It was just 7:10 pm. As our taxi negotiated the sharp bends on the Rajouri-Poonch road near Pattrian, our local guide Nazir commented: “Had you come in 2006, you would be courting death travelling on this road at this time… Nothing used to move here after 5 in the evening. Except militants."
The times are changing. There are roadblocks, but no soldiers manning them. In fact, soldiers appear relaxed, roaming outside camp without weapons.
There’s steady traffic on the road now. Headlights light up signboards that spell out the cardinal rule of moving through militancy-affected areas: Headlights off, cabin lights on. A rule not followed anymore, or enforced.
There’s no hurry to switch on the lights at the fencing. No one even bothered to question us when we stopped ahead of Pattrian, waiting for the lights to be put on. We finally asked Ghulam Mohammad who runs a roadside dhaba. Pat came the reply: “There are no fixed timings. Sometimes it’s 7 pm or 7:30 pm. The lights are not switched on daily. Maybe once in a week or 10 days."
As a dog howls somewhere and jackals appear on the roadside, the jungle night is certainly scary. But unlike earlier times, there’s no apparent fear of the militant here.
At Manjakote, 10 km short of Pattrian, Mukesh Suri, who fled his home and shop three years ago, has come back. His business is good. “Times have changed. The militants are not seen.”
Mohd Salim Khan, a retired panchayat official, put it like this: “Manjakote had become deserted. People had fled, as militants came and killed with impunity. But the days of fear are gone. These are happy times. Now, you see, life is back."
Life has turned a full circle for the villages and townships nestled between LoC and the hinterland. "After ceasefire everything is normal", said Balbir Singh of Jhangar, where the local gurdwara is getting a facelift. It’s not that militants have disappeared. But they are now confined to the upper reaches of Budhal, bordering Mahore in Udhampur district.
Around 150 or 200 Lashkar militants are reportedly waiting to cross over. "This is not a huge number," acknowledges Army.
Then there are nearly 3,000 Kashmiri militants, mostly of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, who are keen to return from Pakistan-administered Kashmir. But they don’t wish to infiltrate. “They are no more in a fighting mode as the Hizb leadership has been neutralised,” says DGP Kuldip Khoda.
Once the strongest militant outfit in J&K, Hizb can now neither find recruits nor do those from across the LoC want to come and fight.