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The Hindu : A 'battle' in the snowy heights

Online edition of India's National Newspaper
Thursday, January 11, 2001

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A 'battle' in the snowy heights

By Atul Aneja

TURTUK (Ladakh), JAN. 10. In defending the frontline facing the Pakistan- controlled Northern Areas, India may have combined the use of force with a sophisticated battle to win the hearts and minds of the local people.

Turtuk, not far from the Siachen glacier, is the last outpost in this sector from where the Northern Areas begin. It is roughly half way between Leh in Ladakh and Skardu, a major Baltistan town another 180 km away. Pakistan's key 62 brigade is also positioned in Skardu. The heavily defended Skardu, in turn, is part of the Force Commander Northern Areas (FCNA) a key Pakistani formation headquartered at Gilgit, capital of the Northern Areas and further away.

Being one of the gateways to the Siachen sector, Turtuk is strategically important. A breach in the forward defence line here can bring hostile forces to the gates of Leh, heart of Ladakh. Turtuk is vulnerable because a single road which reaches out to Leh can be breached, unless it is heavily defended.

Starting from Leh, the road to Turtuk first cuts through the 18,000-feet high Khardungla Pass and then rapidly descends before reaching Khalsar. Assured Indian control over Khalsar is vital as it stands on a strategic T-junction. One whole road straddling the river Nubra heads towards the Siachen base camp while another loops towards the Turtuk via Partapur, where an Indian brigade is headquartered. For the rest of the distance, the road to Turtuk straddles the Shyok, a major tributary of the Indus river. In winter, the Shyok's green waters carry huge ice blocks. The water is crystal clear, and, wherever shallow, exposes glistening white rocks along the gradient.

The landscape around is imposing as the bare lofty heights of the Karakoram - yellowed with age and sometimes snowcapped - literally overarch the thin ribbon of the road snaking across the moonscape towards Turtuk.

Battle-scarred zone

From Partapur, the 90 km stretch to Turtuk passes through Chalunka, a battle-scarred zone, where some buildings blown up by Pakistani artillery shells during the Kargil war, stand abandoned. Short of Turtuk, another road branches out east towards the Siachen glacier. The village of Turtuk itself is dominated in the rear by a high snow-capped peak where a Pakistani post is positioned.

This road further heads towards Skardu in the Northern Areas via Pion, Khapalu and Narthan where the Shyok empties into the mighty Indus.

Turtuk, which was earlier with Pakistan, was captured by Indian troops in 1971. But with the assertion of Indian authority also came the separation of families. The around 2,000 ethnic Baltis here have relatives across the border. Around 10 per cent of the Muslim population distributed in the villages of Tyakshi, Chalunka, Thang and Pachathang, besides Turtuk are Wahabis, while about 50 per cent are Noor Bakshis.

The rest are mainly Sunnis with a sprinkling of Shias. Conversely, most of the residents of Skardu, heart of Baltistan, are either Shias or Ismailis, followers of the Aga Khan.

While physical security is ensured by the heavy troop deployment, a state of tension in the area can be removed only after the emotional integration of the locals with India. That, however, is unlikely to be easy. Pakistan, for instance, would be keen on subverting, especially, the Sunnis among the population. In fact, Islamabad has attempted to overwhelm the majority Shia population of the Northern Areas through militant Sunni organisations. Pakistan's highly radical Anjuman Sipah-i-Sahaba along with the local Ahl-e-Sunnat Wal Jammat has deepened the sectarian divide in Baltistan. Resistance to this in Baltistan is spearheaded by the Balawaristan National Front (BNF) and the Karakoram National Movement (KNM).

`Civic action'

Aware of the possibility that the population may turn restive, the Army has mounted a ``civic action'' programme, ``Sadbhavana'', for providing basic medical aid and recruiting the Baltis in its ranks. This, however, may not be enough to bring these people into the national mainstream.

In fact, India is yet to come to grips with the barrage of anti- India propaganda spewed in Balti language from Radio Skardu. Besides, a virulent anti-Kashmir campaign is aired by the Muzzafarabad-based radio station, Sada-e-Hurriyat. All India Radio, on the contrary, does not transmit any programme in Balti and Doordarshan's reach in the area is also interrupted, say some locals.

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