A number of statements, protests and political initiatives suggest that the opening of Kargil-Skardu route, connecting the divided parts of erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir, is in the offing. Astonishingly, irrespective of socio-political divide, all segments of the society across the Line of Control (LoC) in the erstwhile State of Jammu and Kashmir, have vehemently demanded the opening of the Kargil-Skardu road during recent weeks.
The opening up of Kartarpur corridor to facilitate the Sikh community to visit Gurdwara Darbar Sahib in Pakistani Punjab definitely gave impetus to this decades-old demand.
About a week ago, thousands of people in several parts of Indian-held Ladakh, particularly in Kargil district, held dozens of public rallies to exhibit their support for the opening of Kargil-Skardu Road which was an all-weather road before the 1949s ceasefire. It was a major trading link between the people of Kargil and Skardu. Likewise, people on Pakistani side of LoC in Skardu have long been demanding the opening of this road for trade and travel purposes.
The demand received a big boost when Major Gen. Ehsan Mehmood Khan, Commander of the Northern Areas Force commonly known as FCNA, while speaking on Kashmir Solidarity Day, publicly supported the idea and said that the Government of Pakistan and the Armed Forces would fully support the opening of Kargil-Skardu road. Likewise, Brigadier Imtiaz Hussain Gilani of 323-Siachen Brigade also speaking on a Kashmir day rally on February 5 in Khaplu, as quoted in Daily K2, said that a plan is underway to not only open Kargil-Skardu road but also invite people to visit Siachen, the roof of the world, as tourists shortly.
Traditionally, the rank and file of the pro-Azadi leaders in Kashmir were not supportive of the confidence building measures but Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, a moderate Kashmiri leader from the Srinagar, broke away from the tradition and called for opening up of all natural routes of the divided Jammu and Kashmir including Kargil-Skardu road.
The Prime Minister of Azad Jammu and Kashmir Raja Farooq Haider Khan along with the Chief Minister of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) jointly urged India and Pakistan to open up this road to facilitate the divided families’ travel and trade.
Interestingly, a few weeks ago, Prime Minister Imran Khan while talking to a group of Indian journalists in Islamabad, hinted at the opening of Sharda Peeth in Neelum Valley of Azad Kashmir for tourism. Sharda is considered a Buddhist and Hindu place of learning for centuries.
In 1947, Kargil, Skardu and Leh were tehsils of Ladakh wazarat (province) of Jammu and Kashmir State. Skardu fell on the Pakistan side while Leh and Kargil became parts of the Indian-held Jammu and Kashmir. This unexpected and unnatural territorial division did not only split and shatter people but also blocked the unique and rich Balti culture as well as the centuries-old trade and travel routes.
On January 1, 1949, a ceasefire agreement between India and Pakistan was announced and a line of separation was drawn. Initially, it was called a ceasefire line just to avert further armed conflict till the final settlement of Jammu and Kashmir issue through a plebiscite. The United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan were sent to observe, report and investigate the complaints of ceasefire violations and submit its findings to the Secretary-General. In the 1950s, it was beyond imagination that this line would serve as a de facto border for over seven decades.
The communities living on both sides and particularly close to the LoC never accepted this line as their ultimate destiny and people always urged for revival of linkages. The division heavily affected the communities’ socio-economic lives as well as traumatised several families who were forcefully disconnected.
The tale of separation and yearning for a reunion of Ladakh’s district Kargil and Gilgit-Baltistan’s Skardu is merely a tip of the iceberg, hinting at a larger issue.
Kargil is a remote region of the Indian controlled Jammu and Kashmir, which hit the headlines in May 1999. The famous Kargil conflict or war between India and Pakistan ended in July after the United States’ intervention. This small dusty town of Ladakh division is connected to Srinagar through a treacherous Zoji La pass which remains blocked by snow for almost six months in a year and turns it a landlocked region. It drastically affects the economic development and in case of some catastrophe, no quick response to this region’s call is possible.
Secondly, Ladakh remained a centre of trade with Central Asian states until it got cut off from the rest of the J&K State in 1949. The Kargil-Skardu road was known as the silk route for trading since the late 13th century when a prominent Sufi, Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadan travelled through Ladakh to Srinagar along with his followers. Ali Hamadan, commonly known as Shah-e-Hamadan, introduced handicraft as well as the cultural and Sufi tradition of Islam in this region. The livelihood and economy of the entire Ladakh region had been revolving around trade on this route for decades.
It is widely quoted that around 15,000 divided families living on both sides of the Line of Control will benefit from this route. These people still have a deep sense of history, belonging and kinship. Despite all hardships and travel restrictions, people of Kargil and Skardu are still maintaining social ties which are unprecedented. The resilient people would take the risk to travel 1700 kilometres from Skardu to Kargil via Lahore-New Delhi while Kargil is located at just four-hours’ drive and not more than 173 kilometres away from Skardu. It is also reported in the media that a number of people belonging to these areas have been meeting in Saudi Arabia or Iran during Hajj or pilgrimage as the rigid visa regime does not allow people to freely travel across the LoC.
In April 2005, the governments of India and Pakistan allowed a bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad. It kindled new hope. The local authorities and civil society groups put huge pressure on the government of India to open this route. Dr Manmohan Singh, the then prime minister of India, promised to initiate conversation with Pakistan on his visit to the region. In September 2008, Singh and the president of Pakistan agreed on the modalities for the opening of the Kargil-Skardu route.
Since then, New Delhi has been saying that Pakistan is not yet ready to open the route while Islamabad has maintained silence on this issue. However, since the inception of the new government in Pakistan, Prime Minister Imran Khan has been championing engagement and connectivity with India. The opening up of Kartarpur corridor, the willingness to talk about the opening of the Sharda Temple in the Neelum Valley and a statement from the local commander of Pakistan army clearly indicate that Pakistan hugely values connectivity in the region instead of isolation. The long-held impression that Pakistan, and particularly the army, is against the opening of the Kargil-Skardu road finally got pulled apart.
Interestingly, a pre-1947 route is still suitable for vehicles from Kargil to Skardu. Only a small area of the road close to LoC requires repairing and slight widening. If this route is opened, it has the potential to alter the dynamics of the regional economy and social life. Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan is already connected with China and Central Asia. Recently, the Government of Pakistan has announced to allow international tourists to visit all parts of the country including Azad Jammu and Kashmir, and Gilgit-Baltistan without a No Objection Certificate.
The Kargil-Skardu route will not only address the alienation and grievances of the divided families, it will also enhance the trade, tourism and particularly international tourism as both regions have fascinating mountain peaks, valleys and lakes. Additionally, these areas are famous worldwide for adventure tourism — trekking, mountain biking, high altitude jeep safaris and river rafting.
Keeping in view the fragile and tense India-Pakistan relations, it might not be feasible for the incumbent government in India to open this route. However, after the general elections in India, New Delhi can extend an olive branch to Islamabad by agreeing on opening this route. After opening of Srinagar-Muzaffarabad and Poonch-Rawalakot road for trade and travel, the opening of Kargil-Skardu road provides a unique opportunity to both governments to pick up the thread of dialogue after a long time and resolve all outstanding issues including the Jammu and Kashmir problem. The opening of Kargil-Skardu road can become a compelling case for rebuilding the broken relationships.