Ghulam Husain, a 43-year-old living in far-flung Turtuk village in the desolate northern fringes of Ladakh, received a message on WhatsApp from his cousin, Nargis, on Saturday. They greeted each other, she told him her new-born daughter was fine and sent a picture of the baby, and he blessed her.
But what made this otherwise ordinary interaction in Balti language extraordinary is that Hussain and Nargis, his uncle’s daughter, are separated by the Line of Control between India and Pakistan.
Nargis lives in the Skardu region of Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) region, on the other side of the de-facto border patrolled by tens of thousands of soldiers.
Pulled asunder after the Indian army recaptured a cluster of four villages including Turtuk from Pakistan in the war of 1971, WhatsApp is the only thread holding the family together across the hostile frontier.
“We relatives across the border regularly share pictures and audio-video clips via WhatsApp. My father just starts crying whenever I show him pictures of his brother and his family,” says Husain, a social worker in Ladakh, sitting at a café in Srinagar, browsing through pictures of his cousins, nephews and nieces residing in the Skardu region. Estimates show over 15,000 families were left divided by the LoC in Ladakh due to multiple wars.
In a region where phone calls don’t connect across borders and roads have remain closed for decades and getting a visa is virtually impossible, local residents have formed chat groups on WhatsApp that serve as a lifeline whenever the erratic internet signal stabilizes. People communicate individually, over family or even community chat groups.
The most popular of these groups is called, quite fittingly, “Hum sb kb milenge” (When will we all meet), founded in 2014 by Skardu-based journalist Musa Chulunkha.
Hum sb kb milenge has 110 members, who often share leads about the address of relatives on the other side, information if someone from Pakistan is visiting India, political developments on the opening of roads, and videos of Balti cultural events.
Speaking to HT through WhatsApp audio messages from Skardu, Chulunkha said, “The idea behind creating this group was to unite the divided families – and we have been successful to a great extent. Through messages on this group from members of many such families in India, we have been able to trace their relatives in the Skardu and Khaplu regions.”
Husain is also on the group and one of the recent conversations on it is about one of his aunts who drowned in the Shyok river. She was separated from her family in 1971 and never got a visa to visit her native village in the GB region.
“Being connected on WhatsApp or Facebook to relatives on the other side is the result of a desperate attempt to stay close to those who have been taken away from us by borders. And ‘Hum sb kb milenge’ group is very effective in that regard,” said Mohammad Sadiq, a researcher and writer on divided families from Kargil, who is a member of the group.
But despite social media, families yearn to physically meet each other.
Earlier this month in Kargil, activists of the People’s Forum of Divided Families and Peace across LoC (in Ladakh and GB) submitted a memorandum of appeal to Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Mehbooba Mufti to open the Kargil-Skardu and Turtuk-Khaplu routes. The appeal elaborated on the “agony, pain and desperation” of the divided families unable to meet their kith and kin on the other side. In a rally, Mehbooba promised the government would put in its best efforts to open the routes “so that the trade and peace process will begin”.
Sajjad Kargili, a journalist from Kargil and key member of the forum, posted the memorandum on ‘Hum sb kb milenge’ and elicited a great response on it.
“The roads through Punjab, Jammu and Kashmir to Pakistan are open but those through Ladakh are not. Our only prayer to the authorities is that please allow us to meet, at least. So, when borders have divided us, WhatsApp has united us – it has given us a place we can inhabit together,” said Kargili, who has several relatives across the LoC.
Husain recalls when his father Shamsher Ali met his brother Abdul Qadir, the first time in twenty long years, on a Hajj pilgrimage in 1989, they broke down in each other’s arms. But until India and Pakistan decide to open their borders to unite these families, WhatsApp will have to do.