Emotional attraction across the Border

Emotional attraction across the Border

Capture of villages by Indian Army

  • Thang, one of India’s northern-most villages, situated about 230 km from Leh.
  • This village is annexed with India when the LoC was redrawn after the 1971 India-Pakistan war.
  • Between the midnight of December 14 and December 16, 1971, the Indian Army captured four villages across several hundred square kilometers in the Shyok (which means ‘river of death’) Valley that were part of the Gilgit-Baltistan region in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK).
  • Overnight, a population of about 1,200 in the villages of Turtuk, Thang, Thyaksi and Chalunka were cut off from Baltistan. A region that was part of the Skardu district in Baltistan became a part of Leh district in Ladakh.
  • Thang and Pharnu were twin villages before 1971, with villagers holding property and homes in both.

Physiography

  • Surrounded by the lofty and arid Himalayan mountains, Turtuk, the biggest of the four villages, on the banks of Shyok, offers a breathtaking view of apricot and walnut orchards.
  • During winter, temperatures dip to -20°C and the area remains cut off.
  • Before Independence, these villages, nestled between the Karakoram and Himalayan ranges, maintained close ties with Skardu due to a common language and culture.
  • Their connections with Leh were limited to apricot and walnut trade.
  • The road link to Leh over the Khardung-La (pass) ended at Diskit, about 100 km away.
  • For those travelling by foot, geographically, Turtuk is almost equidistant from Kargil, Leh and Skardu, all trading towns in the famed Silk Route.

Livelihood of these villages

  • They self-sufficient villages.
  • Apricot oil was used in cooking and milk products came from yak or cow.
  • Salt was extracted from the mountain.
  • Wheat and vegetables were grown in villages.
  • Interaction with the civil government was negligible.
  • It was after 1947 that the Baltis in the village came into contact with the Pakistan Army. Many worked as contractors or porters.

Reconnecting of families

  • Many of the family members separated across the border by 1971 war.
  • Until recently, before social media platforms helped reconnect families, communication was next to impossible.
  • Postal letters would reach Turtuk after several months.
  • The first mobile tower in the area was set up in 2012.
  • For some time before social media arrived, people communicated through video messages and family celebrations were shared on flash drives that came through posts.

A demand that remains unmet

  • For over three decades now, the Baltis have been seeking road connectivity between Turtuk and Pharnu that could reunite families, or at least a meeting point where families can get together. This demand has not been met.
  • “Several requests have been made for a road or meeting point. Though the Indian Army is not averse to the idea, the Pakistan Army has been turning down the request, we are told. The least they could do is to get older people to meet their kin. Many have died without fulfilling this dream,” says local peoples.
  • Some of them able to visit their relative across the border through visa, for that they had to travel early 3,000 km, crossing the border at Wagah in Punjab, to meet his parents who lived only a couple of km away from Thang.
  • Unlike the neighbouring Kashmir Valley, armed insurgency has not been reported here. However, during the Kargil War, about 25 men from Turtuk, Thyakshi and Thang, who took their sheep for grazing in higher altitudes, were arrested for having received money and weapons. They were released from jail after two years. “The villagers had accepted the money because they were poor. They abandoned the weapons. We have not had such instances since then,” a local man says.
  • The Baltis say that a lot of the development in the villages took place after the area came under the Indian fold, such as Hospital, school, ration, water, electricity and road etc
  • For the elderly Baltis, development apart, the larger issue is of interactions with relatives across the border. “If trade and interactions can take place at Wagah border in Punjab or between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad, why is it being denied to us,” asks an elderly person at Turtuk.

A thriving culture

  • While families distressed by the separation carry emotional scars, the last five decades have seen the Balti population (now about 3,000) holding on to its culture and tradition.
  • A population that practised Tibetan Buddhism till the 14th century converted to Sufi Islam due to the influence of Hazrat Shah Hamadan from Iran during his second visit to Baltistan in 1383 CE.
  • Navros, the Zoroastrian new year, and the Apricot Blossom festival are celebrated with much pomp along with hard polo games on Zanskari horses in an ancient polo ground at Turtuk.
  • Continuing a centuries-old tradition, the Baltis store butter for decades in ‘natural cold storage’ (a stone structure below the ground).
  • Despite the introduction of Hindi and English in schools, Balti continues to be the language of the people.
  • The Army Goodwill School at Thyakshi remains popular. Hydro-generated power has arrived, and DG sets are used for power supply in winter.
  • After nearly four decades of restricting entry to outsiders, the government now allows tourists into the villages. Turtuk and Thyakshi were opened in 2010, but till August 2021, tourists could see the Pakistan posts through binoculars only from outside Thang.
  • Since mid-August this year, tourists are allowed inside Thang after intense identity checks. They now have a closer look at ‘Zero Point’, the LoC.
  • From having just two guesthouses before 2010 to nearly 40 homestays, hotels and campsites now, Turtuk has been welcoming visitors curious to see the ramparts of bunkers built by the Pakistan Army or the school built by Pakistan which is now being run by the Indian administration.
  • More than 50 families have their men in the Indian Army and most are connected to the army in one way or the other. Connectivity has improved. Earlier there was just one State transport bus a week; now there are four shared taxis daily to Leh.
  • But for this small ethnic population, the pain of separation from their families has lingered for five decades. The wait for the warm hugs and banter with their family members remains a mirage, overshadowed by war and diplomatic obstacles.

 

Source: The Hindu