20 years after war, Kargil waits for a new beginning
Once the sun sets in the bitter winter cold of January, you can only see a few stray dogs on the streets of Kargil, which has a population of 150,000 people.
But in the ice skating rinks, the lights don’t dim. Children are still practising even as adults make their way to the safety and the comfort of their warm homes. It is in Kargil that the Indian national ice hockey team practices as well.
More than 20 years after the Kargil War between India and Pakistan, much has changed in the town that’s now a part of the newly created Union territory of Ladakh and is trying to shed an image rooted in tales of the conflict, and fear of landmines, that have kept tourists away.
“That is not all that Kargil is about, we have so much more to offer,” said an administrative official on condition of anonymity. “But the stereotype is hard to overcome. They all associate it with the war. That is why Kargil has been ignored.” The conflict that raged between May and July of 1999 was sparked by the infiltration of Pakistani troops into positions on the Indian side of the Line of Control. Pakistan initially blamed the conflict on Kashmiri militants. After the Indian army, supported by the Indian Air Force, recaptured a majority of the positions, Pakistani forces withdrew in the face of international pressure.
There is little to remind a visitor of the conflict in the Kargil of today. During the day, locals bustle about the well- stocked markets that sell wares from the traditional phiren to cutting-edge sporting equipment made by international chains such as Quechua, a trademarked brand for hiking and camping apparel and equipment marketed by the French company Decathlon. “There is great scope for tourism here,” said the official cited above. “But what is needed is an increased focus on education, especially English-medium schools.” Road infrastructure has improved . “It is now easier to get here, there are two-lane roads. More tourism often means more development, look at Leh,” said Azghar Ali, 26, a former national ice hockey player.
A former army truck drive who identified himself as Dorje also accepts that the roads have improved, but not the mindset of the tourists. “There are many takers for the treks around there. But most people are still scared to visit Kargil,” he said.
Kargil barely receives 4,000 tourists a year, a fifth of the visitors to Leh. “The mountain you see at the edge of Kargil, that’s where the Pakistanis were. We pushed them four mountains back. Why can’t we push back such memories as well, ” said Mohammed Ali, 20, who works with the Border Roads Organisation.
The locals are hopeful that things will change with the change of status of Ladakh, previously a part of Jammu and Kashmir, an erstwhile state that was divided into two Union territories in 2019 -- J&K and Ladakh.
“It was only after it became a UT that work began on the Zojila tunnel, which will become the lifeline of connectivity in Ladakh once completed,” said Amjad Hussain, 25, a professional skier in Pashkum, 10 kilometres from Kargil.
The government is considering building an airport in Wakha and a possible realignment of the airport in Kurbathang, which is currently controlled by the Indian Air Force, the official mentioned in the first instance said. Union minister for tourism Prahlad Patel on Sunday announced that India’s premier skiing institute, Indian Institute of Skiing and Mountaineering (IISM) in Gulmarg, J&K, will soon be opening a branch in Pashkum, Kargil, to promote adventure tourism.
Kansas Angmo, the Ladakh tourism director, said that with the UT status, a lot more can be achieved. “The share of a UT in the budget is much greater,” she said.
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