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“Reclaiming Nubra” – Locals Shunning Pakistani Influences

Mr. Senge Sering has a Masters in Development Studies from the University of East Anglia, and was a Visiting scholar at IDSA, New Delhi.
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  • August 17, 2009

    The liberation of Turtuk block and Siachen glacier in 1971 and 1984 respectively eliminated any threats that could have come from Pakistan having a contiguous border with China along the crest of the Karakoram Range and endangering India’s sovereignty over Jammu & Kashmir. Today, they form part of the Nubra sub-division of Leh district.

    Nubra is sandwiched between the Ladakh and Karakoram mountain ranges. It borders the Gangche district of Baltistan (POK) to the west, while both Xinjiang (Chinese occupied East Turkestan) and Shaksgam (Chinese occupied Baltistan) lie to the north. For centuries, Chinese, Russians and later the British traversed this valley to reach the legendary Silk Route and access the markets of Central Asia and India. For commercial reasons, the people of Baltistan too used Nubra valley to reach Yarkand, Hotan and Tibet.

    The loss of Turtuk block and Siachen was detrimental to Pakistani expansionist motives, which considers Kashmir its jugular vein and desires its complete occupation. The advent of Afghan Jihad in the early 1980s eventually helped Pakistan Islamize the Kashmiri struggle and perpetuate a proxy war upon India. In order to expand the scope of militancy to other parts of Jammu & Kashmir, Pakistan’s notorious secret agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) introduced Jihad to the peaceful region of Ladakh especially in the Muslim parts of Kargil and Turtuk. Subsequently, training camps were established in Gilgit and Baltistan. From Baltistan, the militants crossed into Ladakh. The rough terrain of Ladakh helped these miscreants reach the Kashmir valley without being noticed.

    The people of Gilgit and Baltistan resisted establishment of militant training camps and the use of Baltistan as the launching pad for infiltration into India. Pakistani militants have never been fair with the people of Gilgit and Baltistan. Locals still talk about the genocide of 1988 when the militants attacked Gilgit and massacred innocent people. On their way out, they abducted hundreds of women. Eleven years have passed and no one knows what happened to those women. Further, locals also knew that by allowing their land to become the launching pad for militancy, they were inviting the unwanted wrath of the Indian army. In case war broke out, it was the land and people of Baltistan and Ladakh which were going to suffer the damage and not Pakistan. Given this background, the locals demanded that all the camps should be closed and militants should be moved out. In one incident, people of Skardo town engaged in armed skirmishes with the militants that led to imposition of curfew. In Gilgit, the locals managed to kill some militants who threatened the lives and property of the people. Despite this stiff resistance from the locals, the ISI continued its operation from Gilgit and Baltistan into Ladakh.

    After losing Siachen glacier, the then president of Pakistan, General Ziaul Haque, once said that it was not worth for Pakistan to spend so many resources on the defence of this glacier since not even a blade of grass grows there. Yet, Pakistan has persisted with attempts to recapture Kargil, Turtuk and Siachen. No doubt, the loss of Siachen glacier created threats for Pakistan’s as well as Chinese strategic interests in Xinjiang and Central Asia. The finale came in the shape of the Kargil war in 1999 when both militants as well as Pakistan’s regular army i.e. Northern Light Infantry Regiment, attacked Kargil and Turtuk sectors of India. Like the previous three wars, Pakistan also lost this war to India. More than four thousand soldiers of Northern Light Infantry Regiment as well as hundreds of militants lost their lives during this war. Indian army also lost many soldiers in this uncalled-for incident. During the Kargil war, the people of Turtuk played a major role. For over a year, intrusion of militants from this sector went undetected as the locals not only failed to inform the Indian army but some were also suspected of harboring Pakistani agents.

    Repeated exchange of hands of these areas between India and Pakistan has raised doubts about the loyalty of the people of Turtuk block, who themselves are confused and uncertain about their future. Every time Pakistan makes an attempt to capture Turtuk, which it lost to India in 1971, locals fear their destiny changing once more. There are those, still alive, who fought in the Pakistan Army against India and now live in Nubra as Indian citizens. The issue does not end here. Half the villagers and their relatives still live in Baltistan as refugees; they failed to reach back to their villages before the ceasefire blocked all travel and communication. Sixty two years on, they still desire to be reunited with their loved ones on the Indian side.

    The very same weary people sometimes become tools in the hands of ISI. The agents offer money, or promise to provide an ‘opportunity’ to meet their separated relatives, or provoke the locals in the name of Islam and helping the ‘cause of Islamic Republic of Pakistan’. Locals feel that refusing to support ISI may also hurt the lives of their stranded relatives in Baltistan. A university student from Turtuk whom I met in Delhi said, “We have heard that ISI agents harass and physically torture those Baltis who refuse to provide help. Pakistani army has made many attempts to recapture our villages. If they succeed, then they might also punish those among us who resisted providing support to the ISI. After all, our relatives who still live in Baltistan are at their mercy.”

    In Pakistan, most of the refugees are treated poorly and still await allocation of land to build their homes. Those who lost their land to wars have not received any financial compensation. There are no refugee centers built for them. Many families subsist on charity and panhandling in Skardo town. Educational and health facilities are unavailable to their children and women. Many face torture and the charge of disloyalty to Pakistan, as they were once Indian citizens. During the Kargil war, I interviewed several people of Chorbat and Saltoro valleys. They complained of injustices by Pakistani armed forces and militants who despised them of being non-Muslims (Shias and Nurbaxshis are considered infidels by the Wahhabi militants). A taxi driver confessed that their lives and property are at risk if they do not show support to the militants. In 1999, militants shot and injured a woman in Skardo town for refusing accommodation to them. Further, a local contractor informed that militants use local vehicles to transport supplies to the LOC, but that the drivers or the vehicle owners are usually not paid for their service. In Chorbat and Saltoro sector, women do sheepherding. They become regular target of sexual harassment by Pakistani forces. Sexual assault on local women is used as a tool to create fear and force locals to engage with the militants.

    With rampant poverty and lack of direction, they get exploited by the ISI agents. The jobless youth are offered porter jobs with the armed forces advancing to the high passes along the LOC. There they are ordered to cross into Ladakh and carry weapons with them. Those who refuse, like the porters of Henzel village, get killed at the border by the ISI agents. Under these conditions, the poor villagers on both sides of the LOC have very little choice but to comply with the demands of ISI personnel.

    During the Kargil War, Indian army suspected some residents of Turtuk of helping Pakistani militants. A door to door search operation involving both soldiers and police personnel led to confiscation of huge caches of sophisticated and heavy weaponry. The arms were hidden in the high pastures to facilitate the militants in capturing mountain peaks and passes over the Turtuk sector. In total, twenty four locals were arrested and sent to Leh district jail. Among them were shepherds, farmers, jobless youth as well as some government employees. Later, when they were acquitted and declared innocent, the government employees were also reinstated to their jobs.

    The people of Turtuk are still uncomfortable answering questions related to this incident. In a conversation with some of those who were arrested, one said, “The incident was a grave mistake. It was the darkest chapter of our lives and we want to put it behind us and never look back. We are thankful to the Indian army and police for pardoning us.” According to them, militants planned to capture the Turtuk block and Siachen glacier. But the operation failed to materialize. The locals say that out of fear, they stored the weapons but when they were told to fight alongside the militants against the Indian army, the villagers did not comply. The weapons which arrived from Baltistan were smuggled as hunting guns with better range and accuracy. The villagers told Dr. Ravina Aggarwal that many among those who possessed guns even did not know how to operate them.

    A government employee who was also arrested, said, “Our relatives from Baltistan, residing as refugees in Khapulo and Skardo valleys, informed us through the agent that their survival in Baltistan is endangered if we did not cooperate with the militants.” He further said that some relatives were very hopeful that very soon Turtuk block will be unified with Baltistan and all divided families will also be reunited.

    Abdul is a native from Nubra. Some of his friends were among those arrested. During a conversation he said that Pakistani agents lured uneducated and poor shepherds who regularly traveled to high pastures with their livestock. When they accepted the ‘hunting’ weapons, they could not understand the consequences and complexities in the context of the Kargil War. Some of them were offered money, while others were provoked in the name of Muslim brotherhood and Jihad to remain compliant. Those who refused to accept the weapons were harassed by the ISI agent. Once the Kargil war began, villagers got suspicious of those bringing guns from Baltistan and informed the local police of the weapon stockpile.

    Times have changed and the people of Turtuk have also learnt from their mistakes. Incidents like the Mumbai carnage and growing influence of Taliban in Pakistan have made them realize that extremism and militancy are cancerous for the peaceful existence of humans. Abdul’s friends are of the view that Mumbai carnage was an attack on the whole country. It was the biggest aggression by Pakistan after the Kargil war. The activities of ISI and its accomplices have made loyalty of the Indian Muslims to India questionable. Pakistan is willing to sacrifice Indian Muslims for its own selfish expansionist designs. This exposes Pakistan’s claim as the ‘guardian of Muslims’. Abdul’s friends claim that even today, Taliban work for the ISI. “Taliban are a danger for the entire humanity. We fear more attacks on places like Turtuk if Taliban become stronger in Pakistan. Those who kill innocent people including religious minorities like Shias cannot be Muslims. We condemn such killings which occur with the approval of Pakistani government. Pakistan exploits religious sentiments of people like us to advance its political agenda. In the end, Pakistani regime will not resist from getting us killed if that will help them capture Jammu & Kashmir.”

    The natives of Turtuk are aware of the fact that people of Gilgit and Baltistan are denied their political and cultural rights. One of Abdul’s friends opined, “In the twenty first century, it is very shameful that people of Gilgit and Baltistan lack basic political rights. In Ladakh we have the Hill Council and political autonomy. We also heard about the murder of Mr. Asad Zaidi, a prominent Balti politician. I believe that Pakistan has failed to provide security to the people of Gilgit and Baltistan. If Pakistan is not willing to give basic human rights to the locals, then it should vacate these regions and let the locals decide about their future.”

    The people of Turtuk have redirected their attention and energies to promote socio-economic development of their village. The local youth join the Indian Army and in this way safeguard their valley from infiltrators. The locals strongly support Indian initiatives like Operation Sadbhavana (OS) which has alleviated poverty and created jobs. Through OS, locals receive qualitative health and educational facilities. The Goodwill school provides computers in classrooms. Through OS, the village has a hospital, lady doctors, dental section, an X-ray unit, a pathology lab and free medicines. These facilities are a distant dream for the residents of Chorbat and Saltoro across the LOC, where more than 30,000 people live.

    Dr. Leena Parmar writes that those few locals who once supported Pakistani agenda of extremism and militancy are ‘now actively engaged in removing them’. Lt. Gen. Arjun Ray of Indian Army who oversees the OS claims that ‘Ladakh is a militancy free zone’. Do we see a day dawning on the Kashmir valley when the locals will shun support to Pakistani infiltrators and ISI accomplices?

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