I don’t remember my first encounter with the border because I was too young to form memories. My father was in a profession that required him to help defend the borders of the country, so between our hometown and posting, mohalla and cantonment, peace and field areas, I developed a vague sense of the periphery. Above all, I recall their sheer physical beauty. These out of the way places where my father was posted were stunning. Even as a six- or seven-year-old, I was awed by the landscape of Ladakh, so different from but just as fantastical as the dense forests of the Northeast where I had spent some years as an infant. My sister and I spent some of our happiest months loitering around the Indus—two tiny figures running over hills, collecting stones, failing to catch fish, lolling under the sky, and sauntering through the cantonment. Soon, though, my father was sent off to an icy river on the Pakistan border. It sounded scary, but then we received our first consignment of chocolates, dry fruits and a photograph of mounds of snow covering the land in the foreground, snow-covered mountains in the background and above it all a vast and clear blue sky. The border seemed like a magical place, with all that snow and chocolate.
I can’t remember that first instance when I was filled with the profound feeling of being in a place that defined the limits of my country, a place right across from another place with a different flag, a different ideology, an entirely different country altogether.
In a couple of years, I would learn about national and international boundaries from my schoolbooks. I could draw a map of India, complete with all its states. An exodus in my home state, Jammu and Kashmir, and later a military operation of warlike proportions in Kargil taught me about the conflicts that erupt over these fuzzy, nebulous boundaries. All of Jammu and Kashmir was streaked with borderlines of some kind or another—lines on either side of which lay lands for which armies of men were battling. Though I spent so much of my childhood around borders, I can’t, however much I rummage through the dusty attic of my brain, find that first instance when I was filled with the profound feeling of being in a place that defined the limits of my country, a place right across from another place with a different flag, a different ideology, an entirely different country altogether. What I remember about my stays and visits to borders in Kashmir, Ladakh, Jammu, Punjab and Gujarat, is how underwhelming, humdrum and normal it was. There were no earth-splitting trenches, giant gates, walls, forbidding architectural indications, not even a dramatic change of landscape to show that this was where the other side began. The same cover of vegetation and topography on one side extended to the other side. Only a small, untidy bunker or some undistinguished post marked the divide from one country to the next. Once, I saw a soldier on the other side wave back to a soldier waving at him from our side. The whole business was quite banal. Nothing like the pomp and circumstance one hears about at the Wagah border, or the emotional intensity and patriotism of border life as shown in Bollywood films such as Lakshya and Border.
In my adulthood, I moved to a village in the foothills of the Himalaya. It’s a quiet village, unremarkable except for the fact that it falls in Rajouri-Poonch, the ‘twin’ districts that share a long border of over 200 kilometres with Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK). This is an ancient habitat, built on land between two river bodies and advancing into more mountainous territory further north. Towards the Kashmir side, the horizon is lined with the snow-capped peaks of the Pir Panjal range.
By the end of the 1980s, Kashmir saw the rise of armed insurgents, many of whom were local youth trained across the border. Soon, the targeted killings of popular and established Kashmiri Pandits shook the valley. And by the mid-90s, millions of Kashmiri Pandits went into exile. That was the beginning of a long, complex and gory fight between insurgents and the Indian state. The Kashmir valley was where the violence was mostly, but not completely, concentrated. It spilled over into the adjoining Rajouri and Poonch districts of Jammu, and so into this village.
This was an area that celebrated itself in song and story, that had its own distinct cuisine. It’s so easy to overwrite a culture, a history. All it takes is a few desperate men with guns. Now the only stories that are told are of militants and the militancy
After the rise of armed insurgency, for the Indian media and even the government, the Kashmir valley came to mean the entire region of Jammu and Kashmir. At the time of Independence, though, the British were careful in noting the distinctions in geography. In April 1948, the British chief of the Pakistan Army, Lt Gen Douglas Gracey presented a paper to the Pakistan government. It warned: “If Pakistan is not to face another problem of about 2,750,000 people uprooted from their homes, if India is not to be allowed to sit on the doorsteps of Pakistan to the rear and on the flank, at liberty to enter at will and pleasure, if civilian and military morale is not to be affected to a dangerous extent, and if subversive political forces are not to be let loose within Pakistan itself, it is imperative that the Indian Army is not allowed to advance beyond the general line Uri-Poonch-Nowshera.” While the Kashmir valley remained the epicentre, the same strategies were implemented in these areas.
An almost immediate and lasting impact of violence is that it erases history, legacy and culture conveyed through stories. Rajouri-Poonch have a layered history that goes back more than a thousand years. It is believed that Draupadi, daughter of Panchal Naresh and wife of the five Pandavas, belonged to this region. Inadvertently, she found herself in the middle of a bloody, violent war. If the textbooks are to be believed, this was an important area during Mughal rule, a vibrant trade centre famed for its woodcrafts and carving. This was an area that celebrated itself in song and story, that had its own distinct cuisine. It’s so easy to overwrite a culture, a history. All it takes is a few desperate men with guns. Now the only stories that are told are of militants and the militancy—a middle-aged pot-bellied man crossing the road is one of the hundred young men who crossed over to Pakistan in the winter of 1989; a modest house jarringly boasts two SUVs parked out in front, bought with proceeds earned from the shielding of militants; a local trader’s brother is tortured and murdered because he tricked some militants and stole their cash; a hyper-vigilant Muslim teacher who keeps his ear to the ground and alerts Hindus about any planned attacks.
And then there are family stories about close brushes with militants, guns and bullets; misadventures that could have resulted in death; the armed robbery of the house of close relatives; boys in the family training with the army so that they know how to use guns when necessary; stories about one’s front yard being littered with chits of paper on which are scribbled bloodcurdling threats. This was life in the region from the mid-1990s through most of the first decade of the 21st century. Why would anyone put up with the constant fear and harassment? Unequivocally the only answer everyone gave, or could give, was that our ancestors were here, our land was here and so we were here.
All of a sudden, the burden of a land populated with the spirits of one’s ancestors seemed too heavy to bear. Land demands sacrifice; it demands that our lives be devoted to it. When I decided to invest my meagre savings in a plot of land in a faraway, beautiful valley very close to the Line of Control, I felt a prickly uneasiness as if a cactus ball had been let loose in my stomach. Since my childhood, I had heard family elders advise us that our money was best invested in other, safer states and cities. They had watched in horror as busloads of Kashmiri Pandits fled the valley and arrived in the heat of Jammu. The subtext of all subsequent life decisions was and continues to remain: “You never know when you might be corralled onto a bus and have to leave it all behind.” Some Kashmiri Pandits had sold their property for whatever price they could get before they left. But many couldn’t, leaving their property unoccupied. Old houses were hurriedly abandoned and have remained empty, haunted shells over the years. Likewise farmlands and orchards. Once, on a date night with my husband, we had a terrible experience at a restaurant. The manager was a young Kashmiri born in Delhi. He had never been to Kashmir and did not speak the language. “But we still have our land there, ma’am. We will return,” he told me. The Partition caused similar trauma. Old men and women died dreaming of the homes and lands they left behind.
The thought of my square patch of land possessing me and my future generations, rather than the other way round, was deeply troubling. But the deal had already been set in motion. The patwari had been paid and the history of the land in question had been investigated. The land was ‘clean’ (not disputed or contested), but there was a small matter, he said. The patch of land belonged to a man who had chosen to move to Pakistan during Partition. I assumed that there were many such parcels of land on either side of the border. Land that still bore the names of their dead owners and perhaps their children and grandchildren. Is someone on the other side wondering, “But we still have our land there, we will return”? I doubt it. Borders may be flimsy, indistinguishable strips of land but they are cemented over and hardened with hostility, greed and hatred. Even if they don’t have a rational foundation, when these thoughts set in, they are difficult to shake off. I begin to question the whole idea of investing in a volatile region. This area is seventy percent Muslim, the man slips the statistics into our conversation. He is Muslim too. We didn’t have any apprehensions about that, unless he was dropping some kind of hint. No, he said, it was nothing like that. “There is a history and you know it, there will be a future, but who can say what.”
He had never been to Kashmir and did not speak the language. “But we still have our land there, ma’am. We will return,” he told me. The Partition caused similar trauma. Old men and women died dreaming of the homes and lands they left behind.
I was more concerned about the ghost of this man who had crossed the border during Partition and might still return to lay claim to his land. Why wouldn’t he? The close proximity to the highway and recent construction of hotels have escalated prices. Water and electricity are available in every house, and so is 4G internet. Border areas often witness rapid infrastructural development. Ladakh, one of the most sparsely populated regions in the country, has smooth, runway-like roads even in areas that are barely inhabited. The army needs roads to move its men and ammunition. They need networks and electricity. And if they stay longer, they have to invest in building trust and goodwill with the local population, and the most assured way is to build institutions and training centres. There’s an army school behind our house in the village. It was built during the peak of the militancy. A group of local landowners arrived at the collective decision to give away chunks of their land to the army to build the school. It would ensure the presence of the defence forces in the vicinity, and at least the rest of the land would be safe. We often trek to the top of a hill right behind our house and marvel at the expansive campus.
Our village has been peaceful for more than a decade now. We are able to visit each other’s houses and stay well beyond dark, though it still makes some uneasy. There’s no need to stack sandbags against windows or to convert the house into a bunker or to sleep on the floor to guard against being hit by a stray bullet or install iron grills to prevent robberies. But everyone here knows that peace is not a permanent state. It’s a privilege. In this decade of relative peace in our village, the world’s appetite for wars and violence has increased. In August, Afghanistan once again fell into the hands of the Taliban. The sight of those black and white Taliban flags are all over our TV screens, a reminder to those who live in our village of the fear we once carried deep within our hearts of men just like these. The Taliban government is run by some of the most wanted men in the world. News like this makes even the most apolitical of villagers deeply nervous. Someone uploads a dashing picture of himself in Taliban attire on the same day, someone else ‘likes’ it. The Taliban become the talk of the town. Perhaps, in our hearts, we fear that maybe we are not too far removed from them.
Border areas often witness rapid infrastructural development. Ladakh has smooth, runway-like roads even in areas that are barely inhabited. The army needs roads to move its men and ammunition. They need networks and electricity.
Four days after the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, there was an encounter between terrorists and security forces in Thanamandi, an area about thirty minutes from our house. Even those who have buried their memories of the years of militancy remember a week-long fight in 1997 between the army and the armed insurgents in Thanamandi. A surprisingly wide range of arms and ammunitions were used by both sides and left no doubt that this conflict was here to stay, and it did. This recent one was a stray incident, a sleeper cell, an official said. But what if it wasn’t? A headline in a reputed national daily declared that Pakistan was trying to revive militancy in the twin border districts of Jammu. A couple of weeks before the Thanamandi firefight, there was a grenade attack on a local politician. A widely read English newspaper’s headline was ‘Resurgence of Militancy in Rajouri’. We were told to practise caution, to drop any travel plans. And we did. That’s how it starts. And ever since, I have been pondering over our decision to pour most of what money we possess into a piece a land, even if it’s in one of the most beautiful places on earth. Will there come a day when I or my children, or their children, will be standing on the other side of our land? And from that side will we say to ourselves, “But we still have our land there. We will return”?
Sometimes in the evenings I see students in white shirts, box-pleated navy skirts, striped buckle belts, red ties and black shoes, strolling about the army school campus. Their fathers, like mine, are also in the profession of defending borders. Some of them are too young to understand what borders mean. They are busy with their lives, building their young bodies, forming friendships, reading textbooks, learning group dynamics, seeking adventure, understanding limits, exploring the landscape, and doing whatever it is that young people do. Once in a while, on a clear day, you can spot a group of students lolling beneath the huge, open sky, looking across at the snow-capped mountains of the Pir Panjal towards Kashmir. Most of them are away from their hometowns, on a field posting with their parents. In the evening, when school is over, they are ferried to their quarters in the heavily guarded army cantonment. On the other side of the school is a patchwork of ancestral lands. Some of them are filled with tall corn plants and others with rice, still young and green. The owners, who dug their heels in and stayed, are busy working their land.