Fragile fence

Published : Mar 09, 2007 00:00 IST

India-Pakistan tensions persist on the Jammu border despite the ceasefire put in place in 2003.

PRAVEEN SWAMI in the Jaurian sector

FROM inside the bunkers around Matkula Post, Pakistan is framed by the rectangular walls of the observation slits to appear as it would on a television propaganda film: a peasant idyll made up of an endless sprawl of serene green fields, punctuated only by the occasional peasant or farm animal.

But as audiences across the world have watched Indian and Pakistani diplomats talk peace, troops at Matkula Post have been staring out from their bunkers, guns at the ready, watching for infiltrating terrorists, narcotics smugglers and signs of aggression from their counterparts on the other side of the massive fence that runs the length of the border.

Even as their governments discuss how to take the India-Pakistan peace process forward, both the Border Security Force (BSF) and Pakistan Rangers have been preparing for the possibility that the script for this dialogue might not proceed as everyone hopes. Both sides have used the ceasefire that went into place along the frontier on November 26, 2003, to enhance their border defences significantly.

Pakistan has built dozens of new concrete bunkers since the ceasefire, often just metres from the border fence in the Jaurian sector, near Jammu. Two concrete bunkers, for example, now overlook the fence at the BSF's Nikowal Border Observation Post. Should the Pakistan Rangers choose to do so, these bunkers could be used to rain lethal fire down on Indian patrols and counter-infiltration ambushes.

New observation towers, which allow the Pakistan Rangers to monitor closely India's forward positions and troop movements, have also mushroomed throughout the Jaurian sector. Elsewhere in the Jammu region, Pakistani troops have been building new roads and repairing bridges leading to their forward positions - all activities facilitated by the fact that construction workers are no longer being shot at.

India has responded by starting work on a new earth bund, or dyke, from which border guards will have an unobstructed view of the fence - and also be able to dominate the new Pakistan Rangers bunkers. An old dyke that obstructs BSF troops' view of the border - built, ironically enough, to protect workers building the fence from Pakistani fire - will soon be levelled, clearing the way for more accurate targeting of infiltrators.

Not surprisingly, the post-ceasefire peace is underlain by simmering tensions. In January, Matkula Post saw the first significant exchange of fire between Indian and Pakistani troops since 2003. Two BSF troops were shot by terrorists attempting to cut through the fence. BSF soldiers who tried to fight back were pinned down by machine-gun fire from Jang Post as the Pakistan Rangers covered the retreat of the terrorists.

Again, on January 25, the BSF's 141 Battalion was engaged in a large-scale firefight in the Kanachak area after at least four separate groups of infiltrators attempted to penetrate the fencing. An unidentified infiltrator, presumed to be a Pakistani national acting as a guide for the groups, was shot dead near the BSF's Alpha-Machel Post. As at Matkula, according to the BSF, the Pakistan Rangers at Tarankot Post joined the firing to cover the infiltrators' retreat.

Experts believe that such incidents are part of a careful probing of Indian counter-infiltration defences. On September 14, 2006, BSF guards at Rattan Khurd Post in Amritsar shot Karachi resident Kashif Ali and an unidentified intruder when the two men attempted to cut their way through the fencing. Both men are thought to have been members of a Lashkar-e-Taiba fidayeen suicide squad.

Just 10 days later, BSF guards in the Anoopgarh sector of Sri Ganganagar in Rajasthan killed three terrorists who were attempting to breach the fence. Little is known about the objectives of the three men, but intelligence sources say they were most likely intending to execute a suicide-squad attack in a major west Indian city. Terrorists, though, are not the only people straining the fragile peace on the India-Pakistan border.

Come spring, thousands of peasants and workers will flock the fields around Matkula Post to harvest the crop on land that has come to life after Indian and Pakistani troops stopped trading fire. So, too, will workers for a less benign `industry' that has benefited from the ceasefire: the narcotics mafia. Addicted to hard cash, cross-border traffickers are running increasing volumes of Afghan and Pakistani heroin.

In December last year, BSF troops at Sapper's Highway Post, near Ranbir Singh Pora, interdicted a record shipment of 25 kilograms of high-grade heroin, which would have sold for over Rs.25 crores in New Delhi. The traffickers were wading across a fast-flowing stream to bypass the fencing, a tactic smugglers across the length of India-Pakistan border have often used with success.

Such interdiction has become increasingly common. In April 2006, the Indian Army recovered 7 kg of heroin from veteran drug runner Lal Chand. Police later cracked a complex chain linking Chand to Juma Chowdhury, a Pakistan-based wholesaler; his Indian counterpart, Sansar Chand; and a Jammu-based physician, Sanjeev Mahajan, who allegedly used his practice as a cover to move shipments safely.

Bringing large-scale shipments across the border fence is hard, but moving heroin is easier than it might appear. Small packets of heroin have been known to be thrown across the fence or smuggled on the bodies of farmers working in fields along the border. "We do not frisk women at the fence gates," notes an officer of the BSF's intelligence wing, the General Branch, "so they're favoured as couriers."

While the Jammu border historically witnessed large-scale trafficking in gold and liquor, the racket was destroyed by the post-1989 increase in vigilance. Many traffickers left the business. Others, however, turned to ensuring that weapons caches and terrorists crossed the India-Pakistan border safely and have now moved on to shipping low-volume but high-yield heroin. Loose attitudes to trafficking persist, fuelled by the belief that drugs hurt big-city consumers, not the local community. In May, the BSF shot dead Jammu resident Vikram Singh when he was guiding a drug consignment past Abdullian Post. He had been seduced by drug cartel promises to help free his smuggler father from the Sialkot prison, the latter's home for the past decade. Local politicians, incredibly, protested the killing.

Prosecutions under the Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Act rose from 15 in 2004 to 44 in 2006, a significant number for a mid-sized city like Jammu. While a large majority of these relate to the misuse of prescription drugs or low-grade substances like marijuana, the data make clear that heroin traffic is on the increase. In 2004, there were no prosecutions for heroin trafficking. There were four each in 2005 and 2006.

"Interestingly," notes Mukesh Singh, Senior Superintendent of Police, Jammu, "the rise in narcotics trafficking comes at a time when terrorism and cross-border infiltration are declining." Police in Jammu initiated 19 terrorism-related prosecutions in 2004, a figure that fell to 16 last year. "It is possible," he says, "that cross-border guides for terrorists have turned to moving heroin instead."

Police date the increased flow of narcotics into Jammu and Kashmir to the summer of 2003, when Pakistan's covert services slashed direct funding for jehadi groups. In June that year, police in Srinagar arrested Kupwara residents Mohammad Ilyas and Mohammad Yahya on charges of running drugs. Earlier that month, raids in the city led to the arrest of two more traffickers.

Evidence of the intimate relationship between terror networks and narcotics traffickers is not hard to come by. In September 2003, the State police arrested a medical-store owner in Bandipora, Ghulam Qadir Sofi, for harbouring 3 kg of high-grade heroin brought across the Line of Control by a Jaish-e-Mohammad courier. Jeevan Sharma, a resident of Pathankot in Punjab, was also arrested.

Despite aggressive policing, the flow continues. In January, for instance, police recovered 1.7 kg of heroin from Srinagar-based alleged narcotics trafficker Abdul Majid Rather.

A recent survey by a Srinagar-based de-addiction centre, the Hindustan National Social Society, estimated that 17 per cent of the people aged 12-20 were consuming narcotics, while an astounding 22 per cent of 21-35 year olds were clinically addicted. Sadly, civilian authorities in Jammu and Kashmir have shown few signs that they understand either the scale or the seriousness of the problem. Although policing and border security address supply-side issues, there are few efforts towards demand-side measures, such as building awareness. De-addiction facilities are limited, while programmes for recovery like Narcotics Anonymous are almost unknown.

While the India-Pakistan ceasefire has brought enormous benefits to people, the new defence-construction work on the border makes it clear that peace cannot be taken for granted. For the most part, media accounts of the border have characterised it as a bridge between peoples, focussing on plans for new passenger and cargo links between Jammu and Sialkot in Pakistan's Punjab province.

But even as India and Pakistan move forward, it is still possible to envision a less optimistic future. The Jammu border could still lapse into war - or disintegrate into the kind of drug-fuelled hell that supposedly peaceful frontiers are in areas such as Manipur. Seen from the border, the future seems less certain than it appears from New Delhi.

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