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May 9, 2006

Political debris blocking the Skardu-Kargil road


May 9, 2006

M Ismail Khan

The writer is a development consultant and analyst from Gilgit-Baltistan. He is also the elected representative from the Asia Pacific region on the 'Board of Directors of the Mountain Forum'.

In July 2005, the writer travelled 1,500 km from Skardu to reach Srinagar for an 'intra-Kashmir conference'. From Srinagar, he travelled another 203 km to reach Kargil. It thus took four days and 1,700 km of road travel to reach Kargil from Skardu. The direct access from Skardu to Kargil is all of 173 km, it would have taken no more than three hours to reach Kargil, but that traditional road remains closed since 1948. A heavily mined but seemingly humble stone wall bisects the road in Kharmang valley which has kept about 7,000 families apart for nearly six decades now.

Lately, Pakistan has flung open all possible road, rail and air links with India from Karachi to Lahore and other parts of Pakistan, and with Indian Administered Kashmir. The latest one is the bus service between Poonch and Rawalakot, this is in addition to the Srinagar and Muzaffarabad bus service launched last year. Five meeting points between the two Kashmirs are also operational, two more are being negotiated.

In an unprecedented move, the two countries have also decided to allow the two Kashmirs to trade. In such a friendly environment, it was shocking news from the latest round of technical negotiations in Delhi, when the media reported that Pakistan's Foreign Office has turned down an offer to open the Skardu-Kargil road. Why would Pakistan do this, why can't the two countries agree on allowing South Asia's poorest yet most peaceful mountain communities, who despite all kinds of injustices meted out to them have never taken up arms against their respective governments, to meet their near and dear ones? What makes India and more so Pakistan's Foreign Office so jittery about according the people of Gilgit Baltistan and Kargil Leh the same travel facilities as

enjoyed by a Sikh, a Sindhi, a Punjabi and /or a Kashmiri.

It appears that the two countries will wait for another natural or manmade catastrophe to unfold before they allow similar exchanges between Gilgit Baltistan and Ladakh. The two regions together constitute two-thirds of the former state of Jammu & Kashmir. It would be naïve to assume that one can keep two-thirds of the state away from the peace process and still hope for a resolution of the dispute. It is right that the Valley and Jammu are thickly populated, but even the Hindus of Jammu and the Muslims of the Valley understand that they cannot stake a claim over Ladakh and Gilgit Baltistan based on their numerical strength alone, unless one of them gets into Maharaja Hari Singh's shoes, which is highly unlikely in today's fiercely democratic world order.

There is a deliberate effort going on to keep the Kashmir debate Valley centric --which unfortunately occupies less than five percent of the overall territory of the former state. The dilemma is, who in the world would be interested in trading a crowded holiday resort for a strategically important and resource laden Gilgit Baltistan in the 21st century.

Ladakh is no homogenous entity either. Like Gilgit and Baltistan which are ethno-culturally two distinct regions, Ladakh consists of Leh and Kargil districts. While the Buddhists dominated Leh district which has been struggling for separation from the state of Jammu & Kashmir, the Muslim dominated Kargil is more at ease with Kashmiris, and traces its cultural roots to Baltistan, of which it was an administrative part before partition.

The two districts of Ladakh have autonomous Hill Development Councils with impressive executive and financial powers, besides representation at state and central level legislatures. One reason Pakistan's Foreign Office might be resisting opening Gilgit Baltistan to Ladakh could be the fear that interaction with a democratic and secular Ladakh may become a source of inspiration for politically discontented people in Gilgit-Baltistan. If that is the case, it is better that instead they do something to remove the causes of discontentment.

Looking back, Pakistan's Foreign Office should take responsibility for the lack of basic human and political rights available to the people of Gilgit-Baltistan during the last 58 years. As for the locals, they never wanted to remain hostage to the Kashmir dispute from the word go. The ambiguity was thrust on them. The infamous Karachi Agreement of 1949 with the leadership of the Muslim Conference, who had no legal and popular mandate to do so, had already diluted the UNSC resolutions.

At that time, no one, not even India was interested in stopping Pakistan from integrating Gilgit Baltistan as a federating unit. But obviously someone wanted to have a bigger share in the Kashmir pie. It is only now, about six decades later, that the people realised that Pakistan already has the bigger and more important part of Kashmir in its hand. In the transformed geostrategic environment, where larger issues such as water, dams and prospects of trade and energy routes from China and Central Asia have already overtaken petty territorial disputes, it is too late for the Foreign Office to drag and keep Gilgit Baltistan under the carpet.

People in Gilgit Baltistan and Kargil have nothing more to prove. They are the ones who have borne the major brunt of the wars between Pakistan and India, in 1948, 1965, 1971 and 1999 Kargil. They have delivered on the Siachen Glacier, and guess who had the high altitude skills and stamina to pick a fight on the Kargil heights. The heavy military presence in Gilgit Baltistan is cited as another reason for not opening the road. But the military is on both sides, why would only Pakistan worry about it. China can be a factor, but India and China are already working on expansion of a highway from Tibet to Ladakh. As for infiltration, it has not happened in this part of the subcontinent during the last six decades. These are hopeless people when it comes to illegal border crossing.

The Skardu-Kargil road is an indigenous demand from both sides of the LoC. Every intra-Kashmir dialogue during the last two years has been unanimous in seeking opening of all traditional routes including Skardu-Kargil. This road is bound to provide limitless opportunities for trade and tourism thus foreign exchange earnings, but in essence it is a basic humanitarian issue. Take the case of Habiba Khatoon of Kargil. She had been married for four years, with two children, when partition took place. Her husband got stranded in Kharmang Skardu. After years, realising that he might never be able to make it back; her husband proposed a divorce but Habiba did not allow it. Instead, she had a window built in her house opening towards the road to Skardu. For decades, she spent her daylight hours waiting for the day her husband would come up the road. Her hopes unfulfilled, Habiba passed away last year. She might be gone, but there are many more wives, husbands and siblings awaiting reunification. They expect Delhi and Islamabad not to hold them hostage to the dictates of their misperceptions which has everything to do with the Kashmir Valley and nothing to do with Gilgit-Baltistan or Kargil-Leh.

Email: [email protected]

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