Locals seek reopening of 150-km road to Skardu
Zakir Hussain vividly remembers his last visit to Skardu in Baltistan to meet his relatives, displaced after 1965 Indo-Pak war. His eyes lit up the moment he talks about his three month stay in Skardu in 2008.
A Government teacher, Zakir recalls the reunion with his relatives and the long conversations they shared every evening during his stay there.
“Most of our relatives live there. The reunion though short was very emotional. I was accompanied by my mother and we enjoyed every moment of our stay,” says young Zakir.
Like Zakir, scores of families in Kargil are separated from their kin living in Baltistan and Gilgit. But every family is not lucky to have visited their relations.
25-year Ahmad Hussain from Hardas has known about his uncle’s family in Gilgit only through discussions with his parents. Hussain’s, an economically weak family, has never travelled to Gilgit.
“My heart beats to meet my uncle’s family and other relatives on that side. I have never seen them,” a shy-looking Hussain says.
Almost every village of this landlocked district of Ladakh region is inhabited by families displaced due to the hostilities between India and Pakistan.
The Balti Bazaar in main Kargil town has come up as home to this displaced population. “There are at least 64 displaced families with population of around 1500 souls. Their relatives including brothers, sisters and grandparents live across in Baltistan and Gilgit,” says Muhammad Yusuf, booth level officer of the area.
In outer Kargil, village after village like Karkit, Badogam, Lattu, Hardas, Handermoh, nestled in lofty mountains, are inhabited by these families.
“Around 1300 such families live in Hardas and another 40 families in Karkit,” says Mukhtar Zahid of Karkit, another Government employee. “In entire Kargil including Zanaskar and Drass the number of such families will be around 4000 to 5000.”
The closure of the Kargil-Skardu road after 1948 resulted in displacement of vast population on either side of the border. The tragedy grew worse in 1965 and 1971.
The long divide has now left the divided families shattered in the Shiite dominated Kargil. In one village a son yearns to meet his father who got displaced to Skardu. In another village wait by a wife to see his displaced family in Gilgit has only grown longer.
“We have been pleading for many years that the Kargil-Skardu road should be opened for normal traffic to allow the reunion of displaced people,” said Zahid. “People have died waiting for the road to be opened. But nothing has changed.”
The 150-Km Kargil-Skardu road was part of the famous “Silk Route” which connected Kashmir with Yarqand, Kashgar and other central Asian commercial capitals.
Relatives living on either side of this route, which once buzzed with business activities, would travel frequently to visit each other. However, the partition and subsequent Indo-Pak wars gave rise to human tragedy in shape of the displaced population who despite no hope, continue to wait for the road to open one day.
In Kargil the historically important road takes off at around five-kilometers short of the main town across the Suru River and is connected with the highway by the “Harkh Bahadur Bridge”.
Kharul, comprising of six households is the only village situated on the ancient route, running parallel to Suru. Less than 10 km in length from the bridge up to the border point on Kargil side, the road is motorable. Army vehicles ply on it to carry food and other supplies for their men stationed on the border facing Brolmoh, the first village on the Pakistan side.
“The road is already there. The Governments of India and Pakistan have only to announce its opening which can end our sufferings,” says 65-year old Jaffer Hussain, a smalltime businessman from Kharul.
In 2005 when Indian and Pakistani guns fell silent on the LoC after the 1999 Kargil war, the former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on his visit to Kargil talked about the proposal his government had taken up with Islamabad for opening the Kargil-Skardu road.
“That time we saw a hope that the old connections will be revived,” said Jaffer.
But the ever growing hostilities between India and Pakistan saw the proposal getting shelved. In absence of any consensus between New Delhi and Islamabad to open the road, the divided families of this district are left at the mercy of the State Government and security agencies for permission to travel across the LoC.
“You are a lucky person if you get permission to visit your relatives in Baltistan or Gilgit,” says Jaffer. “The process to secure the travel documents has been made so complicated that most of the people give it up halfway.”
Post 1947, Jaffer says the Kargil-Skardu was completely shut for any human traffic. “It is so ironical that we are not allowed to take this road to travel across the divide even after securing proper permission. The only way we can visit the other side is either through Wagah border or New Delhi-Islamabad route,” sighs Muzaffar Hussain of Hardas. He has only twice visited his relatives in Gilgit after 1971 war.
But the travel via Wagah and New Delhi is quite expensive and cumbersome for most of the middle class and low income families.
“Such unfortunate people have no option but to live the harsh reality of the separation,” says Hussain.
Asgar Ali Karbalai, Chief Executive Councilor of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC) Kargil, said they have umpteen times taken up with the Government of India the opening of the Kargil-Skardu road. “It is the most peaceful route with no history of any security related incident. But unfortunately there has been no progress as both India and Pakistan are unwilling to take the step,” he said.
Undeterred by the cold response from both the countries, a group of youth in Kargil, joined by their brethren in Baltistan and Gilgit, have launched a joint campaign on the social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, seeking opening of the road.
“We started this campaign to create awareness across India and Pakistan about the sufferings of the divided families and the need for opening this route,” said Mukthar Zahid. “The movement is growing day-by-day. The aim is to create the pressure on India and Pakistan to take the long awaited Confidence Building Measure.”