Their lives parallel the ups-and-downs of relations between India and Pakistan – ruled by crossborder tensions, fears of militancy, and various forms of destabilisation. Many have lost property, ancestral lands and family members. Yet for those residing in the strife-torn border districts of Jammu, hope and diehard survival instincts compel them to continue trying to lead ‘normal’ lives.
Driving through the dusty villages of Jammu’s International Border (IB) sector, one is struck by the remarkable serenity. As farmers cultivate their fields; tube wells spew water; women wash utensils or tend to cattle; and children play cricket and volleyball, this could easily be mistaken for bucolic Punjab. However, we are just a stone’s throw from the IB, where tensions between the Indian Border Security Force and the Pakistani Rangers are constantly simmering.
“We have got used to the situation, but the feeling of apprehension is always there,” says 65-year-old Om Prakash, an ex-serviceman who lives in Keso village in Samba District. “This is our village and how far can one run from one’s land?” For the residents of Keso and the adjoining villages of Barota and Pakhri, located within three km of the IB, existing side-by-side with active military personnel may not be new, but it certainly has gotten old.
In addition to the bloody riots of Partition, these villages have witnessed the subsequent three wars. One village on this side, called Khanpur, consists only of Hindus and Sikhs. Several families have been doubly-uprooted – once in 1947 and again after the capture of Chhamb by the Pakistani army. Living in continuous uncertainty has not removed the desperate desire of the inhabitants to see the situation improved. “Yes, we live our lives, but we do wish for this constant tension to end,” says Khanpur resident Harpreet Singh. Along with her husband Gurcharan, the 51-year-old migrated in 1975 from a village near Chhamb, now in Pakistan. “For several years we had led a very terrifying life, but now it is relatively peaceful,” says Gurcharan, a teacher in the local high school.
Since 1971, the border districts had indeed been largely peaceful. But the early-1990s saw an influx of militants, who used the Jammu route in order to circumvent patrols along the Line of Control up north in the Kashmir Valley. Suddenly, the villagers began to notice discarded Pakistani biscuit-wrappers and cigarette packs in their fields. To counter the infiltration, the Indian government decided to put up a barbed wire fence along the border, as had been done earlier in Punjab and Rajasthan. Pakistani artillery attempted to disrupt the fence-building, forcing the Indian authorities to build an earthen bund to enable construction of the fence. The new barrier resulted in the displacement of several farming families. The military step-up culminated with the activation of ‘Operation Vijay’ during the Kargil War of 1999, with the civilian population fleeing with the arrival of the Indian Army.
More trouble followed. Mine fields laid during Operation Parakram – the massive mobilisation of the Indian Army along the Pakistani border after the attack on the Indian Parliament of December 2001 – displaced more farmers from their lands. No substitute livelihoods were provided and the compensation hardly sufficed. “The government compensation is too little for what we have lost so far,” laments 66-year-old Chaman Lal of Pakhri village. In 1991, the residents of Gujjarbasti, a small hamlet of the nomadic community, were moved from their traditional lands near Balhad on the IB. “There is inadequate water and fodder for our cattle where we now are, and we long for our old land,” says resident Shamsuddin.
Most villages here have two or three memorials to commemorate their martyrs from various wars and operations. Many border families are kept afloat due largely to sons, husbands and fathers in the Army, the Border Security Force, the Central Reserve Police Force, or the local police. Most of the older inhabitants are pensioners. Those who are unable to shake distrust of Pakistan and its intentions include the families whose sons have been part of the three wars. “India has always been the one for peace initiatives, and it is only Pakistan that does not recognise these efforts,” says Puran Chand, of Mendhar in Poonch District, with conviction.
Even so, antagonism towards Pakistan is more palpable in New Delhi and the Indian hinterland than it is in these frontier communities of Jammu, among villagers who have been on the receiving end of various aggressions for the past five decades. Most harbour little ill will towards Pakistan, even though it is they who have faced the brunt of crossborder firing and militant infiltration. As 20-year-old Avinash Jamwal asks, “There is so much to do – where is the time for negative thoughts?” After so many years in the crossfire, Jammu’s border residents would still be the first to wave the flag of peace to their next-door neighbours on the Pakistani side.