A recently released report has studied the communities living at the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir, the first of its kind to include communities on both side of the militarised de facto border, to draw attention to the issues plaguing them. The Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation’s Living on the Margins – Complex Narrative of People Living on the LoC aims to add an alternative, humanist angle to the discourse on borders, which are often simply seen as a stage for wartime theatrics or as symbolic communication channels – and which ignore the communities that live along them.
Territorial boundaries mean different things to different people, and when borders are contested and witness confrontations, the narrative differs vastly on both sides. The study focuses on the overall problems faced by people on both sides of the 758-km LoC, including divided families, and offers recommendations to underscore these concerns. The core of the study is to help “make a shift from mutual distrust and hostility to mutual trust and friendship with a holistic approach.” By bringing the borderlanders to the centre-stage and humanising the discourse on the LoC, the study seeks to include their residents in the process of encourage peaceful negotiations to resolve cross-border issues between the two countries .
Understanding the LoC
The border around J&K, formed by the LoC and the Line of Actual Control (LAC) that divides the state into three areas controlled by India, Pakistan and China, is one of the most complex frontier systems in the world.
The competing claims and perspectives on J&K is an important factor in understanding the border areas. India’s official position is that J&K is an integral part of India, confirmed and ratified by the Instrument of Accession and later, by Article 370, a constitutional link between India and the state. India claims the state in entirety, including the parts that are under Pakistan’s occupation and Chinese control.
Pakistan divided its occupied territories, carving out a separate state called Northern Areas and ceding to China a chunk to the far north-east of the state. Officially, it maintains that the entire territory of J&K is disputed.
The Chinese position on J&K is in line with that of Pakistan for the most part. Although China is more flexible on the claim on the Pakistan-administered territories, it maintains the part of the state under its occupation is legal and final.
Meanwhile, the international community sees the entire state as disputed territory with divisions marked by the LoC between Indian- and Pakistan-administered territories and the LAC between Indian and Chinese control.
In a tense geopolitical scenario such as this, people living along the borders are for the most part powerless, with little control over their environment, and are also extremely vulnerable to physical and psychological injury.
In the line of fire
People living in border villages can find themselves caught in the direct line of fire during wars, minor skirmishes or other such incidents. The villages and nearby areas are also strewn with landmines, making people vulnerable. Mine accidents can cause death or severe injury. Militarised fighting can also lead to the destruction of homes and properties.
The discourse on their suffering, although covered extensively by the media, often ignores the other side. The plight of residents on either side is similar. Neglecting to take into account the impact of any action on people on the other side of the border does not help build a case for peace, but instead perpetuates war and hostility.
Besides death and destruction, people living in border villages are often subject to dislocation and displacement, which not only has a physical impact on people but also psychological. No matter what the scale of hostility and action along the border may be, some degree of displacement occurs. Repeated dislocation is a reminder of the political and cartographic divisions, and often involves some form of physical amd psychological brutality.
Being forced to leave your home, being deprived of land, and being denied education and healthcare can have an adverse effect on communities.
As an outcome of the waves of displacement caused by repeated cross-border hostility innumerable people left their homes and in the process, their families were divided and suffered psychological and socio-economic consequences.
Take for example, the case of retired government officer Rahim Malik (name replaced in the study to preserve anonymity). Malik belongs to the border district of Poonch in Indian-administered J&K and like many others in the border areas, his family was divided by the LoC. His two elder brothers, uncle, aunt and cousins crossed over the LoC in 1965, and could not return due to security reasons. Malik fondly remembers his brothers and “hopes to meet them at least once before he dies”.
In light of the plight of borderlanders, the report makes some recommendations to resolve some of these issues. Border residents can be important in the process of reconciling cross-border issues. Uniting families divided by the LoC could be a bridge between the competing political positions. The opening up of communication channels across the LoC can also be extremely helpful. At present, India does not permit telephone services across the border, but this, along with easy access to the Internet, would enable divided families to connect and interact with their kin. Facilitating the movement of people across the LoC should be a priority for both governments, especially focusing on easing the process of issuing entry permits and increasing administrative efficiency. Further, involving members of the divided families in conferences, seminars and discussions on resolving the Kashmir conflict would bring their issues to the forefront and ensure these are addressed.
In addition, the governments should consider opening up new routes of cross-border movement. This would not only benefit the divided families, but also increase and encourage wider movement and interaction with different communities. Organising socio-cultural events too could help boost interaction and cross-border movement.
The report also recommends the study of the European model of a borderless world to adapt some of its ideas to the India-Pakistan context. For instance, leveraging cross-border dialogue for trade and people-to-people contact can boost economic and cultural ties, to the benefit of both countries.