Ground Zero - In-depth reportage from The Hindu

Border town blues

Once a stamping ground for marauding invaders and militants, Uri’s long-held silence is under threat as India and Pakistan lock gaze once again in the aftermath of Sunday’s terror attack. By Peerzada Ashiq in Uri and Josy Joseph in New Delhi.

The soldier bends to peer into the large telescope fixed on the edge of the boundary. He gestures. He appears to be enquiring about someone. The Jhelum river separates him from his Pakistani counterpart, stationed across the Line of Control (LoC). Standing to attention, the Pakistani soldier runs his hands over his stomach, making the sign of a large paunch, then presses his palm on his forehead to indicate sickness, and smiles. Trying to make sense of the gesture, the Indian soldier straightens up and remarks: “The subedar is on leave today, he is not well.” It’s the Pakistani soldier’s turn to gaze into his telescope for his Indian counterpart to make the next sign.

In the calm that envelops Uri and the Friendship Bridge (Aman Setu) across the Jhelum and the LoC dividing Kashmir, soldiers on both sides have for long abandoned their personal weapons to play casual sign language games. Ever since the 2003 ceasefire along the LoC, it has mostly been the routine — in lazy afternoons and early mornings. The nights have always been wrapped in a watchful silence.

Uri’s long-held silence is now under threat as the Indian Army ups the ante in the wake of the first major terrorist attack on the town. The attack on this oasis of peace in the strife-torn Kashmir valley came on September 18 morning, as the town slept.

A deadly dawn

A little after 5.15 a.m. on Sunday morning, four heavily armed terrorists stormed into an Army installation where the 6 Bihar regiment was in the process of taking over from the 10 Dogra, which was in the process of moving out after its vigil. In less than three minutes, the terrorists had lobbed 17 grenades, setting ablaze the fuel dump and temporary accommodations in which most of the 6 Bihar regiment soldiers were asleep. This advance party of the unit, numbering about 35, had only landed a few days earlier to prepare for their entire battalion to move in. A total of 18 soldiers were killed in the deadliest attack on an Army installation in the Valley.

Army investigators have found two breaches along the LoC fence, and suspect that the terrorists may have used one of them to enter the Indian side. However, it is still not clear if they crossed the previous night, or had entered a few days earlier. “Some of the terrorists had some items with Pakistani markings, I have spoken to the Pakistan DGMO and conveyed our serious concerns on the same,” Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) Lt. Gen. Ranbir Singh said in a statement on Sunday. There is, however, still lingering suspicion if they were foreign terrorists or from the new crop of local youth who have taken to militancy.

The Army said that total recoveries from the slain terrorists were four AK-47 rifles, four Under Barrel Grenade Launchers (UBGL), 39 UBGL grenades, five hand grenades, two radio sets, two Global Positioning System (GPS) sets, two map sheets, two matrix sheets, one mobile phone and a large number of food and medicine packets having Pakistani markings.

Additional tents located in the complex were to house fresh troops inducted due to the changeover of troops every two years. “Of the 17 casualties (one more soldier died later), 13-14 have been due to the tents/shelters having caught fire,” Lt. Gen. Singh stated. “I would like to assure you that the Army remains prepared to thwart any nefarious designs, and any evil designs of the adversary shall be given a befitting reply,” he added, echoing the tough statement made earlier by Prime Minister Narendra Modi about the perpetrators of Uri not going unpunished.

A town by a river

Asymmetric and terraced patches of paddy fields have been harvested and the crop stacked for the fast-approaching harsh winter spell in Uri, which touches Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) ridges from three sides like a jaw and remains the most crucial pass to make an entry into the Valley. Walnut kernels, mostly routed to New Delhi’s Azadpur Mandi, Asia’s largest wholesale market for fruits and vegetables, are spread on sheets and drying under the sharp autumn sun.

It is 8.30 a.m., three days after the attack. The morning shadow of a nearby mountain ridge at Tilawardi, Uri tehsil’s last village split by the razor-edged fencing, falls on the Ganai Mohalla Primary School. Run from a rented 8x8 ft room, it has just 20 students and two teachers, a ratio that would fit well with our education planners. There are nine houses in Ganai Mohalla, sandwiched between fences. A stream that flows from PoK further restricts the movement of the population. Located at the foothills, one narrow kutcha (unpaved) road leads to the school. The teacher rings the bell and it can be heard from afar — an invitation to reach school quickly. The student who reaches first gets the teacher’s attention first. Class IV has only one student and the teacher decides to take the class out in the open.

The PoK ridge, just a few metres away, casts its shadow one last time before the sun sets. For Tilawardi and nearby Silikote villages, the sun emerges and goes down behind the PoK. From the villages one can see the tin roofs across, sometimes even the well-dug-in bunkers on the other side.

“The muezzin’s call for azan (prayers) from a PoK mosque is clearly audible here, so is the traffic noise at times,” says schoolteacher Basheer Ahmad Mir, who earlier in the day submitted his identity card at the first ring of fencing to the Army. Two rings of fences have been made here — one divides the village; the second is the last point till which a villager can go. Outsiders, and that includes relatives elsewhere in the Valley, have to submit their identity cards to the Army. The cards are returned later. Beyond that is the no man’s land. “People who do not return to collect I-cards are believed to have crossed into PoK. No such incident has happened for long now. The area was believed to be a militant route in the early 1990s. All is well now,” adds Mir, refusing to engage in any discussion on the Sunday attack.

From the standpoint of Uri residents, the villages are the last posts, and would be the first to bear the brunt of the souring of relations between India and Pakistan. At the time of writing this report, the pace of Uri life, with the Jhelum river dissecting the town and providing natural cover to scores of Army installations, is unmoved by the attack.

Markets are open. No one is discussing war here. People are curious about the secret burial of the slain gunmen who perpetrated the September 18 attack. In the same breath, people recall what they have endured for more than six decades now.

“In 1990s, at the peak of militancy and Army counter-insurgency operations, my sister disappeared. One morning, she abandoned her family on the LoC and chose PoK as her future. She never returned thereafter. A border life is like a flowing stream. Things change in a jiffy,” says Habibullah Mir, 55, a local who works in the revenue department.

A haunting past

The air is full of anxiety. There is a generation of old locals who had witnessed the tribal Pathan raid in 1947, which led to a mass migration out of the town. The place was run down by the tribal raiders up to Baramulla, a distance of more than 30 km. “The raiders, mainly drawn from the illiterate section across the border, came as saviours but ended up looting our assets. Even the copperware was not spared,” says Muhammad Sidiq Wani, a shopkeeper in his 70s.

Displacements followed in 1965 and 1971 when India and Pakistan clashed. Crucial in any conventional war, the Haji Pir Pass, connecting Uri with Poonch in Jammu, was lost in 1965, only to be recaptured in 1971. Between 1990 and 2002, people had to endure frequent mortar shelling. In the busy market, it is easy to spot people with artificial limbs — bearing the cost of wars past that have changed their lives forever.

Most casualties were inflicted from the exchange of mortal shells between the two countries at the peak of Kashmir militancy between 1990 and 1999. Ceasefire violations may be used to put across a political point by the two countries but for people living here it means an end to tending the fields, stopping grazing animals and abandoning their routine.

Despite schoolteacher Mir’s assertion, Uri, with around 1.25 lakh residents, remains a gateway of infiltration. Imposing mountains, with Pakistan at a vantage point from three sides, unfenced streams, thick forests and dense foliage have made the area penetrable for more than six decades. It’s only snow that acts as a deterrent to determined infiltrators in winters.

“The wars of 1965 and 1971 pushed people of Uri town and nearby ridges beyond the Boniyar area, which does not come under Pakistani shelling easily unlike Uri. We lived in Baramulla during the wars and returned only when the guns fell silent,” says shopkeeper Wani. He remembers the days when, due to continuous shelling, the dastarkhan (cloth laid on the floor to serve food) would be spread for dinner during daylight only. “Who would eat after sundown between 1990 and 2002? Shelling would kill the appetite too. Families would gather in the ground storey and watch large flames lapping up mountain slopes,” he says.

After the wars and the raging militancy, people say that the 2003 ceasefire agreement and the 2005 cross-LoC bus service ushered in a new era for the area. Amid the recent tension, the bus service crossed the Aman Setu at Salamabad, Uri, and passed the barrier set up by the Army installation, just a day after it was attacked, without any hindrances. The passage of the bus was symbolic of the strong desire for peace amidst the raging tensions.

“The cross-LoC trade and bus service has also helped in bringing down hostility between the soldiers of the two countries. On days when the bus service ferries a large number of civilians and trucks move with goods, the armies of both sides sit together and sip tea. Alertness returns only when the bus service stops,” says Nazir Ahmad, a local trader who exports banana and pulses to PoK. He, however, complains that Uri is yet to gain any substantial cross-LoC trade dividend as the unloading point remains Srinagar, the State capital. He awaits the day when “quality goods reach Uri at cheaper prices and make life better in many ways”. Only 21 goods items are listed for trading so far.

For now, though, far more urgent matters are at hand. A contingency plan is underway in the wake of the recent attack. With most underground bunkers damaged during the 2005 earthquake and dismantled, the Uri population remains highly vulnerable this time. “We are preparing a list of underground bunkers available in case of any exigency,” says Sub-Divisional Magistrate Showkat A. Rather. In case of India and Pakistan resorting to hot pursuits, Rather warns of mass migration. “Even low-range artillery will impact 50 to 60 per cent of Uri’s population,” he says.

Waning goodwill

With the help of the Army, Uri had succeeded in distancing itself from militancy and hard-core separatist politics. An Army goodwill school, a hospital and a range of skill development centres are the busiest sites of soldier-civilian interface in Uri. Round-the-year hiring of porters offers easy options to the unemployed.

Unlike other parts of the Valley, in Uri, an Army job is a preferred one. Shameena Jan, 17, an arts student at the Uri degree college, says soldiers have changed the lifestyle of locals and yearns to join the Army like his uncle, who is serving in West Bengal. “From generating employment to taking students on tours to organising colourful events, life would have been difficult without them,” says Shameena.

It’s precisely for this reason that relations remain cordial despite the soldier-civilian ratio being highest in the area with two brigades on guard. In stark contrast to elsewhere in the Valley where confrontations are common and accusations fly thick and fast, people here prefer the Army hospital and school over State government-run facilities.

But slowly, yet surely, the 77-day-old street agitation in the Valley is beginning to affect Uri too. The Army-run Tamana Cafeteria is closed for civilians after the attack; the footfall had already fallen due to the ongoing unrest in the Valley. For the first time, Uri town shuts down for two days, Thursday and Friday, every week to express solidarity with separatist leaders.

Mourning its men, the 6 Bihar regiment will have to swiftly recoup and assume control of the installation. The 10 Dogra regiment will leave with bitter memories of the town. For the locals, history is instructive: Uri has weathered invading columns and marauding militants. This storm too, again not of their own making, shall hopefully pass.

(with inputs from Dinakar Peri)

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Printable version | May 28, 2020 1:30:23 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/Border-town-blues/article14647331.ece

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