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

In addition to the lurking danger of land mines exploding, villagers in Poonch district struggle with the lack of basic amenities.

An uphill ride towards the forward Indian Army positions that counter the notorious Raja-Rani, the twin pickets that were gained by India in the 1965 war but were later returned to Pakistan, revealed so much more than it concealed. The return of the Raja-Rani along with the much spoken about Haji-Pir-Pass under the Tashkent agreement was to circumvent the Chamb-Jorian disaster in the Jammu sector in 1965.

Photo: PTI

In the borderland district of Poonch in Jammu and Kashmir, the return of the twin Raja-Rani-pickets is still seen as an unfortunate event, especially for those who had witnessed the 1965 war. The reason is that much blood had to be spilled in gaining these forward positions at Raja-Rani, which were also crucial for the Poonch-Uri link up. The tales of bravery of Lt. Col N.N. Khanna who laid down his life fighting is known to many in the district. In fact, whenever I enquire elderly on the field about the war in 1965, most people begin with the bravery of the 2 Sikh platoon and its commander Lt. Col. Khanna, who was singlehandedly responsible for the victory over Raja post. Lt Gen H.S. Panag clearly explains the capture of these strategic positions by Lt. Col. Khanna and his 2 Sikh platoon with the battle cry, Jo bole sau nihaal…sat shri akal.

Although my research deals with people who live around these forward hostile ridges and about their lived experiences and survival as a borderlander, Lt. Col. Khanna’s tales of bravery are something villagers living around the Madari-Kerni-Shahpur crossing form part of their lives.

A visit to this ridge on a bright sunny October day revealed why 1965 and its horrors on this front haunt the borderlanders of Poonch to this day and age. In fact the villages situated near it have been forever dwelling in the line of fire as the border here almost everyday bursts into flames. The ridge located to the north of town Poonch, occupies a strategic position overlooking the Poonch-Uri bulge across the Line of Control (LOC) from a well-situated height.

Positions of Raja-Rani Pickets and the Haji-Pir Pas situated in the Uri-Poonch Bulge towards the north of cease-fire-line in Poonch. Photo: Indian Defence Review

As we climb uphill, the peripheries of the mountain-ranges here are a distinct forested patch with thick foliage and tree cover, courtesy; the electric-surveillance fence. The fence covering the entire length of LOC in Jammu and Kashmir on the Indian-side was initiated as a grand project in 2002–03 to fight cross-border infiltration. The area above the fence here is forested because of it being inaccessible and cut off from the villages located below the line where the fence stands. At some places, in susceptible crossing-points, the area is covered with land-mines. Many villagers here can be found with amputated limbs as land mines here are one of those killers, among many others, one has to learn to live with in order to survive.

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As we rode to further heights, we could see sharp barren strips vertically cutting these forested patches above the fence. These strips are crawling zones, used by the reinforcements in the times of heavy fire to crawl up to the frontier positions. These are also used by the porters to reequip the front-pickets with essential food and ammunition supplies. The sharp vertical climb, sandwiched between thickly forested zones, symbolises the hardships and risks that defence forces take in defending and manning these crucial margins.

The scattered houses situated right below the fence-line belong to a village named Madari. With the rise in altitude, the settlements show significant structural transformations and changes in lifestyle. Gracefully belonging to yesteryears, the houses here are old mud huts, situated along neatly pruned terrace-maize-fields. Due to unusual elevation and treacherous geographical location facing everyday cross-border violence, the entire village seems to have frozen in time and space with least development apart from good road connectivity that is essential for the military supplies.

Women and children here can be seen along the roadside with their pitchers, some waiting for the army-tankers who supply them with water, and some utilising a handful of water sources found here by the road. Often during fieldwork in such borderlands, I have observed how the local population and the military share a symbiotic relationship. Due to the neglect of civil administration in such hostile regions, the locals depend on the army a great deal, even for their basic amenities. Maintaining cordial ties with these borderlanders in turn is crucial for the military.

Due to difficulty in carrying these containers back to their homes up and down the slopes in the hills, most of the cleaning and washing is done by the roadside. We greeted a large chunk of the village population with women washing clothes and children bathing by the road. The scarcity of water and lack of structured piped water connectivity thus was seemingly evident here, hinting at other hardships that such isolated pockets situated in conflict areas have to live with.

Another important aspect of life here is pasture and grazing. Little girls and women can be found grazing cattle in the fields. Some as young as six years old walk their goats many kilometres away from their houses in search of rich green grass. The house chores hence are predominantly attended to by the womenfolk with purdah. The population predominantly is ethnic-Pahari along with a few Gujjars in the higher reaches.

Many women and girls we met happily disclosed the details of the life they live here. Apart from living with violence, most of them engage in washing, cleaning and collecting water and timber or grazing cattle.

A turbulent history

Octogenarian Haqam Bi, sitting with her nonagenarian husband Muhammad Din was looking over her cattle when I met them at the ridge right below the fence. A tall and gaunt Gujjar, with a tangled safah on his head and scant gray beard on a wrinkled face, Muhammad Din looked his age.

Haqam Bi and Muhammad Din

After exchanging duas and salams with them, an excited Muhammad Din noticing that I was interested in their stories, immediately responded in Pahari, “I was 18 years old in 1947…main atharaan saal na san sann-tali-cch.”

When I realised that he has a hearing impairment, Haqam Bi eagerly filled in on his husband’s behalf and narrated details of a long, prosperous and equally turbulent life both of them had spent there in these deadly zones.

“Both Muhammad Din and I crossed over to the other side of the fence into Pakistan when badamni/mayhem started in 1947. We were not married then, bas gal-baat hoyi ni si…our match had already been fixed by our families. Entire village migrated, with several qumbes/families. We stayed there with our extended family not very far from here on the other side. People from our village who did not have an extended family on the other side stayed where ever they found shelter. We spent two years there before relocating back to our village here. We could never see our relatives again,” said Haqam Bi

Upon enquiring how did they come back here post-1947, she added, “Government basaya na aasan ki, ass basniki saan na…government relocated us back to our villages, since we were a native of the village. We had to escape to the other side because in that ruckus in 1947 nobody had any idea which side belonged to people of which religion. When we arrived back, our kothas (houses) were burnt with nothing left to come back to. We had to start our life from the scratch.”

Legends of saints

Elaborating upon uncertain life in a turbulent zone at Madari, she said, “We had to abandon our village thrice so far. Once we left in 1947, then we left in 1965 and then again in 1971, during the two Indo-Pak wars, both of them being deadly for the village and particularly for this front where the village stands. The entire village shifted to Ziarat Taqia Sharif in village Bandichechiyan, a few kilometres down the hill. The saint was generous enough to accommodate us in his courtyard. Both the times, we stayed there for over a month and returned back only when it was safe and the firing had subsided. The great saint always protected these lands and even in the times of heavy cross-border-firing, not a splinter could wound anyone in our village…ek chimmadh vi ni lagi kuseh-ki.”

I wanted to believe in the magical powers of the saint had it not been for the volatile front Shahpur-Kerni-Qasba is, infamous for its rising cross-border-shelling cases and civilian deaths each year.

However, despite being one of the most notorious sectors Haqam Bi’s faith in Taqia Sharif was based on a historic binding role that two great saints in this sector have played especially during the times of war. The saint at Taqia Sharif was a disciple of Sain Miran. Sain Miran’s Ziarat at Guttarian Shahpur is revered across the district with an annual urs being held and attended to by many in the district. Sain Miran’s mythical tales in the land reveal so much about his engagement with the incidents of cross-border shelling. One such tale, famous as folklore goes like this:

Once, the Kerni-Qasba Shahpur sector was brutally under siege, with the heavy cross-border firing not allowing the civilians in these villages to attend to their cattle. Anguished by the state of affairs that had been prevailing for days, people managed to reach the saint’s courtyard who gave a patient listening to his loved fellow villagers and asked them to go back with a promise that they will be able to sleep well that night.

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The myth has it that the saint remained true to his promise and the shelling did not reach the villagers and their houses that night. In astonishment villagers peeped out of their shelters they were safely ducked in and could not believe their eyes. The great saint was standing at a cliff-hanger, catching shells arriving from the other side with his own hands and throwing them back, away from the villages he promised to protect. The villagers while narrating this to me in veneration added, “his hands the next morning were completely burnt, his palms were black as charcoal…our ancestors saw this with their own eyes”.

Apart from such folklore, another important role that these two Saints played was they discouraged villagers to leave their homes and migrate to the other side, especially during 1965 when many from Rajouri-Poonch crossed over to the other side. People still confirm this while talking about the hardships of a life spent in this volatile sector, and add how they promised the saints that they would not leave their village and migrate to the other side.

They say, “We are been butchered here every day, but shall not leave our villages ever…’65 aur ’71 main nahi gaye toh abh kya jayenge…this is where we belong. We pray to the heavenly saint to continue looking over these villages with the same magical powers he possessed and protected us with when he was alive.”

Haqam Bi too ended her narration by being grateful for her life in this frontier. She said, “Sab theek hai…ass sukoon naal han (Everything is fine and we are at peace here).”

Another woman has been injured recently here, and the sector always has truly been at the mercy of the saints for peace to prevail.

Malvika Sharma writes on life in borderlands in Jammu and Kashmir. The piece is an excerpt from her ongoing work.