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Farmers till as two armies trade glares across Pakistan border

Surjeet and a few others like him are the only farmers in this country who have to till their land under the shadow of guns.

Published: 24th September 2016 10:42 PM  |   Last Updated: 25th September 2016 05:47 AM   |  A+A-

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A group of Indian farmers are escorted to their fields on the Indo-Pakistan border by a soldier of the Border Security Force. I (Vikram Sharma | EPS)

JAMMU: Surjeet Singh is a farmer whose land lies beside India's international border with Pakistan. Every morning, when he goes to his small patch, two soldiers from the Border Security Force (BSF) escort him. They stay with him the whole day till he is done.

Surjeet and a few others like him are the only farmers in this country who have to till their land under the shadow of guns, Indian and Pakistani, trained at each other.

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These are small pieces of land, totalling four 'kille' (one killa equals one acre), on the abutting the border fencing between India and Pakistan.

Each time Surjeet goes to his land, there's only one question on his mind: Will the Pakistani Rangers shoot me dead today?

It's not by choice that Surjeet and his ilk have to till this patch of land willy nilly. The BSF won't allow them to keep the land fallow because wild growth would obscure their view of the border and provide cover to infiltrators.

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And to add to tension, there are wild boars about, which attack crops and also the farmers. On the Pakistani side, the Rangers help out their farmers by shooting the boars but the BSF cannot be of similar assistance because wild boars cannot be shot in India. They are protected Wildlife Act.

Unlike their counterparts everywhere else in the country, Surjeet and his band of brothers would welcome it if government took over their land -- if reasonable compensation were given. But that is not happening.

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To visit Surjeet Singh in his field, you have to seek permission from the BSF, which they were more than willing to grant, in this correspondent's case. So, escorted by two armed soldiers, we set out from his village Kaku De Kotha village to Dhamala Nala where the small patch lies. Surjeet was clearly nervous, smiling only to be gracious. We arrive at his field after a tiring walk up and down hill.

Surjeet's farm hugs the border fencing, which is mandated to be 150 m from the actual border, called the zero line. From Surjeet's field, you can see the Chenab Rangers of Pakistan, dressed in their Pathan suits, heavily armed, glaring at you.

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Surjet is unhappy about being caught in the crossfire, literally. "About a year ago, they shot dead our sarpanch. He had gone to his fields. That is the problem with Pakistani Rangers. They open fire just for the heck of it. The BSF wants to cultivate the land come what may. But you see the situation here. Can any farmer cultivate here? It is my sheer bad luck that I own land here."

The BSF allows these farmers to grow anything -- but not anything higher than 2 metres.

Then what of the wild boars? As Surjeet explains his tale of woe, wild boars could be seen crossing over from Pakistan to India rather enthusiastically. Since they cannot be shot, the BSF personnel can only try to shoo them back.

"They always come back,'' complains one of the escort soldiers.

Among the many wargames India and Pakistan play across their border is one that might be codenamed Operation Wild Boar. Pakistani Rangers deliberately egg on the animals into India, where they serve to scare away the farmers, sometimes attack them and destroy the crop.

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These are reluctant farmers. Sevaram, who owns a neighbouring patch, says they often sow only to satisfy the BSF. "Our hearts are not in it,'' he says.

Over on the other side of the border, Pakistani farmers have it a lot easeir, it seems. "You can see their farmers working everyday. They turn on the radio, enjoy songs and do farming because there is no threat of fire from the Indian side, no wild boars to worry about," says Sevaram.

The BSF soldier accompanying the farmers was not pleased by this bit of ingratitude. "Over there, farmers do not have the freedom to say no to Pak Rangers. But here you tell us point blank that you are not interested in farming. We have to beg you. No farmer there can dare say no to the Rangers," he complained.

Sometimes, to gee up the farmers, BSF officers come by in shiny tractors to plow up the fields. It's not certain whether it brought much cheer to the farmers, but the soldiers enjoyed it. ''Over the last two months, we have even taken up ploughing for our farmers. Yet they are sceptical. We just have to keep a clear line of sight," one officer said at the border outpost.

Some key information on farming near Pakistan border areas:

No crops taller than two metres

Once upon a time these fields were forests, ideal for infiltration. "In fact, terrorists used to sneak in from the zero line by crawling into the forest, wait there till dark and then move forward into our area,'' explained a senior BSF official.

The whole area was ploughed up entirely to stymie the infiltrators

But what crops might grow where two nations are daggers drawn and cowering farmers sow and till with their hearts in their mouths? Mustard, rice, wheat or fodder are the choice of the farmers, but nothing that grows taller than two metres.

Left fallow, grasses such as 'sarkanda' flourish here, growing up to 10 feet in height. That would give cover to infiltrators. So when BSF brought its tractors to till the land for farmers, the Pakistan Rangers were clearly not happy.

When BSF used tractors to plough the field, the Chenab Rangers led by their commandant Gul Khan raised an objection and called for a flag meeting. The Pakistanis said BSF personnel plowing Indian farmers' land was downright an act of war.

Interestingly, farming on the Pakistani side goes on rather more placidly. One can see several farmers working close to the zero line everyday.

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