The Nowhere People: An excerpt from Happymon Jacob's book “The Line of Control”

03 February, 2019

Happymon Jacob, a columnist with The Hindu and an associate professor of disarmament studies at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, was provided exclusive access by Indian and Pakistani armed forces to explore the regions surrounding the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir. His research is laid out in his recent book “The Line of Control: Travelling with the Indian and Pakistani Armies,” which documents various aspects of civilians’ and soldiers’ lives on both sides of the border and considers broader questions about nationhood and identity.

In the following excerpt, he looks closely at how the imposition of a border has affected life in Behroti. A village around a kilometre ahead of the Indian fence on the Line of Control, it was captured by India during the 1971 war in Jammu and Kashmir and split in half, with the regions on either side allocated to India and Pakistan. Jacob recounts anecdotes of villagers who had to navigate red tape to cross over to the other country—such as obtaining a visa from Delhi in order to visit family members who live less than a kilometre away—and contemplates the psychological effects that such a divide could engender in citizens living near the LOC.

Identity and sovereignty take on completely different meanings in an area where borders are blurred and political lines on a map don’t correspond to actual geographical/residential divides. What India means in New Delhi is poles apart from what it means to a person living 100 metres from Pakistan. His/her relatives are on either side of the LoC. They can see each other from across the border but they can never meet. Here, the Indian state is present through the barrel of a gun. On the LoC, nationalism often feels oppressive and existential questions are all too real.

Life in Behroti village in the Mendhar tehsil of the Poonch district symbolises the worst that modern states and nationalism can do to people. What’s even worse is that they won’t talk about it, or rather, they would tell you the exact opposite of what they feel, more often than not. That’s what nationalism does to you—it makes you do and say things you wouldn’t otherwise. People like us don’t realise the inherent double-talk, but the ones physically inhabiting the fringes of the territorial state do.

Behroti village lies about a kilometre ahead of the Indian fence on the LoC. While the border fence doesn’t officially signify the end of Indian sovereignty, for most practical purposes this is where the social contract between the state and its citizens becomes shaky. Residents of the village have to strictly abide by specific timings to “enter India” through one of the gates in the fence (guarded by the Indian Army troops) and get their identity cards checked. A hundred metres ahead of their village is a Pakistani village where their estranged relatives live. While in India, a fence separates them from their compatriots, but there is no fence between them and their relatives in Pakistan, both of whom live under the prying gaze of the Indian and Pakistani soldiers. For them, there are effectively three entities: Pakistan on one side, India on the other, and themselves, caught in the middle. Living in the village is like walking on broken glass every time you step out of your house.

Do they sometimes go back and forth? They say “never,” and so do the Indian soldiers. But then both of them have a reason to say so. There are stories about cross-border love affairs and villagers risking bullets in the dead of night during relatively peaceful times to visit their relatives on the other side. Pakistani forces do not normally object; Indian forces do. But risk-taking is a part of human nature. More so, asking poor villagers to go to New Delhi to get a Pakistan visa and then travel to Lahore, then to Islamabad and then to PoK and finally to the village to meet one’s close relative who lives 500 metres away from their home is tragic. One young man narrated the story of precisely such a visit he undertook some years ago to meet his ailing grandmother on the other side. “Didn’t you try crossing over at night?” I asked. He merely smiled.

Such informal interactions were far more frequent before the 1980s, but they have certainly not stopped. Some estimate that in the Bhimber Gali area, 40 percent of those living ahead of the fence, close to the zero line, have relatives living on the other side. These people are Indians today, but until 1971, they were Pakistanis. Unlike after the 1965 war, India and Pakistan did not exchange territories that were captured during the 1971 war in Jammu and Kashmir, even though in other states such exchanges of captured territories took place. So Behroti was captured by the Indian forces and by the time the war came to an end, the erstwhile village was cut in half, with families getting divided right in the middle. Now imagine this happening overnight and having to relive that experience for decades thereafter to this day. Behroti’s citizens have been both Indians and Pakistanis, and have Pakistani relatives. Does their situation often spring a certain angst in them about the self and nationhood? I wondered.

Colonel Ravinder Gahlawat, the man who took me there, did tell me—much later when I met him in New Delhi—that when their spirit is down, they often come up and ask: “Whose people are we?” Especially when the civilian administration refuses to give them the benefits of statehood, or when an aggressive soldier talks rudely to them, or when they have to stay indoors due to crossfire. The place has seen little development since 1972, thanks to recurrent firing and tension, and the civilian officials have been unwilling to risk their lives to carry out developmental activities there. During the Kargil War the entire village had to be vacated.

“Do you ever get caught in the crossfire between the armies on either side?” I asked the village headman of Behroti, looking intently at the army posts on either side. Bullets from both sides could easily reach them and wreak havoc. The elderly man caught hold of my hand and took me to a shrine under a tree and told me confidently, “Do you see this pir baba’s shrine? Baba ki meher hai [Thanks to the blessings of the baba], we never get shot at.” He added that during the 1965 India-Pakistan war, guns which fired at the village were jammed and hence soldiers on either side tend to avoid firing at the civilian population here.

Clearly, I was unconvinced. So I kept asking for facts. It turned out that he was right. No one had ever been shot by the Pakistani army in that village—only some cattle. People would generally be indoors during CFVs but being indoors hardly prevents one from being hit when high-calibre shells are being fired back and forth. This was puzzling to me but I didn’t challenge the local belief that the pir baba had ensured that no shells fell on them. Faith is useful (even though I don’t have it) and if faith helps duck shells, why challenge that belief? The pir baba, after all, had an instrumental value. So I asked Gahlawat while we were returning to the army mess on a dirt road along the LoC: “What’s all this pir baba business in Behroti?” “There is a simple explanation for this,” he said. “The village is so close to the Pakistani side that there is no way that the Pakistani shells will be aimed at Behroti; doing so could have implications for the Pakistani village as well. So the 120-mm shells that the Pakistani side uses almost always overshoot the village and fall somewhere closer to the fence, which is behind the village. More so, CFVs are mostly carried out with long-range guns here rather than personal weapons.”

It was getting dark and the view of the lit-up LoC fence was mesmerising. In December 2015, American space agency NASA released the “Top 15 Space Station Earth Images of 2015” as selected by its Johnson Space Center’s Earth Observations team. One of the breathtaking images was of the beautifully lit LoC. The LoC looks lovely from the sky, but it means death and destruction on the ground. For the people of Behroti, the fence also solidifies a pre-existing identity crisis. For many of us, the fence provides a sense of security, but not for the people of Behroti. For them, only the pir baba provides security. “I don’t go around dispelling their belief in the pir baba,” said Gahlawat. “I don’t even explain the range and ballistic trajectories of 120-mm guns. In times such as this one needs a lot of faith merely for survival.”

This is an edited excerpt from the book “The Line of Control: Travelling with the Indian and Pakistani Armies” written by Happymon Jacob. It has been published with permission from Penguin Viking.

Happymon Jacob is an associate professor of Disarmament Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is a columnist with The Hindu, and hosts a weekly show on national security at Jacob is the author of Line on Fire: Ceasefire Violations and India-Pakistan Escalation Dynamics (Oxford University Press, January 2019) and The Line of Control: Travelling with the Indian and Pakistani Armies (Penguin Viking, December 2018).