At first glance, Khetan Mohalla, in the Poonch district of Jammu and Kashmir, looks more like a fortified military installation than a village. A three-tiered fencing system known as the Anti-Infiltration Obstacle System, cuts through the dirt-track road that leads up to the village. Khetan Mohalla sits in the trough of the undulating terrain on the Line of Control—the de-facto border that separates India-administered Kashmir from Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Its residents live sandwiched between the AIOS on one side and death traps in the form of hidden landmines on the other side, towards Pakistan. For the locals, travelling outside their heavily militarised hilly village seems like going to a foreign country, each time.
Every time they have to move out of the village, the residents endure strict security screening at the first gate in the fence, which is manned by the army. The last gate of the fence is almost three kilometres away, at the edge of their panchayat, Kosaliyan. Residents I spoke to said that they are allowed to venture beyond the AIOS only after they submit their smart identity-cards and smart phones at a check-post adjacent to another fall gate. The villagers showed me these smart IDs, which are issued by the army. Apart from the tedium of the screenings, the gates remain open for them only for specific hours in the day.
When I first visited Khetan Mohalla on an early February afternoon in 2021, I was stopped at Kosaliyan’s outer gate. A soldier checked my Aadhaar card at the check-post, spoke to a senior officer on the phone, and eventually denied me permission. “We can’t allow you to go inside the village. There is gunfire underway,” the soldier told me, referring to cross-border fire between India and Pakistan. This would turn out to be the stock response at most such fenced-off villages during the course of my reporting.
A year ago, Khetan Mohalla had hit the headlines—on 10 January, five young men of the village, who worked as porters with the Indian Army, were attacked. Two of them were brutally killed. The Indian Army initially said that the men were killed and injured by a mortar-shell attack, in a ceasefire violation by the Pakistani Army, when they crossed over the fencing on the LoC. The army’s claim soon began to seem improbable, as pictures surfaced showing that one of the men, 25-year-old Mohammad Aslam, had been decapitated. According to media reports, two days later, unnamed official sources claimed that the Pakistan Army’s Special Services Group, a highly specialised operations force, had carried out the attack in the form of a “Border Action Team,” or BAT. The Indian establishment claims that BAT squads are comprised of SSG commandos and recruits from Pakistan-based militant Islamist organisations.
When I met Mohammad Sadiq, Aslam’s father, outside the gate at Kosaliyan, he had a different story to tell. “The attack took place at around 10.15 am ... while they were carrying goods to a forward army post,” he recollected. “First, there was a blast on their way. And afterwards, masked attackers fired at them from a close range.” Slowly, he added, “They took away my son’s head.” The other dead porter was 26-year-old Altaf Hussein, the son of Sadiq’s brother, Noor Din. Altaf’s throat had been slit. Sadiq’s son-in-law, Showkat Hussain, was among the survivors of the attack, but he had been critically injured. Sadiq said Showkat had been shot over 15 times, and his leg had to be amputated. “At around 2.30 pm, a group of 20 to 25 villagers went to the spot with a white flag and lifted the bodies. The funeral was carried out at night,” he said. These were not the first losses in the family due to the cross-border conflict. Sadiq’s niece had been killed in cross-border fire in 2002.