GUREZ VALLEY, LOC ~ It is pitch dark. The Observation Post (OP) is perched like an eyrie high above the Gurez Valley. Pakistan is a mere stone’s throw and we are watching it hawk-eyed. The wind howls about my ears. I pull up the collar of my parka and jam my pakol, an Afghan Muj cap I bought in Pakistan, further down my ears. There is a place where the woollen cap and the jacket cannot overlap, and the wind slips an icy finger through the gap. It is not a pleasant sensation. The cold runs down my spine and lodges painfully in my ribs. I ought to be in a state of high excitement, but that’s wearing thin and I’m already dreaming of my relatively cosy bed a few miles away at the Brigade Head Quarters at Davar.
‘Want a look?’ the Captain hands me the binocs.
I take my ungloved hands out of my pockets reluctantly. I’m not sure what I’m expected to see in the darkness, but I position myself near the two men against the sandbags.
‘Remember, keep your head down,’ he cautions.
I lean heavily against the fortification, raise the binoculars and peer through. At first I can’t see a thing. Then a greyish sphere appears for a moment only to be eclipsed instantly by a black full moon. I try again. The grey sphere reappears and slowly fills my vision. Extraordinary instrument! The whole scene begins to dance before me in mesmerising blues and greens. It’s like being underwater. No, it’s like nothing I have ever seen before. Why on earth are these things called Passive Night Vision Devices? It’s an LSD trip, with the whole world shimmering and dancing, broken up into its constituent molecules and atoms. I recognise the waters of the Burzil Nala, now leaping and foaming against the rocks. Yes, further north at 12 o’clock is the dark silhouette of the Pakistani OP I had seen at sunset. The trees along the stream appear as if ablaze in a strange blue-green fire. In such a landscape I wouldn’t be surprised to see elves and goblins, witches and warlocks dancing and celebrating. ‘It’s beautiful,’ I murmur, reluctant to return to reality. The men laugh quietly and say nothing.
I go back to my vigil. The Pakistani territory glows, dissolves and re-makes itself continuously. I am aware that the area just in front of our OP is mined and that the Pakistanis know this too, and that it was unlikely that they would try sneaking up on us, but within the flux of the image something else moves. It takes shape. There, behind that tree! My heart jumps. Am I dreaming or are those men crawling on their bellies to take cover behind the rocks. Suddenly I’m unsure. The spell is broken.
‘You’d better take a look...10 o’clock, just above the stream.’
The captain grabs the binoculars and scans the vista. A few tense seconds pass.
‘What did you see?’
‘I’m not sure...’
‘Still, what did you see?’ He peers ahead as he talks to me.
I begin to feel a bit silly now, but he insists, so I tell him.
He scans again. The Colonel who was standing by all the while comes forward, takes over, searches the landscape. Nothing. I expect condescension, but no barbs come my way. Perhaps it’s easy to make such mistakes. Perhaps it’s better to err on the side of caution than complacency when it’s a matter of life and death.
The wind continues to howl. We keep up our vigil for another hour or so before the Colonel decides that I’ve had a taste of being up in an OP on the Line of Control. We gingerly make our way down the mountain. Flashlights are forbidden on this narrow, treacherous path. But soon enough I am ensconced in Captain T.’s warm bunker built against the mountainside, a steaming glass of tea warming my hands. The dwelling is bare but for an AK-47 slung casually off a peg on the rock wall like an old coat. A small table by the bed is cluttered with tapes, a Walkman and a few bestsellers. ‘Through winter,’ says the Captain gesturing to the books and music, ‘these become your lifeline to sanity.’ For seven months Gurez is cut off from the rest of the Kashmir Valley. And the soldiers manning the observation posts along the LoC are cut off even from each other: a long winter of solitude in a bunker 7' x 10'.
‘Last winter, Chitsi was stuck up at Z__,’ the captain recalled, referring to an OP high above the Gurez Valley. ‘You know Z__, it’s snowbound for much longer than the other OPs. Chitsi would wait impatiently for the exchange of our daily report on the field phone because I’d place the Walkman near the mouthpiece and play my favourite tunes for him.’
‘Six, seven months of this?’ I asked, looking at him with new respect.
‘It is pretty hellish,’ he shrugged. ‘Let me tell you how weird life is at the LoC. Letters, for instance, from your wife, girlfriend or fiancé, arrive at the Davar HQ and are read out to you over the phone, and you, in turn, dictate the reply.’
‘Whoever. You just hope the guy’s not some creep, but someone sympathetic. In any case you end up not saying a lot. It’s too embarrassing. Just how are you, I am fine and give x or y or z my love.’
No friends, no family, no newspapers or television, no markets or shopping for groceries, no walks, no crowds, no cars, no gym, no greeting from a stranger, no flash of a smile from a child, no girl to flirt with—just snow, bleak, white and absolute; the idea of the enemy; the occasional exchange of fire; memories now distant, of warmth, both of the sun and of humans, and the monotony punctuated just twice a day by two young men sharing music over a crackling field line.
Here at the LoC, there is an alien vocabulary whose meanings continue to elude me however hard the military men try to explain. ‘This is not the International Border, where the line is drawn firm, where both sides have agreed through a treaty that this is our territory and that’s yours,’ says the Colonel one evening at the Davar HQ. ‘That is a civilised border. You can fence it, guard it and each side is supposed to respect that line. It’s more permanent. Here it is different. It’s the Line of Control and so the idea is to dominate the area, control it. We manage the Line. Our job includes observation, retaliation and interruption of the enemy’s activities…’
‘But why?’ I ask perplexed and receive no answer.
Another day at the breakfast table: ‘There are no rules, so we discern the enemy’s intent and pre-empt them. Sometimes when we get information of militants attempting to infiltrate, we set up ambushes.’
Another morning, walking up to an OP a young lieutenant says: ‘The Line of Control is a line you have to control against… against something. It’s about psychological domination, it’s about harassing the enemy, not allowing him freedom of movement.’
I imagine a Pakistani journalist sitting in the Pakistani OP I can see, which couldn’t be more than 300 yards across a deep gulley, being told the same thing, ‘See, here we
are getting ourselves killed at regular intervals because this is the Line of Control we have to control, to dominate psychologically...’
The line acts like a fulcrum, relations between India and Pakistan seesawing upon it. The story begins in October 1947 three months after both countries gain independence. Most rulers of ‘Princely States’ have acceded to either of the two dominions as directed by the Indian Independence Act, 1947. Faced with the conundrum of choosing between a secular, socialist India, which, though Hindu, was bound to curtail his powers and privileges, and a feudal Muslim Pakistan that promised to honour them, Hari Singh, Maharaja of Jammu & Kashmir, prevaricates. It is then that his territories are invaded by the hordes of Pakistan’s restive North West Frontier Province. The Kashmiri forces fall, some troops mutiny and join the invaders, and the state plunges into total disarray. The Maharaja appeals to Pakistan to close the border and stop the invasion, but when they temporise he turns to India. Fearing legal complications Governor General Mountbatten advises Prime Minister Nehru to send in the army only after securing the state’s accession to India. Troops are flown in on 27 October 1947. In battle the Indians are soon surprised to find they are fighting not just the Pathan tribesman, but a well-trained, fully-equipped Pakistani Army. The engagement very quickly escalates into a full-fledged war.
Two months later, on 1 January 1948, Nehru complains to the United Nations of Pakistani aggression and asks the Security Council to direct it to withdraw its army, the tribesmen and artillery from what is now legally and officially Indian territory. After a year of intense fighting on the ground and debates in New York, the UN declares a ceasefire on 1 January 1949, freezing troop positions. Six months later Indian military representatives meet their Pakistani counterparts in Karachi. Watched over by UN officials, they identify respective troop positions and draw the dotted line between them. The inch we see on the map becomes 742 km long on the ground and comes to be known as the Cease Fire Line (CFL).
After the Bangladesh War of 1971, the two countries sign a bilateral agreement. Among the steps taken to ensure a lasting peace, they turn their attention to the Cease Fire Line and agree to change its name to the Line of Control. It’s an odd step. Nothing has physically changed, no territory is given, taken or exchanged. Was the term Cease Fire Line too tentative, too impassive and did Line of Control suggest greater agency, mastery and energy? Was it to rouse the men guarding the line from a somnolent state of ceasing fire to a more vigorous vigilance? But why, if peace was the ultimate objective?
According to PN Dhar, Indira Gandhi’s secretary at the time, the change of nomenclature was an interim move to preserve the status quo forever (where India would also renounce its claims on Pakistan-controlled Kashmir) and to convert the CFL into a de jure international border. Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was co-signatory to the treaty, allegedly agreed but could not persuade his colleagues, who refused to give up their traditional claim on the Kashmir Valley especially after losing East Pakistan. The Simla talks were on the verge of collapse when on the last day, according to Dhar, Bhutto persuaded Mrs Gandhi to leave the wording vague, promising that he would be able to convince his colleagues over time. Five years later, he was overthrown in a military coup and then hanged in 1979. The CFL turned into the LoC, but the name change did not mean a lasting peace. In 1999, Pakistan would breach it again, this time attacking from the northeast in the Kargil sector, sending irregulars over the LoC in an action replay of 1947 and 1965, resulting in the same, unchanging, immutable, bitter stalemate.
Had he lived, would Bhutto have delivered on his promise to settle Kashmir once and forever? Idle to speculate, but my curiosity turns elsewhere. Dhar never sheds light on why Mrs Gandhi settled for the more aggressive ‘Line of Control’ instead of Bhutto’s suggestion of the CFL: the Line of Peace. Tantalising to imagine the power of words influencing the actions of men. Who would do violence against something called a Line of Peace? Who would dare to breach it? Who would explain that the Line of Peace ‘is a line you have to control against… against something. It’s about psychological domination, it’s about harassing the enemy, not allowing him freedom of movement’?
‘See, we are not Kashmiris but Dards,’ says the old man, as if race and tribe explained why militancy had not taken root in Gurez. ‘Before 1947, some of us used to live in a village of 170 homes called Kalshai Bala, about 10 km that way,’ he points north towards the Pakistani posts across the LoC. ‘In those days there were no roads, no facilities, so we used to trek all the way to Bandipora, over the Razdan pass, some 80 km away to buy tea and rice. It used to take a week to go and a week to return. We’d each buy 80 kg of food and eat twenty on the way back.’ He throws his head back and laughs at the memory.
‘So how did you end up on this side of the LoC?’ I ask.
‘It happened during the war,’ he says, ‘in 1948.’
That summer the Indian Army marched up from Bandipora on hastily made tracks and came up against five companies of the Frontier Constabulary, 250 Chitral Scouts and 300 Gilgit Scouts, all well armed and equipped and led by regular Pakistani Army officers. There was heavy fighting but by November the Indian troops had sanitised the area.
‘That was a terrible time for us at Kalshai Bala,’ the old man continues, ‘we didn’t want to get involved but the Pakistani troops gave us a very rough time, accusing us of guiding the Indians to their vulnerable positions and leading them to the cache of Pakistani arms and ammunitions.’ So they fled across the border and joined their clansmen in Gurez, and have been eking out a living from these barren hills since. ‘The army is our only source of income, employing us as porters, hiring our ponies,’ the old man admits. ‘In winter, when the snow is up to our roofs, it is their helicopters that take us to hospitals in Srinagar. Our very lives depend on their goodwill. So you see, no militants come here because they know they won’t be supported and no one has ever been recruited from this village. We will die hungry but we will not join militancy.
A militant’s life is five years at the maximum,’ he ruffles the head of a little girl with large eyes, ‘much better to live for one’s children and grandchildren.’
A few years later, at Baduab village in the Tilel Valley, I was to meet another old man. Haidar Nawaz Mapnoo was dozing in a sunny spot in a wood-panelled room of his home, when his granddaughter burst in with me in tow. She had promised he was old enough to remember the war in 1947, and now, as I studied him, I believed her readily. He looked very old. And very frail. He wore a beige pheran and a matching monkey-cap. Thick, tinted spectacles sat on an enormous nose. He had no moustache, but a thin, grey beard hung down to his chest. I addressed him with the respect I reserve for the very old and wise. I needn’t have bothered. He turned out to be a bloodthirsty old coot, cackling at the memory of having personally slain five or six Pakistani soldiers in his youth.
‘How did you do that?’ I asked, suppressing a shudder.
‘You know Sonawari? It’s above Bandipora. Well, the Pakistanis had overrun the entire area till Sonawari. They were harsh with us. There was a lot of zulm, so we invited the Indian troops. Humney dawat dey kar bulaya. After the main troops had retreated we attacked the stragglers and killed five or six of them with our bare hands.’
The LoC means death. I’m continuously told to keep my head down below the sandbags at the OPs. Last winter, a soldier steps out of his bunker to take a pee and he’s shot through the head by a sniper. Because of the snow, the gales and the shelling they have no choice but to keep the corpse inside the bunker for ten whole days, stepping over it to make tea, sleeping near it at night. Finally, when the weather would permit a small helicopter to land at the base of the mountain, they find they can’t take him through the door because of rigor mortis. They have to break his arms and legs before they can bundle him home for the funeral.
The LoC also means a full stop, fence, wall, fortress, bastion, bulwark, obstacle, a dead end. At Tatri Kalshai, a forward post, I meet Jumma Khan, an unemployed, middle-aged man who never celebrates spring because spring means the melting of snow and the melting of snow can mean what it did in 1992. He was grazing his goats when he stepped on a landmine that had slipped downhill with the snowmelt. It blew his leg off.
‘Indian or Pakistani?’ I ask.
‘How do you know for sure?’
‘It blew my leg on this side of the border.’ He grins as he hitches his trouser and taps on his wooden leg. ‘Even this is giving way now and I have two little girls and a boy to support. I have a few goats and no land…’ But he doesn’t complain much. He can’t afford to. The forward post has a doctor and Jumma Khan has brought his daughter with fever and a running nose. If she gets worse, even at the height of winter, the Indian Army can provide transportation to Srinagar. That’s power you can’t argue with.
But it was not always this way. This was not always a mine-laced, backward frontier. Once upon a time, when there was no dashed line drawn across the mountains, the Gurez Valley was a busy highway that contributed to civilising Central Asia. I had walked up and down the Burzil Nala these past few days without connecting it to the Burzil Pass I had read about for years. I had to kick myself when the connection became clear. From the Kushan period (1st c. AD) onward, Kashmiri Buddhist monks used this very route to the Burzil Pass from which they could cross northward to Gilgit, and from where they would climb over the high Pamirs into Central Asia and Kashgar. From this last oasis they would skirt the formidable Takla-makan Desert to reach Tun Huang. From there they would travel east to Peking, spreading the word of the Buddha along the way until, transformed and transmuted, it would reach Japan as Zen Buddhism. Later, traders, soldiers, scholars, artists and adventurers followed in the footsteps of the Kashmiri monks. It was thrilling to sit by the gurgling Burzil Nala, surveying the faint track overgrown with grass that ran along it, and imagining it as it once was: a vital artery into the heart of Central Asia.
‘They’re wonderful people,’ sighs the Brigadier at the Head Quarters late one afternoon, ‘wonderful.’ He sinks a golf ball into a cup on a miniature putting range he’s constructed in his office. We take turns, sharing the putter as he speaks. He’s full of ideas of how to improve the lives of the Gurezis and we discuss the income-generating scheme he’s come up with for some of the villages.
‘No wonder they love you,’ I tease him gently, ‘you’re like the Salvation Army!’
He grins. ‘Thanks, but no, we don’t do enough. We can’t do more, being short of funds. The Gurezis really should be taken care of, not neglected like this.’
‘Seems like governance, whatever little there is in Kashmir ends in Bandipora.’
‘Oh yes, and the army has to make up for the shortfall.’
‘But the army can’t replace government, politics and an administration. What happens if you get an officer who is less enthusiastic than yourself?’
‘Nothing, and that’s the problem. The people have to rely on favours of the CO or the brigadier. It’s hard. Sometimes you get corrupt officers who won’t lift a finger until the locals have supplied him a goat or chicken or worse. I’ll let you in on a secret: we can kill militants but we can’t kill militancy. That has to be tackled politically, skilfully. I served in Doda in the late eighties, and at that time most of us in the army felt that the insurgency would never spread there. Doda had a large Hindu population, the Muslims did not support the movement… but all that changed suddenly, and overnight it was in flames.’
An orderly brings a tray of coffee and biscuits and we move outside to a small lawn shaded by poplars. ‘You’re lucky to be posted here,’ I say, looking out over the fields to the river, touched by the setting sun. ‘It’s idyllic.’
‘I suppose so, but we can’t take these people for granted,’ he sighs again. ‘They’re delightful, but they are so poor. A few young lads could be tempted by the money and then we’d lose all this. Don’t forget we’re a hair’s breadth away from the LoC.’
The Line of Control. It’s intriguing that something so insubstantial could have such a profound impact on the destinies of people who live along it. Ironic that on successive Republic Days the armed forces are praised for keeping the borders safe and there is not a word of thanks for the locals, for what could the army do without the goodwill of the border people?
I bid the Brigadier goodnight and walk towards the jeep that waits to take me back to my camp. It is a luminous evening. The mountains are a dark, jagged contrast against an opalescent mother-of-pearl sky. Silhouetted also are the tiny bumps and pimples that I identify as various OPs and connecting them along the ridge is the Line: silent, invisible and ominous, waiting for the benevolent hand of history to wipe it clean off the face of this earth.
Extracted from the forthcoming book, Heartland, Journeys into Kashmir and Beyond, to be published by Penguin in 2012