When 40-year-old Mohammad Rafiq, a resident of Tangdhar village close to the Line of Control in north Kashmir’s Kupwara district, heard the news about reiteration of the 2003 ceasefire agreement between India and Pakistan, it brought back traumatic memories.
A ceasefire violation on 11 November 1997 left a trail of destruction in his village, situated just three kilometers from the LoC. “It was 3:45 PM as I remember it exactly, we were having afternoon tea at home when a shell hit our house,” he said, “and killed four members of my family.”
Rafiq lost his mother, wife, and two children. When the two armies again announced a ceasefire last month, it renewed the hopes of the border residents to live a life of peace. Even as the guns have fallen silent along the LoC, Rafiq is sceptical if the peace would last.
Over the years hundreds of border residents on both sides of the LoC have been maimed or killed and countless property damaged when armies of India and Pakistan traded big and small gunfire despite agreeing to a ceasefire in 2003.
When crossfire starts it abruptly spreads along the LoC, another border resident Qazi Hameed-ud-Din Qureshi said and tried to sum up the repercussions of the confrontation on the de facto border: “A spark neglected burns the house.”
Qureshi still remembers that the 2003 truce was announced by the then Prime Minister of Pakistan, Zafarullah Jamali. India’s formal acceptance of the ceasefire came a few days later in a statement by the foreign ministry. The happiness didn’t last as the deal was violated.
Today, Qureshi is again excited at the prospect of peace but the history of the fragile peace between the two countries makes him, like Rafiq, wonder how long it will last. India and Pakistan have fought three wars over Kashmir since the exit of the British in 1947.
Their hostilities have left Kashmiris – on either side of the divide – their biggest victims.
Willingness to observe ceasefire
The 2003 ceasefire agreement between the two countries has been violated mercilessly by the two countries over the years but the intensity increased manifold after New Delhi claimed to have conducted “surgical strikes” within Pakistan in late 2016.
Data from the Government of India records at least 5,133 ceasefire violations in 2020, killing 22 civilians and 24 Indian Army troopers along the LoC. Pakistan, on the other hand, has recorded at least 3,097 violations in 2020 and the killing of 28 civilians and 257 injured.
To the residents of the border, it doesn’t matter who violates the ceasefire because at the end of the price is paid by the residents. “People have been the victim of strained relationships and escalation on the LoC since 1947,” said Fayaz Ahmad, another border resident from Karnah. “The decision of India and Pakistan to observe calm on LoC is a God-given gift.”
Along with the overall lifestyle of the people, the confrontation between the two nations has hit the education, health, and the economy of the border areas, said Qazi. “It has taken a heavy toll on the health of people living here as the constant threat that looms along the border has taken on the mental health of the people,” he said. “Countless people died in the area including the children in the past many years.”
So far, since the joint announcement, there has been no violation along the LoC.
Not a usual Spring
Besides the political concept of the Line of Control between India and Pakistan, the erection of a three-tiered razor fencing along with it by India has separated Kashmiri families and denied natives access to their ancestral lands and traditional pastures.
As a result agriculture has also taken a hit with most fields on either side remaining uncultivated as Kashmiri farmers fear the constant threat of an abrupt violation of ceasefire between the two armies.
“In absence of any active agreement barring escalation on the LoC many farmers along the border would not cultivate their farmland,” said Rafiq. “It pains people very much. If it is violated it doesn’t stop but continues in intervals.”
Qazi pointed to the volatility and unpredictability of the situation. “Civilians become the main target as they have no information about the possible shelling as compared to forces as the latter have equipment and machinery that allows them to take preventive measures in advance,” he said.
Whether the peace will hold and will farmers be able to cultivate their lands in peace remains to be seen.
Villagers on the Indian side of the border said they were tired of fleeing their homes when outbreaks of firing erupt. Some have seen family members being killed, and the cost of leaving behind their cattle and crops is too heavy for many poor farmers.
As relations between the nuclear-armed rivals worsened in the past several years, the GoI decided to construct underground bunkers for the residents of border areas to take shelter from the shelling.
Hameed-ud-din said about one bunker has been constructed in each village that is not sufficient for the people and isn’t accessible. At the time of the shelling, he said, “one cannot move a long distance to hide them as the threat of getting hit by the shell or cross border firing is always there but pressed for construction of a bunker each for the family as it will uphold the privacy of a family as well.”
Repeated demands about the construction of separate bunkers for each family by the people living along LoC went unheard, he said. “It takes around one lac rupees to construct a bunker that should be of a good standard that could bear the heavy shelling, Qureshi pointed out.
He recounts that one person of his area was killed last year and knows many in his locality who have received injuries due to cross-border shelling. “Availability of an increased number of underground bunkers could have reduced the loss.”