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India - Pakistan: Bordering on an obsessive disorder

by Jawed Naqvi, 12 November 2014

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Dawn - 11 November 2014

The heavily barbed fence separated me from Sialkot on the other side of the border. I had first heard of the town in cricket commentaries on the radio though I wonder if Sialkot actually hosted any notable fixture before the advent of Sachin Tendulkar in 1989. That was when the Indian batting star became famous for standing up to Waqar Younis’ testing mix of yorkers and bouncers.

A handy map indicated that Khokhar village was barely a kilometre away. Did the former high commissioner to India, Riaz Khokhar, come from there? His wife had become a small-time legend in Delhi while her husband was seen as an anti-India hawk. She once successfully goaded the man from the Indian intelligence who was keeping an eye on her to carry her shopping bags to the car. I hope the Indian envoy’s wife in Islamabad will now put her Pakistani snoop to good use.

Thoughts of Faiz Ahmed Faiz flitted through the mind. He was born in Sialkot over 100 years ago. I imagined the poet taking his first steps to fame a few kilometres from the pillbox of the Indian observation post at Arnia where I stood brooding over his unnecessarily distant homeland. Never comfortable with the enforced line that sought to separate his ancestral home from what was to become an abbreviated India, Faiz continued to cross the border back and forth to be with old friends and comrades on both sides until his last days. His daughters have carried on the tradition and they bring cheer and moments of hope whenever they visit India.

In recent days, India and Pakistan have mindlessly lobbed shells across the fence targeting each other.

I was travelling through the Arnia, Samba and R.S. Pura frontier posts in Jammu last week as a member of a team for the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy, meeting ordinary people to see how they were coping with the recent upsurge in cross-border shootings. As the team members mingled with the local unit of India’s Border Security Force in Arnia, I remembered that Allama Iqbal too had belonged to Sialkot, a tantalising short distance away.

His memory buttressed a bizarre irony. In one of the poems about his beloved Hindustan Iqbal spoke of the Himalayas as the sentinel and guarantor of the nation’s security. Could he ever have imagined that the romantic notion of natural borders would mutate into driven men ranged across an artificially created border, armed with mortar shooters and other sophisticated weaponry?

In recent days they have mindlessly lobbed shells across the fence targeting each other, but not sparing the hapless civilians caught in the cross hairs of a gory ritual of blood and hatred.

As I stood a few metres from the barbed wires, images of Saadat Hasan Manto’s ‘mottled dawn’ permeated the freshly harvested rice fields. Both sides produce the world’s most fragrant Basmati, both are saddened by the wails of mourners often just yards across the fence as civilians on either side are laid low by the intensified shelling. Nobody seems to have a clue about who started the current round of madness. Unbelievably, though, there were those on the Indian side who believed that an escalation was the best way to end the duel forever. My hunch is their Pakistani counterparts think along similarly suicidal lines.

Nathuram Sharma, a village elder in Chiliari in Samba, spoke forcefully for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Pointing to the border post a stone’s throw from the village hub, he declared his complete faith in the 10-to-one ratio of ammo that needed to be lobbed into Pakistan to make them understand the new government’s resolve.

“Mooh-tor jawab”, implying a threat to break the adversary’s jaw, was a common theme among civilians many of whom had parked their faith in Mr Modi’s robust strategy to tame the alleged Pakistani aggression. There was no clear explanation of what might have prompted the Pakistanis to fire 81mm mortars often five kilometres deep into Indian villages for the first time in years.

Paramilitary officials who briefed us in Jammu explained that the Pakistanis were upset by their stance of aggressive patrolling on the border. There was no reason given for the ‘aggressive patrolling’ at this given point. Watching the more porous Line of Control in Kashmir would make more sense. Pakistan’s internal political turmoil could be another reason to prompt it to shift the focus on the Indian border, we were told.

The explanation seemed to assume that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had persuaded his forces to mindlessly start shelling the border villages. Why would Pakistan’s army poke India in the eye when it was engaged in a make-or-break military operation in North Waziristan? The reasoning was disconcerting. Nobody, barring an elderly villager, saw a possibility that Mr Modi could have asked his forces to go at Pakistan in order to make a robust point that would fit with his flaunted macho image.

Children in a village were returning from school when we arrived there. They spoke casually of bullets whizzing past all the time but didn’t seem to have the time to worry over its implication. We noticed that apart from the food crop, which includes wheat and sugarcane apart from the popular rice, the villages also produce a steady supply of young men to be recruited as soldiers, troopers or policemen.

The narrative is not always blood and gore of course. A BSF chief I knew had joined the International Committee of the Red Cross in Delhi where he deliberated on applying the international humanitarian law to armed conflicts between neighbours in South Asia. A retired admiral similarly became an anti-nuclear weapons campaigner in India. You could list a few others. I wonder if time has come for some serving soldiers to also question the obsessive militarism engulfing South Asia’s perennially angry and potentially reckless nuclear neighbours.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

P.S.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.