SRINAGAR, INDIA/ CHAKOTHI, PAKISTAN – Police in Indian Kashmir have warned residents to build underground bunkers to prepare for a possible nuclear war in the disputed region, which is on edge after a string of deadly border clashes.
The warning comes despite a ceasefire that took hold last week in the scenic Himalayan region, after the Indian and Pakistani armies agreed to halt cross-border firing that had threatened to unravel a fragile peace process.
“If the blast wave does not arrive within five seconds of the flash you were far enough from the ground zero,” says the notice, headed “Protection against Nuclear, Biological and Chemical (NBC) Weapons.” It warns of “initial disorientation” from a nuclear attack, saying the blast may “carry away many prominent and familiar features.”
The instructions were issued Monday in the local English-language Greater Kashmir newspaper by the State Disaster Response Force, a division of the police. They vividly describe a nuclear war scenario to prepare residents to deal with “the initial shock wave.” The notice tells them to “wait for the winds to die down and debris to stop falling.”
“Blast wind will generally end in one or two minutes after burst and burns, cuts and bruises are no different than conventional injuries. (The) dazzle is temporary and vision should return in few seconds,” it says.
It instructs residents to build toilet-equipped basement shelters “where the whole family can stay for a fortnight,” and says that they should be stocked with nonperishable food.
Nuclear-armed India and Pakistan have fought three wars since their partition in 1947, two of them over the Muslim-dominated Kashmir region, which both nations lay claim to in its entirety.
Police confirmed they issued the notice but said it “should not be connected with anything else,” in an apparent reference to the recent border tensions. Mubarak Ganai, the Kashmir police department’s deputy inspector general of civil defense, claimed the notice is part of regular year-round civil defense preparedness.
But an Indian counterterrorism expert criticized the warning as worthless for Kashmir residents, who could be forgiven for imagining war was an imminent prospect.
“There can be no conceivable motive for issuing a notice like this,” said Ajay Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi. “Such information collected from here and there is not worth the paper it is printed on,” he said, adding that “there can be no preparedness for such an eventuality.”
There has been calm along the de facto border in Kashmir since commanders on the two sides agreed last Thursday to halt cross-border firing. Pakistan says three of its soldiers died in the clashes while India says it lost two of its soldiers — marking the worst violence in the frontier area dividing the region since the two nations nearly went to war in 2003.
Meanwhile, villagers in the Pakistani-controlled part of Kashmir are building bunkers as they brace for more clashes along the fragile Line of Control that divides the two nations. Multilayered barbed wire fences separate the two sides, and Indian and Pakistani troops man guard towers, eyeing each other’s territory. There has been low-level shooting and shelling across the 750-km line since a ceasefire was signed in 2003.
Civilians and livestock have died in the skirmishes, but now soldiers are being killed and many people in Chakothi, a village of 5,000, worry that simmering tension could boil over.
“We are perplexed and scared about recent incidents of shooting on the Line of Control,” said Muhammed Shabbir, a shopkeeper in Chakothi who is building a bunker near his house in the village, surrounded by snow-capped peaks, just 500 meters from the front line.
Some villagers built bunkers a decade ago during heavy violence in the area, but many were destroyed in a 7.6-magnitude earthquake that struck in 2005. Worried about the recent clashes, some villagers are trying to rebuild the shelters.
“We are not certain about our future after these shootings,” said Shabbir, whose wife was killed by shelling in May 2003, about six months before the ceasefire came into effect.
He added that many residents who used to freely graze their livestock near the Line of Control are now avoiding the area. Since 2005, both countries have let local residents cross the line to visit relatives. But Shabbir said that last Monday — the travel day for local residents — none of the villagers from the Pakistani side traveled to the Indian-held side because they were worried about escalating tensions.
On Jan. 6, Pakistan accused Indian forces of crossing the Line of Control and killing a Pakistani soldier while wounding another in a raid. Two days later, India claimed Pakistani troops had crossed into Indian territory and killed two of its soldiers, one of whom was beheaded.
Then, on Jan. 10, Pakistan claimed Indian troops fired across the border, killing another Pakistani soldier.
Political rhetoric from both capitals also intensified during the recent round of hostilities. Pakistan’s foreign minister accused India of “warmongering,” while the chief of India’s army urged his troops to be “aggressive and offensive” when dealing with gunfire from Pakistani forces.
In the latest verbal barrage, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced Sunday that New Delhi was reviewing its future ties with Islamabad in light of the “inhuman killing” of two of his country’s soldiers.
Villagers on the front line of Kashmir, a region that has always been the most contentious issue between the two countries, are wondering whether Indian and Pakistani leaders can overcome this latest flare-up.
“Only one or two incidents of firing along the Line of Control are enough to ruin relations between Pakistan and India, and it is worrying us because we are the ones who would suffer,” said Tahir Mehmood, a 28-year-old shopkeeper in Chakothi.
About 30 people from at least seven villages in Indian-held Kashmir met last Monday with government officials in the town of Uri, demanding that the government build bunkers in their communities to protect them from shelling. Almost every one of the villagers remembers what it was like before the 2003 ceasefire.
“I was born and raised amid firing and shelling,” said 28-year-old Nadeem Abbassi, speaking by telephone from his village of Gwalta. “We don’t want to live like before. Honestly, we don’t have any energy left in us to face such a situation again.”
Many people expressed frustration that the deaths of the Indian soldiers had sparked a loud response whereas there has previously been little public outcry when civilians have died on both sides.
“There is so much warmongering and hue and cry over the soldiers’ killings,” said Farid Ahmed, a businessman from the village of Charunda in Indian-held Kashmir.
“In our village, three people, including a woman, were killed in shelling. But we’re lesser mortals and nobody utters a word when we’re killed.”