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It is a bold experiment, and the effects have been dramatic. Every little problem is getting a compassionate response from men trained to kill.

Take a four-wheel-drive car from Leh, and head out into the most stunning landscape on earth. Climb up to Khardung-La, the world's highest motorable road at 18,380 feet, and descend into the Nubra Valley. Drive on through the planet's highest desert over which loom the ferocious crags of the Ladakh range, like the paws of a monstrous feline beast.Follow the Shyoke river through desolate rocky flatlands where nothing has ever lived, down into Diskit's sand dunes, rolling 12,000 feet above sea level. Past the brigade headquarters at Partappur, with the Siachen glacier somewhere high up there on the right, over the Chalunka bridge, where the Shyoke is in spate, and on a barren piece of land that has turned into an island, a horse walks around, starving to death. The river moves on into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to meet the Indus, but we halt a few km from the Line of Control. A mountain trail leads up from the asphalt road to Tyakshi village in the Turtuk sub-sector.

Over Tyakshi tower mountain peaks on which nest Pakistani gunposts, hiding under the skyline, watching us, and Indian gunposts watching the Pakistani gunposts. Haji Abdul Qadir is the local councillor on the Hill Council. The apricots from his trees are the sweetest we have ever had. The two old men who sit with him in the neat sitting room—and I can't for the life of me figure out which one is Haji Abdullah and which Haji Abdul Karim—tell me: "We are more totally Indian than you are, because we have lived in Pakistan, so we know how much better India is."

Yes, the five villages of Turtuk, Tyakshi, Thang, Pachathang and Chalunka were in PoK till the 1971 war. "Unfortunately, the army reached us on December 16," says Haji Abdul Qadir. "We wanted them to keep on going, but the ceasefire was signed that very day." Then came nearly three decades of mistrust. They were treated with suspicion; the onus was on them to prove that they were not Pakistani agents. After all, did not they have relatives in villages merely miles away in PoK? Weren't they all Muslims? No roads were built, not even a bridge over the Shyoke which swept away a dozen people every year. Then in June 1999, as Kargil escalated, 24 men from the area were caught with Pakistani arms. This seemed final proof of the traitorous nature of Turtuk denizens. Says Ghulam Hussain, sarpanch of Turtuk village: "The truth is that our men were working with the army throughout the Kargil war. Twelve of us carried a mortar down the mountain road from Tyakshi to Turtuk. Our women cooked food for the jawans fighting in the mountains. We will die but not go to Pakistan."

Is this all an act for the visitor from Delhi? No. I see young women thumbing lifts in army jeeps. I see children rushing up to soldiers and playing with them. Something dramatic has happened here, something has changed.

What has changed is the strategy of the army, the most visible and seemingly the only active agency of the Indian government on this frontier. A year ago, Lt Gen Arjun Ray took over as commander of the Leh-based 14 Corps. And he had an idea. That if you won the hearts of the people on the border, Pakistan-backed militancy would never manage to get even a toehold. Of this idea was born the army's Sadbhavna Project, focused on bringing development and dignity to the 109,500 people in the 190 villages close to the 265-km Ladakh-PoK border. In nine months, the army has set up 16 schools, five vocational training centres (vtcs), treated more than 49,000 patients through free medical-care schemes, including flying 48 people down to Chandigarh and Pune for treating complex disorders. It provides seed capital for projects like poultry farms, while insisting that at least 50 per cent of the project partners be women. The schools have a computer with customised software for every 15 children.The vtcs have eight computers per 25 girls. All this at an expense lower than what India spends on Siachen per day.

"When you face up to the enemy, you aim for both physical and moral domination," says Colonel Dilip Prasad, posted in Tyakshi. "We have physical domination over the Pakis, and we achieve moral domination every day that they sit up there and see the happiness of the people here." Says Haji Abdullah/ Abdul Karim proudly: "After Mr Advani visited us, he said in Parliament that Turtuk is one border area in Kashmir where he can walk without any security".

"National security comes from human security," Gen Ray runs through his theory. "Human security comes from human development. Which wins hearts. And human beings are creatures of the heart." All hearts in Turtuk currently belong to Ray. He is cheered by the people at every step. They come up to him with problems, petitions, pleas, and all get a patient hearing and a promise of redressal. But what happens after Ray retires next year? Will the Sadbhavna project carry on its good work? And even more importantly, can this be replicated in the Kashmir Valley? Isn't the situation there far more complex than in Ladakh, which has never had any significant militant activity? "It can be replicated, and it must," insists Ray. "You take an area, sanitise it, develop it, move on to the next area. Militancy is a matter of ideology. The best way to fight that ideology is through the heart." But isn't the question of Kashmir azadi also a matter more of the heart than of the mind? "That's conventional wisdom," retorts Ray. "It can be done. If our soldiers can fight for peace in Somalia and Sierra Leone, surely charity begins at home?"

The mother of one of the 24 men detained in Leh jail since June 1999 comes up, weeping. "They did not know what they were doing, they are innocent. Haven't they been punished enough?" I tell her that Gen Ray had told me that he was working on releasing them on bail. Before August 15. "And I shall rehabilitate each of them," he had promised.

Since Sadbhavna started, 80 men from the Turtuk area have joined the army and 32 the police. Among the new soldiers is the son of Ali Hassan, a retired Pakistani armyman. Hassan, 72, retired from the Karakoram Scouts in 1970 and came back home to Tyakshi, which was then in PoK. A year later, his village was in India! Ali Hassan's 30-year-old complaint—and his only conversation topic—is why Pakistan isn't paying him his pension: "Didn't I fight in 1965 against India? Okay, if Pakistan does not pay me, India should, someone should?" He has already harangued L.K. Advani about this when Advani visited the area a month ago, and the home minister has promised to take his case up with Pakistan. Meanwhile, the Indian army provides his family free rations, and his son Habibullah prepares to defend India.

In the kindergarten class in the Goodwill School at Tyakshi, tiny pink six-year-olds tell us about water, that it is wet, tasteless and odourless, that stones sink in it. Their teacher is Lalitha, one of the nine volunteers who have come from far-away Bangalore to work on the Sadbhavna Project. "Many of the children are so bright it's amazing," she says. Outside, in the school courtyard, another volunteer, Andy, strums his guitar while the children trill "I am tree.". Colonel Prasad catches hold of little Habibullah. He sings astonishingly well, first a Kumaoni song and then Kaho Na Pyar Hai.

Can all this goodwill last? Is Sadbhavna sustainable? For if the project loses steam, the people would see it as a betrayal, and the backlash could be dangerous."The idea is to make these people self-sufficient so they stand on their own feet," says Colonel J.S. Pama. "For example, we're building a bus stop near Turtuk. We provide the material, but we have made it clear that they have to provide the labour and maintain it." Charity alone cannot be the engine of growth. Charity has to necessarily begin the process, since these people have been neglected for so long, but it must be withdrawn gradually for full empowerment. The process is a tightrope walk, and there are already some irritating side-effects. Says a junior officer: "Even if we catch someone for theft now, they say we'll complain to General Ray."

But it is a bold experiment, and the effects have been dramatic. On the way back, near Chalunka, we find a Sadbhavna helicopter loading bales of hay. "There's a horse starving on a barren piece of land that the Shyoke in spate has turned into an island. We will air-drop this hay for it," explains the pilot. Every little problem is getting a compassionate response from men trained to kill.
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