Traders view killing of the two Indian soldiers as a ‘bigger conspiracy’ to fail the Indo-Pakistan CBMs on J&K

For 26-year-old Kulsoom Akhtar, who lives with her husband and two children in a hutment right in front of Gurdwara Dheri Sahab on the middle of the road leading from Poonch to Chakan-Da-Bagh, revival of the cross-LoC trade and travel after 58 years carries no meaning.

“Our roads are completely different from yours,” says the young Bakerwal woman of Khari hamlet.

Even when activity resumed with fanfare in 2005 and 2008 on the once-bustling trade route, connecting Rajouri and Poonch areas of Jammu to Rawalakot and Kotli towns across the LoC, Ms. Akhtar was dying for her reunion with the husband who then earned a livelihood in Saudi Arabia.

“It takes us four days to walk our herds to Gulmarg. We tread further to Srinagar and Baba Nagri [seat of the prominent spiritual leader of the Gujjars and Bakerwals, Mian Bashir Ahmad],” Ms. Akhtar told The Hindu. “What have we shepherds got to do with these roads?”

Ongoing skirmishes between the Indian and the Pakistani troops on the LoC from Uri to Mendhar have put a minuscule political chunk on Ms. Akhtar ’s side. Contrary to her innocence, the outbursts by a few BJP activists are pregnant with politics. “To hell with this trade and travel which make us helpless before the aggression. Our jawans are being killed,” the angry activists were heard shouting after the killing of two soldiers on January 8.

A 10-minute drive on Residency Road drops you at a military memorial, just a couple of miles short of the splendid palace of the ruler in 1947 Raja Moti Singh, Moti Mahal — now headquarters of 93 Infantry Brigade. Immediately after the reported death of a Pakistani soldier across Charonda, Uri, on January 6, and the killing of two Indian soldiers at Mankot, Mendhar, on January 8, men of all formations of 93 Brigade are on a high alert from Haji Pir to Poonch. “Uri 45 km, Hajipir 22 km, Degwar 5 km” announces the memorial made of jet black granite.

Deepak Khanna, who has been hosting variety shows and public events for the Army, in addition to producing and presenting patriotic programmes on All India Radio Poonch, negates both Ms. Akhtar and the local BJP leaders. “Trade and travel through Chakan-Da-Bagh has proved to be the biggest confidence building measure between India and Pakistan in Jammu and Kashmir,” Mr. Khanna asserts.

“Particularly the trade has come as a boon. Previously, only the few affluent people would enjoy the luxury of buying a kilo of apple. Fresh or dry fruit or vegetables, these are now affordable to the poorest here as the prices have come down drastically after 2008,” Mr. Khanna said. He narrated how his Muslim father stood back and chose to become a Hindu during the 1947 war. “Two of my uncles are still Muslims. They live in Rawalakot,” Mr. Khanna revealed.

“Fruit of real Azadi”

Nevertheless, the proverbial horse’s mouth clarification comes from none other than the general secretary of Cross-LoC Trade, Krishen Singh. “Both travel as well as trade have brought about a veritable revolution in Poonch,” Mr. Singh told The Hindu. “We have tasted the fruit of the real Azadi since 2008.”

Mr. Singh narrated how people from across the LoC used to enjoy their visits and sometimes refuse to go back. Some of them died a natural death and were buried in the local community graveyards by members of the divided families.

“Sometime back, three of our guests from PoK met Deputy Commissioner Mohammad Ramzan Thakur and told him that they would never return even if they were killed. DC Sahab strived hard and managed to extend their stay by 10 days,” Mr. Singh recalled. “They told DC that they were living in hell while they viewed the Indian-administered J&K as heaven.”

“But, believe me this disruption is the part of a bigger conspiracy. The agencies in Pakistan are not comfortable with the way that country’s false propaganda is getting exposed before our guests from PoK. They seem to be bent upon sabotaging it,” Mr. Singh claimed. According to him, it would be “falling in ISI’s trap foolishly” if the Indian authorities opted for hard options and froze the CBM.

Some reports insist that the PoK authorities had suspended the trade and travel only after one of the Pakistani trucks got hit by Indian shelling across Battal, Mendhar. Mr. Singh dismissed these reports as “rubbish” and claimed that the Pakistani troops “under the influence of ISI” had made several attempts in the past to sabotage cross-LoC trade and travel.

President of Anjuman-e-Jaffriya, Zaki Hyder, too echoed Mr. Singh’s views and claimed that the authorities in Pakistan had little sincerity in running the trade and travel operations. He, however, insisted that mistrust and propaganda would have to be replaced by sincerity and goodwill from both sides.

Noted writer and Urdu scholar Khush Dev Sing Maini confirmed that a part of the 50 Km road from Tatarinot (Hajeera) was exposed to Indian shelling in Battal area of Mendhar where the brutality happened on Tuesday last. He, however, pointed out that the troops of opposite sides had rarely targeted a road.

Government of India’s Trade Facilitation Officer at Chakan-Da-Bagh, Paramjit Singh, as well as J&K Government’s Custodian of Cross-LoC Trade, Abdul Hamid Sheikh, sounded confident that both the activities would resume soon.

“…peaceful atmosphere has been disturbed due to unfortunate incidents of firing and brutal killings across the LoC at various places in Poonch and Uri areas. These incidents have shaken the confidence of the people. There is a lot of tension and panic among the public. We the people of border areas who have enjoyed the fruit of peace and the LoC CBMs following the ceasefire on the LoC do not want the escalation of the situation and lives being disturbed as a result of more killings,” said an appeal issued through the media by the local civil society and signed by 14 prominent traders, intellectuals and lawyers.

It added: “The members of civil society of Poonch would like to make a humble appeal to Governments of India and Pakistan to take immediate steps towards the restoration of peace on the LoC and implement in letter and spirit the ceasefire agreement of November 26, 2003. We urge that all efforts be made to defuse the tension on the LoC and restore trade venture and weekly bus service from Poonch — Rawalakot route so that we the people of border areas can live in our houses and localities near the LoC with a sense of peace and security in conducive atmosphere. This, we believe is in the utmost interest of the people residing on both the sides of LoC.”