The dangers and injustice of farming the no-man’s land between India and Pakistan.
- By Mansi ChoksiMansi Choksi is a journalist based in Dubai. Follow her on Twitter: @mansi_choksi.
AMRITSAR, India — Harjinder Singh slouched as he approached the Rajoke outpost at the India-Pakistan border in the northern Indian state of Punjab, past a security guard adjusting his trousers, under a row of surveillance cameras, and then along an L-shaped fence lined with pyramids of coiled barbed wire. It was Nov. 7; five days earlier, a suicide bomber detonated 55 pounds of explosives near a Pakistani paramilitary checkpoint at the Wagah border crossing 40 miles away, killing over 60 people. Border security was on high alert.
Singh, an Indian farmer, 30, who appears to be mostly legs and shoulder blades, leaned on a sign that read, “Hail the soldier, hail the farmer,” and waited to be checked before crossing the fence to work on his rice fields in a no-man’s land that straddles the international border. On days like this, security checks can take more than three hours: border guards removed and reinstalled tractor seats and tires, looking for explosives and arms; scoured lunch boxes to check for Pakistani mobile cards; and escorted farmers across the fence to keep the Indians from interacting with the Pakistanis, or each other. “You could be working on the field with your brother but you can’t tell him you have a stomachache until you’ve crossed [back] into India,” Singh said. “That’s how things are here.”
For villagers like Singh, who live around Amritsar, barely 30 miles from the Pakistani city of Lahore, Partition still looms. That 1947 event, which separated India from Pakistan, was accompanied by a hastily drawn border that cut across fields, villages, and rivers — sparking riots that killed an estimated 1 million people. Partition also prompted the largest mass migration in human history, forcing roughly 10 million people to move: Muslims to Pakistan, Hindus and Sikhs to India. Punjab, considered the birthplace of Sikhism, a monotheistic religion based on the teachings of 10 gurus and a holy scripture, became the only Indian state with a Sikh majority.
During the 1980s, a militancy to create a separate Sikh country called Khalistan swept through the state. In June 1984, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered Indian forces to storm the Golden Temple, the holiest Sikh shrine in Amritsar, where militants were hiding. The operation resulted in the deaths of 575 people, including pilgrims caught in the crossfire. Four months later, Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards in a retributive attack for desecrating the shrine, which in turn prompted riots across the country that resulted in the deaths of more than 8,000 Sikhs.
During the militancy for Khalistan, New Delhi grew suspicious that Islamabad was fighting a proxy war and training Sikh terrorists. India’s first line of defense, said Prakash Singh, who served as inspector general of the Border Security Force in Punjab between 1987 and 1991, was to seal the porous border by erecting a 343 mile-long barbed fence. (Singh is a common last name in Punjab; the Singhs in this story are unrelated.) “Terrorism was at its peak,” Prakash Singh said, and domestic counter-militancy operations “always got neutralized by the regular supply of arms and explosives pouring in from across the border.” Even today, Khalistani terrorists with ties to the jihadi outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba reportedly live with impunity in Pakistani cities including Lahore, the capital of the Pakistani province of Punjab.
The Wagah border crossing lies roughly halfway between Lahore and Amritsar. At sunset each day, goose-stepping Indian and Pakistani soldiers, wearing coxcomb headgear and ferocious expressions, snap to attention, high-kick and exchange martial cries at an elaborate flag-lowering ceremony at this border gate. The demonstration, which the Nov. 2 suicide bomber had targeted, attracts thousands of bobbing and shouting spectators on each side of the border, acting as a vent for simmering resentment between the two states.
Life in the golden-haired plains of Punjab near one of the world’s most dangerous borders is paralyzed by fear — of escalating tensions between the two countries, of ancestral land being snatched away for border security, of being caught in crossfire during a crackdown on infiltration. In 2014, the Indian border security arrested at least 14 Pakistani infiltrators, killed three in encounters, and seized over 723 pounds of heroin valued at $270 million at the Punjab border, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, a research wing of the Institute of Conflict Management, a New Delhi think tank.
When the barbed fence was raised in the mid-1980s, it divided Harjinder Singh’s fields into two — 15 acres in India, 15 acres in no-man’s land (between the fence and the actual line of control) — almost 40 years after Partition divided his family’s fields between India and Pakistan. Half his land, across the fence, is now under curfew between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m.
An identification pass gets him entry to his fields across the fence once a day, but he has permission to cultivate only rice — nothing taller than three feet — so that infiltrators can’t camouflage themselves in his fields.
This makes his land at the international border half as profitable as that in India, Singh said. “They took away the food from our plate,” Singh said. “And gave us hardship in return.” Singh began wearing his hair short (long hair is a symbol of piety and strength in Sikhism) to avoid the humiliation of border guards patting down his turban, he said.
In 2012, farmers from 1,876 villages in the border zone who own land across the fence petitioned a high court in India’s Punjab, pleading that the fence be removed, or that New Delhi compensate farmers for the 34,000 acres between the fence and the international border — with the current market rate for agricultural land.
In a reply to the petition filed by border farmers, Jagat Singh, who was recently replaced as inspector general of the Border Security Force, said New Delhi was considering moving the fence closer to the actual line of control. It currently stands approximately 500 yards into Indian territory from the international border. He added that it was not feasible for the government to acquire the no-man’s land between Indian and the border with Pakistan because it would be a “loss to the nation as agricultural yield would not be harnessed” and that farming helped keep the land clear of wild growth and deterred “anti-national elements into Indian territory.” (The petition is still being argued in court.)
The Indian fence, measuring between 40 and 80 feet in width, is modeled along the Korean Demilitarized Zone and the U.S.-Mexico border barrier, the former inspector general Prakash Singh said. “It is by no small measure that the fence made infiltration and exfiltration an extremely difficult and hazardous proposition,” he said.
Since May, there have been at least seven instances of cease-fire violations across the India-Pakistan border — marking the end of a brief spell of bonhomie culminating in Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s May attendance at Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony. Cross-border hostilities — especially after a mortar shell firing killed five and injured 25 on Oct. 6 in an Indian part of Kashmir — led to a heated diplomatic row.
In Rorawala Khurd, a village within sight of the barbed fence and watch towers, Gurjeet Singh, 27, an Indian farmer, said power games in New Delhi and Islamabad were far removed from the reality of living on the border. He recalled Nov. 2, when the walls of his home began shaking; a black cloud rose from the blast site at Wagah.
“If we had heard another noise … we would have picked up whatever we saw and run … every single one of us in this village.” he said, gazing into the distance.
He sat in a triangle of sunlight watching his 3-year-old daughter climb into a swing fashioned out of a discarded scarf. “Before we buy a house, a cupboard, a bed, anything that is an investment, we need to think hard,” he said. “Because we may have to run for our lives at any moment.”
Jaswant Singh, 53, who owns 25 acres across the fence in the no-man’s land between India and Pakistan and 30 acres in India, wants the Indian government to recognize the injustice farmers at the border learn to live with. The fence has meant lost farming time, dwindling income, and shattered peace of mind, he said. “Anyone can leave anything on our fields — heroin, arms, mobile chips. And we have to take responsibility for it,” he said.
He told stories of farmers being beaten and jailed for packets of drugs discovered on their fields in the presence of border security guards — only to be later acquitted. “They are kept in jail only because they own the farms where packets of drugs were dropped. I could be next,” he said. “There is too much mistrust here.”
NARINDER NANU/AFP/Getty Images