The escalation of cross-border firing along the Line of Control has renewed rifts in the India-Pakistan relations
The civilain and military leadership of Pakistan has taken a stern stand on the killing of nine bus passengers by the Indian troops in Azad Jammu and Kashmir’s Lawat area on Nov 23.
This was one in the sequence of firing along the Line of Control (LoC), from Bhimber in the south to the mountainous Neelum Valley in the north of Azad Jammu and Kashmir.
In fact, tension along the 740-kilometre long LoC, marked by dense forest and snow-capped mountains, has intensified since July 8, when Kashmiri militant leader Burhan Muzaffar Wani was assassinated in India-held Kashmir. On Nov 19, Pakistan shot down an Indian drone which had crossed 60 metres into Rakh Chakri sector, Azad Kashmir. On Nov 14, the Pakistan Navy prevented an Indian Navy submarine from entering Pakistani territorial waters.
The five month-long protests in Kashmir have made New Delhi realise that resistance movement cannot be subdued by the disproportionate use of force. It has tainted not only the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personal image as an ironman but also India’s reputation as a rising political force with democratic credential.
In the wake of the Uri attack, Modi decided to increase the diplomatic and military cost of conflict for Pakistan. At the diplomatic level, India has urged the world community to label Pakistan a terrorist state. In the recent BRICs conference, the Modi government tried to introduce a resolution to declare Pakistan a terrorist state. Luckily, China and Russia thwarted the move.
At the military level, firing across the LoC is a handy recipe to divert attention from the Kashmiri uprising, and engage Pakistan in another low-intensity conflict. It does not only keep Pakistan on the toes but the international community gets involved in the conflict management between Islamabad and New Delhi considering the peril of escalation.
India’s claim of its forces crossing the LoC to attack the ‘launch pad of terror’ on Sept 28, followed by the killing of seven soldiers by the Indian troops along the LoC in Bhimber sector on Nov 14 has caused immense horror in the region.
Authorities in Azad Jammu and Kashmir confirmed that the recent firings and shellings have killed 32 civilians whereas 115 persons have been injured so far. The people living close to the LoC are always first to get hit in conflicts between India and Kashmir since the partition. It is stated that nearly 285 villages are located along the LoC, which, unlike other border regions, are densely inhabited.
People even live along the zero line, which is heavily deployed by landmines, particularly its natural tracks. An area of almost two kilometre radius has been completely infested with mines.
Shujaat Bukhari, editor the Rising Kashmir in Srinagar, says that between Dec 2001 and July 2012, the Indian Army has deployed an estimated two million mines along its northern and western borders with Pakistan. It is widely stated that all families in the area have suffered due to landmines.
There is a serious danger of mass displacement towards major towns of AJK and neighbouring districts of Punjab, particularly Rawalpindi. Jalaluddin Mughal, an activist from Neelum Valley, recently commented on the exchange of fire along the LoC on social media: "In my village a number of civilians have left homes to take refuge in the nearest mountain due to exchange of consistent firing and fear of escalation. My six years old daughter, Ume Farwa went unconscious after hearing blasts in surrounding areas. I pity myself, a lame duck father who can’t give a peaceful environment and fearless childhood to his only child. The consistent firing on the Line of Control ruined my childhood 25 years ago and I do not want my daughter to meet the same fate."
Islamabad appears unwilling to extend generous financial support to its own party government in AJK, despite several requests from Muzaffarabad for financial support.
Around 200 schools along the LoC are closed due to cross-border firing. The medical facilities available in the border areas are quite negligible. Most of the hospitals are being run jointly by the military and civilian administration in the border areas but the lack of surgical facilities and incapability to handle complicated issues is a big challenge.
Ayesha Siddique, a schoolteacher in Muzaffarabad, states that last week a woman came to her school with her two 4-6 years old daughters, seeking their admission. "I inquired why she brought them so late. She told me that her family migrated from the area close to Line of Control because of present hostility and started weeping. She does not have any documents of her daughters or even her own national identity card as she narrowly escaped firing across the LoC."
Most people consider the 2003-2015 ceasefire a period of calm and respite. During this period, not only displaced communities got resettled in their native towns but a tourist influx was also witnessed. The local authorities claim that nearly half a million tourists went to the Neelum Valley merely this year where LoC itself became a fascination for the visitors.
This calm offered an opportunity to locals to rebuild the economy and earn a decent living but the recent breach of ceasefire has shattered their dreams of peaceful and prosperous life.
The United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP) is stationed in Rawalpindi and Srinagar respectively to observe, investigate and report ceasefire violations to the secretary-general. The UNMOGIP has been mandated to maintain peace on the LoC and the Working Boundary but it has not been allowed it to visit LoC in India-held Kashmir after the 1971 ceasefire.
The international community and media have failed to guage the gravity and scale of the on-going conflict in the border region due to a lack of interest and access.
In this depressing scenario, the only good news is that Foreign Affairs Adviser to Prime Minister of Pakistan, Sartaj Aziz, is likely to attend the upcoming meeting of the ‘Heart of Asia’ in India to be held next month. It provides an opportunity to break the present impasse and at least resume the 2003 ceasefire, and talk about institutionalising CBMs on LoC.