Amidst the cacophony of political rhetoric and almost-nauseating chest thumping that follows every cross-border fire exchange between Indian and Pakistani troops, the voices of one particular group is conveniently ignored. It is those living close to the border — on both sides — who bear the maximum brunt of these skirmishes. However, they are the ones left to clean up the mess while the military-political class sidelines their issues terming it as ‘collateral damage’. In addition, the media does its part by blaming the lack of focus on these people’s issues on the ‘tyranny of distance’ — that is, if these issues find any mention at all.
The “befitting replies” that both the armies proudly shout on prime-time television (or the replies that are shouted on their behalf) are reduced to the ominous sounds of shells passing overhead or landing/exploding on something that the residents have dedicated their lives to.
The phenomenon of cross-border fire exchange is neither new nor does it show any sign of ebbing in the near future. What varies, though, is the intensity and severity of these skirmishes depending upon the political leadership in Islamabad and New Delhi. Momentary respite often gives way to an incessant volley of mortar shells and bursts of LMG fire. Despite the unilateral ceasefire by Pakistan, which was duly reciprocated by India in 2003, the violations have continued unabated. According to a report in The Indian Express, in 2017 alone, there were over 100 ceasefire violations by Pakistan.
But what we don’t hear over all the noise, thereafter, is the effect of these violations on the nearby villages, its people, their property and their livestock.
One of the most volatile borders in the world, Jammu and Kashmir is seen as a “geopolitical flashpoint”, and a territorial bone of contention between India and Pakistan. And often when a cross-border firing happens, the discourse that dominates every field, including academia, policy and media, is either about ‘the grand scheme of things’ or a hollow rhetoric on ‘de-escalation’. However, these discourses, so far, have failed to acknowledge the plight of these unwitting frontliners in this war of attrition.
Hidden behind the dispassionate statistics of ceasefire violations and incessant shellings are human faces — who neither chose to be in the situation nor are combatants in this fight. A walk through one such village reveals a grim reality of living in a constant fear of death and destruction. For them, weapon acquisitions or deployment by either of these armies aren’t a cause of unabashed pride nor does it provide them with any semblance of security. Contrary to this rhetoric, which newsrooms boast about in a gleeful tone, these weapons are rather a periodic reminder that these nightmares are far from over.
One such village is Vijaypur district’s Nanga village. The district itself is about 50 kilometres from Jammu. The inhabitants of this village are mostly Sikhs (with a little population of Dogri-speaking Hindus ), who migrated from West Pakistan after 1947. And were allocated this land by the then Government.
Apart from being given land for houses, they were also given fertile agricultural lands which are now one of the biggest sources of income for these families. In terms of employment opportunities, the Indian Army has been the biggest employer.
Due to recurring shelling and cross-border firing, most of the houses are pock-marked while others have sustained worse. Recurring damages caused due to these skirmishes have made several residents reluctant to refurbish their houses. The village Gurudwara, which serves as a sort of community bunker during heavy shelling, also sustained damages during one such cross-border exchange recently.
The intermittent barrage of mortar shells is not the only hindrance to a normal life in the village. Whenever the tension between the two countries reaches a critical level, the village canal, running alongside the LoC, is electrified to prevent cross-border infiltrations. This deprives the local residents of a much-needed water source.
A resident of Nanga Village, Bir Kaur sums up the struggles of living in a volatile border area. “We are thankful for the then government for providing us with land and recognition, but where did they shift us? From one hell to another. We left our age-old homes in Pakistan, where our lives were in danger, for yet another dangerous area — a kilometre from the border.”
The walls of Bir Kaur’s verandah were destroyed during a cross-border shelling on September 22, 2017.
Bir Kaur’s grand-daughter Amandeep, an Economics graduate, recalls how various local journalists visited their house the very next morning after a round of shelling. No representatives from the Army or the Government visit those affected, let alone providing compensations.
House of Parsnath, a resident of Nanga village.
Parnath’s house was also hit by shells from across the border. “Fortunately, only one of his outer walls was destroyed,” says, Somnath, his neighbour. “Other houses have been hit worse,” he adds. The threshold of devastation of these villagers is so high that they are grateful and thankful that no human lives were compromised.
Ashok Kumar holds up one of the shells that hit his house.
“This is an everyday thing for us. We live in a fear of yet another shelling from across the border on a daily basis. I have been thinking of repairing my walls but what’s the use,” Kumar said. Fortunately, Kumar’s family was not at home when a volley of shells damaged parts of their house’s main room. Otherwise, there might have been some causalities.
Apart from the damage done to his house, Kumar also lost one of his cows to the shelling, while another one was severely injured.
One of the shells that hit the village Gurudwara compromised its structural integrity and has left a visible crack in the inner wall. It is now being repaired using the Gurudwara’s fund.
The ceiling of yet another resident’s washing area was hit.
Jasvinder recalls how her father had called her at night when some shells had hit some of the neighbouring houses. Soon after that, they heard a sound outside, it was the sound of a shell that had hit this particular ceiling.
Few shells had hit their verandah as well.
“This is our everyday life. We are used to it now,” says Jasvinder. “We do not want to leave this village. My family has been living here since 1947. Moreover, we have our agricultural lands here and we work on them ourselves. This is our home. We just pray every day that peace prevails between these two countries and we live in peace for once.”
Nanga is just one of the many villages that has experienced this ill-fated showering of shells. However, despite the increasing familiarity with sounds of shell bursts, the residents still consider themselves better-off than some of the other villages which are closer to the border and where these shells have claimed several lives.
Despite the loss caused by these skirmishes, the life in Nanga moves on. The resilience and the courage of these residents stand in stark contrast to the apathy they are subjected to.