In the Line of Fire

Tagged Under -
Page 1 of 1
We travel through villages along the LoC in Jammu & Kashmir to chronicle lives scarred by the never ending hostilities between India and Pakistan
When India’s newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi met his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif on the very day he assumed office, it filled people living along the Line of Control (LoC) with hope. Peace between the two countries on either side of this divide— this 740-km long line in Jammu & Kashmir is not recognised as an international border but serves as one for all practical purposes—could mean the silencing of guns, an easing of tension and a revival of civilian ties that Partition took apart, with all its dividends. “Indo-Pak leaders should make a thorough review of cross-LoC trade and initiate steps for its promotion,” enthused YV Sharma, president of Jammu and Kashmir Joint Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Right now, trans-LoC trade, which began in 2008, is restricted to the barter fairs that take place four times a week at the cross- points of Salamabad, Uri and Chakan-Da-Bagh, Poonch.

Yet, barely a month-and-a-half-later, when Modi travelled to the Valley, the mood had darkened. On 3 July, three intruders tried to sneak across the LoC in Poonch district; they were shot by the Indian Army. On 13 July, separatists called for a shutdown in protest against ‘separate enclaves’ for Kashmiri Pandits, the prospect of whose return from exile has caused much unease. Pakistan, too, was back to its old rhetoric, with its foreign office spokesperson, Tasnim Aslam, calling J&K “a disputed territory”.

The Indian Army maintains a heavy presence along the LoC, with soldiers often offering the odd visitor a cup of tea.

Atithi devo bhava’ is the spirit; ‘guests are like gods’. Intruders, however, are not guests, they clarify. “They will only get bullets,” quips one, “not tea.” Such humour masks the grim reality of the risks they face. On 22 July, an Indian soldier was killed in the Akhnoor sector when Pakistani troops fired at Indian positions. “The firing was intended to facilitate the infiltration of militants across the LoC,” says Colonel Manish Mehta, local spokesperson for the Army.

However, few people pray for peace as fervently as the civilians who live in remote villages along the LoC. Lives here are dangerously led, with bullet injuries, amputated limbs, state harassment and tales of terror common to most residents, Hindu or Muslim. Here follow reports from four such settlements scarred by decades of violence:

SUCHETGARH - A Hindu Village of Muslim Traditions

A dusty road leads us to Suchetgarh, 23 km west of Jammu city in the RS Pura sector. Fewer and fewer people are to be spotted as we approach, which is a sign of nearing a border area. We reach a Border Security Force checkpost, take a sharp turn right, and a kilometre long stretch along the fenced LoC gets us to our destination. It’s a village of about 1,200 families, all Hindu. They speak Dogri, but are not unfamiliar with the Urdu-laced Punjabi spoken within earshot just a few hundred yards on the other side of the fence.

Locals often complain of government neglect. “We are ignored because we are Hindus and there’s a government bias against the aman pasand (peace inclined),” alleges Saran Lal Bhagat, 50, who has been the village sarpanch for three years. “This is in contrast with those who take to violence,” he adds, “We are ignored because we aren’t a threat.” Suchetgarh gets no water supply, its sole school operates poorly, and its healthcare facilities are so inadequate that they cannot even save snakebite victims. “My problems are not with Pakistan,” says Bhagat, “but with our own government.” An exception to VIP apathy was last year’s visit by the then Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde, who held closed-door meetings with BSF officials. He made tall claims and big promises, says Bhagat, but nothing came of it.

Meanwhile, locals live in fear of late- night firing and mortar shelling; they say that a BSF jawan was killed and three others injured last week when Pakistani troops opened fire on Indian posts.

Sansaro Devi, a 50-year-old woman who lives on the western edge of the village, just 100 metres from a Pakistani post, was hit by a bullet five years ago. She was in her kitchen, cooking with the door slightly ajar, when a bullet from across the LoC ricocheted off the wall and buried itself in her thigh. She bled profusely. It took three days to extract the bullet.

It was a curse, Sansaro Devi felt. Her husband, Tharu Ram, a farmer, wasn’t doing well either. His farm output was down and cattle were sick and dying. That’s when Baba Kaliveer, a Muslim sage, appeared in her dream, telling her that her house was his resting place, she says. So they built a mazaar in his honour in their frontyard and painted it green. Next to it is a small temple, painted saffron. Every Thursday, they offer prayers at the shrine, a Sufi Muslim tradition upheld in a typical Hindu fashion.

There are 15 such burial shrines in the village, all well taken care of by Hindu families. The biggest is at the centre of the village on top of a mound, inside a BSF zone. It’s the mazaar of Pir Baba, a Muslim sage popularly believed to be the protector of Suchetgarh. Not only locals, but even BSF personnel stationed here make a beeline every morning to offer it floral tributes. And despite all the shots fired, say locals, there has been no serious casualty in the village for years.

MOHRAKAMPALA - Village of the Disabled

For a drive to desolation, the journey is breathtaking. The sky is a cloudless blue and the road meanders through lush forests of tall Deodars trying to outgrow one another. Mohrakampala is an hour’s journey from Nowshera, the nearest town near Rajauri in Jammu. The huts are scattered far and wide, hidden from each other by trees and hills, and there are terrace farms full of paddy water.

In a mud hut on a bare patch of one such hill lives Alauddin, a 60-year-old farmer with a sharply trimmed beard and a crewcut—perhaps inspired by the soldiers deployed in large numbers here. It’s late afternoon, and he has just returned from the bazaar with half a dozen bananas for his grandchildren. His daughter Sharifa Begum lost a leg in a landmine blast back in 1994, three years after he lost his six-year-old son in a similar blast. They were both out herding cattle at the time.

Their house overlooks the LoC fence. It was put up 20 years ago, but before that, laying landmines along the Line was the Army’s preferred way to thwart infiltrators. There is no official record of the people injured by landmine blasts in the area, but in this village, every third home has someone with a severed limb.

“I could run faster than all my peers,” says Sharifa, “I still want to run.” She is married now; her husband ploughs a field owned by Alauddin, and she stitches clothes for a living. “The government has done nothing for us,” she says. Alauddin is also bitter about the cancellation of his Below Poverty Line card, for which he blames the local patwari.

Landmine removal is a tough job, and the Army has not even tried yet. “When they move in these areas, they carry equipment and sniffer dogs,” says Kuldeep Singh of Hathinala village, who lost his legs 20 years ago to a blast.

The Army, though, has been helpful in other ways. Its Sadbhavana scheme has provided dozens of villagers with artificial limbs, and three blast victims have been granted support packages of Rs 1.5 lakh each. “The Army is the only government arm that works seriously for the poor,” says 28-year-old Mushtaque Ahmad, who has had his left hand, lost in 2006, replaced by a mechanical one that lets him clasp objects. “Its clings to me like dead tissue,” he says.

Mohammad Shakoor, a lean man of 18, lost his right leg when he was 11 years old. His artificial leg is as thin as his real one, hardly distinguishable. It sometimes slips off in humid weather and he often falls. “But something is better than nothing,” he insists.

The village’s most recent victim was 45-year-old Mohmad Rashid, who lost a leg three years ago, and with it, a job in the city. He has hardly any land to cultivate, and ambles his way home with tomato, brinjal and 2 kg of barley flour that he has borrowed from a neighbour. It is all he could put together to break his daily fast at Iftaar during Ramzan.

TITHWAL - A Hamlet No One Hears About

Located in the Kupwara sector, the village of Tithwal is a bare 10 metres away from Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (POK), separated by a rivulet that foams as it curves and gushes down its path. Indians call it the Kishanganga while Pakistanis have named it the Neelamnadi—and it acts as the LoC in this region.

Shahid Basheer, 20, studies at a local college about 30 km away. His bearded friend Mansoor Din, just a few years older than him, could easily pass for his father. Both of them are contract labourers, and the latter proudly discloses that he has been as far as Punjab and Delhi for work. They have just crossed the last of the five Army posts erected along an hour- long route along the Kishanganga, trudging up a hill and then down to reach Tithwal.

Everyone must submit to thorough checks and rechecks by security forces on entering or leaving the village. Even on a Ramzan evening, tension in the air is palpable as locals quietly go about preparing for Iftari. “The [Indian] army is responsible for the mess here, and not Pakistan,” says Mansoor Din, “We are treated like outlaws in our land.”

The silence is frequently broken by white Tata Sumos with yellow number plates that crisscross the hills, leaving dust trails in their wake. The village looks like small town, somewhat prosperous compared to others in the region. It has large dwellings lining the rivulet, some of which resemble English cottages in Shimla. There is a sports field with carpet-like grass, and a school.

Everyone here has a relative or two across the river in PoK. “They are so near, yet so far,” says Shashirahman, who claims to be 43 years old but looks to be in his late sixties. He owns a grocery shop. Last year, his ailing mother’s brother came visiting from across the LoC to see how she was. “My uncle lives not even a kilometre away from my shop,” he says, pointing across the river to a hill.

Shahid and Mansoor Din interact with their relatives across the LoC every Thursday, which is when visa-holders on either side are allowed to cross over. It’s a good scheme, says Mansoor, even though getting a visa could take anything from one to six years. Most of these meetings are not elaborate. They exchange smiles and ask “Khairiyat hai (all well)?” Some people exchange more than that, reveals a villager anonymously; they pass letters and parcels, some of which contain brown sugar. Also, once darkness descends and the Army lowers its flag at 7 pm, splashes are sometimes heard of people swimming across the Kishanganga.

DARDPURA - The Village of Widows and Spinsters

It is an arduous walk, with steep climbs and slushy passages to negotiate, but the very first sight of Dardpura is a reward in itself. The houses, mostly log cabins with slanted tin-sheet roofs, have a fairytale charm about them. Children play on the streets, their chubby cheeks glowing in the sun and pale brown eyes inquisitively looking this way and that.

However, nothing in the beauty of Dardpura betrays the grim past till one sees the sullen faces of its elders.

Sahiba Jan is 50 but looks 70. One evening—she doesn’t remember the year, but perhaps it was 1990—her husband had left home without saying a word. Their five-year-old daughter was attending to her newborn sister at the time. Now a quarter of a century later, they are grown up, work in the fields, and despite their robust good looks and charm, do not entertain much hope of marriage or any other passport to a better life. Is there hope that Sahiba Jan’s husband might be alive? “No. He is dead. They killed him when he tried to cross the border. Some saw his body roll down the hill. He is dead, he is dead,” Sahiba Jan repeats, as if still struggling with denial, “I know he is dead, and the dead don’t come back.”

She has survived many a severe winter with an empty stomach and two daughters. “The villagers helped me get by,” she says. And she is not alone. There are 370 widows like her in Dardpura, and most have not had the closure of seeing their husbands’ bodies. But they believe the missing men to be dead and gone. This belief has helped them to move on. Grief is a luxury they cannot afford. One of the widows has six unmarried daughters, Sahiba Jan says, as if having only two is a blessing. “Dardpura will soon be known as the village of young spinsters, not widows,” she says with a wry smile.

It was in 1990-91 that the exodus took place. Some 400 of Dardpura’s men deserted their families and homes to become jihadis. They crossed the border into PoK, got indoctrinated, and vowed to free Kashmir of kafir—read Hindu—rule.

Noor Hasan Khatana, 50, is one of them. He lived in PoK’s biggest town, Muzaffarabad, for six years. The administration there took care of them. They were treated as privileged refugees and paid Rs 900 a month, which was more than twice what some widows get from the J&K government, he adds. Some LoC-crossers even got married and had children. Each family member would get Rs 900, says Khatana, irrespective of gender and age.

Why did he come back, then? In a few years, he realised he was being reduced to a mercenary in the name of Allah. He was being trained to kill his own people. Like him, many others decided to return home, but most of them were killed either by the vagaries of nature or Indian Army bullets on their return journey. Only 150, he says, survived the journey home.

Khatana feels cheated, however. He was detained for four months after his return in 1996. “This is my country and I came back. I was wrong,” he says, “I was promised Rs 4 lakh to start my life afresh.” He never got it. Somehow, he has managed to put his life together. He has a house and a son, Altaf Ahmad Khatana, who is now studying engineering in Jammu on a government scholarship. But others, he says, are not as lucky. They get few hundred rupees as pension— “which is not support but a joke”.

Dardpura’s sarpanch, Nazar Ahmad Bhat, says that the real issue is not militancy but lack of development. “We have no problems with Pakistan,” he says, “We suffer because of the J&K government’s apathy: there is no water, roads, nothing.” It is all local effort that gets anything built, he says. He has had a road laid. A panchayat office is being built; and there is a mosque at the far end of the road. Instead of a dome, it has a pagoda-like top.