As India and Pakistan are shelling each other’s positions, it is the civilian population that suffers the worst. Bilal Handoo spent a day with the people in Teetwal—almost 200km from Srinagar—that is living in the fear of a war, perpetually, a situation that has impacted their socio-economic life

Strong icy wind was gusting as scrolling eyes and stern faces greeted visitors at Sadhna Pass overlooking the Karnah valley. Arrival of sightseers in the times of LoC flare-up drew bunch of wary soldiers and an agile cop from a concrete bunker to count heads inside the vehicle. A local guide had already warned: ‘Sadhna Top might itself be an end of your journey to Teetwal.’

Thickened jackboots and loaded trucks at the gargantuan military garrison called Sadhna Pass almost proved him right — before a local guide and a mandatory official pass did the trick.

As the vehicle entered Karnah, a signature pines and peaks paved way to eroding hillocks and slightly warm air. Down in Kupwara, people had already spoken about the different culture and language of the region. But exploring what has been long labelled as the ‘other side’ began on the bumpy roads marked with landslides and shooting stones.

Inside the vehicle, the local guide was busy narrating the legend of 10600 ft-Sadhna Pass nestled on Shamsbari mountainous range. Best known for its legend of blind and deaf fairies, Sadhna Pass was originally known as Nastachun (cut nose) Pass, the only access to Karnah from Kupwara.

Before 1947, this Pass was Kashmir’s easiest and shortest route to Muzaffarabad via Neelam Valley, the abode of erstwhile Shardapeth. The guide said that Maharaja Pratap Singh had installed a checkpost in Pass to save his domain from invasion of Karnah’s Bomba Rajas. Later in Hari Singh era, it became Muzaffarabad’s principal tehsil.

“This Pass remains mostly closed from December to April due to snow,” the guide informed, as the army signpost—Respect All, Suspect All, Inspect All—made a glaring sight. The journey on zigzag, treacherous roads momentarily halted at number of security checkposts.

The guide further spoke of the three valleys—Neelam, Leepa and Karnah—that constitute the region beyond Sadhna. “Legend has it that some of Alexander the Great’s invading army lost their way and ended up populating the region,” said the guide, unwittingly reaffirming the presence of Aryan race in the region.

A glimpse of Sadhna Pass. (Photo: Bilal Handoo/KL)

In a while, the vehicle reached Nachayan—a postcard hamlet strewn with wooden huts. Amid the faded green, hardly anyone was visible around. The only introduction of this village came through Raja Manzoor — the incumbent lawmaker from Karnah who lives here. Down the road running parallel to a serpentine stream full of pebbles and boulders, a signature village life unfolded.

Out of every five men that made their presence felt, two wore camouflaged jackets. The military fatigues tell the larger reality of Karnah, where the major employment comes from army that hire locals as potters.

The main Tangdhar bazaar, with faded medieval charm, was hosting disgruntled gathering inside a park. The locals had assembled to send some strong message to establishment. Amid talks and normal life around, LoC escalation was nobody’s imagination.

“It seems the rulers operating from the other side of Sadhna Pass have forgotten that there exists a region called Karnah on map,” a fiery young man with fair complexion thundered, making the young men in audience to burst into instant applauses. “We voted as we were promised tunnel and other basic rights.”

The demand of the tunnel is nothing new in this mountain-locked region. In March 2016, Karnah residents held a protest at Srinagar Press Enclave demanding the tunnel from TP Chowkibal to Zarla curve. The tunnel, they said will negotiate the height of Sadhana Pass, prevent the loss of lives from snow avalanches and shooting stones and make the godforsaken belt accessible round the year.

“Most of Karnah people work in valley as labourers,” the guide said. “During winter, labourers remain idle affecting their source of income.” For a non-agrarian society like Karnah, winters bring lot of hardships.

Among the man turned up for the gathering in a Tangdhar park was Mohammad Hussain, a senile man from Gujjar community. People living atop hills often come down to avail ration, he said. “Most of the times, we find gates of ration depot shut forcing us to return empty-handed after spending around Rs 1000 for every trip.”

Last time, ration was at the heart of Karnah’s revolt.

On February 27, 2016, people from Karnah took out a massive rally from Tangdhar to Teetwal to get ration from Pakistan-administered Kashmir. The march was a mark of protest against the food law aimed at “starving the locals”—who don’t posses usual rural landholdings. While the march was stopped at Chitrakote—3km short of LoC on official assurance, the grievance remains unaddressed till date.

Some men assembled in the park whispered how spooks were shadowing them around. Being a frontline town, said one of the two prominent contractors of Karnah, the mountainous region remains on intelligence radar. “You name it—CID, IB, RAW, MI or NIA—everyone has its men stationed here to keep check on people and movement around,” the contractor sporting trimmed grey beard said. In other words, he meant that Karnah is a big panopticon, where everyone is under close watch.

The contractor was shortly proven right—when some local sleuths came in pack, probing the presence of an undisclosed scribe in the town.

Nachayan village in Tangdhar.

Meanwhile at the local gathering, ire was particularly directed at unionists—for failing people of this distant land. “This Raja Manzoor and his party PDP promised us change in 2014 elections and ended up following the footsteps of their predecessors,” said a local firebrand cleric. “For us, even the water of his home is haraam—till he delivers on his promise.”

For this fringe town, Raja Manzoor’s 2014 victory was broadcasted historic as he went on to defeat the teacher-turned-legislator Kafil Ur Rehman—who was invincible since 1996. It was the jab at NC’s winning streak in Karnah (NC won the seat 7 times) starting in 1957 when polls were first conducted here. Before Manzoor, only the slain unionist-turned-separatist Abdul Gani Lone had defeated NC from Karnah in 1983 elections.

But politics apart, most of Tangdhar’s traditional elite are either walnut traders or contractors. While ‘high-caste’ Mughals and Syeds rule the roost, Gujjars and Bakkarwals dwell peaks. Paharis form a majority of population in Karnah’s 58 villages. Based on their language and food, a popular notion on the other side of Sadhna Pass exists: Tangdhari people don’t consider themselves as part of Kashmir valley.

“It is a different kind of stereotyping against us,” said Hamid Khan, a local. “We identify ourselves with Kashmiris, but distance and heightened military concentration label us the other.” Karnah lately witnessed protests over Burhan Wani’s killing, Khan said. “During the civil uprising, people even stoned the cavalcade of minister Haq Khan and forced him to retreat.” But such events, said Khan, rarely reach to the other side of Sadhna Pass.

Townspeople also spoke how Karnah was established by Raja Karn and how a segment of Jamia Masjid Tangdhar is being revered for hosting Mir Syed Ali Hamdani. But there is something, very interesting, they also tell: Karnah has been the ideal hiding spot for many defeated emperors.

Main Taghdhar.

The journey ahead—towards Teetwal— began on discomfited note. A local cop decided to accompany the visitors. His argument: With Indo-Pak forces locking horns on LoC, the visit must be a guarded affair. Inside the vehicle, however, the guide pointed at the only piece of infrastructure in Tangdhar—a concrete skeleton of Higher Secondary School.

With police jeep trailing behind, new housing clusters with corrugated tin roof and bricks made a common sight down in Tangdhar. Most of these structures cropped up after October 2005 earthquake — that left 273 people dead with 9113 houses flattened in Karnah. Rebuilding that followed, changed the traditional landscape of the region.

The vehicle passed through seven security checkposts before pulling over in Teetwal where Kashmir stands divided between two sides by a Kishan Ganga (aka Neelam) river.

Pakistan administrated Kashmir was full of life with Toyota vans and colourful buses plying on metallic roads. Women could be seen washing clothes on other side of the river — barely 50 meters away. The opposite region is called Athmuqam and the village’s name is Chaliyaan beyond which starts Neelam valley. In Teetwal, locals don’t keep it any secret: Pakistan side is better in terms of power, road, telecom and living standards.

Teetwal divided into two parts.

Before 1947, Teetwal was the trading hub where hundreds of shops lined up selling ghee, honey and walnut kernels. Those commodities would reach Teetwal from Karnah, Leepa and Neelam valleys. But today, Teetwal has no commercial importance. It looks more of a garrison. The place changed after 1947 when gulfs were created.

The change took place when one of the six lashkars, as part of Operation Gulmarg, advanced from Teetwal to capture vital towns of erstwhile Baramulla district. But Indian Army captured Teetwal on May 23, 1948—the date annually celebrated as Teetwal day. Pakistan again attacked to recapture Teetwal on Oct 13, 1948. “Lance Naik Karam Singh was then a commanding officer,” said Santosh Yadav, a soldier posted in Teetwal, “who along with a few men counter-attacked and evicted the enemy after a close quarter encounter.” Later that year, Singh was awarded Param Vir Chakra, India’s highest wartime military award, for his Teetwal exploits.

But that war forever changed Teetwal — the only region in Kashmir valley that doesn’t receive snowfall. Its inhabitants would spend summers along with their livestock in Leepa valley’s Rishiyan Gali and temporarily settle there. Most of them couldn’t come back after 1948.

In Teetwal, people still recall the names of their relatives living on the other side. To reunite these families, a crossing point was opened in Teetwal after the devastating earthquake of Oct 2005. The 175-feet suspension bridge was initially used to exchange relief material on both sides. “Over 10,000 local residents are living on the other side,” said a police officer posted in Teetwal. “The number only increased after militancy triggered fresh migration during nineties when the population living nearby LoC became the target.”

Colourful passenger bus plying on Pak side of Teetwal.

With the return of LoC flare-ups, locals fear that any eventuality could happen despite the fact that hardly any shell from Pakistan side has landed in Teetwal. State government is yet to provide them concrete bunkers. “We were recently evacuated after reports of surgical strikes started doing rounds,” said Mohammad Shaban, a grocer in Teetwal. “We returned days later only to learn how shelling was staged.” Even when guns fall silent, living on LoC has its own costs.

In 2004, army erected LoC fencing as part of the counter-infiltration measures. But it ended up messing with lives. Due to its off beam location, at least six thousand people of 12 villages on the other side of the fence including Teetwal have been suffering.

Villagers need to prove their identity to pass through special gates during day. When the gates remain closed during night, it often leaves many locals outside to fend for themselves. “Those left out make it to home only the next day,” said Shaban. “Besides, residents living on the other side of the fence have to inform army in case a guest visits them.”

Over the years, around twelve feet fence—installed by network of motion sensors, thermal imaging devices and alarms—has created psychological barrier for the residents. They even fret to walk on a small stretch between rows of fencing. Why? “Because it is mined with explosives.

A suspension bridge in Teetwal connecting divided Kashmiris.

Amid these horrors, life on LoC fakes normalcy.

There is a village called Dahni Sadpora where people are dependent on Pakistan for irrigating their agriculture fields. Since 1948, the farmers yearly collect money in a handkerchief and throw it to the other side — so that water for irrigation is supplied to them, said Imtiyaz, a local. This year the non-holding of Flag Meeting between Indian Army and Pakistani Rangers led to a situation where water was stopped after the local farmers failed to collect the amount they have to pay to the other side for carrying out necessary repairs in the water canal.

“During the Flag meetings,” Imtiyaz said, “Sadpora villagers hold deliberation on amount they have to pay to the other side so that the water is diverted through Qazi Nalla to their agriculture fields.”

Equally woeful is the picture of Dragad-Teetwal where 105 households still lack road connectivity, dispensary, ration depot and other basic facilities. Like in other parts of Karnah, the locals are known for practising halla-sheri — the custom of contributing free labour to the community.

“Before 1989, lot was happening in Teetwal,” said Zameer Ali, a teacher. “Leprosy patients would gather at the small mosque at Chhatkadi village, adjacent of Ziarat Treda Sharif,” Ali said. A handful of earth was thought to heal the patients. The tradition ended after guns rattled and suspicion started.

Some locals became supposed double agents and went on to suffer for it. “We have heard all types of names for us — be it informers, collaborators or agents,” Ali said. “All these name-callings left us perturbed and made our plight akin to the dog in Saadat Hasan Manto’s celebrated short story.”

Saadat Hasan Manto.

In his short story, Teetwal ka Kutta (The Dog of Teetwal), a stray dog darts between Indian and Pakistani army camps. Soldiers on both sides treat it like a pet, but then also start suspecting him of spying. Indians put a collar tag on the dog, “Chapad Jhun Jhun”—a claptrap phrase that jitters Pakistanis. And thus started suspicion: Was the dog an Indian agent, spying on the Pakistanis? When interrogated, the dog could only wag its tail in response.

The story ends with the dog running around in no man’s land. To force it into the enemy camp, both the Indians and Pakistanis soldiers shoot around the scared stiff animal. No sooner they kill the dog, a voice in Mantoo’s short story resounds: “Wahi maut mara, jo kutte ki hoti hai.” (He died like a dog.)

Some of Teetwal’s supposed double agents also vanished in the games that are routine on borders.

But today, Karnah remains immune to militant politics, according to locals. Many local militants of yore are now settled in Pakistan. Even then, the security throes remain. Surrounded from three sides by Pakistan and on fourth side by Sadhna Top, Karnah is still considered as the security cum strategic terrain. It is so difficult that American Chinooks rescuing people in Neelam valley for Pakistan in recent past ended up landing in Karnah!

Seemari, last LoC village, divided into two parts.

The last village on LoC ahead of Teetwal needs another security clearance. As the vehicle rumbled on the dusty roads unlike the clean, metallic blacktop on the opposite side, a young girl sat on a ridge— absorbingly gazing the women washing their dishes on the other side. Her appearance almost made it apparent — she was perhaps craving for the reunion.

Ahead of her, last LoC village called Seemari stands divided between both sides. A shell-victim and Sarpanch of this village talked about the villagers’ agony to regularly see their relatives on the other side without going to meet with them amid lurking pickets atop hills.

On the opposite side, a man was strolling on his farmland. He waived at the visitors of this side who reciprocated the gesture warmly. Such silent greetings are common in Teetwal and Seemari. Even Pak Rangers could be seen waiving at the visitors of this side.

Without exhibiting any fear of cross-LoC fireworks—a non-existent event on ground—kids on the other side were busy playing cricket. Life on this side was also staggering.

Perhaps people in Seemari and Teetwal have learned to fake normalcy—with or without flare-ups.