“This is India’s last village. Jaise Kanyakumari, waise Gwalta.”
High up in the mountains of Kashmir, along an invisible line of control, lies the village of Gwalta, where 700 people live in scattered homes built of stone and cement.
Navigating the steep, broken road to the village is less painful than getting the thin strip of paper required to travel to the highly militarised area.
Called a temporary route permit, it must bear the traveller's photograph, and the stamp and signature of the police officer stationed in the town of Uri.
I was lucky. I ran into a panch of Gwalta, a member of the village council, when I visited the town a few days ago. The combined clout of a people’s representative and my status as a journalist meant that the policemen not only processed a TRP in no time, they even inverted the natural order of hospitality.
“Unhone humein chai pilaiyi. They offered us tea,” Imtayaz Ahmad Abassi, the panch, a young man in his twenties, said with some emphasis. Last year, he had sought TRPs for the construction workers that he needed to take to the village to build a school. "The clerk at the police station was new. He did not recognise me. Bola chai pillao. Maine kahaa theek hai yaar jaldi banao TRP.” He paid Rs 500 for permits for 20 workers.
When weddings take place in the village, the price of TRPs goes up. “Aapke yahan shaadi ho rahi humein party khilao. For every guest at the wedding, the policemen take Rs 50 each.”
Life along the fence
There were no permits required to travel to the villages along the international border in Kathua, the district in Jammu region that I visited on April 17, the day the area went to polls.
Unlike Kashmir, when the line of control zigzagged through mountainous reaches, here, the border passed through gently undulating flatlands currently ripe with wheat.
But the roads were as bad and gravelly.
“See the condition of the road. Yeh hai border area ka haal,” said Bharat Bhushan, the taxi driver who was taking me around. He was taking me to Chak Changa, a village within a mile of the border, where his relatives lived.
On the way, we stopped at a polling booth and ran into Purshottam Das, the president of the district border union, an old man with a gaunt face.
“There are only problems in the border area and nothing else,” he said. “Farmers’ land has been lost to the fence. Kabhi firing ho rahi hai, kabhi kuch ho raha hai. People have to constantly run.” Others at the booth complained about the lack of good educational institutions. Many alleged that they were being denied the job reservations that were being given to people living on the Line of Control in Kashmir. In the run up to elections, candidates of both the Indian National Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party have promised to work on extending reservation benefits in army and paramilitary jobs to the people of the border areas.
At Chak Changa village, Bhushan’s uncle, Parmananda Sharma, had just come back from casting his vote.
“I gave it to Congress,” he said.
“Don’t lie,” said Bhushan. “Everyone here is voting for BJP.”
“Even if I voted for BJP, no one would believe I did,” he said, with a laugh, explaining that he was closely associated with a local Congress leader.
Born in 1943, the old man’s memories of India’s independence were foggy but for the sight of fields lit up at night in the incandescent glow of exploding bombs. He also remembered that the village was evacuated and people were taken to the town of Kathua. There was no time to pack. “All we could take was our bodies,” he said. “Sirf apna sharir le ke gaye the.”
The villagers returned home a couple of years later but fled each time hostilities broke out between India and Pakistan. “Evacuation happened 4-5 times. In 1965, 1971, 1986, 1999,” he recounted. The first two saw full-scale wars between India and Pakistan. In 1999, there was a limited but high-intensity war in the mountains of Kargil. In 1986, as I read up later, India had launched Operation Brasstacks. Unknown outside strategic circles, it was positioned by the government as a military exercise involving the mobilisation of Indian troops along the Rajasthan border, but as the accounts of villagers show, its impact had been felt more widely.
Even when the two countries were not at war, an exchange of fire on the border is commonplace.
“A shell landed right here,” said the old man. It was the summer of 2002. Sharma and his wife were alone at home, seated in the courtyard, when a blast shook their home and cracked up its walls. Both were rushed to the hospital with shrapnel injuries. They spent Rs 60,000 over the next few days. If the government released any compensation, it did not reach them. The shrapnel will never be removed. “The doctor said if we try to dig out the pieces, they would go deeper and would enter the blood stream,” he said. “They said they would try to dissolve them through medicines. But the medicines cost Rs 2,000-Rs 3,000 a week.” Since the old couple cannot not afford the medicines, the tiny metal pieces have remained lodged under their skin. Sharma lifted his shirt and his wife extended her arms to show me the barely visible mounds which they said flared up and ached in the summer when it got too hot.
Shelling has become infrequent since 2003, the year when India and Pakistan struck a ceasefire.
But what continues to bother the old man is that the tangle of barbed wire that passes right through his fields. It is the electric fence built by the Border Security Force to secure the international border. It has been placed a few hundred metres away from the border.
“Humari zameen bahut gharab hui ha," says Sharma.
Of the 40 kille (acre) of land owned by the family, roughly half lies between the fence and the border. For some years, the family was not able to cultivate that portion of land. Now, BSF guards keep watch as they work in the fields at the time of sowing and harvest. A security officer said that the fence was placed at a distance from the border to allow them to patrol and “dominate” the area.
“Taar ugarwad rukne ke liye tha. If the purpose of the fence was to stop infiltration, it has failed,” said Sharma, referring to recent episodes of terror attacks in Kathua.
Sharma says he would prefer a wall in place of the fence. “At least it would stop the bullets. Diwaar goli to rook sakti hai.”
A wall running the length of the border might sound like an old man’s crazy idea.
But it is, in fact, a serious proposal mooted by the BSF which wants to build a 10-metre-high wall running along 175 kms of the India-Pakistan border.
If the proposal is cleared, Sharma might altogether lose his land – a prospect that he has not considered.
Before Independence, part of the family’s land was cultivated by Muslims sharecroppers who lived in a village which is now on the other side of the border.
“They used to visit our homes. Humara aana jaana chalta tha,” said Sharma, recalling what he had heard from his father.
He still runs into them sometimes when he works in the fields. "Their land is right next to ours."
Do they end up talking?
“Only when the soldiers are not watching,” said Sharma. “They used to ask, aapke baba ji kaise hai.”
Sharma grew up with stories of pre-Partition days. Many of his relatives talked about the land and homes they had left behind in Pakistan when they crossed over to India.
In 1971, when Indian troops managed to capture Pakistani territory, and civilians began marching with triumphant soldiers, curiosity got the better of Sharma. He crossed the border to see what the land on the other side was like. He was relieved to see it was not better than India. “Their fields and homes were similar to ours. But the roads – 18 kilometre tak road ka nishaan hi nahi tha."
Men in uniform
“Even if you give me Rs 10,000, I won't drive on this road again,” declared the taxi driver in disgust, on the way to Gwalta in the mountains of Uri in Kashmir.
As we neared the village, the road got bumpier, but Imtayaz Ahmad Abassi, the young panch, a handsome man with a thick mop of hair, grew progressively more relaxed.
"You were asking me why the people of Uri take part in politics and elections,” he said, leaning over the front seat back, referring to an earlier conversation that had taken place in a restaurant in the town. Over mutton and rice, customers had been debating with the restaurant owner the relative merits of the candidates in fray from Baramulla, the Lok Sabha constituency of which Uri was a part. At the end of an animated conversation, consensus emerged that the National Conference leader and sitting MP, Sharif-ud-din-Shariq, was in danger of losing the seat to Muzzafar Baig, the People’s Democratic Party candidate, a local MLA who had contested and lost five parliamentary elections.
The sense of involvement among voters was in marked contrast with the rest of Kashmir. Uri reports the highest voter turnouts in the region.
A student activist, who was travelling with me from Baramulla, claimed it was because of the heavy military presence, which forced voters to fall in line.
A security officer in Uri claimed it was because the ethnic composition in the rural mountainous pockets was different from the valley.
“The people here are Pahadis. They don't even speak Kashmiri. They feel closer to the Indian mainstream,” he said. “Almost every home has someone in the armed and paramilitary forces.”
Abassi’s personal narrative revealed greater complexity.
When he was one year old, his father, who was in the central paramilitary forces, died on duty while posted in Assam.
His chacha crossed over to Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. He doesn’t know why – it happened before he was born.
In the early nineties, at the peak of the militancy, his mama was forced to do patrolling by the army. “The soldiers would land up at home and drag out men. Those who refused to do duty were beaten up,” Abassi said.
Another uncle was picked up by the army and he never came back. “It is believed he was killed and his body was disposed.”
In this volatile atmosphere, when he came of age, Abassi decided to turn down the CRPF job he was offered in place of his dead father, choosing instead to join politics. "Being in politics insulates you from many things," he said. "The army brigadier knows you. The police superintendent knows you. The district commissioner knows you.”
But even a political job cannot protect you from the firing from across the LoC. As a child, Abassi had barely survived a round of shelling. "My mother woke me up in the middle of the night and we took refuge under a rock," he said. Two girls in the village were killed in the fire in 2002, before the ceasefire between India and Pakistan came under operation.
As we sat talking over tea and cake at his home, after a trek up stairs carved out of the stunning mountain front clouded in a drizzle that afternoon, Abassi's mama dropped by. Conversation turned to elections. “We don’t want to elect someone jo Srinagar aur Dilli mein baith jaaye aur yahan ke logon ko pooche nahi,” he said, indicating his disapproval of the sitting MP, who, according to people, did not visit the constituency after getting elected.
A few moments later, his son appeared and joined the baithak. He turned out to be a soldier of the Indian Army, dressed in a track suit with the insignia of the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry.
I asked him about the anger among Kashmir's people over the conduct of the soldiers. "Since you belong to both Kashmir and the army, I would like to get a perspective from you."
“It is true that the civilian population does not like the Indian army,” he said. “They want freedom to do what they want but Hindustan does not approve of this. It is our duty to stop them from wrong-doing and to show them the right path.”
This provoked the student activist who was accompanying me. He began to recount the instances of beatings and killings by the army.
“The army only acts when sar se paani upar chala jaata hai,” the soldier responded. “The fabric used to make our uniforms is widely available in the market. Anyone can buy it and impersonate us. Fauj badnaam ho jaati hai.”
“But there are so many instances when the army has had to accept that its men killed people in cold blood. Ab Machil fake encounter le lijeye,” countered the activist, referring to an incident which took place in the summer of 2010. Soldiers shot dead three young men from Baramulla and claimed they were Pakistani infiltrators. Last December, the Army ordered the court martial of six soldiers, including two officers.
But Abassi's cousin, the soldier, was unmoved. He claimed that most of the charges against the army were fabricated. “Maan lo Indian army ne kissi bande ko utha liya. Suppose the army picks up someone. He is dropped home after interrogation. Within moments, a militant group comes and takes him away. And the village goes and files an FIR against the army.”
“Can you cite a single documented instance of this?” said the activist.
No one had raised a voice, and yet the argument had turned fractious. I turned to the soldier’s father, Abassi’s uncle. “Aap buzurg hai. You are the oldest in this room. You tell me what is the truth?”
“It is the job of the army to view people with suspicion,” he said. “They round up men in the village and take away four-five people. When they do not come back, the families go to the police station and file FIRs. The army is ordered to produce the people. But it plainly denies that it took them away. Uske baad kya zulm ho sakta hai Kashmir mein batao, sister. What could be worse than this form of torture. Upar waale ke saamne sach bolna chahiye. One should speak the truth in the presence of the almighty.”
The old man’s son, the soldier, who had been listening quietly, with visible strain building up on his face, offered one final defence: “Sometimes there are situations which force you to act a certain way. When you lose one of your men – doesn’t matter where he comes from – uske saath aapka 24 ghante ka concern hai, you hang out together all day. Aapke saamne uski jaan nikal jaaye aap kitna bardast karoge. How would you take it when you see him die?”
The activist lost no time to reply: “Aapka kaam hai civilian ki hifazat karna. It is your job to protect civilians.”
Abassi, however, had an altogether different take on the relations between civilians and the army. A few years ago, eager to meet the uncle he had heard about but had never seen, Abassi got a passport and crossed over to Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. He found that people there lived in better homes – the remittances sent by young men working abroad had pushed up the standard of living – but he also noticed that they lived in greater fear.
“While walking around town, if a security post appeared, people would take great pain to avoid it,” he said. “They would take a longer route but not walk past the post.”
Like Sharma, the old farmer in Kathua, Abassi found comfort in the knowledge that life on the other side of the fence was no better than his.
It is tempting to consider what might follow if the people of Jammu and the people of Kashmir were to cross the invisible borders within.
Click here to read all the stories Supriya Sharma has filed about her 2,500-km rail journey from Guwahati to Jammu to listen to India's conversations about the elections – and life.