J&K border residents in the line of India-Pakistan cross-fire

Even though diplomatic tensions between India and Pakistan have eased, the deadly cross border shelling that erupted along the LoC and IB post Pulwama suicide bombing, continues intermittently.

BJP supporters light crackers as they celebrate reports of IAF air strikes  at the camp of  terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed across LoC in Pakistan’s Balakot, at Jantar Mantar on February 26, 2019 in New Delhi.
BJP supporters light crackers as they celebrate reports of IAF air strikes at the camp of terror group Jaish-e-Mohammed across LoC in Pakistan’s Balakot, at Jantar Mantar on February 26, 2019 in New Delhi.

Ashutosh Sharma

Far from the BJP’s celebratory posters and billboards that glorify guns, bullets, blood and war besides lauding the Prime Minister after “non-military preemptive airstrike” inside Pakistan’s Balakot, border residents of Jammu and Kashmir find themselves caught in the cross-fire between the Indian and Pakistani militaries.

In the wake of Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s offer for peace talks, the residents slam the ruling BJP for exploiting Balakot airstrike and border tensions for election campaign ahead of 2019 Lok Sabha elections.

Accusing the Central government of “deliberately creating a war like situation”, former MLA from Mendhar sector in Poonch district, which is bound by Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan on three sides, Javed Rana says: “District Poonch has been turned into a war zone. We had this inkling that Modi sahab would create such atmosphere just ahead of parliamentary elections.”

“The politics on the blood and bodies of soldiers and innocent people should be stopped immediately. In my area, people are getting injured and dying untimely deaths. People are deeply distressed. We want peace and condemn the atmosphere of terror created by the country’s leadership. Mogi government is giving a political colour to the cross-border shelling and subsequent deaths,” he says, stressing on peace talks with Pakistan. “Both the countries should resolve their disputes politically and not militarily.”

“If they think that airstrike was a success then they must accept Pakistan’s renewed offer for peace talks and cooperation for probe into Pulwama attack. But they don’t want peace at the border,” the National Conference leader remarks, and goes on to add: “First they exploited surgical strike and now airstrike. They are trying to saffroise our armed forces. But people understand that it is not the RSS or the BJP that has been fighting militants and protecting our borders. Its secular defence forces of our great country.”

Many others in the area echo similar views. Those who beat the drums of war seemingly don’t know Nasreen Kouser (11) and and Mahreen Kouser (5). Their home at the LoC in Poonch district was shelled in March last year. The mortar shelling killed five members of their family and left them wounded and orphaned. With no one to look after them at their bombed house in Balakote village, the elder sister lives in a madrassa and the younger has been adopted by a relative. After getting discharged from the hospital, both of them never went back to their bombed home.

However, it’s not an isolated case. For the government, border residents rue, the victims are nothing but statistics.

When India was celebrating the return of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman from Pakistan, three members of a family were killed and another critically injured in Pakistani shelling at Salotri village of the district.

Rubeena Kosar and her son Fazan (5) and nine-month-old daughter Shabnam were killed on the sport when a shell hit their roof and exploded inside their house. Rubeena’s husband Mohammad Yunis is struggling for life at GMC Hospital Jammu.

The previous day, a woman got killed and six others injured in shelling from across the border at Chhajla Patri village in Mendhar sector in a warlike situation, triggering panic migration from the area.

“I have raised this issue repeatedly inside the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly and outside: Those who get killed, their families mostly don’t even get the ex-gratia. The political parties only know how to make political capital out of the border conflict. Nobody is bothered about the residents,” he laments, adding that “Government must first focus on providing basic facilities to the border villages and then talk of war.”

Whenever the diplomatic tensions between India and Pakistan escalate, it’s the civilians living along the 734-km stretch on LoC and approximately the 190-km-long International Border (IB) in Jammu and Kashmir, who bear the direct brunt of truce violations.

In theory even though there is a 2003 cease fire agreement between two countries but it seems almost non existent on the ground. The truce agreement had allowed border residents to return to their homes from migrant camps. But after Mumbai terrorist attack that killed more than 160 people in 2008, the number of cease-fire violations began to increase.

A file picture of villagers  farming between Pakistan tower (L) and Indian BSF post along with the fence at International Border in Garkhal village, Pargwal  in Jammu sector.
A file picture of villagers farming between Pakistan tower (L) and Indian BSF post along with the fence at International Border in Garkhal village, Pargwal in Jammu sector.
Getty images

Jammu and Kashmir recorded 2,936 instances of ceasefire violations by Pakistan in 2018—the highest in the past 15 years with an average of eight cases daily—in which 61 people were killed and over 250 injured, the intensity of truce violations has further gone up this year after Pulwama suicide bombing.

Two times MP and former BJP minister in the state coalition government, Choudhary Lal Singh, who is now chairman of Dogra Swabhiman Sangthan, says: “The condition of border residents has dangerously deteriorated over the years. Take a tour of border area. You will come across many wounded and disabled persons with maimed and mutilated limbs. There are people who have bullets and splinters embedded in their bodies. Every year, the border residents migrate at least thrice from their villages to escape bullets and shells. One can’t imagine how much they suffer economically. The education of their children gets disrupted time and again.”

Citing an example of a family, he recalls, “Last year, they lost their pair of oxen which they would use to plough farms, to a shell explosion. This year, they lost a cow which would yield 12 litre milk every day... Neither the government nor anyone else provides financial assistance to such families. The administration asks Red Cross to provide relief to such victims. Everyone knows what pittance Red Cross provides, Rs 500 to 1000. What nonsense it is?”

During 2014 Lok Sabha elections, the ruling BJP had promised to provide 5-marla plots (around 272 sq ft) to each family of border residents in peace zones. But four years after coming to the power, the ruling party backtracked on its pledge, alleging that the security forces had not appreciated the idea.

Majority of the villages still don’t have bunkers promised by the successive governments. Even the existing bunkers, residents rue, are either filled with slush or are not usable.

Promising townships and flats for the border residents, Singh says that, “The previous governments couldn’t do anything for the border residents. If we come to the power with the support of border residents, we will rehabilitate all of them. They will live in the townships permanently. Their children will be able to study without interruptions. Women, children and elderly people will feel safe in the flats and enjoy all the basic facilities.”

Recently, Modi government approved the Jammu and Kashmir Reservation (Amendment) Ordinance, bringing persons residing along International Border (IB) at par with the persons living in areas adjoining the LoC.

“The reason for extending the quota to people living near the IB was that these citizens live a life nearly as disturbed as those who live in the vicinity of the LoC,” Union Minister Arun Jaitley told media, adding that “the Jammu and Kashmir Reservation Act, 2004, provided quotas only to those living near the LoC.”

Bharat Bhushan Sharma, the sarpanch of border village Bobiyan in Hiranagar, Kathua district, however, terms the government move as “too little, too late.”

“This decision has more to do with the BJP’s vote bank politics rather than providing real relief to the border residents who become the first victim of ceasefire violations,” Sharma maintains. Also vice president of Border Welfare Committee, he had observed a fast, demanding the reservation last year. “We had demanded ten percent reservation for the border residents living within 2 km from the IB and not six as approved by the government.”

However, under the existing rules LoC residents falling within 5 km from the zero line are entitled to reservation benefits. As per J&K Reservation Act 2004, residents of the areas adjoining LoC and Actual Line of Control (ALC) with Pakistan and China are provided reservation benefits to the extent of three percent each.

“IB residents have been included within the ambit of three percent reservation quota of ALC residents. It means we haven’t got even three percent,” he explains, concluding that “The amendment is a political symbolism and nothing else.”

Asserting that it’s the people who live within two km from the border who suffer the most, Sharma said, “These people, mostly farmers without land rights, have lost vast tracts of agricultural land to growing military infrastructure in the past few decades. Its mostly these people who are first line of defence at the border. They become the first victim of Pakistani shelling and bullets.”

Incidentally, the security forces set up the fence along the border following declaration of cease fire in 2003, many kms behind the zero line. Those farmers who live close to the fence have their farms across the fence, which they rarely cultivate due to border hostilities between the rival forces.

An Indian Army soldier closes the gates on the fence near the Line of Control separating India and Pakistan  in Barasingha area near Bhimber Gali in Poonch sector.
An Indian Army soldier closes the gates on the fence near the Line of Control separating India and Pakistan in Barasingha area near Bhimber Gali in Poonch sector.
Getty images 

“Farmers in at least 12 villages of Samba district and almost 20 villages in Kathua district have more than 20, 358 kanal agricultural land across the fence. Army doesn’t allow us to cultivate it. The government doesn’t pay us any financial compensation,” he maintains, adding that “These people deserved the maximum benefit under the reservation.”

“In the event of shelling and firing these people have to leave their homes and hearths. Their crops and livestock suffer. Their houses get damaged. And government hardly gives any financial compensation,” he adds.

Complaining that the government has hardly done anything for the people living in close proximity to the border, he further says, “Almost four years ago, we were promised bunkers and plots. But the promises remain unfulfilled. The existing few bunkers are filled with slush and are not usable.”

“Pakistan has set up its fence right at the zero line. Why can’t we do the same? Are we afraid of Pakistan that we have erected fence several kms behind the zero line? We can’t erect our fence at zero line and we keep threatening Pakistan,” former MP and minister Lal Singh says, adding that “when I was a Member of Parliament (MP), I got the work on relocation of fence to the zero line started. But soon after someone else became the MP, the work got stalled. The border residents had overwhelmingly given votes to the BJP due to Modi wave but what did they get from the government? There have been no recruitment drives for the youth of border areas. No jobs, nothing!”

To raise the issues of border residents and mobilise them to fight for their rights, Singh says, he would soon set out on a foot-journey through border villages ahead of general elections.

Incidentally, the media reporting by a section of TV channels on ongoing cross-border fire has been “rubbing salt to the wounds” of border residents. They bitterly complain, the TV anchors keep “crowing” that Indian forces are giving “befitting reply” to Pakistan, ignoring the humanitarian cost paid by the innocent people on both sides of the border.

“They shout that Pakistan would be destroyed in the event of war. These news-traders never tell the country, the sufferings of the border residents. What will happen to us in the event of war? These journalists should quit journalism right away. Our country will be just fine without them,” Waqar Poswal, a local YouTuber bemoans, concluding that, “High on TRP, these TV journalists have no respect for human lives.”

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