IN a surprising though positive move Pakistan and India have reaffirmed to abide by the 2003 ceasefire agreement in letter and in spirit. Ceasefire violations along the Line of Control (LoC) had reached a dangerous level, with civilians along the de facto border bearing the brunt. The situation had escalated after the unilateral Indian move in occupied Kashmir last summer. Many analysts see the latest development as a first step in a process of gradual de-escalation between the two countries.

Theoretically, both countries will now pick low-hanging fruits in the first phase. Here comes the issue of Gilgit-Baltistan, or, more precisely, an issue of divided families, as a confidence-building measure (CBM) that may be of great help to the cause of peace.

Most border crossings of Pakistan, including the violent LoC in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, the unstable Durand Line, the smugglers-infested Pakistan-Iran border, and the militarised Radcliffe Award Line, are open on trade, humanitarian or cultural grounds. Only heightened tensions cause temporary closure of these crossings which open on a priority basis once the tensions subside.

However, the crossings at Skardu-Kargil (Sindh River), Kahplu-Leh (Shyok River) and Gultari-Latu (Shingo River) have been closed since the war of independence in 1948 and were cemented after the war of 1971. Thousands of families were left divided by these developments.

Lately, the sufferings of these families have got some media attention. The body of Khairun Nisa, who had fallen in Shoyk River just miles away from the LoC in Ladakh, was found in Kahplu, GB, and was sent to her hometown through the Rawalpindi-Muzaffarabad-Kargil route spanning over 500km. Also, there was this melancholic story of Abdul Qadeer, a Pakistan Army soldier, who found his family which was divided in the 1971 war.

More than 250 families having thousands of individuals are torn apart by the LoC in GB post-1971. Besides humanitarian causes, these border crossings are also important trade and economic routes, including Torkham and Chaman.

Furthermore, before independence, thousands of people from Kargil and adjacent villages used to visit the shrine of a saint, Sheikh Ali Najafi, in Kharmang, which is as sacred for Muslims living across the LoC as the Kartarpur Sahib is for the Sikhs based in India.

Pakistani and Indian governments can find common ground on this least contentious issue – the opening of the border crossing in GB. This was also an important talking point in the region during the November 2020 elections.

A member of GB Assembly, Sheikh Akbar Ali Rajayi, who hails from the LoC-bordering district, had presented a resolution to this effect in the assembly, which was passed unanimously. Now, the nuclear-armed neighbours can work on this least contentious issue and expeditiously open these routes which have immense humanitarian, economic, religious and cultural importance for the people of the region.

Muhammad Sajid
Skardu, Baltistan

Published in Dawn, March 8th, 2021

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