How the 1999 war changed Kargil
Fifteen years ago, relations between India and Pakistan hit rock bottom as they fought an undeclared war in Kargil in the Himalayan territory.
For travellers between Srinagar and Leh, the essential halt is Drass, the world’s second-coldest habitation after Siberia—it can get as low as minus 40 degrees Celsius here. In the foothills of Tololing, one of the two peaks that became famous in the 84-day conflict in 1999, the Army has built Vijaypath, an impressive war memorial that's become a tourist spot.
The memorial features a museum and a sandstone wall with the names of soldiers who died. A large tricolour flutters overhead.
Whenever a group reaches the memorial, Vishal Chhetri of 9 Gorkha Rifles will provide an eight-minute, high-voltage briefing on the war. Both Tiger Hill, the other peak made famous during the Kargil war, and Tololing are visible from where Chitri delivers his monologue. “I usually make 10 presentations a day and on certain days, many more,” he said.
Things tend to get hectic around Vijay Diwas, July 26. Last year, the war memorial had 35,000 visitors who arrived in the five months that the Srinagar-Leh road through the Zoji La pass is open. Tourist guides in Sonamarg and Baltal have discovered a 1,000-feet glacier barely metres away from Zoji La, which marks the beginning of Kargil district. It’s about 23 km from Sonamarg. For about Rs 300 an hour, they will take visitors on a sledge ride over the glacier at ‘zero point’ and to the memorial.
“At the peak tourist season, we manage to get around 350 tourist vehicles to this spot,” said Shabir Ahmad of Kangan. About 40 families benefit from the business, he said.
Shaan Qureshi, who manages the 21-room Hill View hotel, also gets busy around July 26. The Army hires the rooms for 10 days to accommodate officers, media and families of fallen soldiers. “Some families extend their visit by many days and organise special prayer meetings at their own cost,” said Qureshi, who's from Dehradun. “We, otherwise, have full occupancy for most of the summer.” The hospitality sector seems to be doing well. There are more than 10 hotels and some 20 restaurants.
Resident Mushtaq Ahmad said the war triggered the change that Kargil, in general, and Drass, in particular ,are witnessing.
Drass—a town of 13,000 people of Kashmiri, Balti and Dard descent—emptied completely in 1999 as it came within the firing range of Pakistani gunners. When people returned, most of their properties had been damaged. “The government gave relief and that became the capital for growth,” Ahmad said. Haji Abdul Rahim Mir runs a hardware store.
“The entire change in the town is because of the Army," he said. "It all began with Operation Sadhbavana and with every passing day, the town sees the Army contributing towards the overall development.” The latest is a hockey ice rink in which it's investing Rs 90 lakh. Operation Sadhbavana was a goodwill exercise introduced by Lt General Arjun Ray of the newly-established 14 Corps in Ladakh to reach out and build ties with the community just after the Kargil war. That strategy has worked, Mir said. After the war, the Army helped people rebuild homes. It also provides water supply, healthcare and education.
“There is no household that has less than two horses,”Mir said. “The number of porters has gone up, so has the number of soldiers and everybody has a better life.”
Banking has surged, said Gulzar Ahmad, manager of a Jammu and Kashmir Bank branch. Six years ago it had Rs 8 crore in deposits and an exposure of Rs 3 crore. “Now we have Rs 65 crore deposits and Rs 25 crore advances,” Ahmad said. “This branch alone makes a yearly net profit of more than Rs 1 crore.” Most of the loans are for real estate, funding new constructions.
Kargil district as a whole has Rs 752 crore in deposits and loans hit a high of Rs 212 crore in June, said Fazl Ali, who runs a steel fabricating unit. Ali credits Ray with making the change happen. “He accommodated people from the margins,” Ali said. “Opportunities were always there for us in the Army but we were rarely considered till Arjun Ray did the course correction.”
Among more than 450 soldiers listed at the Vijaypath wall, 52 were from Jammu and Kashmir. Of them, 20 were Buddhists from Ladakh and only nine were Muslim. An elderly resident who didn’t want to be identified said the trust deficit had been bridged to a considerable extent. “They had apprehensions about our loyalty but after the war was over and they assessed things, change followed,” he said. “Soon after the war, many youth were appointed and my village has 24 soldiers now, which was unimaginable earlier.”
Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi backed the hearts-and-minds approach recently, saying he was witness to celebrations in Kargil when the intruders were repulsed from Tiger Hill.
Education is another area in which the Army provides support. “We have an Army school each at Drass, Channigund, Trespone, Batalik and Bud Kharbu,” Ali said. “They have also opened a school for differently-abled children, which was a long-pending demand... Transport in all the Army schools is provided by the Army, free of cost.”
In winter, the Army ferries people in and out of the area in an AN32. “We fly to Srinagar for Rs 1,100, which almost equals the bus fare,” Ali said. The war also made Kargil famous. “It is a brand in itself,” said Mohammad Ali, who’s just started a hotel. “Now people visit this town to know about the war and its barren beauty.”
The rise in arrivals, mostly from Srinagar and Leh, has led to a doubling of bed capacity to nearly 250. Kargil alone recorded arrivals of 44,000 tourists, including 4,000 foreigners, last year. By the first week of August this year, the number had reached 36,000 with two months to go. Kargil is also a magnet for the high-spending tourist as it’s the base camp for Zanskar, a centre of Tibetan Buddhist culture.
In Drass, the Army is under pressure to restore connectivity to the pre-1999 position. The town was connected for most of the year with Gurez in Kashmir’s Bandipore district, which is the only major address for Shinaspeaking Dards on this side of the Line of Control (LoC). The people want to restore potato-wool barter and reconnect with linguistic roots. But the Army is reluctant even though it has built a road between the two border towns. Meanwhile, it is unlikely to restore the right of habitation to the people who used to live in 20 or so homes in Mushko valley, another major battleground of 1999. Evicted after the 1965 war, they have won a protracted legal battle but the high court's orders are waiting implementation, locals said.
Chief minister Omar Abdullah is also lobbying for the people of Kargil. Recently, he sought Modi’s help in trying to persuade the Army to relinquish parts of Khurbathong plateau for the fast-expanding town. This, along with the adjoining Khumbathang plateau, is with the Army. “Army can utilise whatever portion of the plateau it requires and the rest can be provided for the expansion of Kargil town,” Abdullah said.
There are other demographic undercurrents at work. The younger generation wants to get out from under the influence of the Aghas, Munshis and Kachos, three powerful clans that sit at the apex of Kargil’s social order. “The war opened up Kargil to the world and helped the desert prosper,” said academic Nasir Shabani. “It gave youth the mobile, internet and cable TV, which has destabilised society. It brought a change for which we were not ready and our institutions were caught unawares.”
The last Lok Sabha polls were an indicator of this. “BJP did not win the (Ladakh) seat because Buddhists voted for them. They won it because Kargil did not vote,” Shabani said. Or else they voted NOTA— none of the above. Kargil registered 1,200 such votes. BJP won the seat by a mere 37 votes.
The war has changed Kargil in many ways—most of all, it has been pulled into the mainstream. Now the people there want more. They want peace on the border and they want the road from Kargil to Skardu in Pakistan-administered Gilgit to be opened, giving the region all-weather connectivity. Those seeking votes in the upcoming assembly elections should note this.