Since the recent uproar over the killing of two Indian soldiers, one of whom was beheaded, allegedly on the Indian side of the LoC by Pakistan army, I have been looking for a some sense of the real life near the line dividing the two countries.
All that was available in the media, except perhaps for The Hindu article by Praveen Swami, was deafening jingoism and war mongering.
The TRP-driven TV anchor, who has now become the butt of internet jokes, simulated a war from his plush TV studio against Pakistan, pitting a set of former Pakistan military officials against himself and out-of-work Indian officials, while a less popular channel tried to copy its big brother to ramp up its viewership. The once slick, but now aging, channel tried its best to look like Doordarshan and lost out both in terms of bluster and the kick.
Was the media attempting distraction, indulging in problems-reaction-solutions, and keeping the public in ignorance and mediocrity as Noam Chomsky once said? Or was it “massive propaganda for everyone to consume because consumption is good for profits and political establishment?”
The ten-heads-for-one bravado or and the stale threats of a strong offensive - one from a politician and other from the Indian army - didn’t mean much to me because I know that they don’t live anywhere close to the LoC. The real person who knows what it takes to live face-to-face with an enemy nation is the soldier on the border.
I was looking for one to speak to, and I finally found one.
The soldier I found was an absolute commoner in the Indian army, a jawan from the infantry to be precise. He served on the LoC, particularly in now-familiar places like Poonch, many times in all seasons.
He is one of the thousands of poor rural Indians who join the army not out of patriotism, but for a living. Like his thousands of peers, he also enrolled in the force at an early morning recruitment camp in a military base (perhaps even greasing some palms to get in) when he was 20, and worked in one of the most difficult terrains of the country.
The day he finished the mandatory years of service, he retired and ran back to his family. His first wife had abandoned him by then and his second marriage isn't working out. Pushing 40, he is now a private security guard in front of a city mall, like thousands of former Indian soldiers.
Here are some excerpts from my conversations with him, even as he guided cars and two-wheelers in front of the mall.
There is so much outrage over the killing of the Indian soldiers by Pakistan at the LoC. It sounds exceptional. Do you think it will lead to some form of a war?
Come on, such things happen all the time. You know what, the situation near the LoC is like two dogs barking at each other. There is constant firing and shelling from either side. Sometimes, it goes and on and people get killed. We have watched cricket matches while the Bofors guns went off in the background. It was just normal background noise for us.
I think it is a strategy to keep firing to keep the powder dry, people alert and exhaust the ordnance (laughs).
Is the hostility the same across the entire stretch of the LoC?
No, in some “posts” there is traditional rancor, I don’t know why. But we had been told that at such places, we don’t see eye-to-eye and that one has to be extremely cautious. It’s revved up even through drills. It is so scary patrolling these stretches at night because even a cough can result in instant firing. And people do die in such skirmishes.
However, in some other posts, the soldiers on either side are in fact friendly. They exchange food and some times cross over to have a meal and drink together.
Really? That sounds strange. That is not what we have seen in films or heard from the experts on TV.
Aha! Have they been to the border and lived there? And do you think the entire 700 plus km of the border looks the same? People and places are different. There are soldiers and villagers on either side. They are also people with emotions. I was there not because I was inimical to Pakistan, but because I couldn’t get any other job back home. Most of my colleagues were from very poor backgrounds and joined the army out of desperation.
In such case, do the villagers from either side really cross over? Isn’t the whole line fenced and electrified?
Yes, indeed. They do cross over. Not only them, but their cattle as well. It’s common to see cattle from Pakistan and India grazing on either side of the border. People getting back to their respective territories in the evening is a regular sight. After all, it is just a line - exactly like a line that separates my house from yours in a village. This people-to-people contact has been going on for generations. It’s not that they are out to fight because their countries are not in good terms. The soldiers on either side know that this is harmless and they don’t mind. It’s good for them if there is peace around them.
How can the whole LoC be fenced? It’s impossible because of the nature of the terrain. Yes, it’s fenced for most part, but at many other places, it is not.
Yes it is. But what you don’t realise is the extreme poverty that you see over there. You cannot imagine how poor the people are. I haven’t seen a poorer place than Poonch in my life. Because of the same reasons, they, particularly the women, also get exploited. It’s sad. The soldiers are generally good guys, but sometimes... you know what I mean.
Okay, let me go back to the firing bit. You said, at some posts, the hostility is real. Do soldiers get shot?
Yes, as I said earlier, in many stretches the hostility is maintained even artificially. In such places of frayed nerves, a slightest provocation can lead to firing and people die on both sides. Some times the firing lasts really long. The worse is injuries from artillery - I have seen many of my colleagues losing limbs or parts of the body getting blown up.
Such things should be happening. Sometimes, the soldiers don’t use guns to avoid the sound of firing. These are in those traditionally tense and fragile areas I have mentioned.
Soldiers die on both sides. The firing does lead to casualties. I am sure Pakistan is also losing people and we hear about Indian deaths because that is what matters to us. Perhaps one has to go and live there to see what’s happening on the other side.
Recently, there were also pictures of land-mines that Pakistan has allegedly planted on Indian soil. Do they do that even now? How do they do that?
There are mines everywhere and most of them are old. We had earmarked many places which are infested with mines so that people don’t step on them. They are dangerous. I have seen many cattle which have lost limbs because of these mines. We actually joke over cattle without a leg. I wonder why these mines cannot be removed even after so many years of the war. It shouldn’t be difficult.
So, the situation now is not extra-ordinary as it is made out to be. Am I right?
Yes, absolutely. High level of hostility and anxiety, and firing at each other as if it is a daily-ritual, is the reality at many stretches of the border. And people do die. Nobody is out there on the border because he is a Braveheart, but because he has no choice. Soldiers are also scared of death and injuries. When you are so tense, you tend to fire at the slightest provocation.
How did you manage to live through such stress so many years? You must be a nervous wreck by now.
Serving on these dangerous areas is unavoidable. Your returning unhurt is just plain luck.
I had befriended some officers and managed to stay away from field duty, on and off, by doing their household work. It’s menial, but at least I was safe. Everyone is looking for such safety valves. I have been lucky to get this “orderly” duty for a few years in different parts of the country - buying vegetables, cleaning house, serving the officer and his family, taking their kids to school etc. I am sure most of the soldiers will barter their courage for servitude if it can save them from death.
Who wants to die and become a TV-martyr?