Print edition : September 15, 2001

A first-hand look at the fence designed to counter infiltration through the border with Pakistan.

Text and photographs: PRAVEEN SWAMI Frontline

Patrolling in the Samba Sector, from where early last year the BSF recovered explosive devices from trans-border smugglers. The area has become a transit point for cross-border trade in heroin.

At Nursery Post, Samba Sector, which has become the target of sustained Pakistani fire after India decided to resume fencing work along this stretch in May this year.

GOOD fences, goes the maxim, make good neighbours. Inspector Jai Gopal Singh has spent almost every night for the past three months trading fire with Pakistani Rangers stationed at the Masroor and Buddha Bhai posts, a few hundred metres from the Line of Control (LoC). This Border Security Force (BSF) trooper is stationed at the Paharpur Post, India's first position along the international border in Jammu and Kashmir. The latest round of fighting began on September 3, when troops at Paharpur noticed Pakistani soldiers attempting to install a 14.5 millimetre anti-armour gun, which would have threatened their defensive positions. They put up a red flag, a warning of imminent fire. When the Pakistani soldiers chose not to withdraw, machine-gun fire followed, ending work on the new gun position.

Since the early part of summer this year, similar exchanges of fire have been under way all along the 185-km international border that stretches from Paharpur along the boundary with Punjab to the start of the LoC, north of Akhnoor. While in January this year, Pakistan Rangers and troops set off just 231 rounds of machine gun and heavy-calibre fire, the figure for August has been upwards of 300,000 (see table). However, the fighting claimed relatively few casualties. So far, one BSF soldier and two civilians have been killed, while 40 people have been injured. But the exchanges of fire, as well as attempted attacks on Indian forward positions, have been steadily escalating, mirroring a general intensification of conflict throughout Jammu and Kashmir.

Men of the Border Security Force patrolling a stretch of the fence along the frontier in Punjab.-

The escalation of hostilities by Pakistan began after India decided to build a counter-infiltration fence early this year. A similar effort had been made by India in 1994, but was stopped in the face of Pakistani fire. However, when the BSF's Director-General Gurbachan Jagat took office last year, his long years of experience as Jammu and Kashmir's police chief led him to revive the idea. This time, the BSF took on the job itself. Its troops were used to do much of the foundation work, thus ensuring complete secrecy. When more workers were needed, they were brought in from Orissa and Madhya Pradesh. Protective earth walls along with bullet-proof metal shields were put up as defences against fire. Work began under cover of darkness and fog in January this year, and remained undetected for the next four months. Almost 15 km of the fence was completed before the monsoon set in.

It is not hard to see why the new fence is so important to India, while being a real threat to Pakistan. For one, both National Highway 1 and the Pathankot-Jammu rail line are only a few kilometres from the border. With the fence in place, the kind of sabotage enterprises and terrorist attacks that have been taking place regularly since 1994 would become extremely difficult to carry out. Pakistan would also find it difficult to push espionage operatives across the border, while Indian intelligence would have no difficulty in identifying them. Also significantly, the fence would make an important symbolic point. India argues that the southern frontier in Jammu and Kashmir is a border, because it has remained unchanged ever since the accession of the state. Pakistan accepted this position until the rise of insurgency in the late 1980s. It now describes the border as a "working boundary".

GIVEN the stakes at hand, perhaps it is not surprising that the fighting has been intense. On May 19, just after fencing work had been completed on that stretch, a 10-man Pakistan Border Action Team made up of army commandos and irregulars planted demolition charges near Nursery Post. However, the explosion, which occurred a few kilometres from the post, caused little damage, and the fence was repaired in a very short time. At the end of August, more direct means were used. On the night of August 31, Nursery Post faced sustained fire from 9 p.m. through 3 a.m., with some 3,500 rounds hitting its defences. In the end, the BSF's 39 Battalion hit back using high explosive rounds to silence the guns firing at it from the Kamor forward post and Galar Tanda, just across the border. Since then, each round from across the border has provoked a sharp response, and at least five Pakistan Rangers have been killed.

Source: BSF,Jammu Frontier

Civilians have, inevitably, also faced the consequences of this firing. Last month, 20-year-old Surjeet Singh was injured by a 14.5 mm shell that ricocheted off his home in Jasso Chak, 500 metres from Pakistan's Rangoor Post. Although both the BSF and the Pakistan Rangers have traditionally observed a harvest-time truce, allowing farmers on both sides of the border to go about their work, Jasso Chak residents have not worked on their lands for the last two months. Children have abandoned the local primary school and walk 7 km each day for their education. "Since we cannot collect grass from the border," said village numberdar Banarasi Lal, "we have to purchase fodder. I've spent at least Rs. 1,500 this summer." Worst of all, say residents of Jasso Chak, they face social isolation. "Not one of our boys has been married for the last four years. Nobody wants to send their daughters here," says the numberdar.

A border gate along a stretch of the fence near Rania. Such gates enable farmers, with equipments such as tractors and combine harvesters, to access fields along the border. The fence is, in line with international law, erected at a minimum of 150 metres from the border: at some places this distance is up to 400 m. Farmers, escorted by BSF guards, are allowed access to their fields from dawn to dusk. Farmers on both sides of the border cultivate lands right up to what is called the "zero line", or the international border.-

There is, however, a curious ambiguity in local responses to the conflict. Plush farm houses appearing at regular intervals across rural Samba are the wages of the region's vibrant, but illegal cross-border trade. Gold, silver and liquor, the traditional commodities handled by border smugglers, have been displaced by a single, more sinister substance - heroin. Paid through hawala transfers to traders in Karachi and Lahore, the heroin trade helps turn cross-border terrorism into a self-financing activity. Pakistani smugglers are allowed to operate their drug businesses if they pay for weapons and explosives, while their Indian counterparts are told to carry explosives across the border along with their heroin consignments. Earlier this year, the BSF recovered explosive devices from three border smugglers - Kuldeep Kumar, Balkar Singh and Surinder Singh. This was a sign that hard cash, and not faith, drives terrorism in this area.

At Nursery Post. On the night of August 31, Nursery Post faced relentless fire from 9 p.m. through 3 a.m., with some 3,500 rounds hitting its defences.-

But the price of stopping infiltration is not small. The 180-km stretch of the fence along the Jammu frontier will cost an estimated Rs.86 crores, or approximately Rs.46 lakhs a km. Each of the nearly 450 km length of the fence in Punjab cost upwards of Rs.22 lakhs; and the stretch in Rajasthan, which was built across shifting sand dunes, will cost considerably more. "The point," says Jammu and Kashmir Police Superintendent of Police Manisha Kumar, responsible for security on the border, "is that we can't afford not to act." The point was driven home on August 23, when three soldiers were killed by terrorists at Sapuwal, just 6 km from the border. The terrorists, equipped with assault rifles and explosives, were holed up in a nursery just off the national highway - only a few metres from the area where the Sealdah Express was bombed early last year. "Any major build-up in Jammu," says Vijay Raman, the BSF Inspector-General in charge of the Jammu frontier, "will have terrible consequences. We just can't afford to have our main lines of communication come under continued assault. We have to stop Pakistan's diplomats coming through this channel."

A BSF trooper with a trained dog, scanning the horizon across the Ravi river in Punjab.-

A few hundred kilometres to the south, officials agree with this view. "While the Punjab Police did a fine job fighting terrorism," says A.S. Aulakh, BSF Inspector-General, "the fact is that the fence played a key role in ensuring that more terrorists could not come in to replace those eliminated in combat." Of the 554 km of the Punjab frontier, 469 km are covered by three layers of barbed wire, supplemented by rolls of razor-sharp concertina wire and high-voltage cobra wire that can be fatal on contact. On either side of the fence run pillar after pillar of floodlights. The electricity bill for the Punjab frontier alone runs to Rs.5 crores a year. But that amount, officials point out, is nothing compared to what India has had to pay for fighting terrorism in the state for a decade.

The fence has not made cross-border infiltration impossible. The dense growth of elephant grass around the river Ravi, for example, makes construction impossible and movement easy. BSF officials are now encouraging farmers to reclaim marshes in areas like the Kassowal Bulge in the Dera Baba Nanak area. But crossing into India through conventional means has certainly become a hugely hazardous enterprise. Last summer, BSF troops at the Chandigarh forward post discovered a tunnel running from the Pakistan side of the border to almost under the fence. Believed to have been dug by a well-known smuggler, Isaac Masih, the sheer scale of the tunnel work indicated just how desperate Pakistan was to re-activate its routes into Punjab. As things stand, Indian intelligence is able to push its agents into Pakistan, while that country's sources of information on military movements inside strategically-important Punjab have all but dried up. "Every time we hold meetings with the Rangers," says BSF commandant Surinder Kumar, "they complain that the lighting intrudes on their privacy. I don't know what they want privacy for on the border, but the complaint indicates desperation."

Tractors working on reclaimed land adjacent to the fencing near Chandigarh Post.-

As in the Samba sector in Kashmir, much cross-border movement in Punjab depended on traditional smugglers. Two decades ago, such smuggling activity was treated with indulgence by border guards in both India and Pakistan. After prohibition was imposed in Pakistan by the Zia-ul-Haq regime, liquor revenue receipts in (Indian) Punjab doubled. Since it was unlikely that the State's residents had started drinking twice as much overnight, it was evident that tens of thousands of cases of liquor were making their way across the border. In return, smugglers brought gold, electronic equipment and dry fruits. "There was even a certain moral discipline to the whole thing," recalls one old-time BSF officer. "There would be no smuggling on Tuesdays, holy to local Hindus, or on Thursdays, the day of Muslim Pirs." Today, the trade continues through the customs post at Wagah, using passengers travelling on the Samjhauta Express; but the movement of arms and explosives has dried up.

But this is not the situation in Jammu. When the monsoon slush dries up through September, work on the fence will begin again. Workers are already fixing cables for floodlights around Nursery Post, and generators are being purchased to power the fence. Over 300 trucks were needed to bring in material for the fence work already completed - an indicator of the scale of work that lies ahead. By the end of this year, BSF officials hope to add at least another 10 km of fencing to the 15-km stretch already erected. "Whatever the odds, we will get the job done," says 39 Battalion Commander D.S. Randhawa. His counterpart across the border must share the sentiment - the other way around. In mid-August, Mohammad Ilyas Jhanjua, Commander of the 2nd Wing of the Chenab Rangers, was relieved of his command for his failure to stop the Indian fencing work. Local residents too are bracing for battle. "We have seen tank battles in 1965 and 1971," says Waryam Singh, an elder from Jasso Chak. "This is nothing," he adds.

Villagers being screened by BSF personnel, before being allowed to cross the fence.-

A few kilometres from Jasso Chak lies the shrine of Chamliyal. Each summer, thousands of Muslim pilgrims from Pakistan wait across the border to make offerings of earth, reputed to cure skin ailments, and holy water, to be shipped across the border by the BSF. Hindu pilgrims from Jammu, in turn, wait for the Rangers to send across the traditional offering of a holy shroud. When the Rangers sought to put an end to the practice in 1998, arguing that such Sufi traditions had no place in an Islamic state, village residents complained that their cows had run dry. Local pressure forced the annual border crossing to resume.

When, or if, India and Pakistan ever make peace, the fence will be an abiding monument to the most bitter conflict of the second part of the 20th century: one that the region's people - the experience of Chamliyal seems to suggest - seem certain, serves no purpose at all.

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