A people who became Indian overnight

A view of Turtuk village on the left bank of Shyok river.   | Photo Credit: R. KRISHNA KUMAR

Holding a pair of small binoculars in his wrinkled hand, 75-year-old Ahmed Shah has been watching tourists make a beeline to his village for more than a month now. Perched on a boulder on the fringes of Thang, one of India’s northern-most villages, situated about 230 km from Leh, Shah has been offering the binoculars to tourists who are curious to see Pharnu, Pakistan’s village across the Line of Control (LoC), about 1.5 km away. Some offer him money and very few chat with him about his obsessive interest in Pharnu, but he has a toothless smile for all.

The septuagenarian has spent a considerable part of his life in Thang watching over the fields of Pharnu using binoculars, for he was separated from his family almost 50 years ago when the LoC was redrawn after the 1971 India-Pakistan war. His brother, Ghulam Mohammed, and sister, Ruzi Bi, are in Pharnu, where his ancestral home and fields are located. “I was a 25-year-old then and did not expect the war to separate me from my family. I have been watching them work in the fields using these binoculars,” he says. In recent years, he has also been able to speak to them on Internet calls.

A people who became Indian overnight

From Pakistan to India

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. Shah’s parents and siblings were in Pharnu and Shah had stayed back in Thang on the night of December 15. “I slept as a Pakistani and woke up as an Indian in the morning. I could not do anything,” he says. He was resigned to his fate. “I do not feel like going there, but it will be good if both countries talk and allow families to meet at least.” Deep emotional scars remain among the elderly as almost all the Balti families in these villages have stories of painful separations to narrate after they were cut off from Gilgit-Baltistan abruptly.

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.

“We were 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,” says Haji Mohammed Issu, 84, a farmer. Issu worked as a labourer in Gilgit and later as a porter in the Pakistan Army. After 1971, he worked with the Indian Army before age caught up with him.

Issu was playing volleyball with his friends when the initial news of a fierce gun battle between the armies in the nearby Chalunka village reached Turtuk. Fear gripped the villagers that chilly winter night. Only a few men stayed back at a house while women and children took shelter at a nullah in the upper reaches, braving the cold. It was only after personnel from Ladakhi Scouts and Nubra Guards offered rations that things calmed down. “The next morning, Baltis, as per the customary faqtab, offered apricots to welcome the Army,” Issu recalls.


At that time, Issu’s uncle Abdul Raheem was in Turtuk, while his children Abdil Aziz and Basit Ali were in Skardu working as labourers. “I looked after my uncle till his death about 25 years ago. He died without seeing his children and was distraught all the time,” Issu says. Abdul Raheem left a power of attorney for Issu to look after the house and land till the time his children returned from Gilgit. “They have bought homes there (Gilgit) now. They call us once in a while. There are many such cases where villagers have looked after elders who were separated from their children,” Issu says.

Fifty years after the war, Abdul Raheem’s mud and stone house is in a shambles as Issu finds it difficult to maintain it. Many homes whose owners now live across the border have met with the same fate.

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 Ghulam Hussain Baig, a member of the Turtuk Farol Gram Panchayat. Baig’s maternal uncle, Mohammed Ibrahim, who was at Skardu during the war, now lives in Rawalpindi. “Of the eight siblings of my mother, only he stays there. He is lonely. The family has not met him in 50 years,” he says.


Ghulam’s grandfather, the late Mohammed Ali Khan, was among the village elders who negotiated the transition of the Balti villages with the Indian Army. Elderly Baltis credit the legendary Major Chewang Rinchen for the smooth integration of these villages. In an early morning interaction on December 16 at a house in Turtuk, in which Khan and other elderly Baltis were present, Major Rinchen assuaged the fears of the Baltis. “Major Rinchen hailed from the adjacent Nubra Valley, and my grandfather and his father were friends. His presence as a local and assurances of protection to women and children helped ease anxiety, and people returned from hiding,” Ghulam says.

When the border was redrawn, nobody abandoned Turtuk, Thang and Thaykshi, says Ghulam. However, all the families, barring two, in Chalunka hurriedly moved to Pakistan. Most in Chalunka moved due to fear as war clouds began to gather and a fierce gun fight had begun.

An emotional reunion

In Thang, about seven km from Turtuk, ‘Goba’ (village head) Mohammed Ali has been separated from his parents since he was five. He and his brother were brought up by his grandfather as his parents were in Pharnu. While his mother had moved towards the forests in Pharnu around the time the Indian Army was moving in, his father went towards Pakistan to look for his mother after the Army takeover had been completed. He also did not return. “I really missed my parents and seven siblings. I can imagine how my grandfather would have felt,” says Goba Ali, now a popular figure among the Indian Baltis. His grandfather died in 1985. Goba Ali says the Indian Army has taken care of them.

Ahmed Shah, 75, has spent a considerable part of his life in Thang village watching over the fields of Pharnu using binoculars. He was separated from his family almost 50 years ago when the LoC was redrawn. Photo: Special Arrangement

Ahmed Shah, 75, has spent a considerable part of his life in Thang village watching over the fields of Pharnu using binoculars. He was separated from his family almost 50 years ago when the LoC was redrawn. Photo: Special Arrangement  

After several years of multiple failed attempts to secure an Indian passport and later a Pakistan visa, Goba Ali finally made it to Gilgit-Baltistan in 2014. It was ironic that he had to travel nearly 3,000 km, crossing the border at Wagah in Punjab, to meet his parents who lived only a couple of km away from Thang.

“I was harassed by Pakistani authorities because I was working for the Indian Army. Even after the questioning, I remained in Islamabad for nearly two months. Before meeting my parents, I had mixed feelings. When I actually met them, I was crying. I cannot put in words what emotions went through my mind,” he says. The video of an intense emotional reunion with his parents is available on YouTube.

According to Ghulam, who also works as an Army porter, four more persons from the Balti villages have met their families in Pakistan. In 2015, four elderly persons, including a woman, came from Gilgit-Baltistan looking for their family members in Turtuk. Today, many in the younger generation, who were born after the war, like Ghulam, are not keen to visit their relatives in Pakistan though they connect with them on phone. “It is very expensive and a cumbersome process to travel. So, most of the elderly have given up and the younger generation is disconnected from their extended families,” he says.


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,” Ghulam says.

The change of nationality for many, including Issu, did not matter for employment. If they had worked for the Pakistan Army before 1971, the Indian Army employed them later to be porters given their astute knowledge of the terrain. “Change of nationality did not affect the population here as far as livelihood issues were concerned. But family ties were irreversibly hit,” Ghulam says.

In the village of Turtuk also lives the titular head of the Baltis, Mohammed Khan Kacho, a descendent of the Yabgo dynasty. He lives in a 16th century stone palace ravaged by Pakistani Army personnel in the 1950s. “There are no people in Turtuk without relatives in Pakistan. It has been a painful separation. In Islam, without talak, a remarriage is not possible. Several couples were separated and no communication from either side was possible. Some became mental wrecks,” he says.


Kacho, who traces his ancestry to Western Turkistan (in Central Asia), says most of the region in his erstwhile kingdom is now in Gilgit-Baltistan. He too, like a majority of the Baltis, has not seen his clan, including his sisters and cousins, who live in Pakistan. His properties are being taken care of by his cousins. “I had raised the issue of facilitating family reunions at a designated place on the border. The Indian Army had agreed but it looks like the Pakistan military did not,” he says. Kacho says he has not attempted to visit Pakistan since it is too cumbersome. He has not considered entering politics to further the Balti cause, but says that it is the responsibility of elected representatives to take care of development and address these issues.

The Baltis say that a lot of the development in the villages took place after the area came under the Indian fold. “Hospital, school, ration and water has been taken care of,” Kacho says. Issu points out electricity supply and roads as measures of development. “There was nothing much here till 1971 and the civil administration had turned its back on the region,” Issu says.

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.

But several educated Baltis have moved out looking for greener pastures. 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.

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Printable version | Dec 2, 2021 10:37:10 PM |

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