Jammu and Kashmir Columns

Life along the Line of Control

An Indian Border Security Force soldier looks at the Pakistan side of the border through a binocular at Ranbir Singh Pura, about 35 kilometers (22 miles) from Jammu, India, Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in a speech Saturday that in the last four months, Indian security forces have killed more than 100 terrorists who crossed over the cease-fire line in Kashmir from Pakistani territory. (AP Photo/Channi Anand)   | Photo Credit: Channi Anand

It was August 2015 when I saw two residents along the India-Pakistan border get off a vehicle and rush towards a nearby bridge. When I approached them to talk about tensions along the border, they said, “Our houses in a nearby village, across the bridge, have been destroyed by cross-border shelling.” We began to walk towards the bridge, but were forced to retreat and wait when we heard the sound of shelling.

One of them was Mohammad Sharif, a porter with the Indian armed forces who was injured during the shelling; the other was Shamasdin, a daily wage labourer from Bandi in the Sabjiyan sector of Jammu’s Poonch district. Sharif and Shamasdin were among the many civilians who bore the brunt of cross-border violence along the LoC and the International Boundary (IB) last year.

Meha Dixit

The recent tensions between India and Pakistan are reminiscent of 2015, which saw some of the worst incidents of cross-border firings. Following the Uri attack in September 2016, India blamed Pakistan. The latter denied having any role in the incident. Soon after, India claimed to have conducted ‘surgical strikes’ on suspected militants preparing to infiltrate the country from across the border. Pakistan denied this too. Since then both countries have been blaming each other for violating the 2003 ceasefire agreement.

Protecting civilians

The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 and its additional protocols form the cornerstone of international humanitarian law (IHL) which seeks to regulate armed conflict and protect civilians. India and Pakistan are both parties to the Geneva Conventions. While Pakistan has signed but not ratified the 1977 Additional Protocol of these conventions, which strengthens the protection of victims of international armed conflict, India has neither signed nor ratified it. However, considering the universality of the Geneva Conventions, their general principles have now become customary law binding on non-parties. Therefore, according to one of the major principles of customary IHL, parties to an armed conflict must make a distinction between civilians and combatants and between civilian objects and military objectives.

IHL forbids all methods and means of warfare which “fail to discriminate between those taking part in the fighting and those, such as civilians, who are not, the purpose being to protect the civilian population, individual civilians and civilian property; cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering; cause severe or long-term damage to the environment.”

The indiscriminate firing by both Pakistani and Indian security forces poses a huge threat to the lives and properties of civilians on both sides of the border. It frequently causes “superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering” and “severe or long-term damage to the environment”. According to India, seven civilians were killed on November 1 in shelling by Pakistan along the Samba and Rajouri districts in Jammu. Pakistan on its part claimed on November 1 that at least three of its civilians were killed and five injured by Indian border troops in Nakyal Sardar.

Many border residents are often rendered homeless by such firing. Several get injured and/or lose their farms and cattle, often their only source of occupation. There are hardly any adequate medical facilities for these people. In India, the government provides emergency shelters to these civilians during firings, but this is rarely adequate. Those who do not get such shelter leave for safer areas.

Most border residents I interviewed in August 2015 said that they are dependent on agriculture and are only demanding emergency shelter in safer areas since they cannot leave their farms and settle somewhere else permanently. They are demanding underground bunkers which can be used for shelter during cross-border shelling.

In February 2015, a proposal was sent by the Jammu and Kashmir government to the Centre for setting up 20,125 community bunkers in 448 villages along the LoC and IB. Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, the then Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir, said that the proposal would cover a population of 4,02,455 near border areas in the districts of Jammu, Kathua, Samba, Rajouri and Poonch. However, a number of villages in these areas still lack underground bunkers.

Threat to psychosocial security

The uncertainty of border tensions also poses a huge threat to the psychosocial security of these civilians. According to the 1997 Cape Town Principles, the term “‘psychosocial’ underscores the close relationship between the psychological and social effects of armed conflict, the one type of effect continually influencing the other”. The constant fear of losing their lives, cattle and farms is likely to reverberate in the psyche of border residents which may impact their psychosocial well-being. Perhaps the most pitiable impact has been on children as they sometimes don’t attend school for months.

It has been over a year since I spoke to Sharif, Shamasdin and other locals in seven villages in Akhnoor, RS Pura and Suchetgarh along the IB and Balakot and Sabjiyan sectors along the LoC. But issues such as lack of community bunkers in many villages and inadequate temporary shelters in safer areas have still not been resolved. During my visit to Sidherwan in Akhnoor, Sudesh Sharma told me, “Our relatives from safer areas say that we [Sharmas] are now used to the firing. In fact, it is just that we do not have any choice”. Neeru, her daughter-in-law, interjected, “Perhaps our woes will end only if India and Pakistan decide to make peace”.

Meha Dixit has a PhD in International Politics from JNU and has taught at Kashmir University.

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