The Concerned Citizens Group, which came into being during the 2016 crisis in Kashmir to reach out to Kashmiris, made three visits to the Valley from October 2016 to December 2017. Late last month, from February 23-27, we visited Jammu and areas along the LoC and International Border (IB) areas to reach out to people suffering on account of the ceasefire violations. The group visited the affected villages of Bera, Jeora Farm, Kapurpur on the IB; Suchetgarh Border Post on the Jammu-Sialkot highway under R S Pura sector; Ganiah, a village on the LoC in Nowshera sub-division of Rajouri, which had witnessed frequent cross-border shelling; met villagers evacuated from some other villages adjoining the LoC — Khamba (Jhanghar), Sair Makri, Kanet, Sarya and Anwas-Bhandar.
I had visited R S Pura, Jhangar and other areas on the IB/LoC before, several times since 2003, when the guns first fell silent on both the Indian and Pakistani sides in an unwritten ceasefire. For nearly a decade, one could see what peace might look and feel like. There was sense of hope among these border communities. The opening of the cross-LoC routes for travel and trade had a huge psychological impact. For the first time since 1947, the people in these areas were feeling included.
That sense of optimism has evaporated. We found villagers filled with insecurity, hopelessness, and uncertainty about their future and resentful about the violence. They repeatedly asked how long they were expected to suffer like this. The anger and the resentment could hardly be missed.
A woman resident of Bera village, in the RS Pura sector, whose brother-in-law was killed in the January shelling, told us: “We cannot face this any longer. How long are we expected to bear this suffering? There are only two ways — either the two governments sit down and settle this issue or have ‘aar par ki jung’ and settle it once for all. But settle they must now. We cannot continue to live with this sense of fear, uncertainty and disruption.”
Rajouri’s Ganiah village, where nearly 95 per cent of the population are refugees of 1947, from Mirpur in PoK, has often found itself targeted in cross-LoC firing. Several people of this village met us at the village panchayat house. “We watch television and hear the home minister and other ministers in Delhi giving statements — ‘Hum Pakistan ko karara jawab de rahe hai.’ Lekin unka karara jawab to hum jhel rahe hai. Ye karara jawab Delhi ya Mumbai se kyun nahi dey rahe hain? We are the people getting crushed between the two nations.”
For the first time I sensed these border communities from Jammu to Poonch on the IB/LoC and even Uri, not supportive of the government’s tough policy of using strong military response to teach Pakistan a lesson. “Stop tough talk with mortar shelling, talk to each other,” was a common refrain, as people showed us the destruction, and spoke about who got killed and who was injured.
In Uri, people wanted the two governments to talk and settle the issues once and for all so that this repeated suffering would end and they could live normal lives. In Jammu, the predominant sentiment was that the exchange of fire on the IB and the LoC may even sharpen the internal divide in the state. There is a growing perception in Jammu of a worsening communal divide being promoted by politically ambitious leaders. The attack on the Sunjuwan army camp, and the rape and murder of a Bakharwal girl have given rise to the feeling that there is a “Hindu Jammu” ruled by the BJP and a “Muslim Kashmir” ruled by the PDP. Utterances by political leaders are perceived as dividing and alienating people.
There had always been a communal divide in Jammu, but earlier, there also used to be frank dialogue and discussions between communities, involving many civil society groups. Today, inter-community dialogue is absent.
There are several conclusions we drew from this visit. The heating up of the border — whether on the LoC or the IB — has not curbed terrorism and does not address the issue of growing militancy in J&K. The repeated ceasefire violations have endangered the lives of people living on the border. While we have no idea of the collateral civilian damage on the other side, the scenes of devastation and the stories of lives and livelihoods destroyed on the Indian side are heart-rending. No citizen of India should have to live in perpetual fear and in a traumatic environment.
Both India and Pakistan need to get back to the table. It is surprising that the two governments are stubborn about not holding public talks, but their respective National Security Advisors are secretly in touch, meeting in other countries. It is even more surprising that even these two officials are unable to stop the guns on the LoC. It is better that the dialogue is formalised, structured and taken to a political level to make it accountable. The future of India-Pakistan relations must not be made hostage to the political fortunes of any individual or political party.
The most immediate objective of any contact between the two sides should be to stop the shelling on the LoC and the IB. The ceasefire proclamation of November 26, 2003, should be resuscitated to make the LoC a line of peace, which is what it was meant to be. The Directors General of Military Operations (DGMOs) of the two countries are in regular telephonic contact, but this is not sufficient. The last time they met was in 2013. They must meet again.
Restoring the ceasefire alone can demonstrate the wisdom of the two countries, prevent loss of lives of both soldiers and civilians and create the conditions for a dialogue for resolving all bilateral issues amicably.
Jammu and Kashmir also needs an internal dialogue between people across the communities, political viewpoints and regions. It is imperative for the state and Central governments to play a constructive role and prevent a downward spiral.