Derived from the local words khar and rkil, that together means "center of all forts," Kargil, the name itself denotes importance, is located at an equidistant from all other major places like Baltistan, Srinagar, Leh and Zanskar.
Historical account of the region tells us that Kargil (Ladakh) was one of the major centers in the Central Asian trade. Ladakh was very well joined to the fabled "Silk Route". The region, therefore, would host traders from all the surrounding areas. This remained until 1947.
Prior to the partition of the subcontinent, Kargil, Leh and Baltistan constituted a kingdom called "Ladakh Wazarat". Ever since the ceasefire that drew up the de facto border in 1949, the entire region remained a contested area between India and Pakistan. This resulted in fragmenting Ladakh and Baltistan into India and Pakistan respectively. Many families still trace their immediate ancestors on the other side of the border.
Lot has been said and written about the divided families in the Kashmir and Jammu regions. As a result of which the two governments initiated the Uri-Muzaffarabad and Poonch-Rawalakot bus services. However, the thousands of divided families in Ladakh region (particularly Kargil) and Gilgit-Baltistan remained unnoticed.
Kargil-Skardu road is historically an all-weather route on which local economy was heavily dependent. The people of both the regions were connected; historically, politically, culturally and economically. They still have a strong link between them on, at least, historical and cultural lines on the basis of a shared tradition and civilization.
However, the divided families in these two regions hardly get a chance to meet with each other because of the closure of the Kargil-Skardu road. A generation has waited for a lifetime to meet their relatives on both sides of the border. Most of these families meet only at Makkah in Saudi Arabia or Iraq and Iran during Hajj or Umrah/Ziyarat.
The present route which these families, who are fortunate enough, take is both time consuming and costly. From Kargil one has to go to Leh, or Srinagar, then to Delhi and from there to Islamabad. And from Islamabad one has to cross the mighty Karakoram Highway to reach Skardu city in Gilgit-Baltistan. It covers around 2700 kilometers.
On the other hand, the distance between Kargil and Skardu (capital city of Gilgit-Baltistan) is hardly 170 kilometers (which is the shortest distance from Kargil to any other major city). It would take a maximum of six to seven hours journey through the motorable road which, at present, is already in place for four-wheeled vehicles. The road is motorable till Line of Control (LoC) from both sides, except for a kilometer of work at the LoC. Unlike other routes from Kargil, this route, most importantly, remains open all-round the year.
Opening of this route would also boost the tourism industry in both the regions. There is an extensive potential for "Adventure Tourism" in the entire region. A former Vice-President of Indian Mountaineering Foundation, Mohammad Ashraf opines that both Ladakh and Northern Areas have "extensive potential for development of Adventure Tourism", such as Mountaineering, Rock-Climbing, Trekking, Mountain Biking, Rafting, Kayaking and a host of other such activities…high altitude Jeep Safaris." Also, among other things, the region promises tourism through its enchanting meadows, mountains, plateaus, peaks, lakes, rivers, passes, valleys, and glaciers.
Thus, the opening of the Kargil-Skardu link has a potential of increasing the inflow of tourists manifold. At a time when the government sector is shrinking and unemployment is rampant, tourism could possess many unemployed youth in its fold on both sides. It would also revive the traditional route for movement of trade and commerce, connecting many neighboring regions which was the case until 1947.
In addition, the reopening of the road would also give direct access to the numerous shrines and religious monuments for the Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu pilgrims who deem them to be sacred.
People from both sides have agitated in many ways – through cultural and political resistance – emphasizing their historical and cultural proximity with each other and their right to meet and interact. Engineer Manzoor Hussain Parwana, Chairman of the Gilgit-Baltistan United Movement, has remarked in one of his writings that "the LOC has functioned like the Berlin Wall of Asia dividing the people of Gilgit, Baltistan and Ladakh…The people of both regions term this division unnatural and demand resumption of trade and travel across the LOC."
His party also organized "Long March to Kargil" in 2012, which was attended by thousands of protesters marching towards the LoC, demanding the opening up of the road.
Similar protests and demands were been made by the people in Kargil at different points in time. Some political leaders from Kargil and Leh raised the issue at various occasions, but in vain.
The two governments in the past had reopened several routes on both sides, while the Kargil-Skardu road remained closed since 1949. The successive governments on both sides have paid very little attention to it.
The present PDP-BJP government in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), therefore, should seriously consider opening up the Kargil-Skardu road, with the help of its coalition party at the Centre. It should be opened on humanitarian grounds for the divided families to meet; to well-connect India with its neighbors so as to bridge friendship between two countries; and to boost trade and tourism link between the two regions which would significantly help improve the quality of life in the region.
Moreover, this will put an end to the prolonged yearning of the estranged people to meet with their dear ones. It will also help in the revival of trade and cultural relations which will in turn instigate an era of peace, development and prosperity in the entire region.
The author is a Research Scholar at Delhi University. He is native of Kargil, Ladakh.