Suchetgarh, a Border Village That Remains Under the Long Shadow of War

Suchetgarh residents, whose lives have seen numerous disruptions due to the prolonged India-Pakistan conflict, rue that they have been left to fend for themselves without any government support.

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Bahadur Lal with his family members at their home in Suchetgarh village. Credit: Ashutosh Sharma

Jammu: On October 25, just before the evening sun was beginning to fade over Suchetgarh – a small village in R.S. Pura sector in Jammu and Kashmir located on the international border with Pakistan which is densely dotted by military apparatus – the air in the winding lanes suddenly became thick with fear and distress.

Every thud of exploding mortar shells and sound of gunshots whizzing by in the neighbourhood would take the collective anxiety level of the village a notch higher. Amid growing uncertainty, Bahadur Lal, 62, hurriedly left his humble home to look for a tractor-trolley to move his family out of the conflict zone.

However, before he could walk three or four steps, at least three mortar shells – fired from across the border – landed in the garrison village one after the other. Even though the first one – which crashed into Darshan Lal’s house – didn’t go off, the second ripped through the wall of an empty government school, killing a buffalo right away. The third shell exploded in Bahadur’s house, leaving six members of his family and two close relatives writhing in pain. His livestock also got injured, one of which later succumbed to its injuries.

Bahadur and his family returned home after spending a month at the Government Medical College and Hospital, Jammu. Other villagers too had to abandon their homes and take shelter in local government schools in R.S. Pura and in camps set up by the local administration for more than a month.

Now that the guns have fallen silent, what is playing out for border residents across the village is a daily battle for survival. The villagers – mostly farmers – seem engrossed in routine chores, working even harder to make up the lost days and nights. This, however, is not the first time that trying times have fallen upon them.

The border residents, in fact, have lost count of the disruptions their lives have undergone due to the prolonged border conflict between India and Pakistan.

Left in the lurch

A giant arc shaped signboard – weather-beaten and rusted – over the blacktopped road that cuts through a vast tract of agricultural land, welcomes one at the entrance of the village with barely readable words – Model village Suchetgarh, block R.S. Pura, Rural Development Department, Jammu and Kashmir. The village is home to about 208 families.

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The entrance to Suchetgarh. Credit: Ashutosh Sharma

When Bahadur’s family was in the hospital, chief minister Mehbooba Mufti and several other ministers and politicians visited to assure them of “all possible help.” But today, they rue they have been left to fend for themselves.

As the family once again struggles to get into the routine of daily life, Bahadur recalls the recent horrors. “It took me several minutes to come to terms with myself and whatever had befallen us within no time,” he said while sitting on a charpoy at his house that was battered by splinter marks.

“Neither the army nor the BSF men came to our rescue despite several pleadings with folded hands,” Bahadur said bitterly. Surrounding him were both his daughters-in-law, who were recovering from multiple splinter injuries, and his two granddaughters – Shakshi, 12, and Sanjana, nine.

While Sakshi has lost vision in one eye, Sanjana had to undergo multiple abdominal and leg surgeries. “Drenched in their blood, little girls [Sanjana and Sakshi] were rushed to the hospital on a motorcycle whereas others were evacuated with the help of a locally arranged car,” he says.

Ironically, the government claimed to have made all the arrangements for transporting border residents during the flare-up besides stationing ambulances to evacuate the injured villagers.

“I’ve spent over Rs 1.5 lakh on the medical treatment of my family members so far. And it’s still going on,” Bahadur said. “We haven’t received any help from any quarter except for Rs 10,000 from civil administration and Rs 5,000 from Indian Red Cross Society. We are treated as second class citizens here.”

Routine hustle and bustle has returned to the winding streets of Suchetgarh village after entire village had to be vacated due to the border flare-up at the end of October 2016. Credit: Ashutosh Sharma

Routine hustle and bustle has returned to the winding streets of Suchetgarh village after entire village had to be vacated due to the border flare-up at the end of October 2016. Credit: Ashutosh Sharma

Just like Bahadur, many people belonging to war refugee families, who came from the bordering areas of Pakistan’s Punjab province in 1947, 1965 and 1971 have inhabited Suchetgarh. They don’t enjoy citizenship rights since Jammu and Kashmir has a special constitutional status in the country which has denied them certain rights. Besides experiencing other issues, they cannot participate in panchayat and state assembly polls or avail state government jobs and the benefits of centrally-sponsored welfare schemes.

Farming woes  

This year, the farmers in Suchetgarh could not harvest their Kharif crop in time, which led to a drastic decline in the total yield. Also, Rabi crops, which are generally sown in October, couldn’t be sown at the scheduled time as farms remained unirrigated for a long time.

“Last year, I had harvested 90 sacks of rice. This year we harvested only 19. We’re yet to arrange fodder for cattle.. Since we’ve to visit hospitals for regular check-ups of injured family members, half of our farmland across the fence is going to remain uncultivated this time.”

A farmer tends to his cattle on a family farm in Suchetgarh village. Credit: Ashutosh Sharma

A farmer tends to his cattle on a family farm in Suchetgarh village. Credit: Ashutosh Sharma

After the Kargil War, the fertile agricultural land of the farmers has become dotted with guard towers, barbed wires, security checkpoints, fall gates, barriers, ditch-cum-bunds and landmines in the border areas. Ironically, farmers don’t get any financial compensation against the losses incurred every year.  The Anti-Infiltration Obstacle System – a fence that is usually about 12-15 feet in height and nearly ten feet in width, and is made up of coils of concertina wires – has been set up several kilometres behind the zero line. As a result of this, the entire agricultural land of several of the farmers is now on the other side of the fence towards the Pakistani side.

“My entire farmland measuring 32 kanals is across the fence. This time more than half of land remains unploughed so far,” Bagga Ram, 50, said. “My father should have settled down in Punjab after he left Sialkot in Pakistan (hardly four kilometers from Suchetgarh). We’d have been better off over there.. Our people live and die in abject poverty here. No matter what, our hard toil doesn’t count?”

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Bagga Ram, whose farm is across the fence towards the Pakistani side, says agriculture is fast becoming an unprofitable venture due to frequent border skirmishes and damage caused to crops by wild animals. Farmers have reportedly not been allowed to stay on their farms to ward off animals after the sunset. Credit: Ashutosh Sharma

“Over the past few years, it has become a trend. We cultivate and sow our farms but at the time of harvest, we have to run for life to escape gunfire and shelling,” he rued just as a group of farmers pensively nodded in agreement. “Due to frequent border skirmishes, agriculture is fast becoming unprofitable, and then there are wild animals which cause severe damage to our crops and we’re not allowed to stay on our farms after the sunset.”

Life goes on

On a typical day, when there is relative peace and sky is not overcast, farmers are allowed to work inside the fence only for a specific number of hours. Even though it has gotten too late to sow the Rabi crop this year, farmers like Ram – for whom agriculture remains the mainstay – haven’t given up hope. “The days are likely to remain clear from now onwards. If BSF men open the gate tomorrow, it’s certainly going to be a long day on the farms. Even if the yield is poor due to delayed sowing, at least the cattle would’ve enough fodder for next six months,” he said.

Former chief minister Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was much keen on developing Suchetgarh as a tourist spot. If the village is brought on the tourist map, villagers feel they too may enjoy the fruits of permanent peace and prosperity like other citizens of the country do.

Meanwhile, many villagers are busy renovating their homes. Goran Ditta, 65, and his wife Kanta Devi, 60, seemed buoyed over the work progressing well on their new house, next to a mud house – which is their current abode. Their son is in the army and their daughter is pursuing a postgraduate degree from the University of Jammu. “During the days of shelling and firing, I stayed put here. Who would have tended to cattle and protected ripe crops [on this side of the fence] from wild animals otherwise,” said Ditta. “The house construction had to be abandoned midway.. Now that work has been resumed, we hope to move into our new home soon.”

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Goran Ditta and his wife, Kanta Devi are pleased over the progress of the construction work on their house. Credit: Ashutosh Sharma

When asked if it was appropriate to spend money on the construction of a new house here, Ditta replied, somewhat philosophically, “People like us don’t have many choices.. Life, in any case, must plough on. One just can’t stop living [amid unbearable uncertainties].”

Ashutosh Sharma is an independent journalist based in Jammu.