GAZING ACROSS THE DIVIDE

Rita Payne views two films which give a voice to ordinary people separated from their loved ones for decades by the Line of Control

As India and Pakistan mark the 70th year of Partition, it is easy to forget that people in one region – divided Jammu and Kashmir – are still living with the daily pain of separation from their families. Parents are unable to see their children; brothers and sisters have grown up hoping, but not knowing, if they will ever meet again.

The anguish of divided families was graphically portrayed in two films, screened recently at the Frontline Club in London, which address the impact of the bitter conflict on the lives of communities on each side of the Line of Control. Both viewable on YouTube, they also highlight the importance of connections across the divide, including trade, tourism and disaster management.

A Journey Through River Vitasta is the first documentary film to be shot on both sides of the Line of Control (LoC). It was a remarkable achievement, since the journalists who produced it, Mohammed Arif Urfi, from the Pakistani side of Kashmir, and Pawan Bali, from the Indian side, did not meet at all during the filming. They relied instead on email and Skype. It was not until jointly editing the film in Dubai that they were finally able to meet in person.

Their aim is to bring a human dimension to the conflict, which at the time of the division in 1947 and through subsequent wars and troubles, displaced more than 1.5 million people in Kashmir.

River Vitasta vividly portrays the stories of people caught in the conflict, and separated from their families by the LoC. They movingly express their sense of loss, and yearning to be reunited with their loved ones. One of the most striking sequences shows people throwing notes wrapped around stones across the river which forms the dividing line to family members on the other side.

As Bali points out, people participating in the documentary did not wish to talk about the reasons for the divide, but rather to focus on its effects. The film gets its message across more effectively because it avoids political point-scoring. Instead we hear ordinary people whose lives are being torn apart while politicians tussle over their fate.

Recently there has been some relaxation, allowing travel and trade across the LoC. This has helped Kashmiris to reconnect after decades apart. The film shows how eagerly they have seized this opportunity, but warns that the situation remains fragile, with the easing subject to the tensions that plague Indo-Pakistani relations.

Filming a scene from A Journey Through River Vitasta
Filming a scene from A Journey Through River Vitasta

Another source of suffering in Kashmir is natural disasters. Over the past 40 years South Asia has experienced more than 1,300 disasters, such as earthquakes and floods, and these have been particularly severe in the region of Kashmir. Very little is being done, however, to co-ordinate the work of preparing for, and responding to, these events across the LoC.

This point is made in another film by Mohammed Arif Urfi, Disaster: The Common Enemy, which focuses on the importance of working across the divide to improve disaster management, although Urfi says the principal topic is collaboration rather than the techniques of dealing with natural calamities. ‘We want to make the governments and people aware of the issues and prevent social unrest,’ he insists. ‘You cannot separate what happens in one part of Kashmir from the other. We need communication between people living up- and downstream.’

As well as making disaster management more effective, and therefore potentially saving thousands of lives, a shared response could help build confidence between different groups and support long-term peacebuilding efforts in Kashmir.

The films have been supported by Conciliation Resources, an independent international organisation working with people in conflict to prevent violence, resolve conflicts and promote peaceful societies. The organisation’s South Asia Programme has worked with Kashmiris on both sides of the LoC for the past nine years. Conciliation Resources believes peace-building works on two levels: while inclusive Kashmiri participation is essential for the resolution of the Kashmir conflict, so is productive engagement between Delhi and Islamabad.

Recently there has been some relaxation, allowing travel and trade across the LoC

At the Frontline Club the filmmakers described the enormous challenges they encountered in filming on each side of the heavily militarised Line of Control. Internet connections were very patchy, said Bali. She had arranged to meet Urfi on the LoC, but he didn’t get permission, and they were unable to use mobile phones.

‘We were trying to see what we could build on without challenging the political position,’ Bali added. Expanding processes like trade could not resolve the situation, but would help to make things easier. Urfi pointed out that the water system affects the lives of people on both sides of the LoC, a situation likely to become more critical with climate change, but India and Pakistan exchange information on water levels by telegram. ‘We should talk about these sensitive issues,’ said the Pakistani film-maker.

However, people do not feel empowered enough to voice their opinions or become part of the bigger process. Improving the economy can make conditions better. People want to cross the LoC to visit shrines, families and for trade. Simple measures like the LoC bus service or cross LoC trade makes life easier for them without changing the political narrative, and these should be supported and developed so that more people can benefit from them.

As the filmmakers underlined, there is no enmity between people on both sides of Kashmir, but there is a need for political will to end the suffering of the victims of the long-running conflict. The power lies with political leaders in India and Pakistan to heed these calls and end the suffering of ordinary Kashmiris.


Rita Payne, born in Assam, India, is President Emeritus of the Commonwealth Journalists Association, and former Asia Editor, BBC World News (TV)

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