Govt marginalizes Balti villages captured from PaK in 1971
Turtuk, a cluster of seven villages captured by India from Pakistan after the 1971 Indo-Pak War, has been marginalized for the past 44 years.
Forced to work as porters for carrying ammunition during the 1999 Kargil War, their lands occupied by the Army, people of Turtuk have remained backward for the past four-and-a-half-decades and been worst sufferers during hostilities between India and Pakistan.
Turtuk, a predominantly Muslim area in the Buddhist-dominated cold desert region of Leh, where residents speak Balti, Urdu and Ladakhi, is one of the gateways to the world’s highest battlefield, Siachen Glacier.
Seven kilometers from the Line of Control (LoC), Turtuk is the last outpost from where Pakistan administered Northern Areas begins.
Once a part of the Yabgo dynasty that ruled Baltistan, Turtuk served an active trade route to Ladakh connecting it to Yarkand and Kashgar in present day China and Samarkand in present day Uzbekistan on the Silk Route.
Talking to Rising Kashmir, Ghulam Muhammad, a resident of Turtuk, said during the 1999 Kargil War, the villagers dug bunkers for their families while they were made to work as porters for the Army.
The miseries of war, though, were not new to the people of Turtuk.
Until 1971, Turtuk was a part of Gilgit Baltistan area of Pakistan administered Kashmir but following the 1971 India-Pakistan War, India captured seven villages of Thang, Tyakshi Groung, Tyakshi Pachathang, Turtuk Youl, Turtuk Farool, Garrri, Choulungkha.
The people of the captured villages went to sleep in Pakistan but woke up in Indian control next morning.
“In some families here, fathers are living on this side and mothers on the other side, children are here and parents on the other side and more than a half of the families of Turtuk are divided across the LoC,” Muhammad said. “The members of our divided families in PaK too do not get visas to visit us.”
The ceasefire following the 1971 India-Pakistan War gave back more than 13,000 sq km of land that India seized in West Pakistan to Pakistan but in turn India retained more than 800 sq km including the strategic areas of Turtuk.
The vagaries of war did not end in 1971 though and continued to ravage Turtuk even in times of peace.
The fate of people of Turtuk has been miserable for the past 44 years with Army occupying large swathes of their cultivable land without paying any compensation.
“We approached the Army authorities for the compensation but they always turn us away,” Muhammad said. “If they can’t compensate us for our loss, they should return our land, at least the portion which they do not need.”
The people have also been marginalized in terms of socio-economic development.
Ghulam Hussaini, a social activist from Turtuk, said during these 44 years, the areas had witnessed no development and the development aspirations of the people had remained unfulfilled.
“We demand sanction of a special economic package to Turtuk on the pattern of 1947 West Pakistan refugees,” he said. “We also demand allotment of a seat of a legislator to Turtuk in the Jammu Kashmir Legislative Assembly out of the 25 reserved seats meant for PaK.”
People of Turtuk also demand opening of cross-LoC Turtuk-Khapulu Road so that the divided families of 1971 India-Pakistan War are able to meet one another and also demand relaxation in visa system till then.
The area has been victimized to such an extent that the construction of Turtuk-Hanu Road, which could shorten the distance between Srinagar and the strategically-important Nubra Valley by almost 150 km, was suspended with only 12-km stretch left to link Turtuk and Hanu.
Turtuk, which sits in the lap of the Karakoram mountain range, has remained one of the backward-most areas not only in Jammu Kashmir but entire India due to stepmother treatment given by the successive State governments and New Delhi.
Turtuk Sarpanch (village head), Hajji Abdullah told Rising Kashmir that until 1971Turtuk would get more development than expected but for the past 44 years, the development was not at par with Leh.
“When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Ladakh, he promised development of the region but we have not been granted any share in development for obvious reasons,” Abdullah said.
Turtuk was opened for tourists only in 2009 and until 2014 Indian nationals needed a permit to visit the area.
The journey to Turtuk is demanding and requires crossing the mountains on one of the world’s highest drivable passes, the Khardung La, which remains covered in snow during winters.
The bus to Turtuk is run by the Army and the road snakes through narrow gorges with turquoise waters of the Shyok River, the River of Death.
The bus passes through exquisite sand dunes of Hunder before reaching Turtuk town, which is divided into two parts – Youl and Pharol, separated by a hump-shaped bridge.
Turtuk is famous for its apricots, tomatoes and walnuts.
Phudinichu, a nourishing stew made with region’s famed apricots, is the local food.
Electricity runs only for a few hours a day while cell phone reception is limited to BSNL.
People are fair and rosy-cheeked with aquiline features and claim to be Aryans having Central Asian and Tibetan roots.
Turtuk is home to a population of Nurkbakhshis, a Sufi order with similarities to both Shias and Sunnis, as well as Sunnis and Twelver Shias.
Ahmad Shah, a resident of Bogdang village, 25 km from LoC, who runs ‘The Rustic Ladakhis Hostel’ in Vikas Nagar area of Dehradun helps educate people of Turtuk.
Shah’s village was one of the three adjoining villages of Turtuk besides Gunasthang and Changmar, which were captured after the 1947 India-Pakistan War.
“For the past 7 years, I have been bringing 40 to 45 students from Turtuk and adjoining areas and helping them acquire higher education in Dehradun as Turtuk doesn’t have any higher education institutions,” he said.
Shah has been meeting Union ministers and plans to meet PM Modi for highlighting the problems faced by the Muslims of Leh district.
When Indian Army reached Bogdang in 1947, Shah’s grandfather, Abdul Hussain, father Ghulam Ali and mother Jan Bi left for Pakistan where they stayed for six months.
They returned only after an agreement between New Delhi and Islamabad on refugees in 1948.
“From 1948 to 1984, there was no law and order in entire Turtuk,” Shah said. “Army’s writ ran large and only after Ladakh court came into being in 1984, things changed to some extent.”
Shah is concerned about the female illiteracy saying no mother in Turtuk can teach their children even the basic alphabets like ABC.
He was so worried about female empowerment that he became the first person inTurtuk to let her daughter, Fatima Balti take singing as a profession.
“She is the first female Balti singer from this side and her Balti songs have become viral on social media after a fan put them on YouTube,” he said. “Even a Pakistani newspaper carried a news story on Fatima being the Balti Bulbul.”
To ensure girls are not forced to give up education due to the absence of a degree college in the region, locals demand opening of a degree college.
Keeping in view their socio-economic status, locals also demand enhancement of Border Area Development Funds (BADF) for Turtuk at par with BADF for areas along Line of Actual Control (LAC), Indo-China border in Ladakh.
The people of Turtuk are also victimised by denying them reservations under Line of Actual Control (LAC) category in government jobs and promotions in the State government despite close proximity with LAC and as such seek inclusion in Tehsil Nubra of district Leh under areas adjoining the Line of Control (LoC) under the Jammu Kashmir Reservation Rules 2005 (ALC).
Locals also demand a special recruitment drive for unemployed youth in Jammu Kashmir Police, tehsil status to Turtuk, upgradation of High School Tyakshi to higher secondary school and upgradation of Middle School Gunasthan Bogdang as high school.
After the 1971 India-Pakistan War, people of Turtuk have been facing suspicion about their loyalties as their kinship runs across the divided line.
Imaginary lines may become loyalties for some, for others, like those living in Turtuk, going to sleep still remains a nightmare.