Ballots replace bullets in remote part of Pakistan-administered Kashmir

Cease-fire between India, Pakistan gives way to high decibel canvassing in remote Neelam Valley along world’s most dangerous border.

KAIL, Pakistan-administered Kashmir (AA) – Just a few months ago, this remote mountainous northern strip of Pakistan-administered Kashmir or Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) called Neelam Valley was blazing with bullets as Indian and Pakistani forces were exchanging fire.

Now the mountains as high as 17,000 feet along the 740 kilometers (460 miles) Line of Control (LoC), that divides Jammu and Kashmir into India and Pakistan are blurring and echoing with sounds of loudspeakers, as electioneering picks up in AJK to elect regional assembly on July 25.

A convoy of over two dozen jeeps and buses is making its way on a narrow and battered hilly road along the gushing waters of Neelam River also known as Kishanganga River.

Their destination is Kail — a small town of scenic Neelam Valley — just a few meters away from the highly militarized and world’s most dangerous border.

The 144 km (89 mi) long strip of Neelam Valley is bordered by the Kupwara and Bandipora districts of Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir on the southern side across the LoC.

In the picturesque valley perched in Harmukh mountains part of great Himalayas, around noon under clear skies, over 2,000 people have gathered in the sprawling sports ground of a government college in Kail to show support to their candidate, belonging to Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) of Prime Minister Imran Khan, which is taking part in the upcoming elections as a favorite.

Some youths have their faces painted in the party flag colors.

“Until a few months ago, it was hard to imagine about a public gathering here,” Zafar Ali, a participant, said while speaking to Anadolu Agency.

Just a few meters away, right in the middle of the bazaar, large-size banners of the candidates from the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) of the three-time Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) of the slain Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, are placed, indicating a tough contest between the three parties.

This rally took more than two hours to cover a 20 km (12 mi) distance from the Sharda town, to reach Kail due to sloppy terrain.

High decibel campaign

After every few miles, the convoy took breaks as cheering youths carrying party flags danced to drum-beating and chanted slogans.

“It is because of the cease-fire, we are sitting here without any fear,” Ali, a student of Kail College said while wiping out sweat from his forehead with a handkerchief.

“Otherwise, people would not even dare to assemble for a small wedding (until February) as no one knew when and where the shell would hit,” he said.

Over 3.2 million voters will elect a 53-member assembly for a five-year term. Out of 53 seats, 45 are general, while eight are reserved for women, technocrats, and religious scholars.

As many as 12 seats are reserved for those who have migrated from Indian-administered Jammu and Kashmir.

At one point, the convoy numbed into a smaller rally of another political party coming from the opposite side. It raised the temperatures, as both of them raised slogans with high pitches. But they passed each other peacefully.

The election euphoria has visibly taken over this famous tourist destination- a rare happening here- following the return of normalcy in the wake of a recent cease-fire agreement between India and Pakistan.

In February, the two militaries agreed to honor the 2003 cease-fire agreement along the LoC, followed by an exchange of letters between the two premiers, which was widely viewed as an outcome of backchannel diplomacy.

“Not only the Neelam Valley but all the districts along the LoC have been overtaken by the festivities of the election,” said Safeer Kyani, a jeep driver, who was part of the rally.

Some 16 out of 45 general seats fall in the districts located along the LoC, which, according to analysts, may play a decisive role in the formation of the next government.

“Elections activities in 2011 and 2016 were restricted due to fears of shelling from across the border,” Kyani said pointing to nearby trenches resulted due to shelling from across the LoC. The area was witnessing a daily dose of shelling and sniper attacks until February this year, killing hundreds of troops and civilians from both sides.

Banners and flags cover region

Unfazed by the hilly terrain and battered track, many youths sporting party flags zoom past motorbikes and jeeps risking their lives.

Shops and restaurants in the main bazaars of Kail and in Sharda town, which houses the ancient seat of learning like world-famous Taxila and Nalanda are decorated with party flags and banners.

Party songs are blaring at many shops, which have been converted into temporary election offices.

Even in small villages along the Neelam River, party flags are hoisted on the houses and shops, indicating their affiliations.

One of the world’s most militarized zones, Jammu and Kashmir have been a bone of contention between the two neighbors since they partitioned and got independence from British Empire in 1947. Since then, the two countries have fought three wars- two of them in Kashmir.

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