Nestled in the Zaskar Range of the Himalayas, Kargil is one of world’s coldest permanently inhabited places. Renowned globally for its snow-capped peaks and sprawling landscape, this second-largest district of the Ladakh region in Indian Kashmir is isolated for five to six months because of heavy snowfall during winter.
Kargil, the Shi‘a-dominated and second hilly district of Ladakh region of India’s Jammu and Kashmir, is located across the lofty Himalayan ranges. It is situated in the westernmost stretches of the cold Tibetan deserts. Mercury dips to minus 35 degrees Celsius in the winter months. The harshness of the temperature can be judged by the fact that Drass, a crucial region of Kargil, is the world’s second-coldest inhabited place, after Siberia.
“Though the mountains are scenic, surviving and ensuring a smooth supply of basic essentials like food, water and medicine in extreme cold weather is a challenge,” said Irshad Hussain, a research scholar from Kargil who is pursuing his higher studies at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi. “Heavy snowfall during winter literally locks our region for a period of five to six months”, explained Irshad while offering me a cup of butter tea, the signature tea of Kargil that is prepared by stirring butter and salt into boiling milk. “But with the blessings of God and Ahl al-Bayt(as), we are advancing significantly on the religious, educational and economic fronts.” The average literacy rate of Kargil is 71.34%, which is higher than Jammu and Kashmir’s literacy rate of 68%.
The extreme cold weather starts from the middle of November and lasts until April. The months of June, July and August are considered the only working months, since people generally spend most of September and October stocking basic essentials for winter. But some young people have formed various social organisations to keep the scarcity of basic essentials at bay during winter.
Ensuring a smooth supply of basic essentials is like sailing a ship against the tide. But, guided by the principles of Islam, some highly-motivated Samaritans ensure that the life will not come to a halt even in extreme cold weather conditions.
“Some highly energetic and visionary youngsters met and formed several social welfare organisations”, said Mohd Taha Shaeiry, a Kargil resident and the Imam of New Delhi’s Babul Ilm Mosque. There are two main social-cum-religious institutions in Kargil: The Imam Khomeini Memorial Trust (IKMT) and Anjuman-e-Jamiat-ul-Ulama Asna Asharya, Kargil, popularly known as the Islamia School. Both institutions are working hard for the religious as well as social development of locals.
The Baqiriya Health Care and Research Centre (BHC&RC) was founded to provide free medical services to the residents of Kargil and other adjoining districts. This centre works under the aegis of IKMT and is supported by some enlightened young minds that include doctors, engineers, teachers, contractors and other professionals. Since the majority of Kargil residents are agriculturists, they depend solely on local medical institutions for health issues. “The Baqiriya Health Care and Research Centre (BHC&RC) of IKMT were founded to provide free medical consultation, conducting free medical camps in Kargil and other far-flung areas,” Mohammad Taha Shaeiry said. BHC&RC was founded in the year 2007 by the late Sheikh Mohammed Hussain Zakiri to provide health services to all without regard to caste, creed, or religion. “The centre organised a free surgical eye camp on the 15th and 16th of July in 2018 at the Community Health Centre, Sankoo, Kargil,” added Taha. With 900- plus volunteers, the BHC & RC has treated more than 60,200 patients. This number includes patients treated at OPD, normal and speciality camps organised at far-flung areas and at the BHC & RC headquarters. BHC&RC also organises Hepatitis B vaccination programmes and want everyone to be vaccinated against this virus by 2020.
There are several other organisations like Baseej-e-Imam, an organisation of youngsters that not only takes an active part in emergency situations but also offers free coaching for students in remote areas and organises seminars on Islamic awakening. “The volunteers of Baseej-e-Imam donated blood and actively participated in emergency works during the Kashmir Flood and Flash floods in Kargil and Leh,” said Mohammad Taha Shaeiry.
In September 2014, the Kashmir region suffered disastrous floods across many of its districts caused by torrential rainfall. Many volunteers from Kargil visited Srinagar and other areas of Indian Kashmir to donate blood. “The teachings of the Prophet Muhammad, Ahl al-Bayt(as) and martyrs of Karbala are our inspiration,” Mohammad Taha Shaeiry explained. Taha, who himself is India’s renowned qari (reciter of the Holy Qur’an), further informed us that in order to disseminate the message of the Holy Prophet Mohammad(s) and his Ahl al-Bayt, the people of Kargil have founded an organisation called Baseej-e- Ruhaniyun that works for the promotion of religion. According to Taha, it organises Quranic recitation competitions, painting sessions, Islamic quiz sessions, Islamic awareness seminars and processions.
Many people of the world came to know about this place when the Kargil War broke out in 1999 between India and Pakistan. But, according to Mohammad Hassan, a local who is pursuing his degree at the New Delhi-based Jamia Millia Islamia University, “The Kargil War was disastrous but I think it was a blessing in disguise for the people of Kargil. Prior to the war, people of Kargil were confined to Kargil only. But the war gave us an opportunity to explore the other side of the state and country.” The Kargil War is one of the most recent instances of high-altitude warfare on mountainous terrain, which posed significant logistical problems for the combatants on both sides.
Many people are flourishing in different domains. According to Hasan, three Kargil soldiers recently ascended Ladakh’s highest peak. “The three mountaineers – Sajjad Hussain (Thasgam Drass), Maznoor Hussain (Drass) and Mustafa Hussain (Gongma Kargil) – took nine days to conquer Ladakh’s highest peak, Stok Kangri (6121meters). After reaching the peak they flew the national flag, the flag of their regiment and the flag of Hazrat Imam Husain.”
The Shi‘a Muslims of Kargil are basically agriculturists and landowners, and some work as hired labour. Apart from a few areas, the land in the region is not very fertile, but it is capable of meeting the food and grain requirements of the locals. Animal husbandry is also another major source of income. Other sources of livelihood include daily wage labour, government service, work in the tourism industry, and small businesses – mainly run by shopkeepers, cobblers, artisans and weavers.
Kargil was introduced to Islam in the fifteenth century when Mir Shams al-Din Iraqi, a central Asian Shi‘i scholar, visited Baltistan and Kargil with his missionaries to preach Islam. The chief of Baltistan embraced Islam first and was later followed by the chiefs of Kargil. Prior to Mir Shams al-Din Iraqi, Khawaja Noorbaksh visited Kargil and preached Islam extensively.
Sameer Abbas Zaidi is a New Delhi-based freelance journalist