On the India-Pakistan border, a cold peace
SUCHETGARH: It has been nearly eight years since India and Pakistan agreed a ceasefire over Kashmir – long enough for residents to start building brick houses and plant paddy fields up to the edge of one of the world’s most heavily militarised borders.
But for soldiers guarding the disputed frontier, it is a fragile peace that can be broken at any time.
“I wouldn’t call our relationship on the border cordial. We characterise it as professional,” said an officer of India’s Border Security Force (BSF), speaking on condition he not be identified because of the sensitivity of his assignment on the frontline.
Now, as India and Pakistan embark on a tentative peace process and try to decide how to open their borders to trade and travel, it will be the situation on the ground in places such as Suchetgarh that determine the pace of the detente.
In June, trouble erupted in the area when the BSF lost a soldier and blamed Pakistani sniper fire. The Pakistani Rangers, who are within shouting distance, denied any involvement and suggested it could be an internal issue.
The Indians retaliated with small arms fire, but the exchange lasted barely an hour. That was in contrast to the artillery duels the foes engaged in along the Line of Control in Kashmir – sometimes every day during particularly bad spells of their relationship – before the ceasefire in November 2003.
Ever since, a cold peace has held on the zig-zag border that begins in Suchetgarh, in the dry plains of the Jammu region, and winds its way to the rugged heights of Kashmir.
“We are not on hair-trigger alert, but we cannot lower our guard either. Not even for a moment,” said the officer, sitting in a tent barely 100 metres from the border crossing, marked by two high gates with the flags of the two countries fluttering.
Both gates – India’s in a dark blue and Pakistan painted in deep green – are firmly shut, used only when commanders need to walk across for flag meetings, or to allow members of the United Nations Military Observer Group, set up after the first war over Kashmir in 1947-48, to travel between the two countries.
A lone BSF soldier peers across from a bunker set up on the terrace of a British colonial era building that served as a customs centre for freight trains from what is now the Pakistani city of Sialkot not far from the border.
The command post offers covering fire to a string of bunkers dug in the high ground not far from the zero line to stop incursions from militants fighting Indian rule in Kashmir.
Further back, a double-layered barbed fence 8-12 feet (2.5-3.6 metres) high with concertina wire that India has erected all along the 1,800-mile (2,900-km) border stretching from Kashmir to the marshlands of Gujarat offers a second line of defence.
The fence is electrified and connected to a network of sensors, thermal imaging devices and alarms that India says has brought infiltration of militants into Kashmir to zero this summer for the first since the revolt began in 1989.
“The fence cannot stop them from trying to come. But it slows them down and gives our soldiers time to respond,” said Swaran Lal, the headman of Suratgarh village who leads the civilian effort to keep a vigil on the border.
The tenuous ceasefire has helped crack open the border, but only slightly. In 2008, the two governments agreed to allow limited trade and travel between the two parts of Kashmir they control, bowing to a long-standing demand of residents who often describe themselves as trapped between two big armies.
The trade, limited to 21 items, is small, hampered by the fact that it has to be done through a barter system because the two governments cannot reconcile themselves to accepting the other’s currency, or even a third currency, in Kashmir.
Both fear accepting any of these measures would amount to relinquishing each country’s claims over the whole of the region.
Traders have been left to their own devices, exchanging goods by using their own formula for calculating the value of the Pakistani rupee against the Indian rupee.
Still, it is a tentative opening that many believe could be the way to break the 60-year political stalemate over Kashmir.
“Even the psychological impact of opening of our borders is huge,” said Shakeel Qalandar, a former president of the Federation Chambers of Industries Kashmir.
“For 50 years the only route open to us was south to India. Now a window has opened to undivided Kashmir.”
Softening the borders of Kashmir through easier trade and travel was the basis of a 2007 draft roadmap agreed to by emissaries of India and Pakistan in secret, but it fell through because both governments got embroiled in difficulties at home.
Last month, the foreign ministers of the countries agreed to increase the number of trading days at two points on the Kashmir frontier from two days to four a week and to dispose of applications for travel across the border within 45 days instead of the three to four months it normally takes.
“They can do so much more for Kashmir, but the trust is lacking…they take two steps forward and then quietly go back a step,” said Arjimand Hussain Talib, an independent Kashmiri development expert, based in Kashmir’s winter capital Srinagar.