Drive out of Sialkot a few kilometres into the suburbs and one enters into one of the most volatile border areas in the region in recent times. And it’s not because of some criminal activity but a dispute that has existed as long as Pakistan has.
There are many army checkposts in the area, especially around villages Chaprar Bala, Surg Pura, Charwah and dozens more, where private vehicles are stopped for security reasons.
“My family has become a victim of a war we don’t know who started. I lost my young son but let there be peace so other children do not become next victims. No one should lose their child,” says mother of Asif, who lost her 26 year old son on October 7 in village Chaprar Bala, in an exchange of fire between Pakistan and Indian security forces that began this month and have left at least 20 civilians dead on both sides along the Sialkot working boundary.
But for these villagers, who fled in numbers exceeding in tens of thousands on both sides, there is no enemy territory. Up until 1947 their villages were part of a larger British India, and even until the 1990s they could easily go back and forth, until the India fenced the border to stop militant infiltrations.
“I don’t know who to blame. The armies are firing at each other but killing innocents like my son. He hadn’t gone to fight in a war. Why target us? We are not a military check post,” the mother adds, as she breaks down into tears.
But local experts believe that the reason for these casualties could be the human shields both countries have in the form of villagers.
“There is a Rangers check post behind the villagers that the Indian forces want to target but they miss and hit the civilians instead,” says Shams Javaid, an editor of a local newspaper in Sialkot, who has been monitoring these border skirmishes for the last two decades.
Security experts as well as locals corroborated his claims.
Javaid also points out that the security forces and the government did not provide any evacuation logistics or accommodation to the locals who were fleeing, and only informed that they had to leave. Many went to their relatives and friends in the nearby city of Sialkot on their own.
While the family of Asif had no means to flee and therefore stayed behind, some families were lucky enough to escape. But even within them, someone had to stay behind to look after the house.
“My grandfather stayed behind, while we moved to Sialkot. He said he would look after the house and keep it safe,” says Faizan, who returned to his home this week, after being away since Eid ul Azha, when things had flared up on the border.
Villagers tend not to leave their homes, because in multiple cases when they have done so, their properties have been occupied by military and para-military forces. Examples of these can be found near Wagah border, Gilgit-Baltistan border, among the few.
Things became heated when in May this year the Indian consulate in Herat, Afghanistan was attacked, and President Hamid Karzai blamed Lashkar-e-Taiba for it, a militant organisation widely reported to be backed by and based in Pakistan, for its proxy war in Kashmir. Three days after this incident Narendra Modi was elected to the prime minister’s office in India. Known to be right wing conservative and a hawk, analysts in Pakistan feel he acted as expected.
And Pakistan gave him that moment when the Pakistan High Commissioner met with the Kashmiri separatist leadership in August and the foreign secretary-level talks were called off. Come September and Nawaz Sharif, now considerably weakened at home due to domestic political crisis engineered supposedly by retiring generals, went to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and focused on Kashmir more than necessary.
Also read: Grey areas in Indo-Pakn relations
“We think the UNGA speech changed the relationship between the two countries. Pakistan sent a message to India and India responded by heating up the border,” Shams Javaid, the editor of the local paper, agrees.
Sharif in his statement after attending Modi’s oath taking ceremony had stated that his talks with the new Prime Minister were constructive and he would resume the peace process as envisioned in the Lahore Declaration of 1999 (Shortly after which there was a military coup against him, which brought General Pervez Musharraf into power).
The Lahore Declaration refers to the Simla agreement which agrees to resolve the Kashmir issue bilaterally. But that irks the Pakistan’s security establishment which wants to keep the conflict alive for self-preservation. It considers that discussing the issue bilaterally may result in a resolution, and that may weaken their political role in running the country.
And as the conflict continues, thousands of civilians remain affected on both sides.
However, some foreign policy experts feel it may also give Modi’s party a better chance in the upcoming elections in Indian-administered Kashmir. By painting Pakistan as the aggressor killing civilians, Modi may be trying to win back the separatists who Pakistan supports. And it is expected that the situation will normalise between the two countries after the elections in Kashmir.
“During election times, such flare-ups have happened in the past too. This is a very accident-prone relationship and both sides have many contentious issues, but such flare up will never lead to war,” says Qazi Humayun, former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan who has also served on the India desk at Pakistan’s Foreign Office.
But despite the gloom and death, relationships will improve, and economy experts believe that trade is the key to that. Even now, with border skirmishes ongoing, it will not affect bilateral trade.
“Current aggression could be the result of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s speech in the United Nations in which he had taken India to task on Kashmir Issue – but Indian reaction through army aggression is not justified. However, trade has remain unaffected,” says Aftab Ahmed Vohra, Chairman Standing Committee on Indo-Pak Trade of Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industry (LCCI) said to The News a few days ago.
Earlier this year, before the skirmishes began, Pakistan’s exports to India grew by 22 per cent, while Indian exports to Pakistan improved by 19 per cent.