You often read about ceasefire violations in the border areas of Jammu and Kashmir. If the death count is high - as high as five as was the case recently in a Jammu town - the report may appear prominently, probably on the front page of your daily newspaper. In other cases, it is relegated to inside pages as snippets. In any case, you read the reports and go about your daily business.
But back there, in the border areas, ceasefire violations mean a living hell. Residents live under constant fear of losing life and limb. When the shelling begins, often after midnight, they cower in fear, huddled in a corner of the house. Chilling sounds of gunfire and exploding mortars fill the air, along with the smell of gunpowder; windows rattle all night. The residents pray the heavy shells and mortar bombs don't hit them.
But they do.
Families often wake up to find their cattle dead and in a pool of blood, walls scarred with splinters, part of their house collapsed, their assets damaged beyond repair.
If they wake up at all, that is.
As many as 97 people, including 41 civilians, have died while 383 others injured in 834 ceasefire violations by Pakistani troops in the last three years in the state, as per the government data till February.
Of late, it is the border areas in Jammu that are increasingly under attack by Pakistan Rangers. In Jammu region, India shares a 198-km International Border (IB) with Pakistan from Paharpur on the Kathua-Punjab border to the Chicken’s Neck area of Akhnoor. Life in sectors like Kathua, Samba, Ramgarh, Arnia and Ranbir Singh Pura has been thrown into total disarray, thanks to these repeated ceasefire violations.
Swarajya recently visited Jammu's Arnia town, around 5 kilometres from the border and one of the worst affected, where residents talked despairingly of the repeated ceasefire violations since 2014.
They said the area was at peace after the 1971 India-Pakistan war. But since September 2014, shelling from across the border has turned their lives into “a living hell” as Pakistan has begun to directly target civilian areas up to 7 km from the border in Arnia. It's becoming worse by each passing year.
Most recently, on the intervening night of May 17-18, Pakistani troops bombed Jammu's Ranbir Singh (RS) Pura and Arnia sectors. Arnia bore the brunt as five people - four civilians and a Border Security Force (BSF) officer - died while 12 others sustained grievous injuries in the heavy mortar shelling and firing.
The slain jawan, identified as 28-year-old Sitaram Upadhyaya of 192 Battalion, was father of a three-year-old son and a one-year-old daughter. Two of the four civilians killed were a married couple.
Such attacks, described as "sudden and unprovoked" in the headlines, have instilled deep fear in the hearts of residents. They say they now panic even when celebratory crackers are burst during occasions such as weddings.
Many residents of Arnia town, home to about 18,000 people, have migrated farther from the border areas. As per a report, over 40,000 villagers of Arnia and adjoining border hamlets in Jammu have abandoned their homes to escape shelling by Pakistani forces.
Those who stay on, do so, either because migrating is not an easy option for them or they want to boost the morale of the security forces. "If we go, the officers will lose motivation to guard this area," Sumit Krishna, a 26-year-old resident, told Swarajya. Krishna runs a non-government organisation that, among other things, help victims of cross-border violence.
Their patience, however, is running out, they say, blaming the state's Peoples Democratic Party-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of ignoring them completely.
Their prime grudge is that Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti "doesn't extend them any help" even as she "shelters stone-pelters in Kashmir". "We are patriotic and will never go against our country. They, on the other hand, shout azaadi slogans and pelt stones at security forces. But while they are pampered and offered cushy jobs, we don't even get out rightful compensation," said Krishna.
Raman Chowdhary, a resident of village Chanana in Arnia, said that two months ago, he lost his cattle in shelling. It was the prime source of his livelihood. But Chowdhary said he has got no help from the government to get his life back on track. This, despite the government announcing a compensation of Rs 30,000 for large animals and Rs 3,000 for small animals to be paid in such mishaps.
Walls of Chowdhary's house still bear the marks of shelling. A handpump in the house too had got damaged. "Hum pehle hi kamzor they. Ab aur kamzor ho gaye (We were already financially weak. We have become worse)," he said.
Raghuvir Singh, sarpanch of Changia village, said the area saw one of the worst attacks in September and October 2017 when a number of civilians and BSF personnel lost their lives; in one case, cross-border shelling happened continuously for a week. "They target us on our festivals. On Bhai Dooj, mortar bombs rained all day," he said.
He said villagers get wounded and killed but hardly get any compensation from the government. "In some cases, the government gave a mere five-thousand rupees for the death of a young man. This is too low," he said.
One Ratno Devi of Alla village was killed on 17 September. A report narrated how her son Subhash Chandar ran from pillar to post to get the government job he was promised, but in vain.
Villagers say it is the BJP that has particularly let them down. "Jammu voted for the BJP. But what have they given us in return? Nothing," said Bodhraj Chowdhary, a villager, echoing the sentiments of many residents we spoke to.
The BJP had promised five marlas (1361.25 sq ft) of land for each border family in Jammu in the run up to the state polls, but villagers say those promises remain lip service. "They made those big promises for our votes. Later they were told by security forces that if villagers get the land, they'll migrate and it'll go against India's interest," informed a villager.
They also lament that all those statements "from Delhi" about giving "befitting replies to Pakistan" have only prompted more cross-border attacks on them.
Residents say they are willing to stay put but have several demands. They want land so they can build safe houses beyond the firing range. They want "individual bunkers" for their safety. But even they admit it's asking for too much when the government has not delivered even on the community bunkers it had promised.
In January, the Centre approved sanction of Rs 415.73 crore for building 14,460 underground bunkers for people living along the Line of Control and the IB in Jammu division.
But residents say the ones built over the last two years are not useful. Sumit Krishna gave us a tour of two newly constructed bunkers. "See, their approach is from the main road which defeats the purpose of these bunkers in the first place," he said. "We cannot even step out of the house when shelling begins, and it begins without warning," he explained.
"See, the bunkers have no provision of light or toilet. When it rains, water seeps in and we cannot even step inside. Snakes infest this place," he said, showing us the interiors.
The residents complain that the only primary health centre is located 4 km away, and no ambulance is available. They want a medical facility close by so they can rush the victims sooner.
"In the recent shelling (on 17-18 May), the victims were ferried to the hospital on a charpoy placed in a tractor. They could have been saved if we had had an ambulance to take them to the hospital quickly," said Krishna.
It's not just Arnia. Various reports have narrated similar tales of apathy from adjoining border areas in Jammu. Thanks to the intermittent firing, farmers suffer huge losses as they can't tend to their crops, children lose out on precious time as schools remain closed for days, and business is on a fast decline as residents are increasingly migrating out. If even the facilities demanded are not provided, they will be forced to permanently migrate, they say.
Even till then, it's what villagers call a “daily battle of survival” for them. Each night brings them face to face with death and no one, it seems, is bothered.
Swati Goel Sharma is a senior editor at Swarajya. She tweets at @swati_gs.
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