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.