By Murtaza Fazdy, Stawa 12-19
Bawa Ibrahim, Turtuk, Nubra valley
The village of Turtuk glittered with golden leaves on a chilly wintry afternoon in November. It was my third visit to Turtuk since 2017. I am not sure what fascinates me about this village. Perhaps it is the beauty of the landscape, the warm hospitality extended to guests, or the simplicity of the villagers. Whatever the reason, I seem to be drawn back to this village perched on the Line of Control that currently separates India and Pakistan.
I finished my lunch at my friend Sulaiman Maha's home. During lunch, he had promised to introduce me to an elderly gentleman who had witnessed Turtuk's tumultuous history since the 1940s. As we made our way across the village, Sulaiman mentioned that the person we were about to meet was the eldest person of the village. The gentleman, Haji Mohamed Ibrahim was sitting in his fields bathing in sun light. The first thing that struck me about him was his sober face and his white beard. He was indeed the grand old man of Turtuk.
As we sat down to speak with Meme Ibrahim, Sulaiman's words buzzed through my head. Here was a person who has lived through all the changes that have taken place in the area since the 1940s: Dogra rule, Indian and Paksitani Independence, Partition, the invasion of the Gilgit Scouts, separation of Turtuk from Baltistan during 1971 Indo-Pakistan war and, more recently, the bifurcation of J&K state into two Union Territories.
The villagers addressed him as Bawa Ibrahim as a mark of respect and I too used it to address him. As I asked him about his early memories, Bawa Ibrahim mentioned memories from his youth before 1947. He said, "We were free to roam anywhere in the subcontinent be it Lahore, Kashmir or Delhi. People from the village would go to Punjab for work and things were peaceful and prosperous. Between the Pamirs to Yarkand, which includes Baltistan and Ladakh, only two places were said to be economically prosperous: Yarkand and Gilgit. We were told that in Yarkand a beggar would own two horses: One for himself and the other to carry his alms and goods. In Yarkand, the donkeys were fed so much that their mouths were always red. We would trade salt and apricot. We did not experience any great hardship in that period.
When asked about his memories of Indian independence, he mentioned famous mainstream Indian leaders of the time, including Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, M.K. Gandhi, Mohammad Ali Jinnah and Jawaharlal Nehru. "They were the prominent faces of the Indian freedom struggle from British rule," he said. He then spoke about the complexity of the Partition. "The British Government proposed the two-nation theory: A separate country was formed for Muslims with Lahore as its main city while Delhi was the capital of India," he recalled. Bawa Haji Ibrahim explained that organising countries on the basis of religion was the reason East Bengal was included with Pakistan after Partition. He remembered the sequence of leadership in Pakistan starting with its first Prime Minister Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
Bawa Ibrahim mentioned some conspiracy theories that surround the early death of Jinnah including the suspicion that Jinnah died of poisoning. "We used to hear such rumours from our elders who used to travel outside the village for work. This was the only source of news and communication for us," he added.
I asked him how the news of India's independence and the subsequent events reached them in the village. Bawa Ibrahim replied that village elders like Haji Rahim and others used to travel to Punjab and Shimla for work. "On their return, they would recount stories about the political situation. As children we would hear their tales with great interest and dedication," he explained.
When asked about the raid by Gilgit Scouts, Bawa Ibrahim had vivid memories of the time. He mentioned that a room full of eggs was served to the soldiers of Gilgit Scouts when they reached Turtuk and Chorbat. "I remember the name of a few of the soldiers such as Lazzi and Mohamed Ali, Gilgit Scouts had managed to reach Chalunkha village when the hostilities escalated into a war. The commander of Gilgit Scouts, Haji Hayat, who was from Gilgit, went to Skardo to bring rations for his troops. By the time he returned to Chalunkha post, Indian Army had reached Bogdang village. This is where the cease fire line [LOC] between Indian and Pakistan was drawn in 1948."
Bawa Ibrahim said that they received news that Gilgit Scouts had to flee from Kargil and Drass, which came under the control of the Indian Army. It was fascinating to speak to someone who had witnessed history unfold and experienced its impact in person.
I asked Bawa Ibrahim to describe the social history of Turtuk after Partition and the condition of the people. Bawa Ibrahim said that officials of Revenue Department such as Patwari, Qanungo, and Naib Tehsildar were responsible for the administration of the village. He explained that every village was governed by a chairman who reported to Government of Pakistan. He added that officials from Health Department were also stationed in the village.
"I remember martial law was imposed in Pakistan under Gen Ayub Khan. In that period, the army had a major influence in civilian affairs. In general, the revenue officials were cruel and tough on the common people," he reminisced.
Agriculture was the main source of livelihood in Turtuk and Khaplu at the time. Villagers would sell wood to the army and forest contractors. By 1970, life in the village had settled into predictable rhythm. However, it was about to be disrupted by the war of 1971, which once again disturbed the socio-economy of Turtuk. In the course of the war, the Pakistani Army retreated to Franu village as the Indian troops led by Col Rinchen reached Turtuk to bring it under Indian control. Bawa Ibrahim recalled, "The Bangladeshi regiment posted at Turtuk and Khaplu rebelled against Pakistan to support the Independence movement for Bangladesh. The Line of Control between Indian and Pakistan thus shifted west and Turtuk came under Indian control." Once the war ended, hundreds of families in the area were separated from their relatives, friends and loved ones by the LoC.
According to Bawa Ibrahin, the economic and social condition of the villagers improved through support from the Indian Army. Members of the village worked for the Indian Army as porters and agriculture practices improved. In his opinion, the economy of the village improved and people had more avenues of employment. "Rizq Khulla Rig sung (Balti for food became abundant after that)," he concluded.
I could not help but ask how he saw the latest development in terms of UT being granted to Ladakh. I was interested in knowing how he saw this development in the context of the history that he has witnessed in his lifetime. He replied, "I have no idea what is happening or what they have done. However, getting separated from Kashmir is not a good thing. Kashmir and Kargil have a lot of connections, including emotional and economic ties. Even in Turtuk we have a lot of connections with Kashmir. We can only put faith in God. We don't know what the future will bring. We have been experiencing development at a slow and steady pace. However, I find it difficult to understand this sudden change [UT]. I have heard some youth saying that outsiders [non-Ladakhis] can now buy land in our area. The village elders also do not seem very happy with this sudden decision."
As we prepared to leave, I asked Bawa Ibrahim if there were any lasting lessons he learnt from his eventful life. He thought for a moment as if he was forming his words carefully. Then, he said "Well, I cried for years after the separation from my relatives and family members in 1971. In time, I forgot about them and made new relatives here. I have learnt that time heals every pain, I have moved on with my life."