While the fence along the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir may have reduced infiltration by militants, it has made life difficult for the villagers living along the border.
"The Gujjars have been the primary source of information. In most of the wars between India and Pakistan, a Gujjar gave the first information about incursion from the other side thus alerting the troops in time."
CUT OFF: Fencing has left some villagers on the wrong side. Photo: LUV PURI
EVERY day 12-year-old Mohammad Yaqoob, who lives in the remote Chaneri area of Poonch, Jammu and Kashmir, has to travel three kilometres from his forward village to reach the nearest motorable road and board a bus to reach Government Primary school where he studies.
But his hamlet is located only few metres from the nearest road. The other families living in the forward hamlets face the same problem as the fence cuts them off from the mainland the hamlets lie between the Line of Control (LoC) and the fence.
Part of a strategy
Fencing operations along the 740 km LoC began in 2003 and were described as part of the defence strategy to deter militants entering this side from various launching pads of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. The fencing was effective in reducing infiltration levels but it separated a number of populated forward areas from the main towns.
Thousands of villagers living along the Line of Control now have to show identity cards given by the Government to gain entry into the interior areas where most of the civic infrastructure exists in the form of civilian hospitals and schools. Even then the gates are opened only at fixed hours.
Even though there has been a ceasefire along the LoC since November 26, 2003, there have been occasional infiltration attempts, particularly from the forward hamlets of Poonch. This has kept the troops busy in counter militancy operations during the night and there is little time to open gates for civilians and attending to contingencies, according to villagers.
Villagers in border areas have been instructed by the troops to carry a torch (mashals) as a sign of identity and alert the troops to their movements. Still there have been cases of accidental firing and so the villagers prefer to remain indoors. At some places, the fence runs deep into the Indian territory making life more difficult.
For instance, Sekhlu area of Poonch district, four km from the LoC, has been bifurcated with the coming of fence. Last year the farmers were instructed to cut down maize crops all along the LoC 40 metres on both sides of the fence. Militants often use the thick maize crop whose height reaches 10 feet as a cover to enter this side and evade the troops.
The Haveli assembly segment of Poonch district has been the most affected with 4,811 families being left on the other side of the fence. The entire Shahpur Panchayat of 591 families is across the fenced area. Interestingly some commercial establishments like shops (71 of them) are also across the fenced area.
The decision to start fencing deep into the Indian Territory was based on practical consideration. The fencing had to follow natural topography and strategic considerations, which do not exactly coincide with the LoC. Moreover, fencing operations in this sector started before the November 26 ceasefire, as the jawans involved in the fencing were the direct target of Pakistan firing. The area to be fenced was marked so that the soldiers got the necessary cover in the form of small geographical features like hills to avoid casualities.
The last inhabited Chaneri village which faces the famous Haji Pir mountains captured by India and returned to Pakistan under the Tashkent agreement in 1965 between then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and Pakistan President Ayub Khan is a stone's throw from POK but the Indian fence stretches for three kilometres. Major Lavjeet Singh of Bihar regiment, officer-in charge, Digwar post, says, "Most of the people living across the fenced area belong to the Gujjar community and have often helped the army in various operations."
Even now many Gujjars can be seen working for the army in their bunkers. Mohammad Hussian, who lives in the Digwar area, has been working with the army as a labourer since the 1965 Indo-Pak war. His house at the edge of the LoC was hit by shelling from across the border before November 26, 2003. He is still awaiting compensation from the authorities. He says, "The authorities should help us live a normal life. Though there is peace at the moment, the fear remains."
There is a view that the area till the end of the Line of Control should remain populated to strengthen the security grid. This is mainly because the Gujjars have been the primary source of information. In most of the wars between India and Pakistan, a Gujjar gave the first information about incursion from the other side alerting the troops in time.
The community has borne the brunt of shelling from across the border, says Bashir Ahmed, a revenue officer. Many believe the presence of Gujjars along the Line of Control is of vital importance for security even in times of peace and that moving them from their native place would, in the long run, be a security hazard.
Learning from past experience, there is a need to devise people-centric security policy and prioritise immediate problems of the people along the LoC who have stood as vanguard of defence for the country at critical times.
(The report is based on a fellowship of National Foundation for India.)
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