| A soldier on poll duty in Baramulla. (AFP)
Salambad (Uri), Sept. 15: When Mohammed Shafi Uri, sixth-time National Conference candidate from Uri and state education minister, gathered his workers around him at the inspection bungalow this morning, the “crack crack” of firing echoed from the Valley through which the Jhelum flows.
Shafi saab was unperturbed as was his audience. The unit of the army in the camp across the highway was practising on man-size targets and it was just another day. “We have learnt to distinguish between the crack of a rifle and the boom of a shell,” explained Mushtaq, his nephew.
The Line of Control is all around save in the east, where the road to Srinagar winds away through Baramulla. On either side of the Jhelum, the peaks that overlook are Rustam and Chinar, also Indian Army posts. Between them, in the cusp, where the road takes a U-turn is the town of Uri. The river flows into Muzaffarabad and so does the road running alongside it after it crosses the Red Bridge.
“Half the bridge is India’s and the other half, Pakistan’s,” said Mushtaq. None of the armies actually man the bridge. They just watch it, 24 hours for all 365 days.
And a stone’s throw away is Lyalpur, home to Shaheena, a first-time voter, all of 18-years, plucked eyebrows and a dimpled smile. An Anganwadi worker,today she was paid Rs 700 for six months’ work and was engaged to a BSF soldier last week. “Certainly not the NC this time. The candidate shows himself just once in 6 years,” she said.
Shafi won with a margin of about 11,000 votes in 1996. There are nearly 63,000 voters in his constituency and it is only his campaign that shows some organisation.
About 2,000 Hindus stay in two of the 95 villages here. The area is practically run by the army, given its strategic locale.
The National Conference candidate is engaged in a triangular contest with Congress’ Taj Mohiuddeen and BJP’s Mohammad Akbar Lone. The last is a write-off.
“I can only talk about the shelling really, and not about the politics,” apologises Shaheena. “Come with me and I’ll show you Pakistan.” From where we are, you can see the heights that are in PoK. This is where the Indian Army made a deep incursion in the 1965 war, capturing Haji Pir Pass. It was returned under the Tashkent Accord by Lal Bahadur Shastri.
An officer in the brigade stationed here said Pakistan does hold the dominating heights in the sector, affording artillery observers vantage positions. Elections here are really a matter of geopolitics, not politics.
“Last time, there was a 71 per cent turnout,” says Mushtaq.
In Salambad, about 8 km short of the LoC, last week two houses were destroyed in shelling from the Pakistani side, Tariq Aslam said. “We go into shelters built by the government as soon as it starts.” Tariq is the son of Mohammad Aslam, the NC member of legislative council. Salambad is an NC bastion, but when Tariq is not talking to the press, as if addressing an audience, Rashid Alam remarks in an aside that “the border and the Valley don’t think alike”.
On the road that passes through to Muzaffarabad in PoK, two small convoys speed by. One with the red NC flag with the plough symbol in white, the next with the Congress tricolour with the hand at the centre. Salambad has 250 households and about 1,250 voters.
On the way back to Uri, Mushtaq pointed to Garkote- from where he and Mohammad Shafi hail and to Nambla. Pakistani shells land there while correcting the trajectory to the Rustam Post. By the time they get near vicinity, he said, the Indian side opens up.
Along the riverbed, there are 105 mm field guns pointing south, 155 mm Bofors guns pointing north, where the LoC is further away.
The Jhelum flows under a bridge where India stops, Pakistan begins. Kashmir continues, leaving in its wake Shafi saab and his band of 70 workers, Shaheena, the Anganwadi worker with plucked eyebrows and battles over ballots in a war over territory.