|Sharda village looking serene today|
Whatever happened in 1947 was also without local consent or instigation.
The 2005 cross LOC travel permit system and subsequent trade also had little to do with local consultation. Hence, to date only relatives can travel across and that only after various loops of verification are surpassed. The very agents responsible for instigating and prolonging conflict in the territory were given the responsibility of vetting civilian travel across the LOC. A cruel irony if there ever was one.
Cross LOC trade has overall done more harm than good because the major beneficiaries are Indian and Pakistani wholesalers. Despite frequent agitation by local traders no 'mandi' or wholesale market could be established at Chakothi, Hattian, Garhi Dupatta or Muzaffarabad. In a similar manner, neither could such a 'mandi' be established in Tithrinote, Hajeera or Rawalakot in Poonch division.
Intermittent firing has continued since 2003 but the people of Neelam have made great efforts to resume a normal life. Yet they are still far from utilising their highly fertile minds and able bodies. An example is that despite a sharp increase in tourism into the Valley from Pakistani tourists in the past couple of years, many locals are still unable to take advantage of an enlarged consumer market. Despite owning livestock, most are still unable to deliver genuine dairy products to these consumers. Furthermore, products related to art, craft and local culture that can be made at home and sold to these tourists are still in their infancy.
Great yet unexpected efforts have been made by civil society on both sides of the LOC to re-open Sharda to its most committed devotees, viz. the Kashmiri Pandits. Led most ably and energetically by Ravinder Pandita, who heads Save Sharda Committee. Though this people to people contact initiative has made great strides, it hasn't come without great cost to people's liberty on this side. For example, a young teenager (Kashif of Dosut) who was instrumental in putting up a portrait of Sharda Devi at Sharda Peeth a couple of years ago, was kept in an interrogation cell for 2 days by Pakistan's unbridled clandestine agencies for his sincere efforts.
Now that the struggle has matured at ground level and the Pakistani State has reacted somewhat by shepherding a 5 member delegation of Pakistan Hindu Council here last month; it appears that all cross LOC efforts to revive Sharda according to the public interest of Jammu & Kashmir will be sabotaged by the Pakistani State.
All indications are that they intend to open Sharda initially for the Pakistani Hindu community, who will double up as protectors of the Pakistani State's interests in the region. Once they are settled here - in Sharda - then the Pakistani State will - in a process totally controlled and beneficial to them - envisage opening up Sharda to Hindus, Buddhists and others from throughout the world but via Pakistan and Kohalla (the border of AJK with Pakistan in Muzaffarabad division). Indeed, Ramesh Kumar Vankwani (Patron-in-chief of Pakistan Hindu Council) has effectively indicated as much in an Urdu article published in Kashmir Link on the 29th of June:
|Kashmir Link - 29 June 2019|
What we have ascertained from deliberations with civil society in Neelam in particular and throughout AJK in general, is that such a procedure would provide little benefit to the aspiring citizens of Neelam Valley and could set up conditions that instigate a repeat of Amarnath 2008. Whereby locals who had originally benefited from increased trade on account of the annual Yatra (Hindu pilgrimage), were gradually ousted to make way for a management team from India. That summer witnessed an unprecedented blockade of the Jammu - Srinagar highway and even a 'Muzaffarabad Chalo' (Let's go to Muzaffarabad) movement to circumvent the blockade. The movement was only pacified when it was decided that a local (J & K) management team would oversee the Yatra.
It could be argued that the impending scenario in Sharda could prove to be even more explosive. Though the local people refrain from fully expressing their deep resentment of the Pakistani State in public, it is my duty as an independent researcher to be as clear as possible and avoid ambiguity in approach. I have no such limitations that the local people suffer from. It should always be remembered that any local who has expressed their feelings fully has always been a victim of human rights violations by Pakistan's deep State. An example in this regard would be that the women who marched en masse against militancy and subsequent cross-firing in 2013 were later ordered to report to the local Pakistani army commander and sternly warned to not create further embarrassment for the Pakistani army or else they would face consequences.
It is our contention that the re-opening of Sharda Peeth should be overseen by the AJK government sans interference by the Pakistani State and with sustained consultation with the local community in Sharda, the district of Neelam as a whole and the Kashmiri Pandit community. All matters of religious significance should be controlled by the Kashmiri Pandit community and the cross LOC permit rules should be widened to mutually incorporate religious tourism on both sides of the divide.
All other matters of public significance including infrastructure, environmental protection, village/town/tehsil planning and the rebuilding of a world class university should be done in consultation between the AJK government, the Kashmiri Pandit community, the local community in Sharda and the people of district Neelam in general.
In short, the Kashmiri Pandit community should take responsibility for renovation of Sharda Peeth and other significant religious places in the area while overall planning & development of the region should be done in consultation with all the stakeholders referenced above. The Pakistani State has much on its plate in its own territory and would do well to re-open the hundreds - if not thousands - of Mandirs and Gurdwaras there. Territorial expansionism cannot cut in this day and age.
Such a procedure would protect public interest and only then should Sharda be re-opened for the rest of the world. Be they Indian or Pakistani Hindus or anybody else in the world.
Over the past couple of months, I have spent most of my time in the Neelam Valley and interrogated public opinion extensively in order to come up with the above suggestion. We are now in the process of enlisting 10 members of civil society from throughout the Neelam Valley to promote, protect and liaise with the AJK government on the above proposed procedure.
Overview of current/ongoing work on Sharda:
As described already, there has been intense consultation with various stakeholders in Neelam Valley and other parts of AJK on Sharda's impending re-opening. This included vox populi of 5 women and 5 men (mainly various professionals in their field) followed by 16 prominent traders from Chelhana in the South of the district to Kel in the North.
2 questions were put to each person:
1) What is their understanding (of the importance) of Sharda?
2) What would be the effect on Neelam Valley of Sharda's re-opening?
All bar one interviewee had a very positive, if well-calculated approach. Off the record discussion with all other stakeholders (apart from the interviewees cited above) was also full of imagination and most of them thought that this would be an opportunity to decrease the stranglehold on this society by the Pakistani State.
What people can't say in public, I feel it my duty to translate into the public domain. The only way of synchronising these genuine sentiments is for 10 people of this district to make a public stand. I will take the necessary risk involved in promoting that stand on the ground.
My other discussions on the subject have been with politicians, the judiciary, bureaucracy and the AJK administration in general. Many of them suggested that I engage with Pakistan's agencies directly on the subject as they were all incapable of doing so. In response, I explained that I could only speak to them on the record and any off the record conversation would automatically be mired in ambiguity. I would be in no position to confirm or deny any possible allegation that may be levelled against me. In any case, I don't consider them to be a legitimate stakeholder in this territory and hence the impression arising from such a meeting would indicate that I do.
The indirect response I received from Pakistan's deep State was that any possible meeting would have to be off the record. Now, that is not possible for the aforementioned reasons.
In the meantime, while continuing consultation with the public on the 10 possible nominations for protecting public interest - we visited Narda Lake at c. 15 to 17,000 feet above sea level - which blends and compliments Sharda in many respects. I've also been thinking - on a visceral level - over the past few months to spend a night at Sharda Peeth, within the confines of the Mandir. To clean it, put up a fresh portrait of Sharda Devi and get the notice for people to take off their shoes when entering the sanctum, to be put up again. It was visible on Ramesh Kumar's visit but promptly taken down again soon after.
In this respect, I decided to approach the Pakistani army's brigadier who sits in Kel, to inform him of my intention. Earlier, on the 20th (of July) I had spoken to the army stationed at the Peeth, who had suggested that I meet the brigadier in this regard. He wasn't available but I was met by a Major Noman. Here's a video overview of our discussion on the 25th (of July) at Kel:
Alas, nothing transpired from this discussion despite the assurances given and I then proceeded to Sharda army camp on the 27th to try and meet the sitting colonel in this regard. However, I was informed that he was absent too (despite information to the contrary obtained from locals) and a young casually-clothed man came to meet me, who would neither give me his name, rank or even where he originated from. He said he had been given the duty of entertaining me and despite being tight lipped he was adamant that the Pakistani army only dealt with security matters; that all other matters were dealt with by the AJK government and in particular its 'Department of Tourism & Archeology'.
I did try to explain to him that the AJK government and all its sub entities look up to the Pakistani army and its agencies for direction on every matter of any public significance. Indeed, they wouldn't dare do otherwise. I think that comment fell on deaf ears and so the charade over who actually controls AJK continues....notwithstanding the heavy use of the word Azad (free) when describing this territory.
In any case, I did in turn speak to AC (Assistant Commissioner) Sharda whom I've known from his previous placement as AC in Dadyaal. He suggested that I contact the DG (Director General) of the Department of Tourism & Archeology and ask him to send a notification of permission for me to stay at the Mandir. I duly contacted him and some other related citizens who are in a position to impress upon the DG but I have received no such notification yet.
n.b. most of the above was updated on the 2nd of August - Day 214 of 2018)
While I was writing the above......(I had barely written a couple of paragraphs when.....
We're just hearing some earth shattering sounds in Sharda. They sound like heavy mortar shells and a couple have flown over Sharda bazaar and landed on a peak beyond. One has landed near Sharda Peeth I am informed.
Half an hour later, the sounds are still intermittent but have become more distant. We had learned of such shelling in Athmaqam about an hour before. Some shells have also fell in Tejian and burnt some homes, a few kilometres South of Sharda.
Here is some audio footage of events as they happened in Sharda, from the first shell to the last:
Meanwhile, it is now becoming clear that a series of mortar shells have hit Sharda village where at least a couple of children are injured. One shell fell in the Kishenganga river, at least 3 hit the village and 2 flew beyond the main bazaar (and over me!) and fell on an adjoining peak.
Shelling remains intermittent but its frequency as well as intensity has decreased.
The overall picture of what's happening throughout this sector will become clearer gradually but here's an insight from the other side:
#BREAKING: Heavy firing underway between India and Pakistan over last few hours in Tangdhar sector of Kupwara in North Kashmir. One Indian Army jawan martyred. Two civilians injured. 3 Pakistan Army soldiers killed in retaliatory action. Casualties could increase on Pak side. pic.twitter.com/pWyNmvhyYQ— Aditya Raj Kaul (@AdityaRajKaul) July 30, 2019
I hope for the sake of peace, this madness on either side can stop forthwith. It's not charming to be in a conflict zone.
A plea for peace was made by Shri Ravinder Pandita, vanguard of Save Sharda Committee and based in Delhi, in response to my tweet:
Already written to highest authorities. May Sharda usher in peace. Sad incidents on both sides of LoC. Innocents getting killed. Condemnable. pic.twitter.com/aDAdqUY5AL— Ravinder Pandita (@panditaAPMCC63) July 30, 2019
The villages of Naukaut, Channian, Kaiserkot and others in the vicinity have been under heavy fire from what are described as heavy machine guns from the Indian-controlled side.
News is filtering through of cross LOC firing as far down South as Bhimber and Nowshehra (on the Indian-controlled side).....this is looking grim.
We can confirm that c. 18 year old Noman s/o Matiullah has succumbed to his injuries. He was in the village near Sharda Peeth. He had been hit directly on his forehead by a shell while working on the construction of his sister's house in Sharda village. Meanwhile, 5 others are reported to be injured too. It should be noted that there isn't much in terms of even first aid medical relief in Sharda. The injured have to either go North to Kel (c.20 kms) or South to Athmaqam (c.60 kms) or even further South to Muzaffarabad (c.140 kms). They may even have to travel yet further to Pakistan's capital city, a further 140 or so kilometres away.
While I'm catching up on news from elsewhere and updating myself on what's happened in Sharda, I notice various people coming to the hotel balcony where I'm sitting (by the river Kishenganga and overlooking Sharda village where the Peeth is) and some of them ask me for ID. I duly lay out my State Domicile certificate for all subsequent inquiries. I do notice that there is some suspicion over my use of a laptop and phones while shells are intermittently flying in many directions.
After a few such inquiries, another agency operative arrives whom I know to be a local and who likewise is familiar with my work. He puts everybody else at ease and urges me to continue whatever I am doing.
However by 5pm local police arrive and quietly inform me that top level Pakistani army operatives have been infuriated by the upload of my video (on facebook) and for my safety I should accompany them to Sharda police station. They carefully and politely escort me whilst ensuring that all my equipment is safe.
At the police station they take a statement from me, log a record of my equipment, then put it away in their depository before asking me to relax in their own living quarters.
Later in the evening a local gentleman who described himself as Syed Nasir Shah and said that he represents Pakistan's intelligence agency(ies) begins asking me silly, inane and intrusive questions; like how many wives and how many brothers and sisters do I have, in the presence of local police officers. I decline to answer any of his needless questions and ask him to tell his superiors to come and put these questions to me themselves, if they can be so bold.
He excuses himself, apologises that he is merely following orders and explains that he has no alternative livelihood and thus.....
Nobody representing Pakistan's army or agencies came and I spent the rest of the evening and night catching up on much needed rest. News of what had happened elsewhere was filtering through in conversations between local police.
A splinter of a shell had also fallen in the courtyard of the police station, not many hours ago.
As accumulated before in my travels and multiple experiences hitherto, I am reminded that Pakistan's roving agencies stick their head into every conceivable matter that arises in the police station. From family disputes to arguments over the awarding of road contracts. This is all on top of their illegal role as protectors of Pakistan's national interest in AJK and GB.
Even a lowly agency operative can prove to have a heavier presence in the territory than a district's superintendent of police (SP).
We also learn that the Pakistani media has paid scant attention to the plight of cross LOC firing in Neelam Valley or elsewhere in AJK. This also cements a popular yet less publicly expressed view that AJK (and GB) do not feature prominently in the minds of Pakistani society or polity and this is reflected by their media coverage.
Judging from the Pakistani army's reaction to my video, they also do not want us to show the world what we go through. They want us to suffer in silence as if we had made a formal application to or prayed for Indian shelling/firing on us. The latter maybe intermittent but Pakistan's suppression is constant, suffocating and overbearing. Trying to control the flow of information is not only a violation of human rights, it is a desperate attempt to control the public narrative. That is not our neighbour's prerogative.
The Pakistani army's presence in AJK is by no means a deterrent for Indian army shelling/firing. What they describe as 'security' is in fact their ruse for profiting from a conflict economy, at the expense of us as well as the citizens of Pakistan at large. In their absence, there would be no security issue. Indeed, they are the security issue. If they were not here, there would be no need for the Indians to shell this territory. Any fight or conflict needs two to tango. Take one away and the perceived rationale for conflict evaporates.
If you begin counting the amount of Indian and Pakistani army casualties and then compare their numbers to the amount of civilians that innocently die in such encounters; you will realise how offensive it is for the Pakistani army to act like owners of this territory.
This is slavery at its most acute level. In short, I am incensed at the Pakistani State's repeated interference in our pursuit for self-determination, which would inevitably involve their military withdrawal.
Meanwhile, I have to take into account that our people (including the AJK government and all its sub entities) have to pretend to be obsequious (servile) in front of the Pakistani State to survive or prosper.
I wish to borrow the following phrase to emphasise my point:
"I expose slavery in this country, because to expose it is to kill it. Slavery is one of those monsters of darkness to whom the light of truth is death."
Just to remind you of the internal narrative when such conflict arises:
.......pakistan army killed a 12yo boy at Shahpur sector of Poonch— #SaveRiverSaveMuzaffarabad (@khawajaatteeq) July 30, 2019
indian army killed 17yo boy at Katha Chugali along with a 25 yo man in #NeelumValley
The only thing common in it is "#Kashmiris are getting killed" on both sides of the Ceasefire line also called #LoC"#AJK#Kashmir
Now, what happened on this day? How many of our citizens were killed by the Pakistani army? Did anybody ever write a comprehensive report?
These are all questions that remain unanswered:
https://t.co/lUflFBG42u— JKLF 4 Jammu-Kashmir (@JKLF_Kashmir) July 30, 2019
Occupied #Muzaffarabad today #JKLF cadres at #Chakoti martyrs graveyard .... tributes paid to 11 Feb '92 martyrs ... Rang laiayga shaheedoo'n ka lahooo pic.twitter.com/DMvTgkBspp
Having said that, remembering this day is important.
Something could be learned or at least put into perspective from the following video:
............The new political story that could change everything (George Monbiot | TEDSummit 2019) https://t.co/Qlt8erzkIF via @TEDTalks— Tanveer Ahmed (@sahaafi) July 29, 2019