9 January 2014
Despite state overtures, localised identities provide a powerful argument against Baltistan’s coarsely wrought borders.
On 14 December 1971 the residents of Turtuk, a small village in the Baltistan region, awoke as Indian citizens. Under cover of night, Major Chewang Rinchen of the Indian Army’s Ladakh Scouts had penetrated 25 kilometres into the Nubra valley (then held by Pakistan), and annexed the territory, subsuming it under the authority of Ladakh district. Though unfashionable in cartographic circles, the creation of an Indian Baltistan joined that of Chinese Baltistan (also known as Aksai Chin and the Trans-Karakoram tract) and Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan to unofficially, though quite accurately, denote a region whose liminal existence is a fact of life.
Named Dhuk-Dhuk (literally, ‘to settle’) in the indigenous Balti language, the irony of Turtuk’s history is difficult to escape. Enjoying a long period of stability after ceding from the Tibetan Empire in the 9th century, the region was conquered by the Dogras of Jammu in 1834 before Gulab Singh formally purchased it from the British via the 1846 Treaty of Amritsar. Though Partition allotted the region to Pakistan, with India’s 1971 annexation the town has been saddled with the presence of armed forces (from both sides) since. Located beneath the towering Ladakh and Karakoram ranges, the immediate geography of Turtuk provides an unfortunate allegory of its political uncertainty.
A liminal existence does, however, provide a degree of leverage in dealing with the state. Though haphazard for nearly 30 years, in the wake of the Kargil War the Indian government has expended significant development resources in a calculated attempt to court the allegiance of Turtuk’s residents. Operation Sadhbhavana, funded primarily by the Ministry of Defence, has focused on improving education, health, infrastructure, and community development in the region, in conjunction with more conventional counter-insurgency tactics. Though a degree of success has been achieved, questions remain as to the extent to which it has made loyal citizens of Turtuk’s inhabitants. For many, damage to local trade resulting from the imposition of the Line of Control (LoC), as well as the confiscation of land by the Indian Army has proved devastating.
Still, more than livelihoods are at stake: stories of familial separation are commonplace in Turtuk. For some, the prospect of being re-acquainted with parents or siblings on the other side of the LoC remains a distant dream. Others, now well into middle age, have no recollection of their next-of-kin. Though visas have, on occasion, been procured for cross-border reunions, feel-good stories are rare. Despite increasing calls for the opening of the Turtuk-Khapulu road and a more liberal visa regime, both Indian and Pakistani officials remain reluctant to act. Beyond the Nubra Valley, collective will appears difficult to muster.
As the events of 1971 demonstrate, state-centric forms of identity have proven fickle for Turtuk’s residents. Though recent counter-insurgency strategies are a welcome change from more draconian methods, national allegiance remains bound to a system of physical alienation, whether from family, neighbour, or market. In the struggle for a more human border regime, localised identities will prove vital.