Baltis at the border

| Updated on September 06, 2019

Geopolitics has played havoc with this ethnic group, torn as it is between two hostile nations

The Partition of the Indian subcontinent led to the largest-ever migration in human history, with many ethnic groups and communities becoming torn apart between India and Pakistan. One such group is the Balti.

Though Gilgit-Baltistan, in present-day Pakistan, is the original home of the Baltis, they are also present in neighbouring regions thanks to a long history of trading and intermarriage. In 16th-17th century, Ali Sher Khan Anchan, the Balti king of Skardu, a city in Gilgit-Baltistan, is said to have conquered Ladakh and married a Mughal princess named Gul Khatoon. Dras and Kargil regions were gifted as dowry to Anchan as part of a peace treaty. His conquest introduced Kargil and Dras to Balti language and culture. It is also said that many Balti princesses married into the Ladakhi royal family and vice versa.

Baltistan is located at the crossroads of Kashmir, Ladakh, Afghanistan, Punjab, Xinjiang, Central Asia, Tibet and Swat. Naturally, the Baltis living in Kargil and Dras were heavily involved in trade and the region was an important stop on the Silk Route, connecting Srinagar to Gilgit in the north and Leh in the east. Baltis were known as skilled horsemen and hardy porters, which led to them being recruited as guides and porters by Central Asian traders and, later, European surveyors of the Himalayas.

Things changed dramatically with the departure of the British, leaving the fate of the Baltis in the hands of two hostile neighbours. Each time India and Pakistan went to war, the Baltis felt the heat due to the proximity of their villages to the border. The threat of war looms continually over daily life in the region, and this has significantly altered the socio-cultural fabric and economics — curtailing old trade routes and long-established family ties of the nomadic and pastoral communities. Added to the hardship of separation and loss of trade is the remote and hostile environment of the high Himalayas.

The demography of the region changed due to the several military operations between India and Pakistan, leading to further separation of families. They are now unable to meet their kin, despite being only kilometres from each other.

Deepti Asthana is a Mumbai-based photographer

Published on September 06, 2019

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