Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Life on the edge

Sandeep Sinha recalls his visit to the international border at Bhaini Dilawar village in the Fazilka sector
The Tribune, Saturday Extra, 21st June, 2008
Living in a border state and the charm of discovering what it is like to be living on the edge had been gnawing at me. Finally, I found myself staring across the fencing with its floodlights and the dreaded Cobra wire with a pair of binoculars in my hand.

Residents of Bhaini Dilawar village have to cross the Pattan checkpost, often
several times a day, for routine jobs

We were at Ground Zero. BSF Assistant Commandant S.B. Mukherjee was to be our friend, philosopher and guide in that tough terrain. Mukherjee has been decorated twice with the President’s Medal for Gallantry in 1997 and 1999 for having killed seven terrorists in two counter-insurgency operations in Jammu and Kashmir.
We reached the BSF post at Mohar Sona, Bhaini Dilawar, after a short ride from Fazilka. Mohar Sona is famous for the battle of Asafwala during the 1971 war where the 4 Jat Regiment lost 82 of its troops in combat. Here, the Sutlej flows in a narrow stretch and is barely 15 feet in depth, forming a creek area called Pattan by the locals.

Congress grass and sarkandas grow in abundance on the
Pakistani side. In India, villagers are not allowed to grow tall crops to check

The Fazilka sector has a peculiar geographical position. It was India’s sentimental attachment to the memorial of Shaheed Bhagat Singh at Hussainiwala and the resultant exchange of territory by which Pakistan agreed to return Hussainiwala to India in return for concessions in this sector.
In military parlance, it is called ‘chicken’s neck’. Most border villages in this area are surrounded by Pakistan on three sides with only a jutting strip connecting them to the mainland. In case of a conflict the villages can be easily cut off by the enemy leaving the villagers to fend for themselves. Here the Sutlej River enters India from Pakistan and then again flows into Pakistan, making it a unique local geographical feature.
The three Pakistani posts surrounding the area are at Wali Mohammed, Beriyanwali and Qadir Jaan.
Locals say that the Fazilka sector can only be defended in case of an attack, as an offensive is not possible from here. Due to the impact of this territorial settlement between India and Pakistan, Fazilka, once among the three biggest sub-divisions of Punjab, has not been able to grow. Infrastructure, a pre-requisite for development of any area, is non-existent. As the area is constantly under the shadow of the gun, growth has lagged behind.
Having entered our names in the BSF register, we made our way to the village but not before the troops treated us to cups of piping hot chai and pakoras. The hands that wielded the guns could work the stove with equal felicity. It was followed by a recce in the area with sten gun-toting jawans shadowing us. We also had motorboat ride in the Sutlej. While I marvelled at the experience, I could feel the hair rising at the back of my neck at the thought that we could be under the enemy gaze.

The pontoon bridge over the Sutlej is a bone of contention between
the villagers and the BSF. When the water level rises, it is dismantled.
Villagers want an all-weather bridge, a demand the Army rejects for security
reasons — Photos by Praful Nagpal

Bhaini Dilawar has roughly 150 houses and its population is approximately 1200. It has a primary school with 20 students and two teachers. To reach the village from the BSF post, one has to cross a pontoon bridge negotiating an uneven slope. We saw a tractor loaded with bricks unable to negotiate the climb. It finally reversed and revved up to climb over the steep incline.
The bridge itself is a bone of contention between the villagers and the BSF. During the monsoon, it is dismantled after the water level rises in the Sutlej. Villagers have to use boats to ferry both men and crop. So, they want a proper all-weather bridge, a demand the Army finds it difficult to accede to because of security reasons, say sources. According to BSF DIG V.K. Sharma, there is no point in constructing something that can be used by the enemy. If there is a pucca bridge, then the enemy will only need to attack the post to facilitate intrusion.
The road in the village, too, is in a dilapidated condition; probably because no VIP visits here and the only vehicles to ply on it are tractors, motorcycles or BSF Gypsies. Wazir Singh, a villager, points out, while handing over a glass of Sutlej water to drink, that the responsibility of maintaining the village road lies with the Block and Panchayat Development Officer (BDPO). But the efforts are obviously lacking!
The villagers, like in other border areas, are forbidden to grow tall crops like sugarcane ostensibly because the enemy can use these to camouflage its movements. During the tenure of the Vajpayee government, the villagers were paid compensation at the rate of Rs 2,500 per acre for not growing tall crops, says Jeet Singh, another villager. This compensation has now been stopped. The villagers want it restored. Their demand ranges from anywhere between Rs 3,500 and Rs 10,000 per acre. BSF sources, however, say that the villagers are not interested in growing crops but only in getting the compensation.
In contrast is the view on the Pakistani side where Congress grass and sarkandas (all tall vegetative growths) are visible. Locals also say that at times the attack by wild boars from the Pakistani side results in crop destruction. Because of which many of the villagers have given up farming. However, BSF officials clarify that the problem was ‘acute’ two years ago but has been checked in recent times with Pakistan clearing the jungles on its side and giving land to retired personnel to settle.
The villagers are also peeved over the strict monitoring of entry of people into the village. They lament that they have to live like prisoners in their own village. At night if someone falls ill they have to plead to the BSF personnel to get the gate opened so as to reach hospital.
But Nanak Singh, another villager, adds that the paramilitary personnel cooperate and even provide their vehicles to take the patient to hospital, in case of emergency.
The villagers also resent the fact that they have to make an entry in the BSF register at the gate every time they need to go out or come back.
The villagers say the security check, too, causes inconvenience and is embarrassing, especially for women. They want women constables posted to tide over the problem. Due to these stringent security checks relatives avoid visiting at late hours, claim villagers. But as BSF officials point out the choice is between generosity and lax security. One can’t take chances in an area where farmers plough land till the last inch of the border, otherwise, one may never know who went and who came back, the officials add.

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