Normalcy and silence: Poonch, the ceaseless battle ground
By Garima Sharma
In post-colonial nations, marred with militarism, borderlands are one of the feeblest and flickering spaces. When borders are formed they do not only demarcate regions but a massive socio- economic aftermath follows it. Such is the story of borderland communities. When we trace the history of India’s Partition, we can safely say that it was done arbitrarily and in a haste. The Line of Control (LOC) was laid down in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir in 1972. One of its highly vulnerable and dis-harmonized border districts is Poonch, which was arbitrarily divided between India and Pakistan. In the Simla Agreement signed in 1972, the existing ceasefire line was converted into the LOC. Under this agreement no unilateral alterations by either parties can be made, along with the regulations of ceasefire. The political and military changes in both the nations have impacted the borders and its communities a great deal. The three major wars of 1965, 1971, 1998 have left a lasting impact on different districts, their territories, social demography, economy and politics. But here I intend to talk about the present realities of the border and how the two nations deal with it.
Poonch District with three of its major Tehsils shares border with Pakistan and makes headlines in national media once a month because of its troubled border situation. Talking of more recent times, especially after 4 August 2019, the town has experienced worst ceasefire violations in a long time. When the state of Jammu and Kashmir was continuously in national news, the town of Poonch like the rest of the districts was under curfew and communication was shut down. The town faced constant disturbances at the border and it seldom made news. While the bazaars and public spaces and movement were shut, the peripheries experienced ceasefire violations on an almost daily basis. After around 25-30 days when I spoke to people at home for not more than two minutes in a long time, I was informed how both the sides are actively keeping the borders heated up. During that time India and Pakistan had a dichotomous bearing on the abrogation of Article 370. This forced people of Poonch to think how this disagreement/ disappointment of the two nations would impact their lives at the border. The whole debate of whether the abrogation was a right step or not superseded the realities of borders and rare attention was given to what awaits the borderlands. The war paranoia had engulfed and still engulfs Poonch and other border regions.
The aftermath of the abrogation of Article 370 was very loud and visible in Jammu and Kashmir. I felt the same in Poonch when I visited home in October 2019. Along with it, the border conflict was visible too. One fine afternoon in October all of a sudden the glasses of our windows were shaking and we heard a loud bomb like noise. I got up in shock and asked my parents (who were seemingly calm), “What is this noise?” They said that India and Pakistan have been bombing in Tedvan, Maldiyana, Shahpur, Balnoi sectors in broad daylight. Ceasefire violations, a gory business, generally take place in the darkness of night. Post 4 August 2019, this has been occurring quite often during the day time. A video showed desperate primary school kids running away as cross border firing started in the Balakote region of Poonch district. This is one of the numerous instances which go unrecorded or noted. In the winter of 2019 and in January 2020 during my stay at home, I listened to bombs and crossfire in the villages of Poonch almost every night. The sad part is that the people have almost adapted themselves to this situation. “Normalcy” prevails. We frown at this but then we continue with our excruciating and deafening silence.
As I write this article in March 2020, I have heard the bomb/mortar shell noises twice tonight around 2:03 am. It has been seven days of continuous ceasefire violations from both sides. While a part of this has been reported by news channels, a major part of this goes unreported. Locals have said that Poonch has been witnessing severe border disturbances after 2002, the year when Poonch experienced the worst border crisis causing displacement of people, evacuations and migrations. Things have become worse post-Pulwama attack. Since last year the conflict has been painfully continuous, claiming several lives and affecting many. The question of war has been troubling the minds of people in Poonch a lot more these days. It is not just a question any more but a constant fear or paranoia. A simple statement or speech by leaders of both the nations gets revisited and analyzed to hundred possible meanings, by the locals who are uncertain of what is to come.
But what does war hold or mean for people of Poonch? And who is the enemy?
Having everything at stake – lives, economy, lands, identity, etc. – the people of Poonch fear war and nothing less. War cannot be a solution to our miseries. It will be a forced chaos causing migrations, loss of life and material, disruption of future and a major identity crisis for the Paharis of Poonch, who have nowhere else to call their homeland. Here the question, “Who is the enemy?” becomes imperative. The victims of this conflict in Poonch (on both sides) are Kashmiri Pahari ‘Poonchis’ and Gujjar/ Bakerwals, seeking for a more certain and stable life. Is the enemy here a projection of state’s nationalistic sentiments? As a Pahari myself I consider us a mere scapegoat used for the functioning of the party politics of both India and Pakistan, popularized on occasions of internal crisis in politics and economy to divert the Indian population and skip their concerns. How else does one define a continuous conflict on the border? With little effort extended by the Indian state to ease things out, a mere military preparation or response is not and will not be the solution to the long-existing border conflict.
Excluding the wars, hundreds and thousands of lives have succumbed to this conflict. Keeping the inadequate state efforts aside, the local political representation in Poonch, Jammu and the Valley has been a sheer disappointment. Politics of the state parties and the national parties revolve around the limped development of Poonch district but barely touches on the harrowing border conflict. The silence of people and of political representatives from Jammu and Kashmir has left us with not much of an option than to absorb and keep surviving. This has of course led to our failure as a community in exposing and voicing the dark realities of the border. What we need now is assistance from our neighbouring districts to bring into light the everyday fears and miseries, which are created for us and not by us. Does what is going on in Poonch for over a year qualify for a war? Or is it still a “border disturbance”? The Poonchi community has been going through multiple conflicts. For decades and generations, the border has turned into a dark cloud of ambiguity looming over Poonch.
Garima Sharma is pursuing Master’s at the Department of History, Ambedkar University, Delhi.
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