With India-Pakistan Ceasefire Pact, Focus Must Shift to Development in J&K Borderlands

Due to decades of violence across borders, a large chunk of the population living in the borderlands has been bereft of good education and health, which should be prioritised now.

The recent decision by India and Pakistan to commit to the 2003 ceasefire agreement is a welcome step that can go a long way in ensuring peace at borderlands situated on both sides of the Line of Control (LOC) in Jammu and Kashmir.

The discussion which paved the way for the decision was also an ice-breaker after a long spell of silence, where the two nation-states interacted minimally with each other after 2015. It is worth appreciating that both sides chose to take measures as a matter of policy that can silence guns at our borders. Let us understand why strictly observing the cease-fire agreement henceforth is the need of the hour, not just for these two nation states but for the sake of larger mankind.

I have been writing for a while now on how survival amidst everyday violence is a burden on the psycho-social being of the communities that inhabit these volatile zones. Last year in April 2020, when India was a few days into an unprecedented coronavirus-induced lockdown, I wrote an article for the Kashmir Times that was precisely a response not to the news of heavy shelling at the LoC but the collective responsibility of states towards their citizens in a pandemic.

Borderlands in Jammu and Kashmir, from Nowshehra to Poonch, Uri, and Kupwara had seen tensions flaring up all through the lockdown. Do we comprehend how habitations situated on a frontier zone deal with such dual crises? A pandemic that has hit the world makes no sense to them because surviving every day cross-border violence becomes a priority.

Also read: Stories of Magical Saints Keep Up the Spirits of Villagers Along the Line of Control

What kind of a travesty it must be for those whose houses have been torched by shelling and are being made to take refuge in temporary shelters when the world is under lockdown? How do medical associations at district levels that cater to these zones deal with such a crisis given how most of them are already a part of far-flung districts with poor health infrastructure?

The answer is that a pandemic means nothing to them, because survival for them means tackling bigger threats that looks them in the eye and peeps into their homes every day. I cannot imagine sitting with them, having worked in these communities for years now, and explaining all the scientific necessities of taking precautions in order to safeguard their lives from a virus, when their lives are so normally abnormal that the idea of development and health reaching their homes is still an absurdity.

Soldiers patrolling along the Line of Control (LoC). Credit: PTI

Soldiers patrolling along the Line of Control (LoC). Photo: PTI/File.

What sense do a mask and a sanitiser make to an inhabitant who runs to put his cattle in a cow-shed when shelling begins, then runs to huddle together in a community-bunker to save his life, and all of this done within seconds before it is too late?

The decision thus is a welcome step that needs to be looked at as a decision towards a sustainable future by the two respective nation states, as it can contribute towards keeping the world safe by keeping our respective borderland-communities safe.

Though the points of discussion that have come out as joint statement do not mention ‘pandemic’ anywhere, I believe the world cannot wipe out another pandemic without a vaccine by allowing our boundaries to continuously go up in flames, because the horrendous everyday violence here is an antithesis to a policy proposal such as ‘a lockdown’.

No health programme pertaining to vaccination or otherwise can run properly if our borders are disturbed all the time. Awareness and precautions follow peace and stability. Good governance and efficient administration require those as prerequisites. Therefore, India and Pakistan should see that their current commitments regarding ceasefire take a step in this direction and serve larger mankind.

Prioritising education and health 

Let me use this place to highlight that education and health need to be taken up as a separate policy matter, where the focus on our borderlands should be different from how we roll out policy and programmes for our mainland. Given the vulnerability of these regions, the health and education infrastructure here cannot run in pace with how they do in our cities and towns, due to issues of isolation, remotely situated habitations, poor communication and transport services, surveillance, conflict, etc.

Due to decades of violence across borders, a large chunk of the population living in borderlands has been bereft of good education and health that otherwise remain restricted to towns and district centres these frontier villages belong to, as no private entity as basic as a good private school would invest in a conflict zone.

Representative image of Kashmiri women. Photo: sandeepachetan.com/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

If taken up as a matter of separate policy ensuring that these gaps that breed inequality across lines are bridged, then steps such as committing to ceasefire can go a long way as silencing guns can give a chance for large strata of population to divert and commit their energies to issues of development and progress instead of surviving violence, also giving the states a window to take that progress to their door-step at the same time.

Also read: Certainty Amidst Ceasefire Violations, or How to Plan a Wedding in a Border Village

Having worked in these regions for a while now, I can see that these regions need special policy inputs in order to bring the population here at par with our mainland. By mainland, I do not mean metropolises like Jammu and Srinagar alone. For a frontier village such as Terwan in Poonch, or an remote inaccessible tehsil and its frontier habitations such as Kilshey in Gurez, the town centres of Poonch and Bandipora are the respective mainland/s that are looked upon as considerably safe spaces by inhabitations who live in villages on the front here.

If there can be a policy for Bakerwals such as mobile schools and clinics that help preserve their heritage and seasonal transhumance, then why cannot we have special schools for frontier borderlands regions where education in many ways has been affected due to violence in all these decades? Similar changes can come in the health sector, but all this is a possibility only when the recent agreement is adhered to by the forces on the respective sides successfully.

The joint statement issued reads, “Existing mechanisms of hotline contact and border flag meetings will be utilised to resolve any unforeseen situation or misunderstanding”. While this clause is promising, the official data presented last year’s 5,133 instances of ceasefire violations and 46 fatal casualties shows how it does not take very long for ‘unforeseen situations’ to become a ‘daily routine’. Keeping our faith in agreements such as these and living with a hope that shelling would not keep haunting the future of children who live in our borderlands is all we can do for now.

Strict observance of ceasefire at LoC is a step towards ensuring a better life for children here, better economic opportunities for men and women, and a whole other gateway of possibilities that these communities have been deprived of for decades now.

For a social-anthropologist like me, looking at a sustainable-violence-free life for these borderlands, however, means preserving our rich diversities that make Jammu and Kashmir a mosaic of plural identities. Progress and development of our borderland-communities are critical to an already endangered plurality and diverse existence here. Hence, a ceasefire is the only way forward.

Malvika Sharma writes on borderlands in Jammu and Kashmir.