Hopes and fears on the LoC after two years of ceasefire
A stable ceasefire along the Line of Control between India and Pakistan has given residents a chance at normal life—but threats of an end to the peace persist
On the morning of 13 November 2020, Bashir Ahmad Dar was having breakfast in his two-storey mud house in the village of Balkote, on the western fringes of the Kashmir Valley. His wife, Farooqa Begum, had climbed up to the second floor to fetch some clothes for their children when a mortar shell hit. Dar managed to get his five kids safely out of the burning house. He went to search for Farooqa "only to find her body in pieces," he recalled, his eyes moist. "Her head was badly damaged by shrapnel."
Farooqa died on the spot. She was 35. Dar, a labourer and now 45 years old, said the couple were married in 2005 and, despite financial difficulties, had lived a happy life – until the mortar shell put an end to that. It had apparently been fired by the Pakistan Army from across the nearby Line of Control (LoC).
Balkote lies a short distance from the town of Uri, perched amid rugged pine-forested mountains. The LoC runs mere kilometres away, and is the defining feature of life in the area. Formed along the ceasefire line at the end of the 1971 war between India and Pakistan, and 750 kilometres long, the LoC functions as the de facto border between the two hostile neighbours in these parts. Especially after armed insurgency exploded in Indian-administered Kashmir in the 1990s, sending tensions between India and Pakistan soaring, exchanges of fire across the LoC became frequent. Civilian life on both sides became increasingly difficult, and civilian deaths too often routine.
Efforts at a stable ceasefire – most notably an agreement signed in 2003 – came and went. In 2020, with hostilities peaking again after the Indian government stripped Jammu and Kashmir of statehood and special constitutional status, a record 5133 ceasefire violations claimed 46 lives and left almost 200 injured on the Indian side, including civilians and security personnel, according to official figures from the government of India. Civilians accounted for 22 of the dead and 71 of the injured. In early 2021, the government said the preceding three years had seen more than 10,000 ceasefire violations in all, leaving 70 dead and 341 injured.
The stretch of the LoC near Uri was particularly tense after 2016, when 17 Indian soldiers were killed in a suicide attack on an Indian army base in Uri town, carried out by militants suspected to have crossed over from Pakistan. India claimed that Pakistan was sending rising numbers of militants across the LoC, and that Uri had become their favourite point of infiltration. Its military responded to the Uri attack with "surgical strikes" across the LoC to target what it said were terrorist training camps in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.
Then, with tensions still running high, came a surprise announcement. After a meeting of high-ranking military officers, the two sides agreed to "strict observance of all agreements, understandings and cease firing along the Line of Control and all other sectors." The guns were to fall silent at midnight, at the expiry of 24 February 2021.
"Initially we thought that the ceasefire won't be permanent," Aijaz Ahmad Gellani, a village representative of Silikote, told me. "But it has been more than two years, not a single bullet has been fired from either side."
Official data reflects a sharp decline in ceasefire violations since the agreement. There have been no casualties reported from cross-border firing on either side. Now, residents along the LoC are able to peacefully go about farming, schooling their children and other everyday activities badly disrupted by the earlier hostilities, and to live their lives without a looming fear of injury or death.
But relations between India and Pakistan remain abysmal, and aggravations are frequent, each one raising fears of the ceasefire falling apart. Those living on the LoC crave the fruits of peace but know they can be snatched away at any time.
"Although I have lost my wife, my home, I am still happy that the ceasefire has remained intact," Dar said. "Let peace prevail."
Life on the line
Silikote, a short drive from Uri, lies right at the edge of Indian-controlled territory. The village's houses are all under direct line of sight from Pakistani military outposts and snipers. Starting in 2003, the Indian government constructed a fence along the LoC to try and stop infiltration by militants from Pakistan. Silikote, like a number of settlements in Jammu and Kashmir, found itself beyond the fence.
"Our lives are very tough," 65-year-old Ghulam Nabi Handoo, the village head, told me. "We were so poor that we couldn't migrate and live a peaceful life. We are living directly under the shadow of guns."
The town of Uri, near the LoC, where India–Pakistan tensions ran especially high after a militant attack in 2016. The ceasefire between the two hostile countries, announced suddenly in February 2021, took residents by surprise.
For decades, Silikote witnessed intense shelling and frequent casualties. Its toll, the residents told me, is two people dead and some four or five injured. "We have lost lives, houses and limbs," Handoo said. But for the past two years, the villagers have been living peaceful lives, and praying for the ceasefire to remain intact.
In 2018, the entire village fled amid intense shelling. Fayaz Ahmad Awan was among them, with his wife and five daughters. On their return, they found their house destroyed. Awan had no money to rebuild it, and the government did not provide any assistance. The family has lived in a local panchayat house ever since.
"I went to all the government offices with my documents but nobody came here to see my plight," he said. Because of poor health, he is unable to work and earn. "I am sitting idle at home."
"Pakistani shelling is ruthless," Ghulam Qadir Chalkoo, a village resident, said. "We were always on the run to save our lives." Every time they came back, "we weren't sure whether our houses and goods would be there and whether our cattle would be alive."
Even after two years of calm, the village's roofs are dotted with holes from shrapnel. It rained heavily when I visited, and women had put buckets and other containers under the holes to keep the water from their homes. The people are too poor to afford repairs.
Now they dream of turning things around. One thing on the villagers' wishlist is a working school. "We have a school here but it remains shut," Ghulam said. It could get neither students nor teachers earlier, due to the fence and the shelling. The villagers also hope that tourism might start and give them a chance at better livelihoods.
But fear that the bad old days might return is still pervasive. The villagers also want a good underground bunker where they can shelter from shelling. "We had a bunker here but it was not constructed properly and it is of no use," Ghulam said. "You can see the condition."
A crucial source of support for Silikote is the Indian Army post in the village. "They provide us with jobs, food and whatever help we need," Ghulam said. But when the bullets and shells started raining down, the villagers were left to their fate.
As a young man, Irshad Ahmad Chalkoo had dreams of joining the army. In 2001, when he was in his early twenties, he even received a letter informing him about his selection, he told me. One day that November, "I was outside my house when the shelling suddenly started." Irshad was hit and badly wounded. He was rushed to a hospital in Srinagar, where he remained for over a year. He returned home without his right leg and three toes missing from his left foot.
Any chance of joining the army was gone. Irshad had earlier earned his livelihood as an army porter, carrying up food and other supplies for the soldiers posted in the village. After he was injured, even that work was impossible. "The amputation of my leg has made me handicapped completely now," he said. "I can't work. I want to live my life." He was grateful that he had found a wife who agreed to marry him despite his disability.
On the heels of Irshad's injury, another tragedy struck his family. His mother, Saja Begum, was killed in fresh shelling from across the LoC in August 2003.
Irshad now walks with the help of a prosthetic leg. "My father and brother are helping me financially," he said. He wants the government to support his two children in getting an education.
On a prayer
At the village of Kridi Thapla near Muthal, the locals were busy in the fields. The village also falls directly in the line of fire of Pakistani outposts. For two years, locals have been able to farm and work outside without fear, and agricultural lands near the LoC in this area have seen full farming seasons uninterrupted by firing – earlier a rare thing.
I saw some children going to school, others playing in a field. Before the ceasefire, "we wouldn't allow our kids to play in an open field because the shelling could happen anytime," Qadir Bhat, an elderly local resident, explained. "Their life was restricted in the four walls of the house." Even when they went to school, Bhat added, "we would always be apprehensive."
Bhat lives with a family of six – his two sons, their wives and his grandchildren. "We don't have bunkers," Sharifa Begum, Bhat's elder daughter-in-law, told me outside the family home. "Please highlight this." Later, she described how she used to take the children to a makeshift bunker in the dead of night when shelling started.
Bhat took me up to the small tower of his one-storey house to show me where shrapnel from mortar fire had pierced the roof. "Look at this and imagine our life," he said.
Sharifa Begum's hope for a proper bunker – just like Ghulam Qadir Chalkoo's in Silikote – was a sign of locals' fear that the shelling and mortar fire could return at any time. "I don't think the ceasefire will remain intact," Abdul Khaliq, another resident of Kridi Thapla, said. "The relationship between the two countries has hit the bottom."
He is not wrong. Even if India and Pakistan have strictly maintained peace on the LoC, there has been no rapprochement beyond it. "Ceasefire was the first step," Noor Mohammad Baba, a political analyst, told me. "Both the countries should have taken further steps to unfreeze relations."
When Pakistan's foreign minister, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, attended a conference of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Goa in early May – the first visit to India by a Pakistani foreign minister in over a decade – there were no bilateral talks between the two neighbours. Bhutto Zardari said that Pakistan's return to the negotiation table would depend on India reconsidering its 2019 decision to scrap Jammu and Kashmir's special status. This remains anathema in New Delhi, and Bhutto Zardari's position was met with stony Indian silence. Instead, S Jaishankar, India's minister of external affairs, used his statement at the conference to call for stricter measures to curb terrorism – an obvious dig at Pakistan.
Last year, India accidentally fired a cruise missile onto Pakistani territory, sparking fears of an escalation in hostilities. Within India, militant attacks, often blamed on Pakistan, continue to raise bilateral tensions. Just last month, 5 Indian soldiers were killed in fighting with militants in the vicinity of Rajouri area, near the LoC in Jammu – the latest in a series of incidents in the area. As the Indian government prepared to host a high-profile G20 gathering in Srinagar, a senior Kashmiri journalist tweeted, "Well-placed official sources insist that New Delhi may convey to Islamabad through diplomatic channels that 'any further attempts to sabotage G20 Srinagar event' or 'a Poonch-Rajouri type action by the terrorists coming in from Pakistan' would force India to weigh 'harder options' including review of the ceasefire holding on the LoC since 25 February 2021."
Baba saw no hope of a dialogue process anytime soon given that the "fundamental problem" in the India–Pakistan relationship remains unchanged. "Also the electoral politics is behind the strain on the relationship," he added. Hawkishness on Pakistan, and on the disputed territory of Kashmir, is a consistent electoral plank for India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and a big draw among its Hindu nationalist voters. In Pakistan, meanwhile, the powerful military relies on the India threat to justify its outsize budget and place in national life.
Deependra Singh Hooda, a retired general who headed the Indian Army's Northern Command at the time of the retaliatory "surgical strikes" after the 2016 Uri attack, said that a conducive atmosphere needs to be built-up before talks. The ceasefire, he argued, was meant just to provide relief for locals living on the LoC. Hooda saw Pakistan's "hard stance" on Kashmir, with the insistence on reversing India's 2019 decision there, as a major hurdle. "So the conditions for the talks aren't acceptable to India," he explained. Pakistan's current political and economic crisis was another problem. "Look at the conditions in Pakistan right now," Hooda added. "Can we seriously talk to anyone there?"
For Bashir Ahmad Dar, even the ceasefire's limited peace had come too late. "It doesn't matter for me whether the ceasefire will remain or not because I have lost everything," he said. "But yes, for others it means a lot, so I will also pray that the ceasefire remains intact."