The urge to merge on the Line of Control
A journey through rugged mountainous terrain to the forward-most Pakistani military post in Azad Kashmir
By Ameen Izzadeen
Across the 200-metre wide valley, we could see the Indian soldiers. There were some civilians, including women and children. They were like us, visitors to the Line of Control, our Pakistani military host told us. He allowed us to use a pair of powerful binoculars mounted on a tripod to see what was happening on the Indian front.

“Hey, they were shooting.”
How could it be? There is no tension on the border. Besides, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh are talking peace.

The Indian soldier manning the forward-most defence line was not using his gun. He was shooting with his powerful camera and we could see his fingers clicking. Probably, our pictures will be analysed by Indian intelligence, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). We waved at the Indians, but there was no waving back.

Taking my eyes off the binoculars, I asked Lt. Colonel Chiragh Haider, who was conducting our guided tour, whether the Indians would train their guns on us? “Don’t worry, you are in safe hands,” the officer assured us.

We could not see much of a fortification on the Pakistani side. But on the Indian side, we could see a long fence, much of which, I was told, was electrified. The absence of heavy guns on the Pakistani side prompted me to ask Lt. Col. Haider whether they were prepared if the Indians launched a foray into their side.Sporting a wry smile he said: “They’d better not. If they try to be more adventurous, we will give them a fitting response.”

We were at the Line of Control, after a seven hour drive from Islamabad and an overnight stay at Muzaffarabad. The Line of Control has seen three full-scale wars, several near wars and hundreds, if not thousands, of skirmishes and forays, prompting a wag to comment that “it is actually a line of no control”.

The six member Sri Lankan media delegation, representing The Sunday Times, the Daily Mirror, Lankadeepa, the Island, the Sunday Leader and the Sunday Observer, left Islamabad around 5 p.m. We were the guests of the Islamabad Policy Research Institute (IPRI), a semi-government think-tank.

Within half an hour, our Mercedes van was winding its way up the mountains. The journey was pleasant for the first couple of hours, but after that, it was bends all the way. A bend to the left, a bend to the right and they came in quick succession as we were pushed this way and that way. I wished I had taken an Avomin tablet or two. The tediousness of the ride was in contrast to the scenic beauty on both sides of the narrow road.

We passed Murree, a scenic holiday resort which reminded us of Nuwara Eliya. Then we stopped briefly at a place where a military vehicle was waiting to escort us through the rest of our journey. We asked whether we were being given security because the government suspected that there could be a RAW agent among us.

IPRI research officer Sultan Hassan, who had been taking care of us since our plane touched down at the Karachi airport on July 24, said it was the usual practice when foreign delegates visit Kashmir which the Pakistanis call Azad Kashmir or liberated Kashmir.

Soon, we saw a board, saying, “No foreigners are allowed beyond this point.”
Foreigners need permission to visit Azad Kashmir. As night fell, I tried to sleep to get over the nausea. The night and the nausea kept me away from the beauty of the river Jhelum which, on our journey back, was like a blue lace to the skirting road hundreds of feet above the ravine. It starts from the Indian side of Kashmir and flows freely across the Line of Control.

Around 10 p.m., we reached Muzaffarabad, the capital of Azad Kashmir, which the Indians call Pakistan occupied or Pakistan held Kashmir (POK or PHK). The province is Pakistan administered but has its own government and a prime minister.

Muzaffarabad looks like a girl weeping for her twin sister, who lives on the other side of the Line of Control. She refuses to wear jewellery or the mirror-worked colourful salwars until her sister is reunited with her.

We were checked in for an overnight stay at Muzaffarabad’s only luxury hotel, the humble Sangam, where cobwebs added beauty to our rooms and where river water was served as drinking water. I liked the hotel which overlooked the confluence where the River Neelam becomes one with Jhelum. Sangam means union – the union of two rivers.

The following day, soon after breakfast, we began our journey to Chakothi along what is known as the Srinagar Road – the road that leads to the capital of the Indian side of Kashmir, which the Pakistanis call the Indian-occupied or Indian-held Kashmir (IOK or IHK).

For more than half a century, the Srinagar Road had not led to Srinagar. It was only in April this year that a fortnightly bus service was started between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad across the Line of Control for people of both sides of Kashmir to visit relatives and return.

The journey along the mountainous terrain took us through scores of villages where the simple life of the people added colour to the breathtaking landscape along the Jhelum.

After a two-hour ride, we were at the Chakothi brigade headquarters where Lt. Col. Haider made a multi-media presentation, explaining the Kashmiri crisis and the situation along the 767 km-long Line of Control, which was initially known as the Ceasefire Line.

The line was formally established under the Karachi Agreement between India and Pakistan in July 1949 — a year after the two countries fought a bitter war over this princely state, the fate of which was left in abeyance by the Redcliff Boundary Commission that drew the partition plan of the subcontinent.

Efforts by Viceroy Louis Mountbatten to convince the Maharajah of Kashmir, a Hindu, to cede the Muslim-majority province to Pakistan failed. And in 1948, when Pakistani tribes raided Kashmir and were on the outskirts of capital Srinagar, the Maharajah signed a document, ceding the state to India. The war that followed ended after UN intervention with Pakistan controlling one third of Kashmir and India the rest.

Since then, Kashmir has remained divided along the ceasefire line - with brother on one side, sister on the other side, mother on one side, son on the other and in some cases, the husband on one side and the wife on the other.
The ceasefire agreement came to be known as the Line of Control after the 1972 Simla agreement which was signed after the third Indo-Pakistan war.
Lt. Col. Haider said the LOC extended in a curvy way over rugged terrain near Jammu through the Kargil area and across the Siachen Glacier up to the Himalayas near China's Sinkiang province.

The officer said the LOC, supervised by the United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP), was not clearly marked and the people of Azad Kashmir did not accept the validity of the line. After he answered our questions regarding cross-border activities and confidence-building measures, we were taken to the LOC.

The mountainous jungle terrain extends on both sides of the main LOC point, It was patently clear that policing the LOC was a difficult task even for a superpower Army. With no clear demarcations and the terrain being nearly inaccessible, it seemed to me that the LOC which ran up and down mountains - with the altitude varying from 10,000 to 22,000 feet - was more a concept than a well-defined unofficial border.

Border is a taboo political word as far as Kashmir is concerned, because both India and Pakistan stake a claim to the whole of Kashmir. Pakistan demands that India should allow a UN supervised plebiscite in Kashmir for the people of Kashmir to decide on its fate in terms of two UN resolutions. But New Delhi insists that the whole of Kashmir belongs to India and there could be no compromise.

We saw a bridge over a small valley, connecting the two Kashmirs on the Muzaffarabad-Srinagar Road. The bridge made news in April this year, when, for the first time in 58 years, bus services were started between the two Kashmirs.

Kashmiris carrying entry permits - no visas were issued - were brought in buses from Srinagar and Muzaffarabad up to this bridge, where they changed buses after crossing the bridge. The buses did not cross the bridge. On Wednesday, the ninth such bus service brought and took people from both sides.

"We called it the monkey bridge," Lt. Col. Haider said. I asked him why.
He said that after the two countries agreed to start the bus service, the task of renovating the old bridge that had remained unused for 58 years was given to the Indians who painted it in the tri-colours of the Indian flag - saffron, white and light green. When the Pakistanis protested, the Indians suggested that the one half of the bridge be painted in the Indian colours and Pakistanis paint the other half dark green and white. The Pakistanis scoffed at the idea saying the bridge would look like a monkey bridge. Eventually, the two countries agreed to paint the bridge white.

The bridge now allows only people of Kashmir to move from one side to the other after they are thoroughly screened.Pakistanis, Indians and foreigners cannot use the bus service. If you are a non-Kashmiri and want to travel from the point from where we were to where the Indian forward post is - some 200 metres away within waving distance - you probably have to take several road rides and at least two flights over three days to get there.

After a half-an-hour stay, we left the Pakistani military post, pitying the people on both sides. They speak one language and are one people, but politics has divided them for no offence of theirs.

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