From the conception of nation-building processes, borderlands have been one of the most beleaguered spaces. When borders are formed, they not only demarcate regions but a massive socio-economic aftermath follows. The haste with which India’s Partition was done, it is safe to say that a lot of it happened arbitrarily. In 1972, the Line of Control was laid down in the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir. One of its highly vulnerable and dis-harmonised border districts is Poonch, arbitrarily divided between India and Pakistan.
District Poonch with three of its major tehsils sharing a border with Pakistan makes to the headlines in national media about once a month for its troubled border situation. In recent times, especially after August 5, the town has experienced some of 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 shutdown but in addition it was constantly facing disturbances at the border, which seldom made news. After almost 25-30 days when I spoke to my family at home, I was informed how both the sides were actively keeping the borders heated. The abrogation of Article 370 had forced people of Poonch to wonder how the conflict between the two nations would impact their lives. In the entire debate on whether the abrogation was a right step or not, scant attention was given to what fate awaited the borderlands.
The aftermath of the abrogation of Article 370 was very loud and visible in Jammu and Kashmir, including in Poonch (when I visited home in October) but along with that, the brunt of the border conflict was visible, too. One fine afternoon in October, all of a sudden, the glasses of our windows began shaking and we heard a loud bomb-like explosion. I asked my parents (who were seemingly calm) and they said that India and Pakistan have been shelling Tedvan, Maldiyana, Shahpur, Balnoi sectors in broad daylight. Ceasefire violations are a gory business and generally take place in the darkness of night. Post August 5, this has been occurring quite often during day time. A video made it to national media of primary school kids running away as cross-border firing started in Balakote region of Poonch district. It was just one of numerous instances which go unrecorded.
In the winter of 2019 and January of 2020, during my stay at home almost every night went by listening to bombings and cross-fire in the villages of Poonch. The sad story is that people have almost adapted themselves to this situation and “normalcy” prevails.
While I’m writing this article in March 2020, I have heard bomb/mortar shell noises twice in the night at around 02:03am. It has been 7 days of continuous ceasefire violations, from both sides, parts of which have been reported by news channels but the major part has gone unreported. Locals say that Poonch has been witnessing the most severe border disturbances since 2002, the year when Poonch experienced the worst border crisis causing displacement of people, evacuations and migrations. Ever since last year, the conflict has been painfully continuous, claiming several lives and affecting many. The prospect of war is troubling the people in Poonch a lot more these days. It is a constant fear or paranoia. A simple statement or speech by the leaders of the two nations gets analysed to a hundred possible meanings.
With everything at stake, their lives, lands, identity, etc, the people of Poonch fear that war cannot be the solution to their miseries, It would be chaos, causing migrations, deaths, disruption of life and identity for the Paharis of Poonch, who have no other place to call their homeland. Here, the question of who is their enemy becomes imperative. The victims of the conflict in Poonch (on both sides) are Kashmiri Paharis ‘Poonchis’ and Gujjar/ Bakerwals, so they cannot be the enemies of each other. As a Pahari, I consider us as mere scapegoats for the politicians of both India and Pakistan. How else does one understand the continuous conflict on the border? There has been little effort from the Indian state to ease things out. Merely military preparations or response will not be the solution.
Hundreds and thousands of lives have succumbed to this conflict between India and Pakistan. The local political representatives of Poonch have been a sheer disappointment. The politics of the J&K parties and the national parties revolve around the limited economic development of Poonch district but barely touch on the harrowing border conflict. The silence of political representatives has left us with not much of an option than to keep surviving. But this is also our failure as a community in voicing the dark realities of the border. In this feeble condition we need assistance from our neighbouring districts to bring into light our everyday fears and miseries. What is going on in Poonch for more than an year qualifies for a war, not just “border disturbance”.
The writer is studying for a Master’s in History at Ambedkar University, Delhi