Humanism at LoC: Happymon Jacob on his book on visiting both sides of Indo-Pak border

The academic and JNU professor writes about travelling with the Indian and Pakistani armies on both sides of the Line of Control (LoC).
Humanism at LoC: Happymon Jacob on his book on visiting both sides of Indo-Pak border
Humanism at LoC: Happymon Jacob on his book on visiting both sides of Indo-Pak border
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It was not easy, not a single step of it. From the moment Happymon Jacob, an academic and JNU professor, decided to visit the Pakistani side of the Line of Control (LoC) a year after going to the Indian side, he must have had several dozen anxiety attacks. When everything finally came together in December 2017, Happymon was still nervous. He didn’t know what awaited him on the Pakistani side of the LoC. But months later, he’d write:

While the Indian nationalist screams seek to paint Pakistan as the enemy, bilateral cooperation takes on a different hue at the Wagah-Attari border – where good nature passes seamlessly from one side to the other.

That’s from page 16 of his book, The Line of Control: Travelling with the Indian and Pakistan Armies, one of the two books he wrote after coming back, on the India-Pakistan conflict.

Happymon’s intention, as he would mention several times in the book and possibly did through many interviews before he got his visa, was purely intellectual – to write about the causes and consequences of Ceasefire Violations (CFV). But it was not a common request and could not be entertained without the many, many procedures put in place to ensure he would cause no trouble. “While I waited for the invites to come, the itinerary to be firmed up and travel arrangements to be made, the overwhelming feeling was anticipation: anticipation and worry about the journey not happening at all,” Happymon writes in an email interview, months after the book was launched, at the end of 2018.

Once everything was in place, fear struck. “What if something were to go wrong? What if there was some accident or fire exchange or something like that? But what bothered me even more, to be frank, was the prevailing toxic political climate at that point,” he says.

His instincts would prove right a year later. Two months after the book came out, on February 14, the Pulwama attack happened. Happymon says that the other book he wrote along with The Line of Control, his academic work – Line on Fire: Ceasefire Violations and India–Pakistan Escalation Dynamics – “would help readers to put the post-Pulwama India-Pakistan tensions in proper perspective.” It discusses in detail why ceasefire violations take place and what happens when the two sides are in a conflict.

Happymon doesn’t just write academic books and personal accounts of visiting Pakistan. He also writes a regular column for The Hindu, not mincing his words when he has to write on the much sensitive topic of India and Pakistan, and daringly so at a time when anything that humanises the neighbouring country is seen as treason.

Besides being an intellectual pilgrimage, travelling with the men in uniform along the site of one of the most treacherous theatres of conflict in the world also turned out to be a lesson in humanism, one that touched me deeply and personally.

That’s from the prologue of The Line of Control.

It didn’t make it easier for him that he is a JNU professor. At the time he took his trip, the Kanhaiya Kumar incident was already a year-and-a-half old, but JNU had become synonymous with the phrase ‘anti-national’ – a term right-wingers used – and still do – to brand anyone disagreeing with the government.

“My university, JNU, was the Indian right-wing’s bête noire and at the centre of a hyper-nationalist storm and I was hardly subtle in my criticism of the right-wing dispensation in New Delhi. So I guess I had reason to be concerned about a potential political backlash in the wake of my visit. I was particularly concerned about the potential ‘anti-national’ spin by the hyper-nationalist media,” Happymon writes in his email.

But he adds, “In retrospect, however, I must say that my books, and my insights after the journey, were deeply appreciated both in India and Pakistan, by those in the government and outside.”

You can see some of these words of praise on the cover of his book, coming from the likes of Omar Abdullah, former J&K Chief Minister, Asad Durani, Chief of the ISI, Pakistan Army, and retired Lt General Syed Ata Hasnain of the Indian Army.

With the kind of work he does and the many India-Pakistan track-II dialogues he attends, Happymon appears to know many in the army from both the countries and has visited Pakistan several times before. But that didn’t stop the checks, the monitoring, and what he thought at the time were strange pranks being played on him in the “enemy country.” At 1 in the night, Happymon would get a call from an anonymous person who would hang up soon after he said hello. He’d later figure out this could be the army making sure he didn’t venture out on his own and land in trouble.

But he didn’t mind any of it, he could see perspective. And he calls himself an adventurous man – would he have taken such a risk if he wasn’t? “My best moment was also the most thrilling moment,” Happymon says.

“I was travelling in a Pakistan army jeep in the Battal sector close to the LoC. Brigadier Noor of the Pakistan army was taking me to the India-Pakistan trading point not too far from there. The Brigadier had left behind his official vehicle and was traveling in an unmarked one. He confessed to me that this was not the safest place to be travelling given that it was a known ‘hot’ area (meaning CFVs could break out anytime) and the Indian side was perched in a geographically advantageous position. We had to travel right under the Indian posts and in the gun sight of the Indian soldiers perched atop the hills. It was a nerve-wracking experience, at least to me, and at the same time gave me an unforgettable adrenaline rush.”

At one point, he wonders about getting shot in Pakistan by the Indian army. And ironically being, in fact, protected by the Pakistani army from getting attacked by his home country. “It will be a pity if you were to be shot by your country’s army,” Happymon quotes Noor as saying in the book, half-seriously.

You can spot many of these light-hearted moments in Happymon’s book, but he doesn’t lead you on to think everything is “adventurous” about visiting the LoC, forget living near it. In what he describes as the worst moment of his journey, Happymon says, “In the Dharmsal village on the Pakistani side, I met several CFV survivors. One young boy named Usman came up to show me the bullet wound in his neck – he was injured during a standoff in June that year, a few months before I visited his village. While Usman was explaining to me in detail how he got shot, his teenaged friends started making fun of him for making ‘a big deal’ for getting shot. Getting shot is apparently not a big deal in that village, I reasoned. The poor boy couldn’t even feel emotional about being on the verge of death and back.”

It is these humanisations that make it important that we read the book. When some of the many angry retorts came, post Pulwama, not just towards Pakistan but towards Kashmiri students living across India, it seemed that this little fact was forgotten.

The two countries, Happymon says, are similar in many ways, especially the north of India and Pakistan – the language, the cuisine, the culture, etc. “In both the Indian and Pakistani Punjabs, people are friendly, warm and hospitable. As a matter of fact, if you walk across the Wagah-Attari border, you would be struck by the seamlessness of life across the international border.”

The differences come in ways you don’t expect it to, in generations passing away, to be replaced by newer younger people who don’t have a history to connect to the country with. “The older the two countries become, the less they know about each other.”

Perhaps that’s another reason that modern-day nationalism has reached new heights. “Humans and human communities have killed each other for millennia, but mainly for survival. The ruling elites killed for their own power-seeking purposes, but the masses were never really a part of this project. The arrival of modern nationalism has changed that in a fundamental manner.

“Today, war is as much a project of the ruling classes as it is of the masses. In fact, governments have to often wage wars to satisfy popular demands for it. When war is socialised and normalised, it becomes part of the normal social practice to deal with your ‘enemy’ differently, with rules and norms that are different from what is applicable in one’s own country. In this view of war and the enemy, killing someone you have never met or have no particular ill-will towards is normal,” Happymon voices a scary idea.

From one of the last pages of the book:

Violent death and grave injuries aren’t the only tragedies one witnesses in these treacherous borderlands: ordinary villagers get caught in the middle of competing nationalisms and bear the costs of national catharsis. They are the sacrificial lambs of our respective national pride and prejudices.

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