Homeland howl: ‘Only the dead visit us’

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On Human Rights Day, Free Press Kashmir reports the captive case of Kherun Nissa of Turtuk region of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir where, divided by borders, her people continue to pine for their loved ones living on the other side. 

For years, Turtuk’s Balti band had sung dirges for their lost tribe and not-so-distant homeland gone with history’s takeover bids and belligerence.

From the word go itself, these borderline people would enlighten their young about Zorawar Singh Kahluria’s Baltistan invasion—at the dawn of Dogra Raj in the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir—and how Gulab Singh’s military general eventually took their last king Ahmad Shah as a captive and scattered his clan and courtiers as convicts in every nook and cranny of the region.

Among the new-age conveyor belts of that staggering saga was Kherun Nissa, a mother of three children who in August 2020, covered a distance of about a thousand kilometres to reach—dead—to her parents’ house in Gunesthang.

During her fleeting lifetime, Turtuk Baltis said, Nissa would wonder about her royal roots and the plight of the erstwhile Balti queens and princesses in Dogra dungeons and how some of them were buried, unceremoniously, in different cemeteries of downtown Srinagar.

But this past plagued summer, her lifeless arrival from the other side of the fence only created the old cry in the Balti community of Turtuk’s Bogdang village.

They gathered for her funeral and wailed over their homeland, scattered across the redrawn borders of 1971, splitting it into different time zones, all over again.

“The incident of Nissa’s death has been a painful and emotional incident, not only for her family, but for whole of the Balti community, residing on either sides of the border,” Nissa’s uncle, Ghulam Mohammad Tso told me, sighing over the telephone.

Referring to a viral photograph of a wailing woman draped in blue chaddar, Tso said the mourner from the other side has her brother and mother living in this side.

“The ones who’re alive are not allowed to visit their families,” the woman wailed. “Only the dead visit us, and then they return.”

Married to Abbas Ali for two years, Nissa went missing at 8pm on August 26, 2020, when she left her in-laws’ house.

“We were returning from a Muharram procession when we thought of visiting our niece at her in-laws on August 27,” said Ghulam Qadir, Nissa’s uncle.

“Once we reached there, her husband informed us that Nissa had not returned home since last night.”

Hearing the news of her disappearance, the family registered the missing report and shared the news on social media.

The next day the family learnt that Nissa had drowned in the Shyok river. Her body washed away 10 kilometres, into Pakistan’s Thugmas village, where it was then fished out by the locals.

River Shyok, which means the river of death, flows across Leh’s picturesque Nubra Valley, and joins Indus in Gilgit Baltistan, located on the other side of the Line of Actual Control (LAC).

After lament, Nissa’s death reopened the unhealed wounds of the Balti families — most of whom have their kith and kin living on the Pakistan side of the border, yet are not allowed to visit their families neither by India, nor Pakistan authorities.

“Should we all jump into the Shyok river now so that we can unite with our families living on Pakistan side of the border?” a wailing mourner asked Tso at his niece’s funeral.

“People have been talking like this ever since Nissa’s death,” Tso told me. “They now wish to be a drop of water that would fall into Shyok and get carried to Baltistan where their families live.”

After the fatal news surfaced, Nissa’s parents insisted Delhi and Islamabad to return the body for last rites, so they could “see a last glimpse of their daughter’s face”.

But even in death, it was not easy for Nissa to make her journey back home.

Usually in the drowning cases where the body crosses the Line of Control, the authorities on both the sides hand over the body from the nearest point, providing transportation for the same.

But in Nissa’s case, citing the Indo-China standoff and the border escalations as reason, the authorities refused to take over the body from the closest proximity range, which in this case was at Thang village, from where Bogdang is just four kilometres away.

Thang, a village that lies beyong Turtuk, is one of the four villages that became the part of Indian territory in 1971, during the “Operation Turtuk”.

On July 2, 1972, after Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Indira Gandhi signed the Shimla Agreement, this boundary became LoC.

Tso had a lot of stories to tell about men and women of his community, especially whose families were sundered by the ’71 borders.

He told me about a Thang resident, Goba Ali, who when he slept one night was a Pakistani and next morning woke up realising little that his citizenship had changed overnight.

“He was only five years old in 1971 when along with his younger brother, he was orphaned by the borders,” Tso said.

“Goba’s family was just one kilometre away from Thang, but in a different country. Goba was allowed to visit Pakistan in 2014, where he stayed with his old parents for a few months before coming back to Thang.”

Although there are many like Goba, with their families divided, living on either sides of the border, but not all have been given a chance to see their family members. Not even once.

It took four days for Nissa’s body to be transported back to her village, which otherwise would have taken an hour if the authorities on the Indian side had permitted.

But the complexity of borders and the ever growing hostility made her old parents wait for days before they could see face of their daughter returning lifeless from their long lost homeland.


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