Bullets, shells, landmines: Border residents bleed in war and in peace
Amid growing militarisation and repeated ceasefire violations, border residents in Jammu and Kashmir bear the direct brunt of long-standing border conflict between India and Pakistan
The lives, limbs and livelihood of the border residents, along the 734-km stretch on Line of Control (LoC) and approximately the 190-km-long International Border (IB) in Jammu and Kashmir, have become far more insecure over the past 17 years.
After the Kargil war, the border villages have become dotted with Anti Infiltration Obstacle Systems (giant barbed wire fencings), guard towers, security checkpoints, fall gates, barriers, ditch-cum-bunds and landmines have been laid all over. The growing military infrastructure has not only encroached upon agricultural land but also limited access to the natural resources such as forests, pastures and water bodies, and made farming far more difficult and unprofitable than before. Movement has got restricted and people live in a curfew-like situation under surveillance by security forces and intelligence agencies.
In September 2015, then Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed announced joint survey by civil and Army authorities of the land falling ahead of the LoC and IB for recommending cases of the land owners to the Central Government for compensation. But there has been little headway so far.
The sharp rise in violations of ceasefire agreement—that was signed by India and Pakistan in November 2003—has put border residents at a greater risk of getting killed or maimed. Pakistani troops have reportedly opened fire on Indian territories in Jammu and Kashmir more than 600 times till September 30 this year, which is the highest in the last one decade. While soldiers enjoy several entitlements, civilian survivors have to go through excruciating wait and cumbersome bureaucratic procedures to avail measly financial help from the government over loss of life and limbs. Or, they don’t get any compensation after getting injured, becoming disabled or suffering damage to their property and livestock. In majority of cases, the government has even failed to provide prosthetic limbs to the amputees.
The double victims
A response to an RTI query by district administration of Samba revealed arbitrary methods followed during disbursement of financial compensation. While landmine amputees like Janak Raj and Baag Hussain didn’t receive any compensation, Swarn Singh received Rs 75,000. Similarly, Sunil Kumar and Pawan Kumar got Rs 5,000 each whereas others like Daljeet Kumar received Rs 70,000. All of them got injured in anti-personnel mine blasts between 2001 and 2003.
When Ashok Kumar (60) was struggling for life, his distressed wife and daughter took care of him in the hospital. But there was no one to look after the cows and buffaloes on their family farm back home. On their request, their relatives sold all the 25 cows at throwaway prices and locked the dairy up.
“Whenever I do some physical work, my body swells up and I’ve to get admitted in hospital again and again. After the closure of the dairy, I don’t have any source of livelihood,” he says. Nearly a dozen border residents including Ashok got injured and five persons, including a child, were killed as shells fired from across the Pakistani border rained down on Rangoor village in Samba district in November 2016. Neither he nor others from his village who lost a family member or got critically injured, have received any government assistance so far.
A new policy—Central scheme for assistance to civilian victims of terrorist, communal violence, left wing extremism, cross border firing and mine and IED blasts on Indian territory—promises an amount of Rs 5 lakh to each of the victims. In fact, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti personally handed over cheques amounting to Rs 5 lakh each to a few affected families in the recent past. But several not so fortunate families remain out of media and government focus.
The policy promises that “ Rs 5 lakh will also be given to those who receive 50 per cent or more disability or incapacitation” but the district officials feign ignorance about this provision. According to them, a border resident—who receives over 50 per cent or more disability or incapacitation, is entitled to an amount of Rs 75,000 as compensation.
Additionally, a disabled person gets a monthly pension of Rs 750 from the Social Welfare Department.
Incidentally, the survivors who have received very little or no succour from the government in the past also need financial help. The new compensation policy, however, is effective for survivors of border conflict from August 24, 2016. Nevertheless, for civilian victims of terrorist and communal violence and left wing extremist violence, the policy comes into effect from April 1, 2008 and June 22, 2009 respectively.
The long chase
Mohammad Bashir (25) a resident of Balakote sector in Poonch, got critically injured in a shell explosion in August 2015. Bashir has undergone two surgeries at PGI Chandigarh and is preparing for the third. “I don’t have any hope left that doctors could restore the functions of my right arm,” laments Bashir who is 5.8 feet tall and always wanted to join the military.
“After I was discharged from the hospital, I started collecting documents like reports from village chowkidar, revenue official (Patwari), police station and district hospital. Then I filed application in the tehsil office. The file is currently lying with the relief section in the office of District Development Commissioner (DDC),” he says, adding that his family arranged for his medical treatment on borrowed money.
He has visited civil secretariat in Jammu thrice in the past one year to meet Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti. “On each occasion, I was told she is on official tour,” he laments, narrating hardships he undergoes while travelling from his nondescript mountain village to the winter capital city.
Kamaal Deen (48) a resident of village Keerni in Poonch, lost his only son Abdul Hameed (22) in a shell explosion in July 2016. Says Nazam Din Mir, a local resident: “I painstakingly did all the paper work on behalf of the family and submitted the file. One year on, the file is gathering dust in the DDC’s office.”
“Abdul’s death has devastated the family. Kamaal Deen has become psychologically disturbed like several other victims of border conflict. He has four daughters. Three of them are in the marriageable age group but the family doesn’t have the money to marry them off,” Nazam says.
When National Herald brought these issues to the notice of Principal Secretary, Home Department, J&K government, Raj Kumar Goyal, he passed the buck on to district authorities. “There are clear instructions regarding implementation of the new compensation policy. If a person has filed all the required documents then it becomes mandatory on part of the district administration to hand over the compensation amount without any delay,” he said, adding that “if some cases have been left out, the intended beneficiary is supposed to approach the DDC entrusted to redress such complaints.”
Whenever there is shelling and firing, border residents have to flee to safer locations. Their crops and livestock suffer. The future of their children suffers as schools remain closed. The arrangements at the migrant camps set up by the government are always inadequate. Women migrants face embarrassment on a daily basis in the absence of toilets and bathrooms.
“Due to lack of skills for alternative work, we find it impossible to survive without farms and livestock. This is why we can’t settle somewhere else permanently,” border residents invariably say. Most of those who live along the IB don’t even enjoy land ownership rights. They came as refugees from Pakistan during successive wars and were settled on the land left behind by Muslims who migrated to Pakistan during Partition of the country. Given the special constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir, those Muslims continue to be the real owners of the land in the official records.
Manjit Singh, a former minister in state government, says: “The government should give five marla (around 272 sq ft) plots to the border residents in safer areas so that they can shift during hostility on the border.” He also demands reservation for the residents along IB—just like LoC and ALC residents—in government jobs, education and professional educational institutes.
On the other hand, LoC residents rue that they don’t find any buyers even if they wish to sell off their land. “A few resourceful families who have migrated to towns and cities reap the benefits of reservation. But those who actually live in border villages can’t even avail proper education,” rues Khaleel Ahmed Mir (22) a resident of Keerni in Poonch district. “When students in other areas have been using Internet, we don’t have phone connectivity and other basic facilities.”
A government teacher and resident of a fenced-out village in Mendhar sector said: “The government has put us in an open jail. We have landmines on one side towards Pakistan and the huge fence which is electrified during night towards the Indian side. Our relatives who live outside are not allowed inside even during marriages and funerals. The quality of life in our villages, instead of improving, is deteriorating by the day. We spend our life worrying about life and limbs. We have hardly seen any economic development in the past 70 years.”
He summed it up when he said: “In between the two trigger-happy militaries of India and Pakistan, we are nowhere people. But who is bothered about us?”
Issues On The Back Burner
When shells destroy or damage property and crops, when livestock perish in crossfire and when people get a disabled or die, is it too much to expect pension or compensation?
Border sans bunkers
While the Army seeks and gets state-of-the-art weapons and equipment, people have been left high and dry. There are no concrete bunkers to take shelter in during shelling.
Depending on the local Army and civil authorities, injured civilians are sometimes airlifted. But that’s an exception. Even ambulances are rare.
Strict restrictions have prevented snake-bite victims and pregnant women from receiving medical attention. People are locked out of weddings and funerals on the LoC.
Area of darkness
Majority of border villages are yet to get basic amenities and facilities like electricity, water supply, telephone and Internet connectivity besides basic infrastructure.
The why & how of ceasefire violations
Infiltration by militants is one of the causes for ceasefire violations (CFVs) along the LoC and IB but it is not—as is often claimed—one of the primary causes, argues Happymon Jacob, associate professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, in a recent study published by the United States Institute of Peace. It notes that there have been times when infiltration was low and ceasefire violations were high.
The CFVs occur for a variety of other political and military reasons and heightened bilateral tensions only increase their likelihood, according to it. “CFVs are known to happen when political leaders visit J&K, on days of national importance like Independence Day or whenever Pakistan finds them useful to keep the Kashmir issue alive. Sometimes violations occur when one side wishes to test the resolve of a new battalion posted opposite it; at other times a departing battalion ‘makes a parting show of strength’. A new battalion may wish to assert itself from the outset and take an aggressive posture. Soldiers can also react to the environment they operate in; matters get worse when tensions are high.”
“The soldier in the forward most post is as affected by the media as the man in a city,” the report quotes a retired Pakistani general, adding that “the temperament of local commanders in both sides matters a great deal. ‘Violations can…be triggered by the emotional state of soldiers and commanders’ in a highly tense and daunting operational environment.”
“Directions from higher chain of command…to engage in ceasefire violations may be issued to Indian or Pakistani troops for a variety of reasons, such as: to maintain dominance, to establish pressure through continuous engagement, to highlight or create disputes, to cause casualties as a matter of retribution, to show aggression or to cover and divert attention from other activities,” the study quotes retired Pakistan army Lieutenant General Tariq Waseem Ghazi as saying.
It further maintains that construction-related activities along the border are “the most important cause of ceasefire violations”. Both sides have agreed not to develop any “new posts and defence works along the LoC” but new construction is a regular occurrence. “Construction and improvement of posts is undertaken to enhance observation capability and hold ground during a standoff. Owing to the advantages they afford, construction activity is often fired upon and hence the work is done mostly during the night,” it adds.
Maintaining that the LoC is delineated on a map but not marked on the ground, it states that the formal border treaty is in place for the LoC sector and final ratification of a Ground Rules agreement is pending.
It also states that joint standard operating procedures are inadequate. “India has tried fencing and electrifying the international border and most of the LoC – but they are ineffective at places for a variety of reasons. This sort of ambiguity about where one’s territory is and the lack of formalised border management protocols on the ground sets the stage for miscalculation and escalation, the report reads.”
The study suggests the following steps:
- Formalising the 2003 ceasefire, which would entail “a clear and detailed signed agreement that itemises the attendant dos, don’ts, rules, guidelines, and principles, would enable the two sides to better manage the border and significantly reduce the ad hoc nature of the current arrangements.”
- Both countries should “take steps to finalise the India-Pakistan Ground Rules Agreement of 1961, which could help better manage the Jammu-Sialkot border.”
- The two sides could also explore the possibility of simultaneous coordinated patrolling of small stretches of land, as is practised along the international border in Punjab.”
- India and Pakistan would also need to agree on where the “notional line” lies in Kashmir and establish rules for construction activity.
In the prime of their youth, they were porters for the Indian Army. The youngest, Mohammad Khan, is now 54 years old. The oldest, Mirza Khan, is a ripe 94 while Hadaith Ullah is no spring chicken at 74. In separate landmine blasts, each of them lost one of their feet. They did receive medical treatment from the Army, which then left them to fend for themselves. They were of no use to the Army as porters with their missing feet. They are not the only residents in Mendhar sector to have suffered disability because of the heavily mined border area.
Subash Chander—a resident of village Sai Khurd in RS Pura sector—lost a leg when a shell exploded in his home, killing his wife and sister-in-law on the spot, leaving his elder brother invalid and their children injured in August 2015. He had lost an arm in an accident earlier. “The government gave us Rs 2 lakh. But the medical treatment has cost us over Rs 7 lakh so far,” says Subash, who teaches at a village private school. “I was promised a job when the Chief Minister visited our home. Now I am being told that I’m over the age limit by four months.”
Children are particularly vulnerable to the mines, especially in the mountains where flood waters can push buried landmines to the surface. Ashiq Hussain of Khardi Karmara village near the LoC in Poonch lost both hands and an eye in a landmine blast in 2011. The boy was playing in a stream that runs through his grandfather’s watermill, about a km from the Indo-Pakistan cross border trade centre at Chakkan da Baag. “I feel depressed on seeing my friends playing cricket. I can’t join them. Due to loss of vision, I can’t read properly. I can’t write or eat on my own,” he says.
One of her arms, the left one, was blown off in a landline blast when she was just six years old. Now she is 40 and married. But one of the sons of Safia Begum, Yasir, also lost an arm when he was eight years old. That was in 2011. A coincidence? Safia works on her small family farm to sustain the family. The constant stress of living on the border has reduced her husband to a nervous wreck and he has developed neurological disorders. In the same village, other landmine amputees like Naseem Akhtar (27) and Sharifa Begum (26) stitch clothes for sustenance.
Shahnawaz, a resident of the highly militarised Balakote sector in Poonch, had his right arm blown off in a shell explosion in 2015. A few months after, he was discharged from the hospital and he succumbed to his injuries. He was 15. Shahnawaz died of infection in his amputated arm. He could have survived but his family didn’t have enough money to get him admitted to a good private hospital. The same shell killed three others including sarpanch Karamat Hussain (52). All of them were returning after attending an Independence Day function.
Tied to wheelchair
Vijaya Kumari (33) a resident of Chachwal village on the IB in Samba district, was paralysed waist down at the age of 13 after a stray bullet passed through her body. Physical disability, however, didn't deter her. She imparts basic tailoring training to women at her home. She dreams of owning a boutique to train border women in stitching and embroidery—and make them economically self-reliant as well. For the past over one year, her father (a small farmer) has been running from pillar to post seeking official help—but with little success.