With the harvest season a month away, farmers near the India-Pakistan border are praying the nuclear-armed neighbors end their skirmishes over the disputed state of Kashmir
without destroying their crops, their livelihoods, and their very lives. Last month, when fighter planes from both sides began hovering over Vijay Kumar's single-story mud house, his biggest concern was the Basmati rice crop on his two-acre plot in the Ranbir Singh Pura area of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. The 44-year-old said the sound of mortar shells has been commonplace since the end of February, rattling not only the earth but also his nerves. The two countries began launching air strikes on Feb. 26 after a suicide bombing in Kashmir that New Delhi blamed on militants it claimed Pakistan was harboring. Internal conflict and protests have reportedly broken out
in the Indian-administered side of the state since the federal government banned the Islamic organization, one of the region's largest and oldest. Pakistan said the following day it had shot down two Indian fighter jets and captured two pilots, with one being treated for wounds at a military hospital.
It responded by striking six targets in Kashmir. Officials from the two countries met on March 14, their first diplomatic contact since the conflict erupted, however the focus was reportedly restricted to the opening of a corridor and a new border crossing to allow Indian Sikhs to visit a shrine located in Pakistan. Meanwhile, farmers in Kashmir say the shelling has been incessant even though the aerial combat — the first of its kind in five decades — ended within days. Kumar was just 23 years old when India and Pakistan engaged in a mini war over the Kargil hills of Kashmir in 1999. He said mortar rounds fired from Pakistan destroyed his crops and radiated the soil, making the land barren for years. "What if it happens again?" he asked. "My family can move to a safer place but what will happen to our crops? A year's worth of hard work will go down the drain and we will be financially ruined." Talib Hussian, who cultivates his land just a short distance from the border, said if the conflict worsens he would have to vacate his land for several months at least. "The farming community bears the brunt of these hostilities," he added In Rajoori, another border town where the air was thick with the smell of gunpowder the day ucanews.com visited, farmer Kuldeep Raj said thousands of families have already fled. "Only the cattle are left, and maybe one person from each family to tend to their farms," he said. "I don't dare go into the fields as I feel my life is under constant threat." Torn between taking action to ensure their personal safety and losing the crops that put food on their table, he said, "we're abandoning our crops but if the shells hit, they will destroy years of hard work." Agriculture plays a prominent role in the economy of this Himalayan region, with around 70 percent of villagers directly or indirectly dependent on this for their livelihoods. Over 17,700 hectares, mostly paddy, were affected due to shelling last year, official records show. According to India's federal Ministry of Home Affairs, Pakistan violated the two sides' ceasefire compact three times more in 2018 than in 2017, when 971 cases were reported. In 2017, 31 people — 12 civilians and 19 security personnel — were killed and 151 injured. The latest standoff began after a Pakistan-based militant organization called Jaesh-e-Mohammad attacked an Indian army convoy in the southern part of Kashmir on Valentine's Day, killing at least 45 security personnel. Indian government figures show that since last month, Pakistan has targeted 80 villages in Kashmir, mostly close to the border. At least four civilians died in over 100 shooting incidents, according to the supplied figures. Ratan Lal, a border resident in the Sucheet Garg area of Jammu and Kashmir, said he lost his two buffaloes in 2016 when the two neighbors began firing rounds at one another. Lal said he was sleeping with his family when he heard loud bangs just outside his house. A mortar shell had exploded in his lawn, killing his cattle on the spot. "I am yet to receive any compensation from the government," he said. "It's always us farmers who pay the price for these hostilities. Those who are calling for a full-on war should come and visit our village, and spend a few nights living in these incredibly tense conditions." Ganshyam Sharma, president of the Border Kissan Welfare Union, which fights for the rights of local farmers, said thousands have been affected. "We're worried we won't have anything to eat if the conflict doesn't ease," he said. "We can't work and if the shells don't destroy our crops, the pests will." India has accused Pakistan of supporting the "struggle" to free Kashmir from Indian rule by aiding an Islamic insurgency — allegations Pakistan has consistently denied. The conflict dates back to 1947 when colonial rule ended and Britain decided to create two separate nations. Because of its location, Kashmir was given the option of joining either country. Maharaja Hari Singh chose India. After three wars and countless skirmishes over it, India controls slightly more of the region than Pakistan while China also holds a small share. Church officials have joined a chorus of voices calling to end the violence
in Kashmir and promoting dialogue as a means of fence mending. However, previous talks have failed to find a lasting solution, and recent efforts have been a non-starter because of the rigid pre-conditions established by both nations.
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