OPINION

A fragile peace amid persisting conflict

Army personnel stand guard while children gather on the school grounds at the Army Goodwill School in Chandigam, Lolab Valley, some 25 km from the Line of Control, in Kupwara district of Kashmir on October 13. (Below): A soldier on guard in Tangdhar sector close to the LoC.AFP, Dinakar PeriMONEY SHARMA  

On the afternoon of July 8, 2020, Sadaqat Hussain, 23, and Zameer Ahmed, 26, were hit by sniper fire from the Pakistani side of the Line of Control (LoC) in Simari Panchayat, Tangdhar sector of Kupwara district in Jammu and Kashmir, while they were helping construct a community bunker. Ceasefire violations along the LoC and the International Border (IB) have increased in the last few years; this year, they have reached a new high. This increased exchange of fire, involving small arms, mortars and medium artillery, and causing injuries and deaths, has led to a scramble to build bunkers for villages along the border. The incident in Tangdhar occurred during one such construction effort. Army officials said the workers were probably mistaken for military personnel. Hussain and Ahmed received some assistance from the Army but are still sometime away from full recovery. One has been injured in the leg and the other in the stomach.

According to official data, in 2018, there were 1,629 ceasefire violations along the LoC and IB. This number increased to 3,168 in 2019 and has touched a new high of 4,052 so far this year, including major exchange of fire just before Deepavali. There have been over 128 incidents already this month and 396 in October. Ceasefire violations have resulted in 20 civilian deaths this year; 47 people have sustained injuries. A bulk of the ceasefire violations were in the Jammu region. “Shelling had reduced after 2012, but it increased again from last year,” a local villager said during an interaction with a small group of journalists who visited the place in mid-October.

The Tithwal border crossing point on the LoC, which was open till November 2018, has remained shut since. With recent developments, there is no scope of it being opened for the public again. Originally built in 1931 and destroyed and rebuilt since, the bridge is open only during emergencies now. Dogs squeeze through the barbed wire and cross freely under the watchful gaze of the guards and surveillance cameras. “Who will stop them?” said one jawan laughing.

Possibility of escalation of tensions

Tithwal has a population of about 1,100 people, while Simari has a smaller population of 750 people. Villagers reminisced about their visits across the border to see their relatives during better times. “Shelling began in and around Tithwal in 2018,” said Izaz Ahmed, a teacher, and chairman of the Chinar Youth Committee. Ahmed has relatives on his father’s side across the border and has been to Pakistan several times. He said those who wished to travel used to obtain a permit from Srinagar. “It took about one or two months to get the permit. They would let us travel up to 15 days and would extend that by up to two months on a case-by-case basis,” he explained. Several villagers complained that not only could they no longer go across the border, but even mobile connectivity had stopped 50 to 100 metres short of their village.

“Tangdhar was active last year,” said an officer talking of ceasefire violations after the Balakot airstrike in February that heightened tensions between India and Pakistan. In Tangdhar sector, 60 old bunkers which had fallen into disuse over time are now being converted into 120 community bunkers, according to government specifications. These bunkers are spread across 32 panchayats consisting of 42 revenue villages with a population of over 70,000 people. Work on 75 bunkers is complete; the rest are at an advanced stage of completion. Each bunker costs around Rs. 20 lakh and can accommodate 50-60 people.

Lolab Valley in Kupwara district, once a hotbed of terrorist activity, is now largely quiet. “There is a possibility of escalation of tensions here, so we are keeping watch,” said an officer. At the Army Goodwill School, Chandigam, in Lolab Valley, located a few kilometres from the LoC, the number of students has increased over the years. “Most of them come from poor backgrounds. There is a growing awareness about educating children,” said Zahida Maqbool Shah, the school principal. Except for a few threats in the past to shut down the school, the situation has been peaceful. The fee is subsidised by the Army. During the pandemic, however, payment has been deferred as many have not been able to afford even the subsidised fee.

The school was established in 2000 under the Army’s Sadbhavana initiative. It has 697 students: 472 boys and 225 girls. The school admits students up to Class XII and was recognised by the Jammu and Kashmir Board of Education in 2015-16. This is one of the 28 Army Goodwill Schools set up by the Army in Kashmir Valley. Talking about the school, Lieutenant General B.S. Raju, 15 Corps Commander, said, “What people here want is just a good quality of life, a decent life, like everyone else in the world. This is the common man’s aspiration in the Valley.”

Preventing infiltration attempts

Lt Gen Raju said the first tier of the anti-infiltration grid has been strengthened. “If the first grid is strong, it will help in stopping infiltration. This also gives us a chance to detect infiltration of terrorists,” he said. “We have been able to stop infiltration substantially. We have given troops on the ground additional surveillance and technology,” he said in Srinagar. “The scale of ceasefire violations went up and then came down slightly. We have managed to limit calibre escalation.” Data show that infiltration has been effectively curtailed. Twenty-seven terrorists infiltrated the border this year till mid-October, compared to 130 in 2019 and 129 in 2018.

There are an estimated 22 terror launch pads active along the LoC with around 300 terrorists waiting to infiltrate the border. While infiltration remains low, there are innovative attempts being made to smuggle in weapons. Even drones have been used on a few occasions in Jammu. There has also been an increase in the recovery of arms and ammunition including U.S.-origin M4 rifles and Chinese rifles. This year, over 143 of the AK series, five M4s and two M16s were recovered, among other weapons.

The Army is also in the process of upgrading the border fence. The existing fence, called the anti-infiltration obstacle system, is located about 700 m from the LoC. It is a double row fence consisting of concertina wire and was constructed between 2003 and 2005. Keeping in view the annual wear and tear of the fence due to snowfall, the Army has decided to adopt a hybrid model which will cost around Rs. 10 lakh per km. The Army is attempting to construct 60 km this year, an officer on the LoC said. There is heavy snowfall in many areas which makes the metal brittle. As a result, the fence has to be repaired every year. The Corps Commander has suggested that the sensors installed should be modular with a plug and play option to prevent their damage, another officer said. Charging and maintenance facilities will be available at the local posts.

Since he took over command of 15 Corps in March, Lt Gen Raju has also decided to do away with the point system for recovery of weapons in the Valley (a system by which Units earn citations and rewards in an attempt to discourage deviations). He said the system has seen too many discrepancies and also gives the wrong message.

Pitch for connectivity

While the Army is busy at the border, the residents in Tanghdar have their own woes. They have been appealing for a tunnel, as the region gets cut off during winters. This has been promised but hasn’t been approved yet, they said. “A tunnel will ensure connectivity all year and bring development. In February, a representation was made to the Union Minister of Road Transport and Highways, Nitin Gadkari,” said Wali Ahmed, chairman of the tunnel coordination committee. “In winter, it is a challenge to stock up essential supplies and prices go up,” said Mansor Ahmed, principal of the local school.

A local official said a feasibility study was supposed to have been taken up in February but has been delayed due to COVID-19. It is not yet clear when the study will take place. A senior Army officer said the duration for which the Sadhna Pass, earlier called the Nastachun Pass, on the Kupwara-Tangdhar highway is cut off has been significantly reduced in the last few years.

However, the risk of avalanches and hazards remains significantly high. In April this year, the sub-divisional magistrate, Bilal M. Bhat, and two of his staff had a narrow escape after their vehicle was hit by a big avalanche as they were returning after monitoring the COVID-19 situation. Timely rescue by the Army saved their lives. The tunnel is one option but given the high cost, other options like a ropeway should also be explored, the officer said.

Many residents also raised the issue of 4G Internet service, which has not been restored after being suspended in August last year. Since the COVID-19 lockdown, this problem has caused a lot of displeasure as professionals and students have been working and studying from home.

A year since the abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and the conversion of the State into two Union Territories, cross-border firings have increased and infiltration and incidents of stone throwing have decreased. An eerie silence has descended on the Valley, said an official who did not wish to be identified. “Despite restrictions, some flare-up was expected, but all indices point to normalcy. There is an uneasy calm here,” he said.

People around Srinagar and up to Tangdhar sector identified 4G, roads and connectivity as the main issues affecting the people. After the abrogation of special status, people want to see tangible changes on the ground, said Army and government officials.

An uneasy calm on the ground

Though strong counter-infiltration measures are in place, local recruitment remains a concern. The activity has shifted from north Kashmir to south Kashmir. According to data from the Army, 219 terrorists were locally recruited in 2018, 119 in 2019, and 135 as of October 6 this year. An estimated 207 terrorists are active in the Valley of which 90 are Pakistanis. Data show that recruitment of people for terrorist activities, which was 24 in 2011 and 19 in 2012, has steadily gone up. In 2017, a year after the Army’s ‘surgical strikes’ on terror camps in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (POK) and the killing of Burhan Wani, recruitment went up to 128 from 88 the previous year.

Given this trend, the Army’s focus has shifted to promoting surrenders by involving families, said both Lt Gen Raju and Major General Rashim Bali, General Officer Commanding of the Victor Force covering South Kashmir. “We are advocating minimum use of force and minimum collateral damage so that loss of lives and damage to property are avoided,” they said. There has been an increase in surrenders too, they said. “We will be doing more work on the issue of surrenders because for us, getting a man back is more important than neutralising him. And that is a work in progress,” said Lt Gen Raju. The Army wants to reach out to people in such a manner that “there will be little reason for people to take up arms,” he said. It is important to stop recruitment, he emphasised. Lt Gen Raju said that they want to break the barrier between the Army and the people. “It is important for us. We need to do more. We have intensified our youth outreach programme,” he said.

Early this year, security forces decided not to allow public funerals for terrorists killed in encounters in order to avoid major congregations and recruitment. “We told them that it is essential to avoid collateral damage and also peer pressure,” said Maj Gen Bali. Family members are taken along and the burial is held elsewhere, not in the native village.

Impact of the pandemic

As restrictions imposed after the August 5, 2019 were eased and a semblance of normalcy returned to the Valley, there was expectation that tourism would pick up. But the situation once again went into a tailspin due to COVID-19 and the resulting lockdown. Both last year and this year, tourism was affected due to lockdowns, said a local vendor. As a result, tourism, a major revenue generator for the summer months, as well as apple cultivation, the biggest revenue generator, were both badly hit. Dal Lake in Srinagar, a major draw for tourists, remained largely devoid of crowds. Boat operators could be seen offering discounted rides for people walking on the pavements along the lake. Several pleaded with tourists to take a ride at Rs. 200. “It has been a very tough season,” one operator said.

Mir Junaid, president of the Jammu and Kashmir Workers Party and a Sarpanch in Kupwara district, said Kashmir is going through a paradigm shift. With the “political confusion of the past one year” erased, people now want to lead a normal and happy life, but the speed of Internet bothers them, he said. “The job of the government is to work on easing tensions and finding a solution to the problem of terrorism. If that is sorted, we will be able to conclude that Kashmir’s renaissance or makeover is complete,” he said to The Hindu . The social isolation caused post the exodus of Kashmiri Pandits is another important point that needs resolution for the re-colouring of the faded cultural fabric of Kashmir, he added.

Kashmiri apples, known for their quality and taste, suffered a twin blow this year. While yield remained much lower than normal due to the pandemic and the lockdown, fewer quality control checks led to fake pesticides flooding the market, endangering the crop. The result is that a majority of the produce has been marked ‘lower grade’ and is being sold at a lower price.

Normally 80% of the produce is categorised as ‘Grade A’, said Ashraf Wani, president of the fruit mandi in Shopian district of South Kashmir. “Last year, half the lot got spoiled due to the unrest. This year, due to the lockdown, there were spurious pesticides in the market. Those spoiled the apples. There was also fungal infection caused by Venturia inaequalis ,” Wani said. “About 60-70% of the produce got spoilt and was given a lower grade.” This problem persists throughout the Valley and the Departments of Horticulture and Enforcement should act, he said. There is only one laboratory in Jammu and Kashmir to check pesticides, and it is located in Srinagar, he said. Testing in the lab takes six months. There is demand for two more labs.

As we stopped at an orchard near the mandi, damaged apples could be seen in significant numbers hanging from trees all around the small orchard. The apples are spoilt, there are no tourists and the people of the Valley are hunkering down for a long, bitterly cold winter. The hope is that there will at least be peace.

We will be doing more work on the issue of surrenders because for us, getting a man back is more important than neutralising him. And that is a work in progress.

Lieutenant General B.S. Raju

15 Corps Commander

The job of the government is to work on easing tensions and finding a solution to the problem of terrorism. If that is sorted, we will be able to conclude that Kashmir’s renaissance or makeover is complete.

Mir Junaid

President of the Jammu and Kashmir Workers Party