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Friday, 12 December 2014

J & K Diary - 3 : Life between trade & grenade !

At top is a Pakistani post & below are Indian hamlets.
Old farmers cutting dry grass on the field, toddlers playing along the street side, little children going to school, women heading to home with grocery, grazing cows and sheeps…Pakistani bullets spare no one. Whether you are a civilian or an army man, whether you are a kid or grown up, man or women, bullets fired by Pakistani guns don't discriminate, don't hesitate. You may get killed or injured or lose your loved ones, neighbours or pet animals. Welcome to Sabjiyan! Sabjiyan is a small cluster of hamlets adjacent to Line of Control (LOC) near Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK) in Poonch district of Jammu and Kashmir. People here literally live under shadow of death. Sabjiyan is located at a place where Jammu region ends and Kashmir valley begins. Hence, it’s a key spot for infiltrators to sneak into the valley with their sinister designs. Adjacent to this village is a hill whose top is occupied by Pakistani army which has built a post there. Being at a height, Pakistani soldiers get a bird’s eye view of the village below. They can see movements of the villagers and shoot them whenever they want to distract Indian security forces at the time of infiltration bids.
Shadow of death: 
A house at village Jallas opposite PoK, Poonch
While visiting this area, I could sense the danger and jeopardy. We could feel the fear which has seized the life of people living here. At this moment everything seems normal and by the next moment there could be a spray of bullets from the top and you are dead. Bullets may come anytime whether it is broad daylight or dark of the night. Just a few weeks before I visited Sabjiyan, there was an indiscriminate firing from Pakistani soldiers. I met Ashfaque Ali, an old man residing at a hamlet of Sabjiyan. One afternoon at around 2 pm while he was cutting dry grass on a field, Pakistanis started firing. There was chaos all over. Everybody started running to dodge the bullets. Asfhaque also tried to escape but a bullet hit his right arm. Hours later he was taken to a governmental hospital in Poonch. There was tremendous blood loss due to the injury; however, he was able to survive. A 9 years old girl was not as lucky as Ashfaque. She was unable to escape and got killed. Apart from civilian casualties there have been numerous incidents where members of security forces were killed. Sabjiyan provides a strategic advantage to Pakistani forces as they have occupied dominant heights and Indians below them could be easily targeted.

Not very far away from Sabjiyan is village Jhallas which is just opposite LOC and Pakistani army posts are clearly visible. Here I met a postman named Pashorilal alias Mitthu.
This 40 years old man’s body is full of marks due to injuries by splinters. There are several in the village like him who survived inspite of being hit by Pakistani bullets and splinters and bear similar marks on their body. There are numerous houses in this village whose walls facing PoK have marks of bullets. Since October 1, 2014 there have been several instances of ceasefire violations by Pakistanis in which 8 people have been killed and 94 got injured including 13 securitymen.

Such villages around 725 kilometres long LOC have witnessed a long history of bloodbath and have lost several of their residents. Many have migrated to safer areas. In 2003 there was a ceasefire agreement between Indian and Pakistani governments wherein it was mutually decided that security forces of both the countries will keep their artillery 20 kilometres away from the LOC. This was a great relief for these villagers and they were able to sleep fearlessly. However, normalcy across LOC was very shortlived.  Pakistani forces began ceasefire violations under some pretext or the other which compelled Indian forces to respond accordingly.

“Firing bandh karo…Namaaz-E-Janaaza hone wali hai”
LOC:Road connecting Poonch (India) & Rawalakot (Pok) 
If you look at the map of Jammu and Kashmir you will notice that except eastern direction Poonch town is surrounded by PoK from rest of the three sides. At most of locations, Pakistani forces are at dominant heights. However, there are few locations where Indian armed forces too are stationed at relatively good height. According to Paresh Kumar, a local resident of Poonch, whenever Pakistanis start firing on our villages from their heighted positions, Indian soldiers also retaliate by firing from those posts where they are on advantage.
There is a village at PoK side near LOC where Indian post is on dominant position. The Azaan (call for prayer) made from the loudspeaker of the mosque of that village is heard even in Indian side. Whenever Pakistanis fire on Indian villages, Indian forces start a response which often seems unstoppable. Pakistani side suffers casualties and they are not able to pick up their dead bodies also due to continuous firing by Indian forces. In such circumstances one hears an announcement from the loudspeaker of Pakistani mosque –  “ हिंदुस्तानी फौज से गुजारिश है कि मेहरबानी करके फायरिंग रोक दो। नमाज ए जनाजा होना है। (Indian army is requested to please stop firing. We have to do funeral prayers.)

Mobile goes hostile.
In areas around the LOC towards Indian side, you will not be able to use your mobile phones. The icon on your mobile phone which displays network strength goes blank. If you start manually searching the mobile network, you will not find any Indian service provider, but the menu will display Pakistani ones like Telenor, Zong, Ufone etc. This is because Indian government has not allowed installation of mobile towers near LoC. However, this is not the case with PoK side. One can see numerous towers of Pakistani mobile service providers in close proximity to the LOC. Lack of Indian mobile services and presence of Pakistani mobile networks provides an advantage to Pakistani OGWs (Over Ground Workers). Pakistani spies employed by Inter Service Intelligence (ISI) working on Indian soil use Pakistani sim cards to communicate with their colleagues on the other side of fence and pass on sensitive information. 
Pakistani television channels are also easily accessible on the Indian side.

Here grenade…there trade.
Trade Centre at LOC, Poonch.
Life at the LOC reflects irony. Just 2 kilometres away from village Jallas which frequently witnesses firing from Pakistani soldiers is a place where two countries exhibit a totally different picture. This place is Cross LOC Trade Centre where trade between India and PoK takes place. One trade centre is at Indian side and another one is at PoK side. Both the trade centres are located beside the  road which connects Poonch from Indian side to Rawalakot at PoK side. Cross LOC trade commenced in October 2008 as a “Confidence Building Measure” between the two countries. Pakistan sends dry fruits to India while Indian traders sell fresh fruits to Pakistan. Initially, the trade began with 5 to 6 trucks from both the sides per week, but today it has increased upto 25 trucks. Even when the gunshots during exchange of fire between Indian and Pakistani soldiers are heard closeby, the activities at both the trade centres go on.

Although, Indian traders are happy that the government is allowing them to conduct trade with PoK, they are having several grievances too. At Poonch I met Pawan Anand who is the president of Cross LOC Trade Association. He says that Indian government creates unnecessary troubles for the traders while such is not the case with Pakistani traders. “Under the pretext of security check all our goods are unpacked at LOC check point. This damages the product and we have to spend money and time on their repackaging. This is not done by Pakistan with their traders. I don’t understand why they are checking goods which are going towards them. They should be more concerned about what is coming from them. Lack of mobile towers makes communication difficult with Pakistani traders. We don’t have any proper meeting place also to discuss business. We have to meet our Pakistani counterparts at the zero line. Earlier we used to trade in 21 commodities but now we just trade in 3 to 4 items. We also require a negative list of items to know which items are not to be traded. We also need temporary permits to visit PoK and check the quality of goods which we need to order”.

Around 350 traders are involved in Cross LOC trade. Recently, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Poonch for election campaign, a memorandum of demands prepared by traders was submitted to him. Traders are expecting that Modi government will redress their grievances.

“T” for Terror and “T” for Turnout.

Pakistan backed terrorists tried to disrupt Jammu and Kashmir assembly election process and terrorise the voters. The first phase of elections saw 70 % voters turnout which broke earlier records. Apparently militant organisations got upset with this and they tried to infiltrate from Arnia near Jammu so that second phase of elections could be disrupted. However, their attempt was foiled by Indian security forces and terrorists intending to enter India were eliminated in an encounter. Turnout of second phase also saw around 70 % voters exercising their democratic right. Long queues of voters were seen especially outside polling centres of villages which directly fell within the range of rogue Pakistani bullets. Successful elections in the second phase further enraged the terrorists and they attacked an army camp before the third phase in Uri. Although, all the infiltrated terrorists were killed, Indian armed forces also suffered heavy casualties. Even such violence didn’t deter voters of Uri to come out and vote and Uri saw a large turnout in the third phase of elections.

Citizens of Jammu and Kashmir coming out to vote inspite of such hostile circumstances and violent attempts by separatists to prevent them from voting only signifies that they have faith in Indian democracy and its with India where they see their future and well being.

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