The third round table conference on Jammu and Kashmir took place in Delhi on Tuesday. Ushering in peace within Kashmir remained the focus of the deliberations but we also need to look at the bigger picture. And this is where the Kargil-Skardu road comes in. Speaking at a function in Kargil in June 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had announced that parts of Ladakh-Gilgit and Baltistan are under the control of foreign troops and that the government is considering the opening of the Kargil-Skardu road. While the local population in Kargil and Baltistan across the LoC is enthusiastic about such a route, the proposal itself seems to have been put on the back-burner.
Why is this road important? Much has been written about the divided families of the Kashmir Valley. The opening of the Uri-Muzafarabad road made everyone realise there are other divided families too — in the Jammu, Rajouri and Poonch districts, for instance. The second road between Poonch and Rawlakot is now addressing the issue; in fact, this bus service is more popular than the first one. What has gone unnoticed are the divided families in Ladakh and the Northern Areas. The LoC not only divided the Pahris and Kashmiris, it divided the Baltis, especially the Shia families of the Kargil and Skardu regions. Consider the time taken and the economic costs involved for a person from Kargil to visit Skardu — a distance of approximately 130 km. What should take a maximum of five to six hours takes four to five days today.
An eminent writer from the Northern Areas recently pointed out that the Kashmir conflict is more to do with the Kashmiri-speaking Muslims in the Valley. He wanted to know why the people and divided families in the Northern Areas and Kargil should suffer for a conflict that has nothing to do with them. With Pakistan shrewdly delinking the regions of Gilgit and Skardu from ‘Azad Kashmir’ and making them a part of the Northern Areas, the people of these regions have even less to do with the ongoing conflict in Kashmir. This argument can be extended further. Historically, the people of not just Kargil and Skardu but the entire region of Ladakh and the Northern Areas from Leh to Gilgit, were in touch with each other economically, politically and culturally. Trade and movement of people from Tibet to Central Asia through Leh, Kargil, Skardu and Gilgit took place continuously until 1947.
From a political perspective, too, opening this route is important for India. Thanks to Pakistan’s mis-governance, there is a great deal of alienation among the people of the Northern Areas, especially those in Gilgit and Skardu. They do not have any political representation either in Pakistan’s National Assembly or in the so called ‘Azad Jammu and Kashmir’ Parliament. There is a Northern Areas Legislative Council, but it has no executive powers.
Besides political alienation, there is a serious sectarian crisis, especially in Gilgit. It appears that Pakistan is keen on maintaining the sectarian divide so that there are no unified political demands from the region. The Northern Areas is strategically important for Pakistan in terms of water security and also because of the Karakoram Highway, which links Gwadar with China. Opening such a road will help India understand what is happening on the other side. This is precisely why Pakistan is wary of such an initiative, and why India should be enthusiastic about it.
Skardu is already linked with Gilgit. Opening a Kargil-Skardu road will give India access to the strategic Karakoram Highway from Kargil and Leh and link them with China and Central Asia. There is already a bus service between Gilgit and Kashgar. Over the last 60 years, China has built road connectivity with both Myanmar in the east and the Northern Areas in the west, and may contemplate rail links too. In contrast, India’s connectivity vis-a-vis its neighbours remains poorer than what it was in 1947.
But the primary focus now should be on addressing the humanitarian concern of the divided families. Today, both India and Pakistan are not totally averse to opening the Uri road for trade. In fact, local Kashmiri businessmen are pushing for such a move. In the same way, the local dynamics created by the idea of a Kargil-Skardu road initiative will force both governments to explore the option. True, such a move may not happen for another decade or so, but India nevertheless needs to prepare for it seriously.
The writer is visiting fellow, Centre for Strategic and Regional Studies, University of Jammu, and assistant director, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi