As the road winds up the hills to the long-abandoned Hundarman village in Kargil, nestled among the bleak and forbidding mountains, it gets quieter at every turn. Only the sound of wind whistling through the jagged terrain and the occasional flapping of a magpie break the silence. Signposts along the way caution people to stay away from the edges for fear of landmines. Across the mighty Suru river, you can spot a Pakistani post on a hill.
Two decades after the India-Pak war, it’s in Elections 2019 that nationalism has emerged as a poll issue for the rest of the country. But in these frontier villagers of battle-scarred Kargil, conflict is far from the idea sold on the mainland. Here, it’s a way of life, felt, not expressed, and definitely not voted upon.
“We did not leave when the war broke out in 1999. We stayed here and served the army. We are always there for them,” says Muhammad Ali, 72, a farmer who has witnessed the many conflicts between India and Pakistan, caught between the shape-shifting border. “Working with the army is our main source of income. We are not educated but we wish there were better schools for our children and more job opportunities,” he says as he curses his wobbly knees, pointing out that the years have caught on but things on the ground are very much the same.
All across Kargil, whose ragged and hostile ridges towering over 16,000 feet and spread over more than 150 km of Drass, Batalik, Mushko Valley were the battleground between India and Pakistan, villagers talk of the horror of war, their close links with the army and their abiding desire for peace.
Pointing to Tiger Hill and Tololing behind him, names that entered the living rooms of every TV-watching household 20 years ago and made national security part of post-liberalised India’s lexicon, Muhammad Hussain of Bhimbat village, talks of how they had to leave their homes and animals behind in the conflict. “We lost so much, so many things were stolen when we returned,” he says. Click here for more election news
‘Who knows war better than us?’
Muhammad Yasin, 35, a teacher in a government school in Kharboo village — one of the many on way to Drass to be evacuated during the Kargil war — says all talk of muscular nationalism on television, the Pulwama attack and how India’s strike on Balakot may swing the mood in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s favour, is lost on them.
“Who knows war and its horrors better than us? It’s easy to demand war sitting in faraway Delhi. Those who demand war should be sent here. We support our army and no one else. It is they who fight and protect our borders, not politicians. You shouldn’t do politics on the corpses of martyrs,” he says. Instead, says Yasin, what should be discussed are issues that matter to the people in the region, their needs and their aspirations.
With the Zoji La that connects Kargil to Srinagar cut off for six months every winter, Kargil withdraws behind a cloak of white — unseen and unheeded — from the rest of the country. Now, as temperatures rise and its annual isolation comes to a gradual end, it’s hardly surprising that connectivity is what the voters here are looking for. Roads and a civilian airport are all they want.
“We have been hearing of a tunnel being constructed under the Zoji La. I am sure our grandchildren will hear about it, too,” says Sajjad Hussain, a government school teacher, referring to the proposed 14.2 km tunnel, intended to connect Sonmarg with Drass for all-year access. Situated at 11,578 feet, the project was inaugurated by the Prime Minister last year but construction has since run aground. With the nearest civilian airport in Leh, over 220 km away, connectivity with the rest of the country continues to remain a dream.
Across the Zoji La, lies Kashmir with all its turmoil, agitation and violence from which Kargil seems a world away. “We empathise with the Kashmiris but our issues are separate. We are in a bad state but better than the Kashmiris,” says a Drass resident.
Kargil district, along with Leh, makes up the Ladakh parliamentary constituency, one of the six in Jammu and Kashmir and goes to polls on May 6. In Kargil town, shoppers jostle for space with children returning from school. A leaflet in support of Article 370 is pinned to a tree, posters of Ayatollah Khomeini flutter in the April breeze and a man armed with a mic sits at a chowk asking for donations for the recent flood in Iran.
With 77 per cent of Kargil’s 140,000-strong population Muslim, 65 per cent of which is Shia, links to Iran are strong and it’s not uncommon for boys to be sent to seminaries in Iran or Iraq. The Buddhist population is concentrated mainly in the district’s Zanskar region. “Despite the Shia majority, there is a lot of cultural and ethnic diversity here,” says Muzamil Hussain of Roots Ladakh, a travel agency that he co-founded to promote the region’s heritage.
‘Govt jobs few, no pvt employment’
“We are trapped in the label of the Kargil War,” he says, “The youth here are frustrated. We can’t have big industry, the terrain doesn’t allow it. Tourism, which can provide employment, isn’t developed either, like it is in Leh. Of course, we are concerned about issues outside Ladakh, too, like the treatment of minorities in the rest of the country. We have too many issues of our own to think about others,” he says.
At Thasgam, a village of about 500 people closer to Drass, a group of women prepare the field to sow barley and wheat, the only crop they reap all year. “What we grow is barely enough for ourselves. Government jobs are few; there is no private sector employment. Even after studying, we don’t know what will be in store for us,” says Kauser Parveen, 20, a student in a Drass institute.
In Drass, which wears the look of an ancient caravan town, most shops are still to open for the season. Blocks of snow lie on the roadside, melting almost unwillingly. In a small eatery, a group of men discusses the upcoming polls over steaming plates of yak meat pulao. Drass was one of the few regions in Kargil that voted for the BJP in 2014. The party’s candidate Thupstan Chhewang, a Buddhist leader from Leh, won by just 36 votes but resigned last year both as an MP and from the BJP.
“The government may have not reached everywhere but a Jio tower has. Free daata aaya par aatta nahin (We got free data but no flour),” says a resident, Saifuddin, among much laughter. “It’s not as if the government schemes are not there but either people are not aware of them or they don’t reach the people who really need them. We opened so many accounts under the Jan Dhan scheme, but they are all empty,” says Anees, a bank employee.
In the absence of jobs, the Congress’s NYAY scheme is something most people in the region have heard of though opinions are divided. “Now that Rahul Gandhi is promising Rs 6,000 every month to the poor, maybe he will keep his promise,” says Kaneez Gatoma of Chanigund village. “Who believes in promises any more,” counters another resident.
While the BJP has declared Jamyang Tsering Namgyal, 31, the chief executive councillor of the Ladakh Autonomous Hill Development Council (LAHDC), as its candidate, the Congress is fielding Buddhist leader Rigzin Spalbar. Both belong to Leh.
This February, Kargil had come together to demand that the headquarters of the newly created Ladakh division rotate between Leh and Kargil, instead of just Leh. The region’s influential religious institutions tried this election to decide on a consensus candidate from Kargil but failed. The Islamiya School Kargil has declared journalist Sajjad Kargili as an independent candidate, with the support of the National Conference and PDP, while the Ayatollah Khomeini Memorial Trust has decided on former MLA Haji Asgar Ali Karbalai as an Independent candidate with the tacit support of the district Congress.
‘In voting, a Leh-Kargil divide’
Aga Syed Abbas Razvi, one of the 30 councillors of the LAHDC of Kargil whose family began the Anjuman-Sahib-uz-Zaman in Suru Valley, says, “There is definitely a divide between Leh and Kargil where voting is concerned. Like the religious institutions in Kargil tell people whom to vote for, so does the Ladakh Buddhist Association. A consensus candidate from here would have ensured the next MP comes from Kargil,” says Razvi. In Ladakh, it’s sub-regionalism not nationalism that sways the votes.
Summer is yet to arrive in Suru Valley whose snow-splattered hills will burst into green in a few months. Tourism has gradually picked up and people talk proudly of how the just-released Alia Bhatt-starrer Kalank was shot in one of its villages. In a dimly-lit tea shop in Sankoo, regulars discuss the upcoming polls. The more things change, the more they remain the same, says one. “Our issues have been unchanged: better connectivity, education and jobs. The way most people decide whom to vote for hasn’t changed either. Religious institutions still tell people whom to vote for,” he says. The way Kargil votes, he declares, is completely different from how the country votes.