India and Pakistan: Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

Posted in Other , Asia | 04-Jul-04 | Author: Amy Waldman| Source: The New York Times

A worker helps repair a road that would allow bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad in Kashmir.

UROOSA, Jammu and Kashmir - From his front porch in this village at the edge of Indian-held Kashmir, Muhammad Sharif looks out, as he always has, on the steep and lovely hills of Pakistan-held Kashmir.

He sees, like a reflection, the faint outline of Rehmand, the village opposite, where he presumes people speak the same language, practice the same religion, eat the same foods, although, never having met them, he cannot say for sure.

But these days, Mr. Sharif, a 50-year-old farmer and father of six, sees something else as well. Up the hillside on the Indian side of the 1972 cease-fire line - a 460-mile narrow swath of territory known as the Line of Control, which divides the two Kashmirs - there snakes a new manifestation of that division. It is a fence, meant to keep at bay infiltrators from Pakistan who are seeking to separate India's portion of Kashmir from India.

India has been building the fence for about a year, and it is largely completed. It follows the construction of a less politically delicate fence along the India-Pakistan border. It has the symbolic potential, in some eyes, to make the cease-fire line more like an international border, as India desires.

The cease-fire line took its present format at the end of the last of three wars between India and Pakistan. The conflict dates to the partitioning of India and Pakistan in 1947 into predominantly Hindu and Muslim states. At the time, Kashmir's maharaja, a Hindu, joined the fortunes of his Muslim-majority state to India. Pakistan invaded in 1947 and took part of Kashmir and has contended ever since that all of Kashmir has a right to self-determination.

After Pakistan failed to take all of Kashmir in war, it began backing an insurgency in 1989 that at first relied mostly on indigenous Kashmiri militants, then on Pakistanis, Afghans and others crossing the cease-fire line to take up the fight. Kashmiris from the Indian side crossed the other way, for training, then returned.

The line runs along beautiful but rugged territory over three mountain ranges that rise to 17,000 feet with deep gorges in between. Passes through the peaks and folds of the mountains have enabled thousands of hardy militants to cross back and forth across the line. Now, crossing - in or out - is that much harder.

The fence is similar to the barrier being built by the Israelis to control the infiltration of militant Palestinians. But the Indian fence has received far less international scrutiny than the Israeli barrier and surprisingly muted opposition from the Pakistanis. Last November, a cease-fire was negotiated between the Indian and Pakistani armies, which regularly shelled each other and civilians living in between. That cease-fire has greatly expedited the fence's construction, and Pakistani officials say that Pakistan's president, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, knew that it would when he agreed to the cease-fire.

In January, Pakistan agreed not to allow its soil to be used for terrorist attacks against India. One theory for Pakistan's low-key response is that the fence will make it easier for the country to better control militant groups.

Constructed on almost vertical mountainsides - here at an 80 degree angle - the fence is an engineering feat. Until the cease-fire, much of the construction was done at night to avoid the shelling.

The fence, which breaks only in deference to unconquerable terrain, stands about 12 feet high and is about 12 feet wide. Coils of concertina wire are layered between rows of pickets. Sharp-edged metal tape and, in places, electrification make crossing even harder. So do the soldiers standing guard.

"No obstacle in history, whether the China wall or the Maginot line in France, can prevent movement unless there is surveillance," said the governor of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, S. K. Sinha, a former army vice chief of staff.

The fence is part of a larger effort by India to buttress its defenses and uses equipment acquired from Israel, France and the United States, including motion sensors, thermal imaging devices and night-vision equipment. It also has allowed the parceling of the cease-fire zone into a grid system so that officers can be held accountable for movement in designated areas.

In places, the fence has created divisions within a division. Some farmers have been separated from their grazing lands, and a few houses and hamlets that have been in Indian-held Kashmir since 1947 are now outside it because the fence could not be built around them without crossing into Pakistani territory.

There are gates for cattle and people, with proper identification, to cross back into India.

Senior Indian military officials say that they already see what they called a new "tentativeness" among militants, and that the fence has allowed the army to foil at least four crossing attempts. Militants in Pakistan say that the fence has made crossing the cease-fire line riskier but assert that they have enough men and ammunition already inside Kashmir to sustain the insurgency for years.

Indian officials agree with that assertion, saying that despite a major decline in infiltrations by insurgents compared with last year, there has not been a corresponding drop in violence. [On Saturday, four people died and 52 were wounded in bomb attacks in two Kashmiri cities. Indian officials also said they had killed five Pakistani militants trying to cross the Line of Control in a new operation to curb infiltration.]

Some question the fence's long-term effectiveness in deterring motivated militants. "People who want to come and are determined to come, they will come," said Umar Farooq, a political leader in Indian-help Kashmir who opposes Indian rule. "They have routes and maps, and they will use them."

"It's a waste of money,'' he said, adding that it was better to pursue a political settlement.

With the fence, he said, the Indians are "trying to sort of legitimize their claim day by day" to Kashmir.

To come close to the cease-fire line - something that is possible only with an Indian Army escort - is to understand the judolike dynamics of the conflict between these nuclear-armed neighbors. The hill in the foreground is Indian-held, and the one in the background is under Pakistani control. The depression between them is the cease-fire line.

This is some of the most tenaciously contested territory in the world, as proved by the pockmarks made by artillery shells in this village and the Pakistani bunkers visible on hilltops. Mr. Sharif and his sons described school days lost to shelling, farm days lost, peace of mind lost, until the November cease-fire.

Mr. Sharif, who readily concedes that his village is economically dependent on the Indian Army, favors the fence. But he also supports a plan to start a bus service on the road that runs below the village and between Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-held Kashmir, and Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan-held Kashmir. The bus service is meant to be a confidence-building measure that would also allow divided families to reconnect.

But the construction of the fence has proceeded far more rapidly than the reopening of the road. No agreement has been reached on the thorny issue of which travel documents will be required for crossing. India favors passports, something the Pakistanis and those in Indian-held Kashmir who are opposed to Indian rule are resisting because it would convey the status of a border.

"If we agree to use a passport then we have accepted the division of Kashmir," said Maulvi Abbas Ansari, a separatist leader in Srinagar.

After meetings earlier this week between the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan, officials said the bus service was still on track, but meetings to resolve outstanding issues have not been scheduled.

Either way, the road is impassable. Some work is being done on the portion that leads to Wheatbridge, the military post just below this village. But the final two or three miles of the road to Pakistan's territory are so damaged by avalanches and shelling that vehicles cannot use it.

Military officials estimate that repairs will take six to eight months. The work has not begun. Instead, the road becomes a dead end at a barricade that is reinforced by sharp razor wire, just like the fence that scales the hill above.

Arif Jamal contributed reporting from Pakistan for this article.