Ground Report: In Drass, World's Second-Coldest Inhabited Place, Winter Comes Early

Closer to Srinagar than to Leh, residents of this quiet town are both uneasy and angered at the prospect of forming part of the Ladakh Union Territory.

Drass, Kargil: Aam taur par April se November tak log yahan kafi khush-mizaj rehte hain. (Usually, people here are quite cheerful between April and November),” says Shakeel Mohammed. Drass in the summer months is as pleasant as its people. 

Uske bad chehren bhi badal jaate hain aur mizaj bhi. Par is bar lagta hai sardi jaldi a gayi hai (After that, their faces change and so does the mood. But this time it feels as if winter has come early),” he said, likening the present mood in his adopted home to the slightly less agreeable temper of the town’s inhabitants during its unforgiving winter.

Drass, at an altitude of about 3,300 metres, is considered the second coldest inhabited place in the world with temperatures frequently dipping to a bone-chilling minus 30° Celsius in winter

“Overnight, their identity has been snatched away from them. Overnight, they have been made second class citizens in their own country. Of course, they will be unhappy,” Shakeel says. The mood in Drass, a part of Kargil district, is sombre since August 5, following the announcement that the state of Jammu and Kashmir will be bifurcated into two Union Territories and that Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which granted J&K special status within India, will be read down.

Shakeel is originally from Bihar and has been living in Drass since 1988 when he moved here as a maulvi (Muslim religious scholar) at the local masjid. He has since withdrawn from official duties at the masjid and runs a small tea and snack shop in the main market of the town which is located along the Leh-Srinagar highway. 

Also read | Ground Report: Agony and Casualties in the Valley in the Immediate Aftermath of Shutdown

One of the arguments made in favour of the reading down has been that they unfairly restricted the purchase of property in the state to only those who were deemed its permanent residents. Shakeel was thus not eligible to buy property in Drass. 

“But it did not matter,” he said. “I live in a rented house and nobody has ever made me feel that this is not my home.” 

Sixty-four-year-old Mohammed Ibrahim, with his hands wrapped snuggly around a warm cup of tea, agrees.

“This is Shakeel’s home as much as it is ours. There has never been any problem,” says Ibrahim, who has lived his entire life in Drass. For him, the rhetoric around buying property in J&K is disheartening.

“It is as if the state is an empty piece of land. That’s it. As if people don’t live here, or they don’t matter.” 

Mohammed Ibrahim. Photo: The Wire

“Since 1947, we have stood shoulder to shoulder with India and with the Indian Army. Without our help, the Indian Army would not have been able to capture those hills in 1999,” he says, pointing to the peaks in the vicinity that had been occupied by the Pakistan Army during the Kargil war of 1999

“We have always believed in the Indian democracy and in the Indian constitution. And this is the treatment that we get,” adds Ibrahim. 

Almost everyone The Wire spoke to in Drass and Kargil spoke against the bifurcation decision of the Centre and said that they wished to remain with the state of J&K. The protections that were guaranteed under Articles 370 and 35A, they said, were necessary to safeguard against the erosion of the distinct cultural identity of the state and to ensure that the economic interests of the region are not bulldozed. 

Also read | ‘What Did We Do?’: Kargil Seethes At Centre’s Bifurcation Decision

On the other hand, the decision has been welcomed with celebrations in Leh – the other district which, along with Kargil, will form the new Union Territory of Ladakh. Leh has, for several decades, demanded that Ladakh be separated from J&K and turned into a Union Territory on account of ‘neglect’ from Kashmir centric leadership, among other reasons.

The district of Kargil, however, has disapproved of this demand due to its close ties with the Kashmir Valley and its aversion to further division of the state. 

Both Kargil and Drass towns, which account for a large chunk of the 1.4 lakh population of Kargil district, have seen protests and shut downs since August 5 when the drastic steps were announced. While protests eased in Kargil town on August 16 after assurance of discussions with the chief secretary of Jammu and Kashmir, Drass, which is 60 km from Kargil on the road to Srinagar, has maintained a partial shutdown. 

“We want to be a part of Kashmir. Srinagar is only 150 km away. While Leh is 300 km away,” says Mohammed Iqbal, the correspondent’s co-passenger in a shared taxi from Kargil to Drass.

“Whether Kashmir gets freedom or remains with India, we want to remain with Kashmir. Our culture is the same. We have business ties. Leh is very far away,” he adds. 

Locals gather at a shop in Drass. Photo: The Wire

Qamar Ali Akhoon, a former minister in the Omar Abdullah government in J&K, says that the people of Kargil have always been against the division of the state. “We have always wanted to be with the state because we share linguistic, cultural, social and economic relations. The demand for a Union Territory has come from Leh, not from Kargil. Now, the government of India has taken this step without even consulting us. This is a dictatorship.” 

According to Asgar Ali Karabalai, a former Congress MLA from Kargil, the region has been against division of the state due to the pain that its people have suffered after the 1947-48 division of the state between India and Pakistan. “Half of Ladakh, which is Gilgit-Baltistan, is that side. Culturally, historically and geographically, it is the same as Ladakh,” he says. 

Also read | ‘Unfortunate That India Used Democracy to Snatch Rights of Ladakhis’: Kargil Leader

Overnight, Karbalai says, over 7,000 families had been divided by the drawing of the line of control (LoC). “These divisions only create anger, animosity and pain. We have had to suffer this.” The people of Kargil, according to Karbalai, will not be able to bear another division. 

Mohammed Hasan Pasha outside a closed shop. Photo: The Wire

Mohammed Hasan Pasha, who is the vice-president of the BJP’s youth wing in J&K and runs a medical store in Kargil’s main market does not agree and feels that the protests are an “overreaction.” 

“Kargil did not benefit from being with J&K. For decades, we have been demanding an airport, nothing has happened. There is no quality healthcare, no quality education, no jobs. The Zojila tunnel has also not been built,” he says.

Kashmir ne kabhi humein apna samjha hi nahi (Kashmir never considered us as their own)”. 

Although Pasha concedes that the people of Kargil have never supported the demand for a Union Territory, he feels that the new arrangement should be given a chance.

“It will be very beneficial to be directly under the Centre’s administration where we have a very able and determined leadership. At present, people are a little apprehensive because they don’t know what Union Territory status means. But soon they will understand and be happy with it,” he says.

Back to the shared taxi, Iqbal is accompanied by his daughter, Salima, a BSc student at a college in Kargil. Apart from the broader political concerns, Salima points out that she will now have to appear for the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) exams instead of the Jammu and Kashmir Public Service Commission (JKPSC). 

As per the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act of 2019, the JKPSC will continue to provide the pathway to civil services in the Union Territory of J&K. But, in Ladakh, the central UPSC will apply. 

“Instead of competing with 20,000, all of sudden I will now have to compete with 10 lakh applicants,” Salima says, clutching her bag tightly as the car swerves on the mountainous road.  

Salima will complete her BSc in 2020 and had planned to appear for the civil service exam immediately after. “But now I don’t know what to do. The way one needs to study for the UPSC exam is very different. It is much more difficult. We don’t even have any coaching institutes here like in the rest of India. How will I compete?” she asks.

Sheikh Nazir Mehdi Mohammedi, who is president of the Islamia School of Kargil and holds significant influence over the district’s largely Muslim population agrees that the future for youngsters like Salima has been made uncertain by the Centre’s move. “There is already a huge problem of unemployment in Kargil. And now, all of a sudden, all the protections that had been in place for almost a hundred years are gone,” he says. 

Closed shops in a Drass market. Photo: The Wire

The reservation of jobs and right to land use for state subjects of J&K which took the form of Article 35A under the Indian constitution had been in place since 1927 when the Maharaja of Kashmir issued notifications to the effect.  

“This is a remote and backward area which remains cut off for six months from the rest of India. Our youth will not be able to compete with people from the rest of India. Their future is being ruined,” Mohammedi says.

BJP leader Pasha agrees with the concerns over employment opportunities. “Yes, unemployment is already a big issue. Last year, 3,500 people applied for 200 vacancies for a class 4 job. If job reservations go, then this problem could become worse,” he admits. 

Mohammedi also argues that the distinct culture and identity of Ladakh stands threatened due to the Centre’s move. “We had a special status for a reason. There are numerous ethnicities just within Kargil. They together form a composite culture which is vastly different from any culture in the rest of India,” he says. 

Kargil is a diverse multi-cultural and multi-ethnic district with Baltis, Dards, Shinas, Purgis, Ladakhis and Aryans forming its population, over 14,000 square kms. 

“Now, if people from all over the country move here then our culture will be under threat. We are a very small population of very simple people,” Mohammedi says. 

Drass, the second coldest inhabited place in the world. Photo: The Wire

Outside a closed shop in Kargil town, a group of youngsters sit discussing the recent changes.

“J&K acceded to India on the condition that any new law will only be enacted with the consent of the J&K constituent assembly. Here, the Indian government has changed the very nature of the state without any sort of consultation. They consulted a governor who doesn’t even know the boundaries of the state,” 22-year-old Farooq Mohammed says. “It is an attack at the very heart of the state.” 

“Article 371, which gives the same protections as Article 370, is in place in many states in the northeast. And not everyone from India can buy land in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. So, why target only J&K?” asks his friend, Mohammed Salim. 

“This is only because J&K is a Muslim majority state. The intention of the BJP and RSS is to affect demographic change,” replies Farooq, between a smoke. 

“And this is despite the fact that we have been good Muslims. We have never demanded azadi (freedom),” Farooq adds.

According to him, the people of Kargil feel a close affinity to the people of the Kashmir Valley but have stayed clear of secessionist inclinations, unlike in the valley. 

Hilal Mohammed at his shop in Drass. Photo: The Wire

A similar sentiment was echoed by Hilal Mohammed, who owns a grocery store in Drass. “We are with Kashmiris. We want to be with them. At the same time, we have also always stood by the Indian constitution and the Army. We have never supported the demand for freedom. But, that does not mean you can do anything with us,” he says. His shop is teeming with people who have taken shelter from the rain and gusty winds outside.

“You impose curfew, deploy the Army and bring in a law. This is unfair. We are also from this country.”

Hilal says that he does not understand what the Indian government was losing while Article 370 was in place. “Sirf logon ki facilities ke liye tha. Baki to sab Hindustan ka tha. CurrencyHindustan ki. Fauji Hindustan ki. Hum Hindustan ke (It was only there to provide convenience to people. Apart from that everything was Indian. The currency was Indian. The armed forces were Indian. We are Indians).” 

“Article 370 was in place when the 1999 war was fought here. How did it matter?” Hilal also asks. 

Also read: BJP’s Fantasy of Subjugating Pakistan Finds Expression in ‘Kashmiristan’

Sixty-year-old Abdul Hassan, standing inside the shop, says that till August 5 the people of Drass felt no fear despite a heavy military presence. “Par ab dar lagta hai. Pata nahi kya hoga. Kya humein bhi fauj se daraya jayega Kashmir ki tarah? (But, now one feels scared. Don’t know what will happen. Will we also be made to fear the armed forces like in Kashmir?).” 

Most regions in the district of Kargil have observed strikes for several days since August 5. Section 144 has been imposed in several areas and movement has been restricted causing inconvenience to tourists. Mobile internet has been off limits. 

While the protests have largely been peaceful, a few incidents of stone pelting have been reported. The police have resorted to tear gas shelling, but no injuries or casualties have been reported. 

The Joint Action Committee of Kargil which comprises several social, religious and political outfits has been formed to steer the protests and negotiations with the government. They are hopeful that the Centre will engage with them and address their concerns. Leaders have also appealed for calm.

Members of the JAC at a Kargil press conference. Photo: The Wire

“During namaz we insist that there should be no violence. It doesn’t help anyone,” says Abdul Qayoom, imam of the Jama Masjid in Drass. “But, if we continue to be ignored, then it will be difficult to contain the youth.” 

Mohammedi, of the Islamia School of Kargil, agrees on this point. “It will be difficult to control the youth. Even in Kashmir, if the youth had been engaged with, the situation would not have been what it is. I hope that the same does not happen here,” he says.

Worryingly, he says he can sense the youth getting agitated. “Unke zehen mein sawaal aane lage hain. Jab humne Hindustan ko kabhi dhokha nahi diya to humare sath aisa kyun kiya Hindustan ne? Kya is mulq mein Musalman hona jurm hai? (They are starting to question this. When we haven’t ever betrayed India then why has India done this to us? Is it a crime to be a Muslim in this country?” he asks.

Hum Musalman hain lekin Hindustani bhi (We are Muslims, but also Indians).”