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Weapons, drugs and sim-cards

The dangers of farming on a neutral strip between India and Pakistan

Weapons, drugs and sim-cards

Harjinder Singh slouches over as he approaches the Rajok Outpost on the Indian-Pakistani border in northern Punjab. Under a row of security cameras, he passes a security guard, adjusting his uniform, and then moves past an L-shaped fence, along which are pyramids of coiled barbed wire. Today is November 5 - 55 days ago, a suicide bomber detonated 25 pounds (40 kilograms) of TNT near the Vaga checkpoint on the border between the two countries, XNUMX miles away, killing more than sixty people. The border guards are on alert.

Singh, a 30-year-old Indian farmer who can only be described as "skin and bones", leans against a sign that reads: "Glory to the soldier, glory to the farmer" and waits to be checked before crossing the fence, behind which are his rice fields - on neutral land adjacent to the international border. On such days, verification can take more than three hours: border guards remove seats and tires from tractors in search of weapons and explosives, rummage in lunch boxes to check for Pakistani SIM cards, and escort farmers behind the fence to prevent their possible communication with Pakistanis or with each other. “You can work in the fields with your brother, but you cannot tell him that you have a stomach ache until you are back in India,” Singh says. “This is our reality.”

For peasants like Singh living in the vicinity of Amritsar, a city about 30 miles outside Pakistani Lahore, division still looms on the horizon. The 1947 event that divided India and Pakistan was accompanied by the hasty drawing of a border over fields, villages and rivers, sparking protests and clashes that killed about a million people. The division also pushed people to the largest displacement in world history, forcing about 10 million people to relocate - Muslims to Pakistan, Hindus and Sikhs to India. Punjab, considered the cradle of Sikhism, a monotheistic religion based on the teachings of the 10 Gurus and Scripture, has become the only state in India with a Sikh majority.

In 1980, a wave of armed unrest swept across the state, the main slogan of which was a call for the creation of an independent Sikh state called Khalistan. In June 1984, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered troops to storm the Golden Temple, the main Sikh sanctuary in Amritsar, where the rebels hid. The result of the operation was the death of a 575 man, including pilgrims caught in the crossfire. Four months later, Gandhi was killed by her Sikh bodyguards in retaliation for the desecration of the temple, which in turn provoked unrest throughout the country, during which more than eight thousand Sikhs died.

During the struggle against the creation of Khalistan, New Delhi began to suspect that Islamabad was waging a war with someone else's hands and was training Sikh terrorists. India's first goal for a defensive line, according to Prakash Singh, who was Inspector General of the Punjab Border Force from 1987 to 1991, was to close the poorly guarded border by erecting a 343-mile barbed wire fence. Punjab surname). "Terrorism was at its zenith," he said, and internal operations against the rebels "were neutralized by the regular supply of weapons and explosives from abroad." Even today, terrorists in Khalistan, associated with the Lashkar-e-Taiba jihadist group, are said to live with impunity in Pakistani cities, including Lahore, the capital of the Pakistani province of Punjab.

The border crossing point "Waga" is located approximately halfway between Lahore and Amritsar. Every day at sunset, Indian and Pakistani soldiers march with ferocious expressions and draw attention by exchanging battle cries during the elaborate flag-lowering procedure. The ceremony, which was targeted by a suicide bomber on November 2, attracts thousands of jumping and screaming spectators on both sides of the border and acts as an outlet for barely contained outrage from the two countries.

Life on the golden plains of Punjab near one of the most dangerous borders in the world is paralyzed by fears - escalation of tensions between the two countries, loss of ancestral lands due to considerations of border security, being caught in a firefight during the use of force when someone crosses the border. In 2014, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, Indian Punjab border guards arrested at least 14 Pakistani border trespassers, killed three in clashes and confiscated more than 327 kilograms (723 pounds) of heroin valued at $ 270 million.

When the barbed wire fence was erected in the 1980s, he divided Harjinder Singh's fields - 15 acres remained in India, 15 in no man's land (between the fence and the control line). The half of the land behind the fence is under curfew from 8 pm to 6 am. The pass gives Singh the opportunity to enter his fields once a day, but he is only allowed to grow rice - no more than 30 centimeters, so that border trespassers cannot hide.

Thus, according to Singh, the land near the international border brings in half the harvest and profit compared to the Indian part. “They took food from our plate and gave us difficulties in return,” Singh says. He began to wear a short hairstyle (long hair in Sikhism is a symbol of piety and strength) in order to avoid humiliation from the border guards who search his turban.

In 2012, farmers from 1876 villages in the border zone, who own land next to the fence, filed an application with the Punjab Supreme Court, petitioning for the demolition of the fence. As an alternative, they asked New Delhi to compensate them for the loss of 34 thousand acres of land between the fence and the international border at current market prices for land.

In response to the petition, Jagat Singh, the Inspector General of the Border Troops recently dismissed from his post, said New Delhi was considering moving the fence closer to the Indian-controlled line. The fence is currently about 450 meters (500 yards) from the international border. He also added that the government does not consider it possible to take possession of the no-man's land, as it would be "a loss to the nation because the crop will not be harvested," and farming helps keep this strip free of weeds and discourages "anti-Indian elements." The petition is still pending in court.

During the construction of the 12 to 24 meter wide border fence at various locations (40 to 80 feet), the Korean Demilitarized Zone and the US-Mexico border barrier were used as prototypes, former Inspector General Prakash Singh shares. “Without a doubt, this fence made entering India and leaving Pakistan very difficult and dangerous,” he said.

Since May 2014, there have been at least seven cases of ceasefire violations, culminating in the presence of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the inauguration ceremony of the new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Hostility at the border - especially when an exploding mortar shell killed five people and injured another 25 in the Indian part of Kashmir - has led to a heated diplomatic dispute.

Living in Rorawala Kurd, a village overlooking a fence and watchtowers, Gurjiit Singh, a 27-year-old Indian farmer, says the authorities' games in New Delhi and Islamabad are far removed from the realities of life on the border. He recalls November XNUMX, when the walls of his house began to shake; a black cloud rose from the site of the explosion at the Vag.

“If we heard another sound like that ... we would have gathered what was at hand and ran away ... so would each of the inhabitants of our village,” he says, looking into the distance. He sits in a triangle of sunlight, watching his three-year-old daughter climb onto a swing made from an old scarf. “Before we buy a house, a sideboard, a bed - anything that can be called an investment, we have to think carefully,” he says seriously. "It cannot be ruled out that at any moment we will have to flee and save our lives."

Jaswant Singh, 53, who owns 25 acres on the Indian-Pakistani Rim and 30 acres in India, wants the Indian government to acknowledge the injustice that border farmers have to put up with. Building a fence means wasted time, dwindling income, and dashed hope for peace. “Anyone can leave anything on our fields - heroin, weapons, SIM cards. And we must be responsible for this, ”he complains. Singh tells stories of farmers who were beaten and jailed for drug bags found on their property in front of border guards, only to be released later. “They were only kept in jail because they owned farms where they dropped packages of drugs. I could be next, he thinks. "There is too much mistrust here."

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