By Sameer Arshad Khatlani
A rare joint statement by the Indian and Pakistani directors general of military operations, on February 25, announcing that the two countries have agreed to strictly observe the ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) triggered much speculation over what brought about the turnaround. Moeed Yusuf, special assistant on national security to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, called the announcement a “victory of diplomacy” and added that “more avenues” will open in the future, amid reports that back-channel meetings at neutral locations led to the pact.
Analysts linked the reiteration of the observance of the truce along the de facto border to the protracted stand-off between the Indian and Chinese troops in Ladakh and New Delhi’s attempts to avoid a two-front conflict with two allied adversaries. Many wondered whether the new Joe Biden administration had nudged the two countries to normalise ties. The Pulwama attack, the subsequent Balakot strike, and India’s move to change the constitutional status of J&K escalated tensions between the two countries in 2019. The following year, the highest ceasefire violations — about 5,000 —were reported along the de facto border.
But while the roots of the current thaw can be debated, the only question that matters for the residents in the constant line of fire along the 740-km border is whether the ceasefire will sustain long enough for them to live to fight another day, or whether their lives and livelihood will again be sacrificed at the altar of narrow political ends. The breakthrough means they can tend to their fields, and educate their children without worrying whether they would be able to return home alive.
Cross-border shelling over the years has destroyed livelihoods, left crops unharvested, and forced even well-off people to opt for small-time jobs in faraway towns to sustain their families. Most of the border areas are inaccessible and remote, and were even denied mobile phone connectivity for years due to their proximity to Pakistan.
Border residents can now hope to live their lives with dignity without having to often rush to cramped bunkers to save their lives. Cross-border shelling has not just left hundreds dead but has taken an emotional toll on survivors. Many border areas such as Karnah are so remote that people have to stock up supplies for the winter months before snow cuts it off from the outside world. The cross-LoC shelling would even hamper the stocking and evacuation of wounded residents.
In Kashmir’s hillside Churnada village of 1,600 people, which lost two residents in 2020 to cross-border shelling, residents gathered at the shrine of a Muslim saint to celebrate the new agreement. They heaved a sigh of relief that they could now finally till their land, graze their cattle and send their children to school without fear. As many as 70 civilians and 72 soldiers have died in cross-border firing since 2018. According to Reuters, nearly 300 civilians have been killed since 2014 in ceasefire violations on the Pakistani side. It reported that in the picturesque Neelum valley on the other side, hundreds of hotels and guesthouses came up when the ceasefire held as tourists visited around the year. Reuters said tourism went into a tailspin and guesthouse operators were forced to dig into their savings as skirmishes and firing increased.
The divided border residents on both sides can only hope the ceasefire is not derailed like it was in the aftermath of the 2008 Mumbai attacks. The 2003-2008 era of peace brought rich dividends for border communities and led to the start of cross-LoC bus services. This would have been unthinkable a decade earlier, as it was akin to Pakistan’s acknowledgment of the Indian sovereignty over J&K.
The reiteration of the commitment to the truce has raised hopes for a dialogue process effectively stalled since 2008. That top national security officials are believed to have been involved in the back-channel talks ahead of the turnaround should hold out hope.
A similar engagement led to the ceasefire agreement first in 2003 that translated into over a half-decade calm in Kashmir and a degree of healing. Build on the current moment.
The views expressed are personal