IRONICALLY, while the Line of Control along Kargil has remained closed for the last 71 years, Punjab’s Kartarpur corridor for Sikhs living on the other side of the border has been opened up. Representing the aggrieved sentiments of the local population, a young man, Khadim Hussain Halupa from Tarkati village in Kharmang district, has found a new way to protest this injustice by donning the turban worn by Sikhs on the opening of their holy site in Kartarpur, a reminder to the powers that be that the matter of the Kargil boundary needs similar attention.
It may appear comical but Halupa’s protest actually sends a very serious message about the creeping unrest amongst the youth of the region. While the opening of the Kartarpur corridor for the Sikh community is a commendable gesture recognised internationally and has helped to strengthen the image of Pakistan, it is distressing for the people of Gilgit-Baltistan that Baltis living across the LoC in Kargil are denied a similar opportunity to make their pilgrimage to the shrine of Sheikh Ali Brolmo in Gilgit-Baltistan. It is ironic that while the peaceful and stoic people of Baltistan continue to silently endure the living tragedy of divided families, the Pakistani government continues to implement generous border-crossing policies in other areas of the country.
In 1948, freedom fighters from Gilgit-Baltistan liberated Kharmang valley and had reached the outskirts of Leh district, the headquarters of Ladakh, but due to the ceasefire, had to fall back, thus losing territory. The second loss in the area took place in 1971 when in the Shimla agreement it was agreed that “In Jammu and Kashmir the Line of Control resulting from the cease-fire of December 17, 1971, shall be respected by both sides without prejudice to the recognised position of either side.” According to this accord, the international border between the two countries was restored. However, there is no explanation for the inequitable treatment meted out to the region of Gilgit-Baltistan which resulted in families being divided due to LoC changes.
One such case is that of Hafiz Bilal. A seminary student in Faisalabad, he was looking forward to going back over the vacations to visit his mother when the 1971 Pakistan-India war broke out. Bilal’s father decided to take him back to the village earlier, but en route to his village, he found that it was now part of India-held Kashmir across the altered LoC. Bilal and his father have been separated from his mother and siblings for the last 50 years. He is still waiting for a miracle that will allow him to meet his family.
The pain of parting persists and the people of Gilgit-Baltistan continue to hope and long for the day when they will be able to see their native village.
Even more tragic is the case of Ghulam Qadir who was serving in the Pakistan armed forces and fighting the Indians, when after the ceasefire he discovered that because of the Shimla agreement his village was now located in the India-held side. He was unable to return to the wife whom he had married only recently. After a painful wait of 13 years during which all efforts to reunite failed, his wife tried to cross the Shyok River to make her way back to her husband. During the crossing, she drowned, but her body floated to Pakistan; Ghulam Qadir identified it as she was wearing a scarf that he had gifted to her before leaving for the war.
There are innumerable stories of tragedy regarding the people who have suffered for a long time. The uprooted people from the areas lost were mercifully extended support by the closely knit community on Pakistan’s side and have now been integrated into normal life. The pain of parting, however, persists and they continue to hope and long for the day when they will be able to see their native village and meet their long-lost relatives.
The Kargil road that has now been closed to these families is the old highway connecting the capital of Ladakh with Gigit-Baltistan and an important artery of trade and commerce. This road also has the potential to serve as a preferred route for a large number of tourists visiting the adjacent region of Ladakh. Additionally, this road is the only means for the divided families to exchange visits and for residents across the border to visit the shrines of religious personalities who converted them to Islam on the Pakistani side.
On all shared borders with Pakistan’s geographical neighbors, the Pakistani government has generously facilitated two-way movement due to cultural, religious and commercial reasons. For divided families, the grounds for similar facilitation constitute compassion. Sadly, when it comes to Gilgit-Baltistan, compassion evaporates and religious, cultural and commercial needs also recede into the background. This flagrant discrimination against a patriotic and peaceable people is creating discontent amongst the young and educated generation, the third generation since independence which is being asked to wait in the name of the Kashmir cause and the national interest — considerations which appear to have been ignored in the case of Azad Kashmir. The opening of Kartarpur with great fanfare and the unprecedented facility of visa-free entry to foreign nationals sends a message to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan that their patriotism and long history of sacrifices are not enough to be treated on a par with other people of this land and even foreign nationals. Even their demand for integration into Pakistan has consistently been ignored. There is no sane explanation for such negative government policies.
It is time to heed the peaceful protests that have started in the border villages of the LoC after the opening of the Kartarpur border, and which have begun to spread to other areas now. The long wait is over. The third generation is not ready to accept the flawed argument of national interest anymore. It is time to act. The living tragedy of divided families and the denial of the same treatment for Gilgit-Baltistan as given to other regions require attention. The enemy is already busy in instigating sedition in the region and the continual neglect of the residents’ genuine demands may only give way to serious and uncontrollable disruption. Hence, opening the Kargil road would be the first step in the right direction to address the other major unresolved issues in this sensitive area.
The writer, a former IGP Sindh, belongs to Gilgit-Baltistan.
Published in Dawn, January 6th, 2020