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Kashmir turmoil

India and Pakistan's latest peace deal sparks hope and doubt

Villagers eye tense border warily, recalling past cease-fire violations

BEGA, India -- Deshraj Choudhary, who lives in the village of Bega, on the Indian side of the border separating Jammu and Kashmir from Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, is both hopeful and apprehensive.

Choudhary has witnessed more than three decades of violence in this troubled region. After a recent pledge by India and Pakistan to bring peace to the border, he wants to believe in change but is uncertain that it can happen.

"There is always destruction on both sides, mostly [inflicted on] the civilians," Choudhary, 64, told Nikkei Asia, as he stood outside his home. The former inspector of border security forces recalls seeing relatives and neighbors killed in the long-running conflict. "I remember that a shell fell on a house in my neighborhood and my relatives, both the husband and wife, died on the spot."

The Jammu and Kashmir region has been a disputed territory and the main bone of contention between India and Pakistan since the two countries gained independence in 1947. The question of who should rule here has sparked three major wars and smaller one called the Kargil war.

Apart from large-scale military operations, there has been sporadic cross-border shelling. The latest incident, in November last year, killed 11 people, including six civilians, and wounded eight civilians on India's of side of Line of Control, the de facto border.

During his 37 years as an inspector of border security forces in India, Deshraj Choudhary says he has seen his relatives and neighbors killed in the long conflict over Kashmir. (Photo by Raihana Maqbool)

On Feb. 25, India and Pakistan issued a rare joint statement announcing a new cease-fire, saying: "[I]n the interest of achieving mutually beneficial and sustainable peace along the borders, [the chiefs of military operations] agreed to address each other's core issues and concerns, which have a propensity to disturb peace and lead to violence." Both sides also agreed to follow the 2003 cease-fire agreement -- a deal reached between then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president at the time, four years after the Kargil war.

Choudhary is skeptical. "They keep on agreeing on such statements, but it makes no difference. ... Many people have been injured here and died as well," he said, but adding, hopefully, that if the agreement is truly followed by the both sides, "We may live in peace, finally."

Choudhary is not alone in wondering whether the cease-fire can last, and the consequences of the violence are visible on the faces of the residents, who have been at the forefront of the hostility. "We have been hearing about these cease-fire agreements for a long time now, but it doesn't make a difference now," said Darshan Devi, 60, a lifelong resident of Abdulia, another village near the border. "They always say that, but end up violating the agreements," she said, as she baked bread at her small shop in the village.

"There is always a fear that we may get killed, and we have been living with that fear for our lives. We don't have any peace here," said Devi, who has never known calm in the border region.

Darshan Devi, who has lived her whole life in the village of Abdulia in the Jammu region, says she has heard of many ceasefires, but adds, "It doesn't make a difference." (Photo by Raihana Maqbool)

G. Kishan Reddy, India's deputy minister of home affairs, recently said a total of 10,752 cease-fire violations have taken place along India's border with Pakistan in the last three years, in which 72 security personnel and 70 civilians were killed.

Last year alone, Indian authorities say there were more than 5,000 violations, while Pakistan's Foreign Ministry puts the tally at "3,097 cease-fire violations, resulting in 28 deaths and 257 injuries to the civilian population."

Security experts welcome the latest effort to put a cease-fire in place between the archrivals. But they, too, are cautious over its prospects, given past failures.

"It is an extremely uncertain situation," Ajai Sahni, a security expert and executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, told Nikkei Asia. "What has happened right now is that the directors general of military operations of both countries [have] agreed to honor the cease-fire agreement of 2003 again," Sahni said, adding, "Now it remains to be seen whether it will hold or not."

There are reasons to be skeptical that the latest outbreak of tranquillity will endure. In December 2013, top military officials from the two sides reached an agreement to "maintain the sanctity and cease-fire on the Line of Control." But from 2014 onward, tensions along the border continued to rise. In 2018, the tensions ratcheted higher and another agreement was reached to "fully implement the Ceasefire Understanding of 2013." But again, it survived only for a couple of months.

Pravin Sawhney, another security expert based in New Delhi, calls the agreement between the two countries "a very positive and good development," as both sides "have to first sit down at the table." But he is also doubtful and said it is "premature to say what will happen next."

Back in Bega, Usha Choudhary, who was brought up in the village but moved to New Delhi with her family due to cross-border tensions, speaks for many: "I spend most of the time in [New] Delhi and we live there. I rarely visit here, and whenever I do, there is always the fear that something may happen," Usha said, adding that life along the border is never easy.

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