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India-Pakistan Partition: Balti Voices from Ladakh – Zainab Akhter


Updated: Nov 23, 2020

This paper was written for and presented at a panel discussion on November 12, 2016 as part of the 2nd annual History for Peace conference, The Idea of Nationalism, Calcutta.

For many, Ladakh is a mere tourist destination, a remote Himalayan region known for its monasteries and peace-loving people. But this is half the picture. For Ladakh is geostrategically important for India—it shares its borders with China and Pakistan and is home to the mighty Siachen glacier. In the past, Leh/Kargil and Gilgit-Baltistan was a part of Ladakh, linking further to the strategic Central Asian region, and part of Silk Route. Most importantly, not only Kashmir but also Ladakh was affected by the Partition of India in 1947. Media and scholars of history on both sides of the border have mostly looked upon Partition and the problem of divided families through the prism of Kashmir and Punjab. On the other hand, Partition stories from Ladakh/ Gilgit-Baltistan still remain untold. There is cross-border connectivity and activity from both Kashmir and Punjab but no voice for the divided families of this Himalayan region. This paper is an attempt to highlight the unheard voices of Partition from the far-flung regions of Ladakh.

Unacknowledged History

Kargil is one of the two districts in the Ladakh region of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Consisting of the Suru, Wakha, Drass and Zanskar valley, it is located near the Line of Control (LoC) facing the Pakistan-administrated region of Gilgit-Baltistan to the north. Before Partition, Kargil was a part of the greater Baltistan province. The first India-Pakistan War, often referred to as the first Kashmir war in 1947–48, left the region divided into two, with Kargil lying on the Indian side and Baltistan on the other. A large number of people, therefore, suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of India, separated from their family and ancestral land.

The destiny of the people of Ladakh became entwined with the dispute over Kashmir, to which India and Pakistan lay claim even today. However, unlike the separatist movements in Kashmir valley that calls for azadi from India, the people of Ladakh—both Muslims and Buddhists—have remained resolutely pro-India and strive to make their distinct political voice heard in the national mainstream. Yet hidden beneath this overt discourse is the more delicate balancing act between a politics of belonging to India and a longing for a space unfettered by geopolitical barriers erected by the Partition, which is expressed through the circulation of cultural forms sustained by shared linguistic and religious histories.

Partition stories from Ladakh come out very sparsely and are mostly unacknowledged by mainstream media and researchers. Most of the stories, if any, are mainly centered on Leh and Kargil town. There are villages in the far-flung region of Kargil that are equally affected by Partition but nothing has been written about them so far. One such village is Padum, hidden amid the high mountains of the Zanskar valley. It is a 240-kilometre drive from Kargil. The majority of the population in Zanskar is Buddhist, with Sunni Muslims in the minority (40 per cent). The Muslims live in and around Padum and among them are hidden Partition stories which have never been written about. During the summer of 2016, as a part of History for Peace project, I undertook an initial field study and made an attempt to a record few of these unheard/unacknowledged stories from Zanskar.

Here are a few of the stories:

Field-Study: Recording Unacknowledged History

Haji Abdul Hamid, 83, Farmer

He was only 12 when the Partition happened and his father Habibullah crossed to the other side of the border. He and his three sisters were raised by their mother who died at the age of 63, leaving him to shoulder all responsibility. He worked in the farms in the summers and migrated to other parts of India in the winters in order to earn a living. There was rarely any communication with his father. After his marriage, he received the first letter from Pakistan which informed him that his father was settled in Sermik, Skardu, and had married another woman. It was only through these rare letters that he was able to keep in touch with his father and his family on the other side. In 1992, when he visited Mecca to perform pilgrimage, he received a letter and a photo of his father’s family for the first time, which they sent with a person from Skardu who had also gone on Haj. He kept yearning to meet his father until he received a letter from Pakistan about his death. He is 83 now and his only wish is to visit his father’s grave in Sermik.

Mohd Amin, 62, Retired mountaineer

Mohammad Amin was only eighteen months old when his father Mohammad Ali left for Pakistan with the rest of the troupe of what was known as ‘Padum Party’. This was after the ceasefire was signed between India and Pakistan and when both representatives from India and Pakistan came to Zanskar to announce the ceasefire and end of India-Pakistan war of 1947. Being an infant, he spent the rest of his life without his father as his mother never remarried. However, his father remarried when he reached Skardu, Pakistan, when he realized there was no way of going back to Padum after the permanent borders were drawn between the two countries. He could never meet his father and could hardly picture him in thoughts and memories from the few letters and pictures he sent from Pakistan. He tried to get a Pakistani visa many times to meet his father. But by the time he got a visa in 2009, his father had died. He visited Pakistan but could not meet his father.

Mohd Shafi, 82, Retired teacher

He has witnessed the impact of Partition very closely, as his two brothers Mohd Jaleel and Mohd Yaseen, and his sister’s husband, Mohd Ali, left for Pakistan. The sister was only 25 when her husband left. She had four sons then but two died very early in life. The two children were brought up by the mother without a father as she never remarried. Mohd Shafi took care of his sister and her children. ‘Since then, 70 years have passed but nothing has changed between India and Pakistan. The only thing that has changed is my sister’s life. She was 25 then but today she is 96 and barely understands things. If she lives two years more, she will be 100 but the India–Pakistan issue will remain the same,’ he says. Her husband died in Pakistan and she never met him after Partition.

Cultural Connect

Caught in the crossfire of political tensions between India and Pakistan and the strict patrolling of the LoC—especially after the 1999 conflict—it has become impossible for people to obtain Pakistani visa to travel across the border. Despite the impermeability of the border, people in Kargil continue to maintain strong emotional and cultural links with Gilgit-Baltistan. Narrations of these travels in Baltistan and objects carried back by the few people who make it to the other side of the border imaginatively recreate the borderland for those who have never been. These stories acquire a life of their own through renditions by those who have neither experienced the Partition nor travelled to Baltistan and Gilgit. The language spoken in Kargil and Gilgit-Baltistan is the same and is referred to as ‘Balti’ and the community is known as Balti community on both sides of the border. The food habits, physical structure and geographical terrains bear a striking resemblance. People of Kargil and Gilgit-Baltistan bond mostly on the Balti songs which travel across the border. Balti singers from Kargil are famous in Gilgit-Baltistan and vice versa.

My experience in Pakistan

For my grandfather, whose father was buried in Skardu, visiting Gilgit-Baltistan remains an unfulfilled dream. He was overjoyed when I was granted a visa and commented, ‘It is easier to get permission to perform Haj than to get a visa for Pakistan.’ Before my departure, he asked me to bring a medicinal herb called ‘Bashoo’ that is only available in Skardu. He insisted that I must bring this under any circumstances and our relatives in Islamabad sourced it from Skardu well in advance.

The excitement of crossing borders was palpable but there was an added eagerness to see my cousin from Skardu, Pakistan, who was coming to pick me up from the border. Partition has divided our families too and this was the first time I was meeting him, though of late we have kept in touch through social media. It was my grandfather’s wish to visit Pakistan and meet his relatives but he couldn’t make it due to the stringent visa process. I got this opportunity to realize his dreams and was acting as a bridge between the divided families. Finally, I saw my cousin and it was deja vu kind of feeling—as though I have met him before or maybe I have a relative who looks just like him in India.

We spent considerable amount of time trying to unravel the family tree and managed to clarify some of our shared history. I met several Balti students in Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad and to me they looked no different from friends and relatives from Kargil. The astonishing similarities makes you wonder about the legacy of loss left by Partition for the people along the LoC, which divided families that have been unable to meet in the last 7 decades. I felt very much at ease during these interactions. They would call me Brokpa (a Balti girl), which suggested that they regarded us as part of their community. For them, it’s a source of pride when someone outside their region calls them Balti.

The people of Gilgit-Baltistan have been famous for their music and they have preserved the core culture and mannerism of the earlier styles of Balti ghazals and songs. I could immediately identify with their songs and their music. The small music industry in Kargil and Gilgit-Baltistan are based on a common set of singers, and CDs made in Kargil and GB have a way of finding their way across the LoC. The blind Balti singer from Skardu, Abbas Anand Sermiki (the title ‘Anand’ is a tribute for his love of the Hindi film industry), remains a favourite on both sides of the LoC; his songs and videos are very popular in Kargil and he remains my mother’s personal favourite. Music certainly has no boundaries and it cuts across borders and connects people. The Internet has made it easier to upload and download music and helped the spread of Balti music across the Himalayas.

I met a person from Gilgit-Baltistan who lamented that the war of 1971 between India and Pakistan has divided his family; they remain separated after India captured Turtuk in 1971. He sent gifts and letters for his relatives in Tachay, Turtuk. He added that the travel restrictions between the two countries has discouraged them from applying for a visa and in the long run there seemed to be little prospect of easing this process. In the context of such hopelessness, the letter and gift from relatives across the LoC must have been an occasion of pure joy.

Looking Forward

Haji Abdul Hamid is my grandfather and I have grown up hearing Partition stories from him, which finally culminated in me taking up India–Pakistan relations as my field of study for my doctoral thesis. I have visited Pakistan and it has helped me immensely to understand the power of people–people diplomacy of which I am a strong proponent. With an urge to see my grandfather’s dream fulfilled, I have been trying to arrange a trip for him to Sermik, in the northern areas of Pakistan where his father is buried. With the help of an invitation letter from my cousin from Pakistan and an official at Pakistan Embassy in India (whom I met during a conference and narrated my grandfather’s story), I have finally submitted an application to the Embassy, requesting them to grant a visa to my grandfather on humanitarian basis. Even though the India–Pakistan relationship at this stage is not so great, we are still hoping for a positive response from the Government of Pakistan.

Coming back from Pakistan and being able to share stories from the other side of the border was such a fulfilling feeling. The gifts and letters I brought with me to Kargil were a symbol of the strong emotional and cultural connection between the two regions. The only demand which people on both sides of the border have is the opening of the Kargil–Skardu route. This demand is particularly emotional for it will facilitate travel to meet relatives more easily. But this narrative has been given a political colour at the regional and state levels and is used as a vote bank. The underlying question is: If there is a provision for the people of Kashmir to cross borders and meet relatives, then why don’t the people of GB and Kargil-Ladakh have the same opportunity? Given the fact that Ladakh is considered to be more peaceful as compared to the Kashmir valley.


Zainab Akhter is a research officer with the Centre for Internal and Regional Security at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. She has worked as a reporter with Hindustan Times and been awarded the Ladakh Women Writers Award for the year 2008 by Charkha, a Delhi-based NGO. She is currently a Ph.D. scholar at the Centre for International Politics, Organization and Disarmament (CIPOD), School of International Studies (SIS), Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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