Beyond the ceasefire in Jammu & Kashmir

The prolonged conflict and ceasefire violations along the Line of Control have left several families in the border villages scarred for life, and help from both the civilian administration and the Army has come in fits and starts.

Published : May 24, 2021 06:00 IST

A view of Karmara   village  in Haveli tehsil of Poonch district.

A view of Karmara village in Haveli tehsil of Poonch district.

ON a bright sunny day in early March, the sleepy village of Karmara situated on the Line of Control (LoC) in the hilly Poonch district of Jammu and Kashmir basks in the exuberance of sprawling yellow mustard fields, a gushing pristine stream and stray clouds scudding lazily across the blue sky. But this oasis of peace belies the impact of the decades-old India-Pakistan border conflict on the villagers.

Ashiq Hussain, a landmine survivor who is a college student, barely shows any sign of excitement over the news that India and Pakistan have recommitted to re-observe the 2003 ceasefire agreement. Bilateral relations between the two countries had hit a low following the Pulwama and Balakot crises. Wondering how long the guns would remain silent, he said: “We have heard such announcements in the past as well.”

The ceasefire violations in 2020 were reportedly the highest since the 2003 truce. As many as 5,133 ceasefire violations took place along the International Border (IB) and the LoC in Jammu and Kashmir in 2020, up from 3,479 in 2019 and 2,140 in 2018, the Narendra Modi government told Parliament on February 2, 2021. On the Indian side, these skirmishes claimed the lives of 70 civilians and 72 security personnel in the past three years, while 341 civilians and 364 security personnel were injured. Following the outcome of a meeting between the Directors General of Military Operations of the two countries on February 25, 2021, “there has been a 100 per cent drop in the cases of ceasefire violations after the resumption of ceasefire agreement,” Jammu and Kashmir Police chief Dilbag Singh told this reporter on March 20, speaking on the side-lines of a function in Srinagar. Military infrastructure has increased manifold in border villages in eight districts of Jammu and Kashmir after the Kargil war.

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The prolonged conflict has left several generations scarred for life. Ashiq Hussain was barely 10 when he lost his hands and an eye in a landmine blast near his grandfather’s water-powered wood and stone flour mill. Both countries use anti-personnel landmines as a front-line defence. Owing to landslides, earthquakes, rain and other factors, the mines drift away from their original locations, endangering the lives of soldiers and local residents and their livestock.

Debt burden

Recalling his near-death experience with the explosion on May 20, 2011, Ashiq Hussain said: “I found the device in a stream near the gristmill where I was playing with other children. Out of curiosity, I started hitting it with a stone to open it. In the blast I suffered serious injuries in the legs also. At the Government Medical College and Hospital Jammu, doctors recommended amputation of both the arms. So I was taken to a private hospital in Amritsar. We spent Rs.8 lakh on multiple surgeries and the medical treatment. My father is still paying back the borrowed money.”

As per a policy of the Union Home Ministry, which was approved by the then Home Minister Rajnath Singh in July 2016, financial compensation is provided to the next of kin of any civilian who dies anywhere in the country because of terror attack, naxalite violence, firing from across the border, shelling, and mine or IED explosion. Deepak Sharma, an official in the relief section of the office of Deputy Commissioner, Poonch, said: “As per the Ministry of Home Affairs’ revised guidelines issued on October 30, 2019, financial assistance amounting to Rs.5 lakh is given for each death or permanent 50 per cent incapacitation.”

The official said: “Fifty per cent of the amount is deposited in the savings account of the victims or the beneficiaries. The remaining is kept in a fixed deposit account with a lock-in period of three years. The interest on the principal amount is credited directly by the bank into the beneficiary’s savings account on a quarterly basis. But the compensation amount is subject to the condition that no employment has been provided to any of the family members of the victims by the government.” Additionally, an amount of Rs.1 lakh is provided by the Jammu and Kashmir government to the family of the victim and Rs.75,000 to the survivor who suffers more than 50 per cent permanent disability. In case of death, the dependent is provided an additional amount of Rs.4 lakh or a government job under SRO-43, a government order that guarantees government jobs to the victims of conflict. The amount paid as compensation is reimbursed to the Jammu and Kashmir government by the Centre through Security Related Expenditure (SRE). In 2020, about 100 conflict-affected persons received compensation through the office of Deputy Commissioner, Poonch.

But Ashiq Hussain has not received any assistance either from the Jammu and Kashmir government or from the Centre. According to district medical authorities, he has suffered 98 per cent permanent physical disability. “The Army provided me a financial compensation of Rs.1.5 lakh a few years ago. Subsequently, the officials in the Deputy Commissioner’s office, where I have applied for financial assistance along with all the supporting documents, declined to provide me any help,” he said. According to Deepak Sharma, in cases relating to landmines before 2016, the compensation was given by the Army after the endorsement of the office of Deputy Commissioner. “In some recent cases of landmine survivors, we have given compensation under the new Central scheme. But there is confusion and we have forwarded some cases to the Home Department for clarification,” he said.

Also read: A voice from Kashmir

There are several others in the district with over 50 per cent permanent disability owing to cross-border firing, some of whom later succumbed to their injuries. But the compensation amount received under the new policy proved inconsequential. Mohammad Arif Khan, 41, from the nearby Shahpur lower panchayat, got critically injured in a shell explosion on July 29, 2019. He died while he was shuttling between hospitals on February 28, 2021. He is survived by a 35-year-old wife and six children.

His brother, Khalid Hussain, 38, said: “My brother had been bedridden since the incident. He was blessed with good health but succumbed to the injuries as gangrene had formed in the right leg and left arm. Despite four surgeries, some splinters were still embedded in his body. In his final days, he had almost stopped eating and drinking. He had lost hope of recovering.” Khalid Hussain teaches in a private school and draws a monthly salary of Rs.7,000. He said: “Because of financial constraints, we could not provide him the required medical treatment. A few months after the incident, the government provided a financial assistance of Rs.2.5 lakh. We had to borrow money and spent over Rs.23 lakh to save his life, but in vain.”

On July 29, 2020, the district administration provided the family an additional assistance of Rs.75,000 for suffering “60 per cent permanent disability” under the SRE. According to the official, the Deputy Commissioner’s office has deposited the remaining amount of Rs.2.5 lakh in a fixed deposit in the name of Mohammad Arif Khan.

Shattered lives

Ashiq Hussain, who is eldest of three siblings, said: “Despite hardships, I didn’t discontinue my studies. I take the help of a student who is one year younger than me to be my scribe for my exams. I cry when I have to take the help of others for each and everything. I move away when I see boys playing cricket or preparing to join the army or the police. One question rankles me, why I am no longer like them, why this happened to me? All that I want is admission in a reputed university for higher education.”

Mohammad Taj, 24, a resident from Dallan, a nearby border village, also complained about official apathy. A mortar shell explosion in 2008 left his face disfigured and the left eye completely damaged. “Now I am losing vision in the right eye as well. I have become incapable of doing any physical work. Without financial assistance from the government, my survival has become extremely difficult,” he said.

His niece, Shehnaz Akhtar, 16, was 15 months old when she suffered a splinter injury in the head during a shell blast in their home in 2002. Her two-year-old cousin, Mohammad Yaseen, died on the spot. Shehnaz Akhtar said her eyesight started diminishing in recent years. “After my father’s remarriage, my mother was ousted from the home. We have been living with our maternal grandmother for the past six-seven years,” she said. Shehnaz Akhtar, is a student of class VIII in Government High School Digwar Maldiana. “I am worried that I may become completely blind. We don’t have money for medical treatment.”

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In Ashiq Hussain’s village, Karmara, Sepoy Mohmmad Shaukat of the Territorial Army, who was on leave, and his wife Safia Bi were killed in July 2017 when a mortar shell fired from across the border exploded near their home. In the incident, three of their four daughters, Zaida Kouser (6), Robina Kouser (12) and Nazia Bi were also injured.

“Our village doesn’t have proper cell phone connectivity. My brother had gone out of the house to inform relatives about the death of our masi [aunt] in Mendhar when the shell exploded,” said Mushtaq Ahmed, 24, younger brother of Shaukat. He complained that the Army was yet to provide facilities that are usually given to dependants of deceased Army personnel.

Development needs

A giant weather-beaten and rusted signboard at the entrance of Karmara boasts that it is a “model village” developed under Operation Sadbhavana by the Army. A public health centre set up by the Army in 2005 in adjoining Khari village remained functional only for about four months after its inauguration, the villagers said.

Haji Mohammad Sharief, sarpanch of Karmara, lamented the condition of two primary schools and two middle schools in his panchayat. “The schools don’t have toilets or drinking water facilities,” he said. Sharief also lamented the poor road network and transport facilities. “Our village does not even have a primary health centre. In the absence of an office or a community hall, the panchayat members don’t have a suitable place to hold meetings.”

The Central government had started the Border Area Development Programme in 1994 with the objective of meeting the special needs of the people living in remote and inaccessible areas situated within 10 kilometres of the border. But villages like Karmara, situated less than a kilometre from the LoC lack basic amenities.

Akhtar Bi, 42, who lives near Ashiq Hussain’s house, said: “Most of the time we don’t have electricity and drinking water supply.”

Jameel Ahmed Kohli, chairman of the local Block Development Council, said: “The village did not get any facilities or infrastructure after the Army designated it a ‘model village’. Now the Rural Development Department has started developing it as a model village. Work on roads and pathways is under way. Tenders have been floated for repair and renovation of local schools. Under the model village initiative, which started earlier this year, the Agriculture Department has distributed about seven electric chaff cutters and the horticulture department has distributed saplings of apple and pecan nuts.”

Since the villagers are largely dependent on small-scale farming, any damage to their assets and property during truce violations weighs heavily on them. “Whether it is the loss of livestock and crops or damage to houses, residents in our village never received any financial compensation from the government,” Akhtar Bi claimed as others sitting around her nodded in agreement. The officials in the district administration, however, maintained that at least 20 persons were financially compensated against damage to their houses and loss of livestock last year. According to official details, an amount of Rs.1 lakh was provided to those whose houses were completely damaged in the cross-border fire and Rs.50,000 was provided to those who lost a cow. Mohammad Aslam, a resident of Shahpur who lost a mule on August 11, 2020, was provided a financial compensation of Rs.16,000. Abdul Ghani, a resident of Dabraj in Mankote tehsil, whose six goats perished in a shell explosion that left his concrete house severely damaged, received a financial relief of Rs.1,19,900.

“The mortar shell that exploded near my house in December 2019, left the walls of our bathroom and water storage tank damaged. My father suffered splinter injuries and had to be hospitalised. The Deputy Commissioner gave us a meagre financial assistance of Rs.5,000,” said Mohammad Iliyas, 55, another resident of Karmara. “With this amount one can’t even purchase a plastic water tank.”

Pursuit of peace

Mohammad Farooq, 25, another resident of Karmara, lost his father, Mohammad Rafiq, 55; stepmother, Rafia Bi, 45; and a 13-year-old brother Irfan Ahmed when a mortar shell exploded in the courtyard of their home on July 17, 2020. Although the Rural Development Department has constructed a bunker near their home at a cost of Rs.9.65 lakh, the deceased family members could not take shelter in it. “The shells came suddenly, unanticipated. They didn’t get time to rush into the bunker,” said Farooq, pointing towards the incomplete concrete structure. Farooq had earlier lost his mother, Muneera Bi, 35, at the age of six in a similar shell explosion at his home in December 2001. For the Farooq family, which included his two brothers, the only source of income is farming and two buffaloes.

“People living at the LoC yearn for peace. No amount of money can compensate for our losses and pain,” he said. Corroborating his views, Akhtar Bi, added: “The cross-border fire must stop once and for all. Or the government should provide us land in the safe zones.”

Also read: Sullen silence on Kashmir's horizon

Amid shrinking cultural diplomacy between the two countries, India suspended the cross-LoC Poonch-Rawalakot trade in April 2019. Pakistan retaliated by suspending the cross-LoC bus service after the Modi government revoked the special constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019.

Nazir Hussain, 83, and his three brothers, who live in the Mendhar sector on the Indian side of Poonch district, like thousands of other members of divided families in the region, have been praying for the restoration of the Poonch-Rawalakot bus service, popularly known as “Paigam-e-Aman”. Their eldest sister, Noor Jahan, 85, passed away in November last year in Rawalakot, a prominent city of Poonch on the Pakistani side. Her home is hardly a three hours’ drive from their village, Naka Manjhari, and yet they could not participate in her funeral.

Said Nazir Hussain: “India and Pakistan should restart the bus service. I’ve to offer fateha at my sister’s grave.”

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