On the morning of Sunday, March 18, as Ramzan sat with his wife and children, three sons and two daughters, to have their morning tea in their hut of mud, brick and thatch, the house exploded around them, leaving only the two girls alive but seriously injured and orphaned. Although nestling on the LoC, the hamlet had never faced an artillery attack. But this deadly onslaught has heralded the use of longer range artillery in the fatal duel that has shredded the ceasefire of 2003 between India and Pakistan. As I flew into Srinagar on the morning of Monday, March 19, the Valley was abloom with almond blossom.
The city’s markets were bustling and smart shops have replaced the ubiquitous sheds. Although tourists were not visible, the gardens were teeming in the unseasonably warm sun, including the fragrant badamwari, the almond orchard at the foot of the lofty Hari Parbat. Set in fragrant harmony in a Mughal style garden, it is at the badamwari that I spent the afternoon of my arrival in absolute peace. But death lurks to the south along the border, striking unannounced day or night, catching residents going about their daily business without warning. Alarmed by this escalation on the LoC and International Border (IB), a concerned citizens group headed by former Union Minister Yashwant Sinha visited some of the affected areas on February 23-27: The civilian death toll was unacceptably high with collateral damage to civilians on both sides. More than 40,000 Indian civilians have been evacuated; make-shift camps set up to house them at a safe distance, economic activities disrupted and schools closed. Besides the loss of human life, homes have been destroyed or damaged, cattle killed and injured and civic infrastructure like water supply and electricity disrupted. Worse, the situation in Jammu is descending into a communal confrontation.
The rape and brutal murder of Asifa, an 8-year-old tribal Bakarwal child, has inflamed passions, but ominously these have been channelled into communal fury. A prominent local Muslim businessman told the group, “I belong to Jammu and have never felt unsafe here. But now even I have started feeling insecure. What am I to make of the Hindu Ekta Manch taking out a protest march waving the national flag over the Asifa rape case shouting - ‘Those who want Pakistan will be sent to Kabristan (burial ground)? The only person who needs to be sent to Kabristan is the rapist.” In Kashmir, suicide attacks by infiltrators have escalated with the Pakistan based Jaish i Muhammad replacing Lashkar-i-Taiba in the terror vanguard and the local Hizbul Mujahedeen, its leadership decimated, bringing up the rear. Infiltration is rising. In their widely published report, the committee describes how it “was shocked to see the devastation caused by the increased frequency and intensity of cross-border shelling. While the resilience of the border villagers who are collateral victims of the increased tension between the two countries is remarkable, it was shocking to find that no long-term strategies were being devised to alleviate their suffering. Even the short-term measures seemed ad hoc and patch-work at best.” At the end of its fourth visit to the state, the members of the group made a series of suggestions based on its conclusions, foremost among which is that the heating up of the border - whether on the LoC or the IB - is pointless.
It has not curbed terrorism and nor does it address the issue of growing militancy in J&K. So, the citizens of India, including those of the state of J&K may well ask what the current policy is expected to achieve, other than jingoist posturing, at such devastating cost to the poverty ridden populace of our borders. And in Kashmir “With its roses the brightest that earth ever gave,/ Its temples and grottos and fountains as clear, / As the love-lighted eyes that hang over their wave” the hostility behind the veneer has only grown.
Yet, amidst the enveloping violence that took three innocent lives in Shopian where the intervention of the apex court has prevented even the registration of an FIR and recruitment to militant ranks continues, the civil government, working silently through ifs police, has succeeded in winning back not less than 10 young men who had opted for militancy in South Kashmir, to return to the mainstream.
The challenge now will lie in their finding a life of fulfilment, which will keep them from reverting to a career of hatred and violence. Surely government policy can be tailored to this end?