While the reading down of Article 370 and the impact of the complete communication blackout in the Kashmir Valley need continuous public scrutiny, it is also imperative that a public discussion on the heightened hostility and deterioration of human lives at the border be initiated. On September 14, 2019, hundreds of children were trapped inside nearly a dozen schools due to intense mortar shelling from Pakistan in the Balakot block of Poonch district.
Family members could not leave their homes to bring their children back from schools as almost 60 villages – with their schools, health centres, petty shops, cattle and fields – were caught in the line of fire. Such episodes of cross-border firings and bombings are unfortunately not new to residents near the border living within zero to six km from the Line of Control (LoC).
For seven decades, four generations of borderlanders in Poonch have known virtually nothing but international conflict. The school children, their parents, grandparents, great-grandparents are the survivors of three conventional Indo-Pak wars, nearly two decades of militancy and almost an omnipresent threat of full-blown war.
Sharing a 103 km long LoC with Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK), Poonch district has 60% of its population inhabiting the border villages. On March 1, 2019 – the night Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman was released – mortar bombs from PoK rained heavily in Salotri village, killing a mother and her two young kids – a son aged five and a daughter of 9 months – while their father was critically injured.
This is just one among hundreds of such stories of entire families being irreversibly destroyed in cross-fire within their own homes. While the walls, windows and doors of homes and schools bear the fierce marks of bullets and mortar shells, human bodies just get killed or permanently disabled for life.
Childhood at the LoC is an experience of perennial displacement to migrant camps; of recurrent disruption of school education from a few days to few months; of sleepless nights spent in kutcha cattle sheds or underground bunkers in homes upon sudden firing and bombing that can last from few minutes to few hours; of unconsciously learning to recognise and differentiate the explosions of varying range of guns and heavy artilleries; of finding unexploded live bombs in the bushes while playing hide and seek with friends; of being taught at schools on how to dodge bullets and splinters by lying face down on the floor away from open doors and windows while indoors or taking shelter in canals and ditches if caught unaware outdoors; of being taught by the armed forces on how to save one’s life (even if one might lose a leg) if one accidentally stepped over a live mine.
Adults from villages along the LoC carry childhood memories of innumerable instances trauma from lying face down on cold floors under extreme ear-piercing noise of exploding bombs, many times louder in magnitude than the loudest thunders. Words can seldom express the psychological trauma that young children experience when the physical world around them trembles similar to an earthquake.
Children cannot be expected to attend school the morning after a night of near-death experience with their families; they cannot be expected to write public examinations while the school building shudders in the wake of heavy bombing with the glass panes shattering and the teachers herding them to the nearest room of ‘relative safety’. In an eternal conflict zone, children are unable to focus on attaining even basic education.
Though constitutionally promised with both the right to life and education, children growing up along the borders have found themselves stuck in a vicious cycle of choosing survival over education with most – especially girls – dropping out of schools permanently.
When belligerent national and international political actors, ‘nationalists’ of social and national media engage in war-mongering, they never have to experience its fatal and debilitating consequences. It is the people living near the border – especially their children – who have always been the first in the line of fire.
In the context of a ‘national security’ discourse, with its vocal emphasis on territorial security, it is pertinent to remember the concept of ‘human security’ as a concern with “human life and dignity” rather than with weapons; as a protection from “sudden and hurtful disruptions in the patterns of daily lives – whether in homes, jobs or in communities”.
In non-conflict areas, human security in schools requires the provision of toilets, water supply, playgrounds, well-equipped classrooms and qualified teachers. At the LoC, post-August 5, parents and teachers have made a very important life-saving demand from the district administration: underground bunkers in schools.
But the ethical question for the nation-state is this: can temporary arrangements in international conflict take the place of permanent peace?
Tarif Sohail is a PhD research scholar at Centre for the Study of Law and Governance at JNU in New Delhi and Asifa Zunaidha is a PhD research scholar at the Centre for Political Studies at JNU in New Delhi. Both the authors are residents of a border village in Poonch district, J&K.