Sunday Anchor

Sunday Anchor: Home is where the border is

BSF personnel patrolling near the Zero Line at the India-Pakistan Border, BOP Rajamohatam area, Ferozepur, Punjab. Photo: R.V. Moorthy  

Thirty-year-old Mohammad Ayub left home after he had a tiff with his father on August 19. He walked and walked in rage till he reached a point where he was blinded by flashlights and could hear whistles piercing his earlobes.

Before Ayub could realise anything, he was asked to get on his knees. It was then, in the dead of the night, that Ayub realised he was in India. What followed was a body search. The Border Security Force (BSF) found some Pakistani currency and a mobile phone on him. The BSF personnel used his phone to call his family members and check his credentials. With feet soaked and caked in mud, Ayub trembled in fear.

Ayub lives in a village named Waigal, right across the Indian territory, barely 20 km from the BSF’s Kalia post in Ferozepur, Punjab on the International Border. Seething with anger after being scolded by his father, the daily wage labourer could not distinguish between India and Pakistan when he crossed over to India.

While India has fenced its borders, no such fence exists on Pakistan’s side. India has ringed the zero point with barbed wires. According to agreed norms, both India and Pakistan cannot construct any kind of barrier beyond 150 yards of the zero line. This is the open area from where Ayub crossed over to India, missing the tiny white-coloured triangular pillars, which demarcate India from Pakistan. The odd-numbered pillars belong to Pakistan and the even numbered ones to India.

Ayub was lucky. But for an agreement reached between the BSF and Pakistan Rangers in December 2013, this error could have proved fatal for him. Any person coming from Pakistan is seen as an ‘enemy’ and BSF has clear instructions to shoot them down. After several cases of such ‘inadvertent crossers’, as they are referred to in official communications, came to the fore, the border forces of the two countries decided in 2013 that these people would be returned within 24 hours and without subjecting them to any kind of torture.

The agreement was signed between the then-BSF Director-General Subhash Joshi and Major-General Rizwan Akhtar, Director General, Pakistan Rangers of Sindh Province.

India and Pakistan have since not met for any DG-level talks. The forthcoming September 9-13 talks in New Delhi is still under a cloud of uncertainty, even though Pakistan has confirmed its presence.

Since the pact was inked, India has returned 15 Pakistanis who mistakenly entered India. Pakistan says during the same period (from January 2014 to August 2015) it has sent back 23 Indians who mistakenly crossed over. The maximum cases were reported from Punjab. Farming being the main source of livelihood here, one of the main reasons people cross over is the fertile land on both the sides.

As a senior BSF official in Punjab puts it, “if this agreement had not been in place, it could have proved fatal for Ayub. We understand that both sides of the border are heavily populated areas and people tend to cross over. It has proved beneficial for people living on both sides as we have to return such people within 24 hours.”

For the people living in the villages along the border and who tend to go beyond the zero line for the purposes of agriculture, BSF has provided them with identity cards. “The entry to the open area beyond zero line is managed by the BSF, which has put up gates at intervals. The farmers are first frisked when they are going to cultivate land and also when they come back. Since many of them are women, since 2008, BSF started deploying women personnel to frisk them. We cannot take any chance, since chances of smuggling drugs and other prohibited items are high in these areas,” said the BSF official.

Explaining the drill, which follows when a Pakistani has been apprehended, the official said, “through body language and other mannerisms, we come to know whether the person is up to some mischief or not. We blow whistle as a warning. If the person is not carrying any weapon or does not have any ulterior motive he surrenders. We then take him to joint interrogation centre where officials of other intelligence agencies also join us. We cannot take him to our Border outpost, since there is a chance that he could have been sent by the enemy to spy on our infrastructure. After all the agencies are convinced that the person is innocent, we inform our counterparts and return him or her within 24 hours. If any one of the sister agencies raise a doubt, the person is handed over to the local police.”

Another major takeaway from the 2013 meeting was the resurrection of 16 hotlines between the two forces. These fixed line telephone numbers were activated at the DIG level, all along the 2308 km-long Pakistan border running from Gujarat to Jammu, including the 192 km International Border in Jammu, (referred as the working boundary by Pakistan), which is manned by the BSF.

The Line of Control, which is 1,015 km long and falls in Jammu and Kashmir, is under the operational control of the Indian Army. Top sources in Pakistan government said they were ready for the DG-level talks and had even shared the agenda with their counterparts. “We attach lot of importance to humanitarian measures on the ground. People on both sides of the border should not be harassed unnecessarily,” said a Pakistan government official.

In fact, an Indian girl, Geeta, who mistakenly crossed over to Pakistan as a child and has been stuck there for a decade, could have been here had the National Security Advisor (NSA)-level talks between the two countries not been cancelled. Pakistan had made an offer to India of sending Geeta in a special plane along with its NSA Sartaj Aziz after talks with his Indian counterpart Ajit Doval on August 24.“Though a policy was formulated to streamline the cases of inadvertent crossers in 2013, this time we would suggest that such cases should be solved at the company commander level itself to avoid any unnecessary delay,” said the Pakistan government official.

He added that it was in the interests of Pakistan to have peace on the border with India. “We already have our western border with Afghanistan to take care of, as well as have enough domestic issues. Making the border with India volatile is not going to help us in any way,” he said.

Just how the coordination at the ground level works can be gauged from a July incident along the Rajasthan border, when Pakistan removed high-resolution cameras facing the border after the BSF objected to it. On July 16, the BSF unit in Barmer spotted some 11 cameras facing the Indian border gates; these had been put up well within 150 yards of the zero line, where any kind of construction by both countries is not allowed. “We immediately picked up the phone and called up our counterpart in Rajasthan. We suspected that the cameras facing our border gates were put up to keep a watch on our movement. The Rangers immediately removed them. These are all signs of active cooperation between the forces on the ground,” said a senior BSF official.

In August 2014, BSF trooper Satyasheel Yadav was rescued by Pakistan Rangers when the boat he was on accidentally strayed into Pakistan waters. Mr. Yadav was patrolling a river stream in Akhnoor sector of Jammu when the boat developed a snag. While his colleagues jumped out of the boat since they knew how to swim, he strayed into the Pakistani territory. The officer was returned within 24 hours by the Rangers. After being released from Pakistan and when he was handed over to the BSF, Mr. Yadav told reporters, “They [Pakistan Rangers] took my introduction. They helped me to the extent they could. They kept me better than what I had thought. I have no complaints. I am happy.”

A senior Pakistan government official claimed they had empowered their commanders on the ground to take decisions. “The company commanders on the ground are the best judges of the situation.”

Narrating a two-month old incident, which happened in Uri sector of Jammu and Kashmir, the official said, “The security forces found a 15-16 year old girl roaming in the no-go zone. We asked her personal details and found that she was an Indian. We immediately contacted our Indian counterparts, but they took two days to get back to us. Since we don’t have women personnel on our side, we kept the girl in the home of a villager. The girl was finally returned to India. They later told us that the delay was due to bureaucratic procedures.”

M.A. Ganapathy, joint secretary (Internal Security) of the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), said, “We are all for peaceful condition at our borders. It is always our endeavour to maintain peace at all our borders. Confidence building measures like return of inadvertent crossers are always encouraged by India and the government is sympathetic towards such people. The attempt is not to make them go through any unnecessary trouble.”

The confidence building measures are not always devoid of suspicion and tension at the border. In January this year, around 10,000 people living along the IB in Jammu were displaced due to heavy firing from across the border. The only difference this time was the BSF’s response. Unlike in the past, when the BSF used to wait for a call from Delhi to deal with “ceasefire violations”, this time the jawans were given a free hand to reply to Pakistan’s bullets. BSF soldiers posted in Samba and Kathua, the two districts that were the worst affected then, said the change came after the NDA government came to power.

“Ceasefire violations apart, we cannot let these incidents hamper the humanitarian pacts we have started. Sometimes Indian politicians give inflammatory speeches, which can translate aggressively at the sub-tactical level on border. Pakistan is becoming a victim of India’s internal politics. We have the right to retaliate too,” said the Pakistan government official.

Lost and found:

Since the pact, India has returned 15 villagers who strayed across; Pakistan 23

BSF mans 2,308 km long border with Pakistan, running from Gujarat to Jammu

In Jammu, 192 km, which is referred to as the working boundary by Pakistan, is manned by BSF, while the remaining 8 km are secured by the Indian Army

While India has put up barbed wires and fences along the border, 150 yards inside, no such infrastructure exists on Pakistan’s side

Barring a small portion in Jammu and Gujarat, floodlights have been put along the 1,952 km long border

May 5, 2014: BSF returned a Pakistani man who had crossed over in Mahwa, Punjab

June 19, 2014: An inadvertent crosser was returned to Pakistan Rangers in Paharpur, Jammu

August 2014: Pakistan Rangers rescued BSF trooper Satyasheel Yadav when his boat strayed into Pak. waters

December 10, 2014: Five men, part of a group who strayed into Indian territory at Shamike, Ferozepur in Punjab, were sent back to Pakistan

March 22, 2015: A Pakistani man, who crossed over to India through the Abohar border in Ferozepur, Punjab was handed over to the Rangers

April 10, 2015: A Pakistani man accidentally reached Sunderbani in Jammu and was spotted by BSF personnel. On him they found Rs. 453 and a tattered polythene bag with an old salwar-kameez. He was returned to the Rangers

May 2, 2015: A Pakistani man was handed over to the Rangers when he mistakenly came into Indian territory near Sheik Sarpal in Sri Ganganagar, Rajasthan

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Printable version | Apr 11, 2021 7:51:23 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/sunday-anchor/home-is-where-the-border-is/article7620260.ece

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