Turtuk and the problem of displacement
On 24 August, I spent 12 hours in a beautiful village called Turtuk. Everywhere you turn here, there are one of two visuals: high, unfriendly mountains of the Karakoram range that is home to K2, the world’s second highest peak, or walnut, apricot, apple, and mulberry trees and unending fields of buckwheat and barley.
Turtuk’s story could have easily been yet another tale of a ‘backward’, but wonderfully simple, earthy, pastoral village of India. But what the village’s pastoral scenes don’t betray, is its people’s resilience, not only given the remoteness of their geography (from the ‘mainland’, from access to basic communication services) but also in the context of their complex history of identity. Till 1971, after 26 years of officially belonging to Pakistan, the Indian Army’s Ladakh Scouts took control of this region. This happened just four days before the ceasefire that called an end to the Indo-Pak war of ‘71 was declared.
Today, it is the last outpost of India, the last village in the country’s northern area where tourism is allowed. If you’re there, especially just about 10 days after India (and Pakistan) celebrated their 70th Independence Day, you’re forced to wonder: What does a national identity mean for these people? And what is patriotism? But then, at the property in which most tourists visiting Turtuk end up staying (there aren’t many options), had displayed these sketches by children from the neighbourhood. If you’ve grown up going to school in India, you would have, at some point made similar sketches too:
Just two days after I left Turtuk, 1700-odd kilometres away from another sensitive border area I was camping at (India-China this time), jewellery designer Suhani Pittie was preparing to launch her new collection for Lakme India Fashion Week at Mumbai’s St Regis. The collection is called ‘Nowhere People’ and consists of bracelets inspired by handcuffs, wrist-armours, chokers made like shackles, and jewellery with bullet-style embellishments. Pittie’s Winter/Festive 2016 collection is her exploration and research into the current global human displacement crisis. She cites the UNHCR’s Global Trends report which states that 65.3 million people were forcibly displaced by the end of 2015, and that today, worldwide human displacement is at the highest ever level recorded.
Technically, the people of Turtuk have not been displaced: their homes are intact, they walk the same narrow lanes that their grandparents have walked, and pick walnuts and apples from the same orchards that their parents have tended to. But at least 1 in every three people I spoke to made it a point to mention, even if sheepishly, that despite the map telling me I was in Ladakh, I was actually in Baltistan, eating Balti food, speaking to Balti people, and soaking in Balti culture. Some felt that Turtuk was the village that was “left behind” in India by Pakistan, while yet others made sure to regard this as Turtuk's “being freed” from Pakistan by Major Chewang Rinchen of the Ladakh Scouts.
But there was one other sentiment that I encountered when I bumped into the Khan of Turtuk, Mohammad Khan Kacho, the current heir of the region’s erstwhile royal Yagbo Dynasty. I was visiting a building that the locals referred to as Turtuk’s palace, expecting to see nothing but a series of old pictures, paintings, and objects within its premises. But then as I entered the main hall of the handsome old mansion, a tall, gentle old man who a local boy introduced to us as the Khan ‘saheb’, welcomed us. There was still something royal about his aquiline features, but everything else about him that represented his royalty, including his kurta-pyjama and the sofa set he entertained us on, was worse for wear. Given its history, each inch of his palace would’ve had many stories to tell: from once being the quarters of a wealthy royal family that benefitted from being on a feeder road of the ancient Silk Route, it has also served as a post for Pakistan’s army during the 1971 war. When one of us asked him what it means to suddenly be considered a part of a country that your previous country is at loggerheads with, he remarked almost off-handedly with a tired smile, “Jis desh ka namak khaa rahey ho, use desh ke geet gao.” (Sing the songs of the country whose food you eat.)
Today, surely, there’s a larger awareness of displacement. Of why people would put their children in boats and send them off to unknown lands. The sporting world showed camaraderie during the Olympics by making space for nation-less peoples to represent themselves and their struggles in doing what they love best. Governments have opened their arms to welcome them, while yet other governments are still cautious about what it means to let in people who’ve lived the realities they have. But despite the already existing complexity of this problem, a place like Turtuk adds yet another dimension that ought to be considered, studied, and understood.
Text and Photo by Vangmayi