The Kargil-Skardu route divides people and families across the LoC

When they meet, they hug each other and weep with joy. When it’s time to bid adieu, they embrace each other and shed tears of despair, for the underlying emotions at ‘the connect and disconnect’ is evoked by the ‘forced separation’ which the divided families of Kargil and Skardu have faced since the India-Pakistan war of 1947.

One may be forgiven for thinking that this is transpiring several hundred km away from the India we are familiar with, but that is not the case. Skardu, which lies on the other side of India’s borders at Kargil, in the Baltistan region of Pakistan occupied Kashmir, is a mere hundred and seventy three km – a five to six hour drive – from Kargil. The Kargil-Skardu route was a significant route for intra-regional trade on which the local economy was heavily dependent. This all-weather road witnessed trade and movement of people from Tibet to Central Asia through Kargil, Leh, Skardu and Gilgit until 1947.

The Line of Control changed everything. Thousands of families were divided by the Line of Control in 1948 and later in 1965 and 1971. The route that facilitated cultural, political and economical development, not just in the Kargil and Skardu region but all of Ladakh, extending up to Gilgit, was closed down. The five to six hour-drive now became a journey of five to six days.

“During the war of 1965, the Indian Army occupied two-three villages, of which I remember names of only two – Latoo and Hundurman,” says 65- year-old Ms. Zehra, a retired government teacher from Kargil. “Lines were created among members of the same family. Many of us were on this side and the rest were left behind on the other. Till date, we miss each other’s presence in our lives as the geographical divides have taken over.”

Today, if a brother in Kargil wishes to meet his sister on the other side; he has to undergo a grilling process. On second thoughts, wishes don’t always count here. If there is a “valid” emergency or a family gathering, only then does one have a chance to get a visa, and that too after several verifications and validations of the reason and the identity proofs from both sides. Getting a visa is a battle only half won, though. The real struggle begins thereafter, when one has to travel from Kargil to Srinagar to Jammu to Amritsar to Lahore to Rawalpindi to reach Skardu. This is not only time-consuming but is way too heavy on the pocket. Not all can afford such meetings. “We cannot see them when we want. Sharing our happiness and moments of loss depends on the approval of the government. We feel helpless when we are unable to lend a hand to our dear ones in difficult times. Many of us would prefer to die than have to meet our relatives like this,” exclaims a visibly stirred Agha Syed Ahmed Rizvi, Member, Legislative Council at Kargil, whose relatives reside in the Chotron region in Skardu.

Today, when families return from the other side after meeting their kin, especially young boys and girls here, are full of questions about their relatives, uncles, aunts and cousins who they have never seen in their entire lives, and perhaps may not see for a long time to come.

It was not just the personal and cultural relations that were snipped with the creation of the man-made boundaries. The entire region’s economy collapsed too. The region, once the vibrant centre of Central Asian trade, was geographically cut off from the rest of the world; today, it limps along in a life of forced isolation. The only connect to Kargil is the Zojila Pass on National Highway 1 that itself remains cut off for more than six months in winter – as it is during these days – due to heavy snowfall. The inclement weather condition has so far not allowed air services to reach the region either.

If the governments on both sides agree to open up the road, it can become a beneficial trade and tourism link for Ladakh and its people. This will provide an impetus for the overall development of the region and give the neglected lot a sense of inclusion at the national level.

“For decades now, the young and old have been demanding that the Kargil-Skardu route be opened. The Indian Government, on several occasions, has agreed to take this up during its talks with the Pakistan government but nothing has been done till date,” says a local youth.

(Charkha Features)