaplu and Leh, will be flung open to allow them to once again be with their own kind. If the road between Srinagar and Muzzaffarabad in ‘Kashmir proper’, in the very centre of the conflict, could be unbolted, ask the normally laid back and ‘passive’ people of Gilgit-Baltistan and Leh-Kargil, why not us? The Srinagar-Muzzafarabad link provides all the precedent that is needed.
Historically, Gilgit-Baltistan and Leh-Kargil (Ladakh) were never a willing part of what came to be known as Jammu and Kashmir. For nearly 900 years, from the middle of the 10th century, Ladakh was an independent kingdom, its ruling dynasties descended from the kings of old Tibet. Perhaps due its political stability, the region evolved as a reliable trade route between India, the Orient and Central Asia, with the high passes and open valleys traversed by caravans carrying textiles, spices, raw silk, carpets, dyes, narcotics and what not. Notwithstanding rugged terrain and apparent remoteness, merchants, explorers, spies and soldiers traversed the region. Attracted by its economic importance, the Dogra rajas from the southern hills decided to extend their hegemony over the region, and they had subjugated all the major valleys by 1846. The Dogras subdivided the region into two wizarats (districts), placing Hunza, Nagar, Ashkoman and some tribal areas under the Gilgit Wizarat, while Ladakh and Baltistan came under the Ladakh Wizarat.
Worried about the possibility of foeign interference, the British acquired Gilgit Wizarat in 1935 on lease for a 60 year period from the Maharaja of Kashmir. Sensing an opportunity for self-rule as the British withdrew in 1947, the people of Gilgit and Baltistan revolted. But after a brief period of independence, the local rulers invited Pakistan to take control of the region. The Pakistan Government did so, but the hopes among people that they would become a part of the federation with equal political rights have remained unfulfilled to this day. Meanwhile, the cross-border people have seen a redefinition of their traditional space. India lost to China 37,555 sq km of Ladakh’s Aksaichin region during the 1962 border war. Meanwhile, Pakitsan is said to have ceded to China a 5180 sq km area in the Shamshal area of Gilgit.
The fact is that neither Ladakh nor the Gilgit-Baltistan are ‘Kashmiri’. The locals do not eat, dress or speak like the Kashmiri, and have much more in common with each other in every way in terms of culture and sensibility than with Srinagar valley or Azad Kashmir. The people of Ladakh and Gilgit-Balitistan have been dragged unwillingly into the Kashmir conflict, the major continuous flashpoint of Southasia, simply because a confluence of geography and history brought them under the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
After Partition, as part of what became the state of J & K, Ladakh has representation in India’s Parliament and in the State Assembly in Srinagar. Meanwhile, Gilgit-Baltistan were given the ambiguous title ‘Northern Areas’, and brought under the direct control of Islamabad. Administered directly through the Ministry of Kashmir & Northern Areas, the people of the region do not have an empowered representative body to call their own, locally or in Islamabad. The million plus population living in the 72,500 sq km area of Gilgit-Baltistan remain abandoned – subtext to a possible final resolution on Kashmir. After Partition, both Ladakh and the Northern Areas have struggled for attention from New Delhi and Islamabad, respectively. But the mountain-dwelling people were no match to the urbane and aware Kashmiris. While representation has made a difference as far as the people of Ladakh are concerned, the people of Gilgit-Baltistan do not even have that.
Roads and glaciers
Before 1947, the road to Gilgit-Baltistan was through Srinagar. In 1966, Pakistan’s Army Corps of Engineers began work on the 840 km Karakoram Highway from near Islamabad to a height of 4800 m on the Khunjerab Pass and the Chinese border. The all-weather road connection between Islamabad and Giglit was eventually completed in 1978 with liberal assistance from China. Later, the link was extended to Skardu – the capital of Baltistan. Today, under an agreement, bonafide residents of the Northern Areas have visa-free unlimited access to the Sinkiang Province of China. The KM has brought with it trade, economic, social and – above all – political awareness.
The people on both sides of the LoC have borne the brunt of wars between Pakistan and India, in 1948, 1965, 1971 and 1999 Kargil. Ironically, the fight over the Siachen Glacier and the Kargil heights has proved a kind of blessing for the local inhabitants. The needs of the military have pushed infrastructural and socio-economic development, and the roads, airports, school, and hospitals built to serve the soldiers have served the purpose of locals as well. The high military stakes have led to improvements in communications, education, health and other social services for the poor and alienated mountain communities. It is also true that most likely neither New Delhi nor Islamabad would have bothered with these remote outposts if they had not been entangled in Siachen and Kargil. However, the locals are quick to point out, the advantages of peace far outweigh the modest benefits achieved by hanging on to the coat-tails of the military.
Conservationists and mountaineers have been lobbying for the entire Siachen area to be declared a trans-boundary peace park, and this is music to the ears of the people of Skardu and Kargil (see Himal December 98, article by Hanish Kapadia). The idea is to conserve the outstanding natural heritage and highly prized glacial ecosystem, amd promote low impact eco-tourism which will help improve the lives of the local communities. The peace park will also provide a fine exit strategy for the two armies, whose soldiers have been dying among the snowcapped peaks from altitude sickness and frost bite. Islamabad is presently playing down the down the park proposal as it believes that the price of holding on to Siachen is higher for India. Nevertheless, the melting of the ice in bilateral relations leaves the hope that a Siachen Peace Park may be considered seriously before long. If the voice of the local people were to be heard, it would happen even earlier.
Radio Pakistan Skardu is a popular means of information and entertainment for thousands of Balti- and Shina-speaking families stranded in Kargil and Ladakh. Similarly Ladakhi poets, musicians and artist are popular in Gilgit-Baltistan. All that India and Pakistan have to do to unify the spirit of the divided people is to remove the stone wall built across the road where it intersects the LoC in the Kharmang valley. This act of demolition would revive the 192 km all-weather road between Skardu and Kargil along the Indus river valley. This would be the beginning of the peace dividend, and before long, the ubiquitous ‘cross-border terrorism’ would be replaced by ‘cross-border tourism’.
Ladakh and Gilgit-Baltistan command a spectacular mountain presence. Sandwiched between four awesome mountain ranges – the Himalaya, Karakoram, Hindukush and Pamir – the region contains the highest number of above-7000 m peaks in the world. The countries that converge here are China, Pakistan, India and Tajikistan. The Indus flows from Ladakh through the Northern Areas before moving south to the Punjab plains. In the headwaters are the world’s largest glaciers outside the two poles, including the Siachen.
Baltistan’s enchanting meadows, plateaus, lakes, rivers, passes, valleys, glaciers and mountains hold tremendous promise for adventure tourism, including climbing, trekking and white-water rafting. The reopened road would merge Baltistan’s enchantment with the cultural heritage of Ladkah, the Tibetan Buddhist mecca which already attracts more than 40,000 Western tourists a year. The road would also provide pilgrims direct access to various shrines and religious relics in this region precious to Buddhist, Muslims and Hindus. The great saint Sayed Ali Hamadani, who brought Islam to Kashmir and is popularly known as Shah-e-Hamadan, is buried in Katlan near the Tajikistan border.
The Skardu-Kargil road would actually link the two most peaceful areas on both sides of the LoC. Other than the disaster that was the Kargil conflict, Gilgit-Baltistan and Leh-Kargil have been spared the violence that has plagued Srinagar valley and other areas of the erstwhile J & K. The much-hyped Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service, which seeks to reconcile the most troubled parts of Kashmir, has rekindled hopes of the forgotten communities that perhaps they too could look forward to an open road and a bus service. In fact, India and Pakistan have agreed on principle to open the Kargil-Skardu road, but there has been no on-ground progress. There is growing resentment, which plumbs the depths of neglect over the last six decades, that the few morsels of peace dividend have all gone to the Srinagar valley and Muzaffarbad.
During his recent June 2005 visit to Kargil and Siachen, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reiterated New Delhi’s intention to reach a formal agreement with Islamabad on the road to Skardu. Gen Pervez Musharraf in his meeting with the BJP’s LK Advani in May 2005 also seemed to understand the need and rationale. More than anyone else, it is the people here who hope the two countries will capitalise on what Gen Musharraf had called the “fleeting moment” of history that will not recur.
While unbolting the Kargil-Skardu route may provide tremendous opportunities for trade and tourism, and help cement détente in Southasia, in essence it is a level humanitarian issue. Take the case of Habiba Khatoon of Kargil. She had been married for four years, with two children, when India was partitioned. Her husband was stranded in Kharmang on the other side, near Skardu. After years, realising that he might never be able to make it back, her husband proposed a divorce but Habiba did not allow it. Instead, she had a window built in her house opening towards the road to Skardu. For decades, she spent her daylight hours waiting for the day her husband would come up the road. Her hopes unfulfilled, Habiba passed away last year. She might be gone, but there are many more wives, husbands and siblings awaiting reunification. They wait for New Delhi and Islamabad to see the light, and not to hold them hostage to the dictates of the Kashmir dispute.