On the wrong side of fence

The damned existence of border villages caught in the twilight zone between India and Pakistan

A selfie point at Manjakote, in the Rajouri district of Jammu and Kashmir, in February 2020. The cut-out of a soldier was installed by the Indian Army. Ashutosh Sharma
01 April, 2021

At first glance, Khetan Mohalla, in the Poonch district of Jammu and Kashmir, looks more like a fortified military installation than a village. A three-tiered fencing system known as the Anti-Infiltration Obstacle System, cuts through the dirt-track road that leads up to the village. Khetan Mohalla sits in the trough of the undulating terrain on the Line of Control—the de-facto border that separates India-administered Kashmir from Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Its residents live sandwiched between the AIOS on one side and death traps in the form of hidden landmines on the other side, towards Pakistan. For the locals, travelling outside their heavily militarised hilly village seems like going to a foreign country, each time.

Every time they have to move out of the village, the residents endure strict security screening at the first gate in the fence, which is manned by the army. The last gate of the fence is almost three kilometres away, at the edge of their panchayat, Kosaliyan. Residents I spoke to said that they are allowed to venture beyond the AIOS only after they submit their smart identity-cards and smart phones at a check-post adjacent to another fall gate. The villagers showed me these smart IDs, which are issued by the army. Apart from the tedium of the screenings, the gates remain open for them only for specific hours in the day.

When I first visited Khetan Mohalla on an early February afternoon in 2021, I was stopped at Kosaliyan’s outer gate. A soldier checked my Aadhaar card at the check-post, spoke to a senior officer on the phone, and eventually denied me permission. “We can’t allow you to go inside the village. There is gunfire underway,” the soldier told me, referring to cross-border fire between India and Pakistan. This would turn out to be the stock response at most such fenced-off villages during the course of my reporting.

A year ago, Khetan Mohalla had hit the headlines—on 10 January, five young men of the village, who worked as porters with the Indian Army, were attacked. Two of them were brutally killed. The Indian Army initially said that the men were killed and injured by a mortar-shell attack, in a ceasefire violation by the Pakistani Army, when they crossed over the fencing on the LoC. The army’s claim soon began to seem improbable, as pictures surfaced showing that one of the men, 25-year-old Mohammad Aslam, had been decapitated. According to media reports, two days later, unnamed official sources claimed that the Pakistan Army’s Special Services Group, a highly specialised operations force, had carried out the attack in the form of a “Border Action Team,” or BAT. The Indian establishment claims that BAT squads are comprised of SSG commandos and recruits from Pakistan-based militant Islamist organisations.

When I met Mohammad Sadiq, Aslam’s father, outside the gate at Kosaliyan, he had a different story to tell. “The attack took place at around 10.15 am ... while they were carrying goods to a forward army post,” he recollected. “First, there was a blast on their way. And afterwards, masked attackers fired at them from a close range.” Slowly, he added, “They took away my son’s head.” The other dead porter was 26-year-old Altaf Hussein, the son of Sadiq’s brother, Noor Din. Altaf’s throat had been slit. Sadiq’s son-in-law, Showkat Hussain, was among the survivors of the attack, but he had been critically injured. Sadiq said Showkat had been shot over 15 times, and his leg had to be amputated. “At around 2.30 pm, a group of 20 to 25 villagers went to the spot with a white flag and lifted the bodies. The funeral was carried out at night,” he said. These were not the first losses in the family due to the cross-border conflict. Sadiq’s niece had been killed in cross-border fire in 2002.

Aslam and Altaf are survived by their wives, who are barely over twenty years old. Both have two young children, each. Sadiq and Noor said that the local administration, the deputy commissioner of Poonch, had provided an ex-gratia relief of Rs 6 lakh to the aggrieved families. On 8 March 2021, the army, too, awarded compensation to Showkat and Aslam and Altaf’s families. In 2016, the ministry of home affairs had announced that victims and survivors of cross-border firings would receive aid to the tune of Rs 5 lakh from the central government, subject to certain conditions. In 2017, the Supreme Court had directed the army and the central government to create a suitable mechanism for catering to civilian porters injured while employed by the security forces. The following year, the army headquarters notified new rules that standardised hiring, medical care and compensation for the porters.  

I spoke to many villagers about the situation. There was a sense of resignation among them—this was their home and livelihood, even if it was slowly killing them. “The place where our boys were attacked, it used to provide us firewood and fodder, which was a livelihood source,” Sadiq explained. “With the onset of militancy and firing”—he was referring to cross-border fire—“we have lost access to such forested areas.” Sadiq said that this had led most of the young men to seek work with the army, often as porters, as there were barely any opportunities to find work in the village. In addition, he said, the restriction on movement due to the ever-present threat of violence and the extensive security apparatus made it impossible to work outside the village.

The AIOS was first installed by the security forces along the International Border with Pakistan and the LoC soon after Operation Vijay of 1999, commonly known as the Kargil war. India’s border with Pakistan is divided into three parts: the International Border, or IB, approximately 2,400 kilometres long, which stretches from Gujarat to the north banks of the Chenab River in Akhnoor, in Jammu district; the LoC, which is 740 kilometres, from Akhnoor to Point NJ 9842 in the Siachen region; and the Actual Ground Position Line, or AGPL, which runs for 110 kilometres in Siachen and demarcates the current position of Indian and Pakistani troops in the region. Pakistan refers to the IB as the “Working Boundary” to indicate the disputed status of J&K.

In the union territory of J&K, the IB stretches for 201 kilometres—from the Jammu-Sialkot sector on India’s Punjab-Jammu border to Jammu’s Akhnoor sector. Almost 190 kilometres of the IB is covered by the AIOS. The LoC is the ceasefire line agreed to by India and Pakistan after the wars of 1948 and 1971, and came into existence following the Simla Agreement of July 1972. The LoC is delineated on the map but not demarcated on the ground, and is managed by the Indian and Pakistani armies on either side. Almost 734 kilometres of the LoC is covered by the AIOS. However, the AIOS itself was set up a few kilometres behind the zero line—the point where India’s control on the territory ends—due to the stipulations of the Karachi Agreement of 1949. The Karachi pact established the first ceasefire line in Kashmir between the two countries, after the 1948 war. The pact stipulates that there can be no new defence construction within five hundred yards of the LoC, which is adhered to by both the armies, at least theoretically. The Simla Agreement does not address the defence construction issue at all.

The passage to Keerni, a village situated on the Line of Control, the de-facto border between India and Pakistan, in Poonch district of Jammu and Kashmir, in 2014. The village is one of several dozen in the region that has been surrounded by a three-tier fencing system known as the Anti Infiltration Obstacle System. The AIOS is one of several security measures adopted by Indian security forces along the border with Pakistan. Courtesy Ashutosh Sharma

According to information collated under the Right to Information Act of 2005 and from local representatives of Panchayati Raj institutions, since the AIOS was set up several kilometres behind the zero line, it left at least one lakh people in 60 villages on the other side of the fence, towards Pakistan, in the hilly districts of Rajouri, Poonch, Baramulla, Kupwara and Bandipora. Over the past one year, I travelled several times to over ten villages spread across this region. Though these villages are in Indian territory, the residents live as if in no man’s land. They eke out an existence in the midst of regular cross-border firings and the resultant deaths and maiming, as well as the destruction of property and infrastructure. In several low-lying villages of the region, people live at the mercy of the Pakistani military wherever it dominates the highest hills nearby. The rest of the villages have fared no better, with ceasefire violations on a steady uptick in the past decade. The all-pervasive security apparatus includes land mines and the AIOS. The areas between the LoC villages and Pakistan are dotted with military bunkers and other formations, and some of these exist even within residential areas. A majority of the region does not have regular communication networks for civilians. The combination of the security apparatus and cross-border shelling has destroyed local farming, foraging and trade, and led to constantly high levels of unemployment. In addition, the restriction on movement created by the AIOS has led to permanent social isolation.

Most of the welfare schemes targeting these villages exist only on paper. Often, the implementation of the schemes and the mitigation mechanisms are ineffectual, inadequate or ill thought-out—for instance, a recent notification on reservation in government jobs for affected villages on the IB included settlements which are almost six kilometres inside the border and suffer none of the hazards faced by villages like Khetan Mohalla. Across villages, the common refrain was the increasing lack of co-operation and high-handedness of the security forces, ranging from daily harassment at the check-posts, struggle for compensation packages, unilateral decisions over use of village lands and surrounding areas, and even court cases over the use of farming land. These rundown garrison villages have come to represent the seven-decade-old border conflict between India and Pakistan. Noor Din summed it up succinctly, when he said, “Unless there is permanent peace between India and Pakistan, for us civilians, there is no charm in living in a border village. The fear of death never leaves us.”

Life in these villages has become even more tenuous following the militant attack in the town of Uri, in Baramulla district, in 2016, which claimed the lives of 19 Indian soldiers. Since then, the border areas have witnessed a massive spike in ceasefire violations. According to the central government, as many as 5,133 ceasefire violations took place along the IB and LoC in J&K in 2020, up from 3,479 in 2019 and 2,140 in 2018. The statistics show that the reported ceasefire violations in 2020 are the highest since a 2003 truce agreement, when the militaries of both nations agreed to observe a ceasefire along the IB, the LoC and the AGPL.

Responding to growing concern over cross border activity, on 4 March 2020, the ministry of defence told Parliament that “Appropriate retaliation to the ceasefire violations, as required, has been carried out by Indian Army.” The ministry said that all violations of ceasefire were being “taken up with Pakistan authorities at the appropriate level through the established mechanism of hotlines, flag meetings, Directorate Generals of Military Operations talks as well as diplomatic channels between the two countries.” On 25 February 2021, the defence ministry issued a press note on the outcome of the meeting between the DGMOs. “Both sides agreed for strict observance of all agreements, understandings and cease firing along the Line of Control and all other sectors with effect from midnight 24/25 Feb 2021,” the note said. It also noted that “Both sides reiterated that existing mechanisms of hotline contact and border flag meetings will be utilised to resolve any unforeseen situation or misunderstanding.”

The constant threat to life led to a long standing demand of the border residents—land in a safe place for all residents of such villages. During the campaign for the 2014 assembly elections in what was then the state of J&K, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, which had just come to power at the centre, promised five marlas, or 6,806 square feet of land, in a safe place, for each border-dwelling family. A year later, however, the centre apparently changed its mind, and decided to build bunkers in the existing villages instead—the last time bunkers were built in this region was during and after the 1971 India-Pakistan war. According to media reports, the ministry of home affairs would provide funding for “bunkers in the border districts instead of allotting land, since shifting the population would hurt the national interest.” In December 2017, the centre sanctioned the construction of 14,460 individual and community bunkers for villages along the LoC and the IB in five districts. As per the home ministry’s annual report of 2018, the centre had sanctioned funds to the tune of Rs 415.73 crore for the construction and maintenance of safety bunkers.

Over three years later, the entire project seems to be a mess—ill planned, incomplete, poorly executed, rife with corruption, and in some cases, completely ineffective. According to a report by the news agency PTI, as of September 2020, a total of 9,900 bunkers had been constructed along the IB and the LoC in the five districts. Nishada Parveen is the chairperson of the Block Development Council of the Teetwal-Karnah block in Kupwara district. The 32-year-old was completely dismissive of the bunkers. “My block has 15 panchayats … and a total population of over 30,000, but the government has constructed only 120 safety bunkers and sanctioned additional 300.” She said that the number of bunkers is inadequate. The tehsildar—a revenue and tax officerof Karnah, Mushtaq Ahmed Khan, refused to provide details on the bunkers “since the information is related to national security.”

According to Parveen, “In the past two to three years alone, nearly fifty people have suffered injuries in cross-border shelling and firing.” She claimed that at least 15 people had been killed due to shelling and firing—despite several applications under the RTI act, the deputy commissioner’s office, the top-tier of district administration, failed to provide complete lists of conflict survivors and victims. “The villagers have to repair their homes twice annually,” she said. 

Even though the villages inside the fence seem to be at greater risk of shelling and firing, the family and community bunkers—which look like partly underground concrete structures—are largely being constructed on the Indian side of the fence. Adding to that absurdity is the fact that these structures have not proven effective when it comes to life security.

In July 2019, Mohammad Farooq, a 25-year-old resident of Karmara village at the LoC in Poonch district, lost three members of his family when a mortar shell exploded in the courtyard of their home—his 55-year-old father Mohammad Rafiq, his 45-year-old step mother Rafia Bi, and a 13-year-old brother, Irfan. “A shell or a bullet fired from across the border doesn’t seek permission before its arrival. It comes suddenly, unanticipated,” he said. Farooq added, “Who gets time to rush into the bunker?” And as seemed to be the case so often in these villages, these deaths were not the only tragedy in the family. In December 2001, when Farooq was six years old, a shell explosion outside their house had killed his 35-year-old mother Muneera Bi. As he spoke of his family, he showed me a newly constructed safety bunker near his home. The bunker looked like an unfinished, dark dungeon, without doors.

In Londi, a village at the IB in Hiranagar sector of Kathua district, a devastated family had a similar story. After spending a night in a safety bunker at their neighbour’s house, they had just reached home across the road when a shell exploded in their courtyard on the morning of 23 May 2018. The sole bread-winner of the family, Rampal Sharma, a 48-year-old, died on the spot whereas his wife, Sudesh Kumari, suffered splinter injuries and remained hospitalised for over a month. The explosion killed four cattle, including two milk yielding animals. After the incident, the rural development department constructed a bunker for the family in front of their dilapidated home.

Sharma’s son, 20-year-old Pritam Chand, told me, “At the time of incident, a lot of politicians visited our home. Union minister Jitendra Singh had promised me a government job.” Several villagers corroborated this. He said that all the leaders assured him that he would be provided compensation or a government job. The usual process for awarding compensation in cases like these involves the office of the deputy commissioner, who processes the cases, takes inputs from panchayat representatives and the police, and forwards the recommendations to the home department, which grants the relief. Owing to this process, there is a huge variation in the compensation granted across districts. On 3 July 2018, the office of the divisional commissioner of Jammu had forwarded Pritam’s case to the home department, requesting his appointment in a government job on “compassionate grounds.”

But over two years later, Pritam said, “Neither have I got the employment nor financial assistance from the government till date.” He told me that he “can’t even think of joining the army as I have to marry off two sisters and take care of my mother and grandmother.” He showed me his rough palms, and said, “Since the death of my father, I have been working as a daily-wage labourer.” Queries to the divisional commissioner’s office regarding Pritam’s case went unanswered.

Various local panchayat representatives have complained to the authorities about corrupt practices in the bunkers’ construction, the faulty builds, and in some cases where the work-executing agencies have left the construction of bunkers unfinished. In several villages, the bunkers fill up with water during the rainy season and remain flooded for months due to seepage. In August 2020, Jugal Kishore, the BJP’s member of parliament from the Jammu constituency, told the media that he had ordered an inquiry on the poor quality of the bunkers’ construction. When I spoke to him in March this year, he had forgotten his statement. He told me he will take up the matter with the deputy commissioners concerned, again.

In addition, in September 2020, the Lieutenant Governor of J&K, Manoj Sinha, ordered an inquiry report into the allegations and directed that a time-bound probe be conducted. The report on the status of bunkers in five districts, to be compiled by a committee of officers appointed by the district administration of Kathua, had to be submitted to the divisional commissioner of Jammu. However, over six months later, it is unclear if the probe was ever completed and no report has been submitted yet. The lieutenant governor’s office did not respond to queries on the status of the inquiry.

Nevertheless, over the past three decades, military infrastructure has grown rapidly inside these villages. This has restricted the villagers’ mobility and access to natural resources and posed new existential challenges. On 6 February 2021, the residents of two panchayats, Degwar Terwan and Bagyal Dara in Poonch district, clashed with the army-men at Malti Gate—the entrance to the these two fenced-out panchayats. Later that evening, I spoke to Raqia Bi, a 30-year-old resident of ward number six of Degwar Terwan.

I met Raqia at the Raja Sukhdev Singh District Hospital in Poonch. She told me she had brought her brother to the hospital after he was beaten up by soldiers of the Indian Army. “I and my brother, Mohammad Younis, were on way to the market.” She said that when they stopped at the gate to register their entries, a soldier manning the gate abused Younis. “My brother took offence and asked him, ‘How can you abuse me?’ The army man was of my brother’s age.” She added, “Within no time, all the army men came down from the check-post and started thrashing him. When I tried to intervene, I was also roughed up. A soldier hit him in the face with the rifle’s butt stock.” Younis had a severe eye injury and the doctors at the hospital had referred him to Jammu. Their father, Mohammad Bashir, is the village numberdar —a ground-level government functionary.

A few hours after the incident, the agitated villagers, including women, gathered at the checkpoint and held a demonstration. “They were pacified only after senior army officers came to the gate. But this is the third such incident in a row,” Haji Mohammad Bashir, 60, another resident of village Degwar Terwan and a relative of Younis, told me at the hospital. “We have brought him to the hospital on our own and are now taking him to Jammu. Neither the army nor the civil administration provided us a vehicle.” Bashir said that later that day, they went to the then superintendent of police of Poonch, Khalid Ameen, to register a complaint against the soldiers of 21 Garhwal Rifles, the unit manning the gates. The commanding officer “and a major of the army also arrived there,” Bashir said. “They told us not to file an FIR or a case, and said that ‘if our soldiers have committed a mistake, we will take action against them.’” Ameen declined to comment and asked me to approach the office of the senior superintendent of police. The SSP’s office had not provided any response at the time of publishing. The army, too, did not respond to queries.

Raqia said, “The army men at the gates keep picking up fights. At night, even when a patient has to be brought out of the village for medical treatment, they don’t cooperate.” She added, “Whether it is girl, young lady or an old woman, everyone has to undergo frisking. They behave as though they don’t have mothers and sisters at their home.” During the course of my reporting, on rare occasions, I had seen women police constables at such gates. Since the terrain is forested and hilly, and given the lack of transport facilities, women police constables also fear for their safety, and only stay at some gates for a few hours during the day.

In certain areas, the military apparatus completely overwhelms the villages—there are panchayats at the LoC that have huge fences of razor wires on both the sides. One such open prison at the LoC is Bala Keran, in Kupwara district. But these security measures, especially the landmines, are often counter-productive for the residents. Parvez Ahmed Mir, a local resident, lost his right leg in a landmine blast when he stepped on a hidden mine in January 2016. The 33-year-old told me that at the time of the incident, he was engaged by the army for the installation of another fence in front of the village. He said that the army had provided him financial assistance of Rs 8.2 lakh but he was the sole bread-earner of his family and was finding it difficult to make ends meet. “I can’t do hard labour now. I have three children, a wife, elderly mother and father—who is paralysed and bed-ridden.” He wanted the government to provide him a job, with a regular income, rather than a one-time compensation.

Anti-tank and anti-personnel mines were laid along the border with Pakistan during the 1971 war, during Operation Vijay in 1999, and then during Operation Parakram, a military stand-off between India and Pakistan, which involved massive deployment of troops along the LoC and IB in 2001, after a terrorist attack on the Parliament building. The mines remain there as part of anti-infiltration measures. Both India and Pakistan are not signatories to the Ottawa Treaty, signed by 164 countries, and also called the Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-Personnel Mines, which came into force internationally in 1999.

The fact is that, despite precautions taken by the security forces and civilians, landmine-related casualties cannot be averted. Rain, other natural hazards like earthquakes and even rodents end up dislocating these devices from their original placements, making it difficult to detect and demine them. Media reports also suggest that casualties among infiltrators or militants are almost non-existent, thus raising the disconcerting question of why the mines were installed at all. There seems to be no publicly available updated data on the number of mines in the erstwhile state of J&K, but according to a report of the former Planning Commission of India, as of 2003, the army had laid mines in 25,000 acres of land in the state. However, in November 2015, the then deputy commissioner Jammu Simrandeep Singh said that more than 30,000 acres of land was under active minefields in the Jammu district alone.

There are many survivors from border villages who have lost their limbs and eyes in shelling-firing and landmine explosions but have either received minimal or no assistance from concerned authorities. Some residents of Bagyal Dara showed me pictures of landmine amputees who have lost both the legs. Being unable to avail prosthetic limbs, many poverty-stricken amputees rely on rickety plastic legs or even wooden legs and feet, which are attached to the amputated legs with rags. In addition, the livestock of the villagers, which ensure some regular income to them, also fall prey to the landmines and cross-border fire.

Occasionally, the army and civil administration conduct relief camps for villagers who have lost limbs. On 25 March 2021, the army held an “Artificial Limbs Fitment Measurement Camp” for civilians who lost their limbs during “ceasefire violations and other incidents along the LoC.” As per a press note, 32 people from various villages of Poonch district were the beneficiaries. Similarly, the J&K Police had also held a camp on 10 March, in Poonch district—100 civilians, who lost limbs due to landmines and shelling, were provided artificial limbs.

Mohammad Deen, a 65-year-old resident of Keerni village, in the Poonch district of Jammu and Kashmir, walks across the dirt track of his village, in 2013. Deen lost his right leg and right eye in a landmine explosion almost three decades ago. He has never received any support from the administration and security forces, and still uses straw and wood as a makeshift leg. Ashutosh Sharma

However, several villagers told me that these camps are few and far in between, and the limbs provided are not durable. Mohammad Deen, a 65-year-old resident of Keerni village, on the LoC in Poonch district, lost his right leg and right eye in a landmine explosion, around three decades ago. Deen told me, “I was engaged at that time and about to get married. But the family of the girl called off the marriage after the incident, saying ‘ye ab khota ho gaya hai’”—he has become useless now. At least two other members of his extended family also suffered similar injuries in separate incidents. He told me that he has never received any help from the authorities. “Twice I went to these camps to get a limb but came back empty handed,” he said. He uses a straw cap to support his damaged leg, which bleeds frequently during the rains and in the winter months. Deen survives by begging for alms in Poonch town. “I walk for an hour on the dirt track to reach the fence gate and then walk another 500 metres to get a bus to Poonch,” he told me.

Parveen Akhtar, a resident of another village in Poonch district, Banmat, also said something similar. Akhtar lost her right leg in a mine explosion in 2003. After 17 years, the army provided her compensation of Rs 1.5 lakh. Her husband Khadim Hussain told me that a prosthetic leg barely endures beyond three months and in the past 18 years, Akhtar could get only three artificial legs. “I’ve to replace the damaged foot from the artificial leg with a wooden block and fix it time and again with the help of nails and cloth,” he said.

At least two senior bureaucrats of the local civil administration, who did not want to be named, told me that even they are usually not allowed to go inside fenced-out villages. They said that even for special occasions—elections, public gatherings sanctioned under government outreach programmes, among others—they had to seek permission from the army. And for the residents of these villages at the LoC and IB, the border guarding forces—the Border Security Force and the Indian Army—are the only face of the Indian government upon whom they remain helplessly dependent. A major grouse of these residents from Nowshera, in Jammu province, to Gurez sector, in the Kashmir region, is invariably social isolation. They told me that the residents usually marry within their villages only.

Parveen, the BDC chairperson, told me that villages from her block, such as Amrooi, Jabri and Tarban Seemari are situated inside the fence. “When women married outside the village pay visit to their maternal homes, they first have to get an endorsement letter from the police. Thereafter, someone from the family comes to the gate to identify them in front of the army.” Raja Tasleem, the sarpanch of Keran, which is another fenced-off panchayat at the LoC in Kupwara district, told me that in some areas such permissions have to be sought from the office of the executive magistrate first class, the tehsildar or even the deputy commissioner. Parveen said that “even when we have to take construction material inside these villages, we have to first take permission from the police.”

During the course of my reporting, I realised that there were no strict protocols for these permissions regarding movement. The protocols varied from area to area, and depended on the commanding officers and how much they chose to cooperate with the civilians. In certain cases, a reference of the sarpanch or local contractor engaged in Operation Sadbhavna would also suffice. Operation Sadhbhavna is an outreach project of the army in Jammu and Kashmir, and was launched in 1998 with an aim to bridge the gap with an increasingly alienated civilian populace. It includes welfare initiatives such as infrastructure development, education and health-care facilities.

In addition, the residents mostly do not allow their girls to pursue high-school education outside the villages. Several of the villagers told me that this was on account of security reasons and lack of transport facilities. They also said that a trust deficit between the soldiers guarding the gates and borders and local residents played a huge part in this outcome. 

The peoples’ frustrations also stem from the lack of any infrastructure development and basic state-sponsored services. In 1986, the central government started the Border Area Development Programme with an objective to meet the special needs of the people living in remote and inaccessible areas situated within ten kilometres from the border. The BADP functions as a confluence of several existing central, state, union territory and local government schemes in six key areas—basic infrastructure; health infrastructure; education, agriculture and water resources; financial inclusion; and skill development. Policy framing under the BADP is handled by an empowered committee comprised of senior officials of the concerned ministries and departments. In addition, state and union territory level screening committees—SLSC and UTLSC—oversee the implementation of BADP projects.

As per the annual reports of the ministry of home affairs, the central government released an amount of Rs 130.11 crore to Jammu and Kashmir for the year 2015–16 under BADP, followed by Rs 190.9 crore in 2016–17, Rs 198.89 crore in 2017–18, Rs 84 crore in 2018–19 and Rs 69.24 crore in 2019–20.  Pertinently, Ladakh has not received any separate funds since the bifurcation of the former state into two centrally administered union territories on 5 August 2019.

A dirt track leading up to Karmara village, in Poonch district of Jammu and Kashmir, in February 2020. The village was designated as a “model village” under Operation Sadhbhavna, a goodwill outreach programme of the Indian Army, which is focussed on welfare initiatives. Residents and local administration say that despite its status as a model village, there has been no infrastructure development whatsoever. Ashutosh Sharma

But almost 35 years after the BADP was set up, the border villages, especially along the LoC, still lack basic utilities like water, electricity, road connectivity, phone networks, healthcare and educational facilities. For instance, the entire Keran tehsil—an administrative division, which encompasses a sub-district within the area of a district and serves as its administrative centre—does not have landline connectivity or mobile phone networks till date. Officials of the deputy commissioner’s office in Kupwara told me that the civil administration uses wireless radio communication systems for all official communication in the tehsil. Similarly, the father of the deceased porter in Khetan Mohalla, Noor Din, told me, “We have to go to distant places to fetch water as we don’t get piped water supply. In the wake of cross-border fire, we face acute water shortage as we can’t venture out. We don’t have transport or proper road facility.”

Parveen, the BDC chairperson, also decried the lack of development infrastructure in her area. “It has been over 30 years since we have been demanding construction of a tunnel at the Sadhna Pass on the Kupwara-Tangdhar highway. Every year, we remain cut off from Kupwara and rest of the world during winters due to snowfall,” she said. She also mentioned a weekly helicopter service started by the Jammu and Kashmir government in 2017, with subsidised fares between Srinagar and the border areas of Kupwara, Machil, Keran and Tangdhar, as a case in point. These routes have been partially stopped—service to Keran was stopped in February 2019, and Machil in February 2020.  

Raja Tasleem, the Keran sarpanch, told me there are seven villages in his panchayat with a total population of around two thousand. “All the villages in my panchayat are without electricity, phone and proper road connectivity. The situation in the nearby Pathroo panchayat, whose five villages are across fence towards Pakistan, is no different.” Tasleem also lamented the indifferent attitude of the government towards the conflict survivors. “There are over 30 landmine amputees and over 15 people who have lost limbs in shelling since 1996. All that they have received as financial assistance was Rs 5000 to 7000 from local administration or the Red Cross Society.”

Another panchayat in the Kupwara district, Teetwal, is located at the LoC, with a total population of 3,400 people. Its sarpanch, Abdul Rashid Khokhar, shared a letter that he had handed over to the former LG GC Murmu, in July last year. “The rural development department hasn’t commissioned even a single development work inside the fenced villages till date,” he said. “Government higher secondary school Teetwal doesn’t have a building even though it has over 400 students. The school runs from a tin-shed that was built by a charity organisation after the 2005 earthquake.” Even the local hospital is lying defunct. He added, “The residents are maintaining and running an ambulance service on their own.” However, Khokhar told me that in 2020, the army gave the panchayat “Rs 22 lakh under Operation Sadhbhavna for the construction of an irrigation canal.” 

When I spoke to Mushtaq Ahmed, the tehsildar of Karnah—the panchayat of Teetwal comes under the Teetwal-Karnah block—about Khokhar’s concerns, he told me “the issue was brought to my notice recently.” He added, “I have sent a written communication to the deputy commissioner explaining that the hospital needs doctors and other staff to make it functional. The issues concerning the ambulance service will also be addressed soon.” 

On 11 March 2020, the department of border management, which comes under the union home ministry, issued a new set of guidelines regarding the BADP. As per the new rules, the border guarding forces would now be a part of the BADP at every level—planning, execution, monitoring. Priority would be given under the BADP to the projects identified by the border guarding forces in strategically important villages and towns. But the residents of these villages and activists say the co-opting of the security forces has only worsened the situation. 

Rattan Chand, a resident of Hiranagar in Kathua district, is the chairman of its Border Welfare Committee. These committees are civil-rights groups and have chapters in several border towns in the region. “The officers of the Border Security Force would hold regular meetings with the civilians earlier to redress local grievances but the practice was abandoned almost three to four years ago,” he told me. Kamaljit Singh, a Poonch-based human-rights activist, also pointed towards a largely missing interface between the border guarding forces and the local residents. “Earlier the screening committees comprising senior officers of the security forces and civil administration would hold regular meetings for granting financial compensation to the victims of border conflict,” Singh told me. He added, “But this practice was stopped four to five years ago.” The BSF and the army did not respond to queries regarding these meetings. 

Rattan also brought up another issue plaguing the villagers vis-à-vis the border guarding forces—agricultural land which has been taken over or acquired for security purposes, or rendered useless due to the AIOS or other security infrastructure. “The BSF officers don’t cooperate with the revenue authorities and the civil administration as a result of which the farmers are not getting financial compensation against their agricultural land,” he lamented. “The government would do well if it takes over the entire land and provides compensation to all the farmers through one-time settlement scheme.” Seeming utterly frustrated, he added, “It can then plant additional land mines to check infiltration from across the border or develop nurseries.” 

Bharat Bhushan Sharma is the vice president of the Border Welfare Committee in Kathua. In 2018, Bharat and the committee, along with a few other residents of border villages in Kathua, had filed a petition in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court and demanded that the security forces give back agricultural land that is lying vacant. Bharat told me that Sinha had visited his panchayat, Bobiya soon after his appointment as the lieutenant governor. Bharat said that he brought up the issue of agricultural land with Sinha. “But the BSF had already given him wrong information. The BSF has also filed a misleading reply in response to our petition in the high court.” 

As per court records, the BSF said that farmers do not want to cultivate land across the fence. Bharat said that the BSF was trying to evade the fact that “they have stopped allowing us to work on our farms across the fence since 2013, when they didn’t let us harvest mature standing wheat and mustard crops following killings of five Indian soldiers in an ambush attack at the LoC in Poonch sector.” The BSF’s response to the petition also said that the petitioners had not provided the “khasra numbers,” or plot numbers, of the affected land parcels. Bharat explained, “Over the years, the BSF has ploughed the entire area across the fence with bullet-proof tractors, removing all the demarcations that separated the farms. Now, the farmers don’t even know the exact location of their farms.” 

He said that he spoke with local officials in the revenue department and filed RTI applications which revealed that “the AIOS along the IB in Kathua, Samba and Jammu district have left 40,267 kanals (5033.37 acre) of over 100 villages of agricultural land on the other side towards Pakistan, affecting over 50,000 people economically.” He added, “With the frequent detection of cross-border tunnels along the IB in recent months, there is little hope that the BSF will allow us to go across the fence and cultivate land.”

Bharat was also highly critical of some of the UT government’s recent overtures towards the border villages. On 22 February 2021, Sinha’s administration notified 43 villages along the IB for reservation in jobs and higher education on a same pattern as available to the LoC residents. Bharat said the move seemed to have a political agenda. “The government has brought even those villages which are situated at a distance of more than six kilometres from the border in the ambit of reservation.” He added, “The objective of the reservation is to compensate those students whose villages come under fire regularly as a result of which their education suffers.” He echoed a lament of LoC residents and said, “The government must set up screening committees for the issuance of reservation certificates. The benefit must not be extended to those who have migrated from the border areas and are living a secure life in towns and cities.”

As the litany of tragedies continues in these areas, some of them have become ghost villages. In the early 1990s, the army vacated some frontline villages at the LoC in Poonch and Kupwara. One of these was Keerni, in Poonch district. Around three hundred families of this village, almost half of the population, went across the LoC in the early 1990s—half of the village is currently under Pakistan’s control. It took almost two decades for the remaining families to be able to come back to their homes, in 2010, after the fence had been built. Many others continue to wait.

Abdul Qayom Khan, the sarpanch of Sawjian-B in Poonch district, told me, “Over 30 families from Chaprian village and eight to nine families from Karli-Dhok village were vacated in my panchayat. These families had to build their homes three kilometres behind their villages without any assistance from the government.” Similar to Keerni, half of Chaprian and Karli-Dhok is now under Pakistan’s control. Khan added, reprovingly, “In the past two to three decades, the military infrastructure on our lands has increased manifold but we don’t get any financial compensation. We are completely exhausted after making rounds of government offices for years.” He told me that development work in his panchayat has come to a halt as he does not have a computer and internet connection. “Several developmental works such as electrification stand sanctioned in papers but to no avail,” he said. 

Khan was not hopeful of any change in his panchayat’s fortunes and was worried about the younger generation and their sources of livelihood. He said that now, “the gates in the fence are opened only for a few months in a year. The army allows just one person from a family to go inside for grazing cattle, collecting firewood-grass and cultivating land for a few hours.” This fear for the future echoed all across the region. Khokhar, the sarpanch of Teetwal, told me that in his panchayat, “over 3,000 people live inside the fence towards Pakistan. There are at least 50 to 60 young graduates who are unemployed.” He added, “The road infrastructure and electricity scenario is way better at a stone throw distance across the Kishanganga River in Pakistan. We are stuck in the 1947 era.”

Teetwal used to be a major commercial hub before it was partitioned between India and Pakistan, and has an uncanny claim to fame which resonates even today. Saadat Hasan Manto, a noted Urdu writer of the sub-continent, wrote a short story titled, Teetwal Ka Kutta, The Dog of Teetwal. Set in the aftermath of 1947, the story talks about a lingering military stand-off between Indian and Pakistani soldiers entrenched in their positions along a newly drawn border, in a mountainous area. One day, as the conflict drags on, the soldiers finally shoot dead a friendly dog that sought to befriend the soldiers on both side of its home. 

(The reporting was supported by the NFI media fellowship for independent journalists)