This side or that

Omair TAhmad | Updated on January 22, 2018

A jawan keeps tight vigil near the Line of Control at Kaman Aman Setu at Uri in North Kashmir. Aman Setu is the bridge that connects India and Pakistan in North Kashmir.   -  Nissar Ahmad

Omair Ahmad is an author. His last book was on Bhutan   -  BUSINESS LINE

In some cases, crossing a line can bring you closer to hope and freedom

I ended up in Srinagar this Independence Day. My in-laws were supposed to leave for Hajj, and my wife and I had decided to spend some time with them before that. I also wanted to meet a professor at Kashmir University’s Centre for Earth Sciences, who has been doing some excellent work on water issues. But Independence Day in the Kashmir Valley is always a little different from what we experience in the rest of India.

Some dissident groups flew green flags and the Pakistan flag on August 14, the day Pakistan celebrates independence, leading to the usual hysterics on TV news channels over a 10-second video clip being played over and over again, with anchors and commentators whipping themselves into a frenzy of self-righteous rage. In Srinagar, where 99 per cent of the population became aware of this act of dissidence because Indian TV channels beamed it relentlessly into the homes of those who could not care less, it resulted in curfew in a few areas. By August 15 there was some confrontation between the military forces and militants in north Kashmir, but we learned of it much later. I woke up with no signal on my mobile phone. All mobile services in Srinagar — I do not know about the rest of the Kashmir Valley, much less Jammu and its outlying regions — had been suspended.

We laughed that we were free from our mobile phones at least, but my appointment at Kashmir University was certainly not happening. With security cordons across the city and no mobile service through which to coordinate, most people decided to stay indoors, and for the first time since my arrival at the in-laws, the flood of well-wishers had tapered off. We sat around the drawing room sharing stories. My mother-in-law, who was among the state’s first women civil service officers, told us about her early days at work. The topic turned towards the Line of Control (LoC), the conflict that continues to plague the state.

“You know,” my mother-in-law said, “there are other stories of the LoC as well. I remember this strange case that happened in the Jammu sector during my early days in the service. This would have been in the early ’80s or so, when things were not so bad. The LoC was still there, but not the level of artillery and rifle fire that we had in the ’90s, or now. We would sometimes meet the military and civil service from the other side to sort out small issues, especially of families that were divided by the LoC.

“One day I received a strange request. A woman had crossed over from the other side, and the local people did not know what to do with her. She was arrested, but after a week, when it was clear that she posed no threat, she was released into the care of the people from the social welfare service. They thought the woman would talk to me, a female officer, and so I went... It was a sad story.

“It was difficult at first. She spoke with a thick Pahari accent, but the social welfare people were right, she was much more willing to open up to a woman. It seems that she had an abusive husband. He beat her, and she kept running away to her folks . But they had two children, and the husband would visit after a couple of weeks, full of apologies, with the kids in tow, and the woman’s family would force her to go back. After years of such trauma, the woman, in desperation, decided to run across the LoC. Her father hailed from somewhere in the Jammu region, and she thought that at least she would be safe across the LoC.”

“We tried,” my mother-in-law said with a sigh, “to find her relatives, or a shelter for her, but in the end we could not locate anyone. The violence in the Jammu area during and after Partition had displaced hundreds of thousands. And then the husband came from the other side. Both our people and those of the Pakistani side threatened him with consequences… And he wept and promised to take care of his wife, so we had to release her. I don’t know what happened to her after that.”

Freedom is a desperately personal thing. The LoC, the nucleus of a bitter conflict, may be a symbol of horror for hundreds of thousands. In some cases, however, it is a beacon of hope and freedom to those in suffering, for reasons entirely their own.

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Published on September 11, 2015

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