February issue 2002
Walking into the Death Trap
The algebra of war and jingoism is strange. The war chatterers, who view the heroism of guns and missiles from a safe distance on glossy television sets or follow events on the internet, are the ones who support war as a manifestation of the strength and pride of a nation. That is not how the people living at close quarters of the war zones think. If left to them, the people residing in the firing line would never want war at all because they know that much of the brunt of hostilities and destruction has to be borne by either them or the families of the soldiers, who would never be able to decipher why wars are fought at all. Wars and hostilities have strange paradoxes. Those who want wars do not face their threat perception and those who don’t are destined to endure their pain, violence, ugliness and vulgarity.
As the government at New Delhi continues to build up a national war hysteria and India-Pakistan brace up for a military stand-off, it is the people in the border areas of Jammu and Kashmir who bear the brunt most, of the hostilities between India and Pakistan. What President Musharraf says or how New Delhi reciprocates is almost irrelevant for them as life is shaped not just by the political manoeuvres between the two countries but more by the build up of armed troops along the frontiers, that side as well as this side. This has been enormous in the last few months after the Agra summit and more so after the December 13 attack on the Indian parliament and the consequent war cries and increasing hostility between India and Pakistan.
Walk anywhere along the 1,000 kilometre stretch of the international border and the line of control that the state of Jammu and Kashmir shares with Pakistan and Azad Kashmir, and one would find the villages at the fringes abandoned and empty. They are almost out of bounds and a visit could well be ‘at your own risk’ with signboards on the paved pathways or roads leading to these villages saying ‘danger’. A major reason is the extensive mining operations that began in the fag end of 2001. Defence forces spokesmen from Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir state police chief, A.K. Suri, confirmed in the last week of December 2001 that heavy mining operations were going on and for this purpose villagers were being asked to evacuate. In less than three weeks time, mining in Hiranagar, Ramgarh, Samba, RS Pura and Akhnoor border belts (forming a stretch of approximately 300 kilometres of international border inside the Jammu region of the state of Jammu and Kashmir) was almost complete and the villages look like ravaged historic monuments, the people having moved to comparatively safer zones.
The Indian defence officials argue that this was a necessary military strategy and had to be undertaken in order to prevent further infiltration. But for the people of the area this may continue to be a nightmare for several more years to come if not for a lifetime, war or no war. Even after these people are able to safely return to their villages, they might actually be sitting on ticking time bombs even in their own homes and their own fields, with the threat of landmine explosions, consequent killings and injuries ensuring they slip into a prolonged fear psychosis for several years to come. These areas, which have seen comparatively peaceful times barring the three India-Pakistan wars and have remained less affected during the last one decade of militancy, were last mined during the 1971 war, the years following which saw a high number of landmine victims in these villages making many scared of venturing out in their own fields. In the month of January, seven accidental mine blasts have already taken place, killing five soldiers and a woman, besides crippling five civilians.
Mining operations are also going on in full swing along the Line of Control from Pallanwalla, Chicken Neck, Nowshera, Laam, Sunderbani, Bhawani, Kalal, Hangargh, Chingus, Kerni, Balakot, Krishna Ghati, Bhimber Gali, Mighla, Mendhar and other areas of Rajouri and Poonch frontiers, all of which have seen a high incidence of infiltration and exfiltration of militants in the last one decade and where perpetual firing and shelling ensures that these borders retain their distinction of being hotbeds of hostility and military warfare. Since the area is known for its infiltration routes, the army is believed to be plugging 87 infiltration routes from across the borders by infesting these areas with mines. For these areas, where mining has been a constant phenomenon in the last five decades, specially during the last twelve years of militancy, mining is not a new phenomenon, but the danger and threat perception is accentuated with every passing day. Landmines for the people in these border areas are almost a part and parcel of life, and accidental blasts almost as routine as the changing days of the week. According to rough estimates, 2,000 landmine victims were recorded between Rajouri and Poonch border areas alone, constituting a length of 300 kilometres, between 1947 and 1989. The border district of Kupwara has been no exception from 1947 till date. Some years back an army spokesman had confirmed that there are 51 minefields near the Line of Control in Kupwara district with a minimum of 100 landmines in each field. In a stretch of 12 kilometres of land, at least 5,000 landmines lay buried for decades.
Though there has been no exact survey of how many landmines have been planted in the entire state of Jammu and Kashmir and its borders there is every reason to believe that their use has extensively increased in the last ten years of militancy in the region with militants and security forces bringing the landmines to the interior from the frontiers of the borders. This has taken a heavy toll of the people, who are either killed or maimed and left at their own mercy in most cases. Strangely, the government of India has announced an ex-gratia relief of five lakh rupees and relief of 75,000 rupees for the victims who are killed and maimed respectively in militancy related explosions but for the hapless border residents who die in landmine explosions on the borders, the ex-gratia is settled at as little as one lakh and the permanently disabled get not more than 10,000 rupees. The government, with the help of some non-government organisations, aids them a little more by providing them artificial limbs, if they are lucky.
Over 10,000 mine explosions have taken place in the last 11 years and 1151 deaths have been registered including those of security men. In the militancy-infested areas, it is the people who are more threatened by the landmines, since both the security forces and the militants are known to use the people as a human shield while making their way from one place to another. Young boys are often handed landmine detectors to sniff the dangers of mines ahead of the ‘gallant’ forces or the ‘brave’ mujahids and thus avert a possible risk to their own lives.
Despite a very high incidence of deaths and destruction, the insanity of planting the landmines has been justified on grounds of military wisdom. The army uses it to plug infiltrations from across the borders, which ironically continue. The militants bring a huge stockpile of landmines from across the borders themselves because these are said to be “cheap and effective” weapons in waging war against the Indian security forces.
Despite a global campaign against the use of landmines, India and Pakistan are yet to fall in line with the anti-landmine convention to which 142 countries of the world are signatories. India has refused to sign it on account of the fact that this would lower its guard against the Pakistan offensive, and has joined the rank and file of the USA, China and Russia, who are notorious for their huge stockpiles of landmines. Pakistan, obviously in a tit-for-tat policy against India, refuses to be a signatory to the anti-landmine convention. In the midst of this senselessness it is human life that is being ignored.
Border villagers argue that it is not just human life that is endangered. The landmines could possibly be taking a heavy toll of their cattle. For the villagers who sustain themselves either through agriculture or cattle-rearing, especially in the hilly areas of Poonch, Rajouri and Kupwara, losing a cattle head certainly means a lot. The compensation paid for the killing of cattle is 400 rupees. Villagers dismiss this as peanuts since a single cattle head may cost 15,000 to 30,000 rupees. Over five lakh people in these border belts feel threatened by a probable war between India and Pakistan and many have started abandoning their homes, leaving their cattle behind to perish due to starvation, disease or due to accidental landmine explosions.
One lakh people are already said to have taken shelter in various camps with not even the bare minimum facilities in this bitter cold making their life a perpetual nightmare. Despite relief of one crore rupees announced for these border villagers, an effective mechanism has yet to be devised or go into force for proper disbursement of the amount. With an estimated population of more than five lakhs in the border villages, most of whom are feared to be displaced in the midst of the ongoing war cries and hostility, it remains to be seen how these villagers would survive with this meagre amount which would work out to 20 rupees per head and that too for just a day. With the given inflation, which is likely to increase if India and Pakistan are actually headed for a war, how many days would this amount last in the bitter cold with no shelter except for tattered tents or dilapidated school buildings which have been turned into migrant camps and no food to eat. There is no security for women and children, no schools and the fields are left unattended.
This has been the trauma of the villagers on the borders ever since the Kargil war, with the ups and downs of hostilities between India and Pakistan making these hapless people victims of an unknown destiny. Many in the agriculturally prosperous zones rue that there hasn’t been a good crop for the last over two years since migrations have been almost routine ever since the Kargil war, with incessant shelling and firing between the Indian and Pakistani forces, forcing them to retreat for some months. This time the farmers of the RS Pura belt, known for its famed basmati production, were forced to sell their crop and seeds at a throwaway price in a bid to survive this bitter cold winter, almost shelterless in the shabby camps far away from their homes.
In the backdrop of the fresh developments in the geo-political scenario, President General Pervez Musharraf having made a hard-hitting speech against terrorists and jihadis, the Indian government having cautiously welcomed the rhetoric and hoped for a matching action, the western world trying to allay the fears of an inevitable war, there may hopefully sooner or later be some sort of de-escalation on the borders on both sides of the dividing line. The five lakh people in Jammu and Kashmir, displaced or threatened by displacement, may find their homes and save their fields from turning into barren lands, their children may go back to school, but what about the landmines that have been planted. The killings of innocent villagers in landmine explosions will be treated casually and dismissed as a routine matter and mining justified as a military precaution. But military wisdom has always clouded a sense of natural justice and humanitarian prudence.
In fact, humanitarian concerns have not even accompanied such military wisdom as has been declared obsolete. Despite the promise of de-mining operations and minefield maps, many landmines, just as it happened in 1947, 1965 or 1971, will be forgotten for the villagers to walk into these virtual deathtraps, perhaps lying in the heart of their fields.
One practical problem in de-mining operations is that the landmine position could change due to erosion, rains and soil movement. Therefore, the later this is done, the bigger is the risk people would be exposed to. Another hurdle is the high cost involved in the operation of removing the mines. Ironically, planting a mine might cost as less as little 150 to 500 rupees but its removal could cost as much as 50,000 rupees in some cases.