Arnia still does not understand why. Why from the night of 2-3 October Pakistani shells started raining down on this semi-rural town of 25,000 people, and its neighbouring hamlets, killing and maiming residents, destroying crops, ruining businesses. No other town along the International Border in Jammu has seen such intensive shelling as Arnia. Around 400 shells fell on Arnia and its neighbouring areas between 2 October and 11 October, with 50 or so, on the town itself. And this on a town which is located nearly 5 km inside Indian territory, and which has never seen any such firing.
Bablu, a farmer in the village of Mahashe-de-Kothe cannot believe he is still alive. Three shells landed on his house, one after the other, between midnight and 1 a.m. on 6 October. He and some members of his extended family were sleeping on the courtyard. He lost four relatives that night, including his uncle and two cousins. The splinters injured him, but did not kill. His house is now deserted, with torn shoes and broken glass littering the courtyard. A child’s half-turned bike is gathering dust at one corner. Bablu and his friends have started returning to the village to work on their fields, but only during the day. The paddy is ripe for harvesting and will be destroyed if not cut inside the next few days. They rush back to safety at the first hint of evening.
Gaurav and his bike-borne friend in neighbouring Kaku de Kothe, another deserted village near the border, say that Pakistani shelling has destroyed 30-40% of their crop. “The shelling was deliberate. It was as if they wanted to destroy our crops, our festival (Diwali),” says Gaurav, a student.
Scared villagers now want to shift deeper inside and want government help for rehabilitation.
At Arnia’s main market, Joginder Pal runs an electronic goods shop, Safri Electronics. A shell exploded on the boundary wall of the police station located opposite his shop. The splinters penetrated the shutters of several neighbouring shops and damaged the goods inside. Two days before Diwali, the market is deserted at noon. “Every Diwali I sell goods worth around Rs 5-6 lakh. This time, my sales are not even worth Rs 6,000-7,000. Arnia used to cater to all the border villages in the neighbourhood. But now, everyone has fled. And if they have to shop they say they will go to Jammu. They will not come to Arnia.”
A bullet-proof vehicle stands outside the Arnia police station. But that is a new recruit, taken on hire from the CRPF. The station house officer (SHO), Inspector Kulbir Singh Chaudhry says that when the shelling first started, he did not have any such vehicles. He and his men risked their lives, driving through the town in police vehicles, taking the injured to the hospital even as shells fell all around them. “That was a very difficult time,” he remembers.
DIRT TRACK TO THE BORDER
The road to Arnia from RS Pora on the main highway exists, but only in name. The road to the International Border from Arnia is nothing more than a dirt track. It is often heard in these parts that the last time some roadwork happened was when Atal Behari Vajpayee was Prime Minister. “Now that Narendra Modi is Prime Minister, work is starting again,” says an enthusiastic taxi driver in Jammu. “See, how he started the rail line to Katara from Jammu,” he adds.
At the end of the dirt track is one of the most sensitive border outposts (BOPs) in the Arnia sector. Located a few hundred metres from Pakistan, this BOP was in the frontline of the October fighting. In July, a jawan was killed here and his colleagues injured in an incident of sniping. The situation has been tense ever since. July-August saw some intense cross-border firing, started by Pakistan. Then came the October battle, again started by Pakistan. “The Pakistanis can do anything at anytime. One of our men was up on the watchtower when they shot him. Just like that. You cannot trust the Pakistanis,” says a jawan. They show this correspondent a huge bullet that hit their outpost. “It will kill instantly if it hits someone.”
Tales abound about Pakistani “mischief”: about how they start shooting unprovoked and then deny at flag meetings that they fired any shots. Later, a BSF officer describes his opponents in the Pakistan Rangers as “two-faced”. “They do not stick to anything discussed in flag meetings.” “Of course the Pakistan Rangers do not have any say. It is their bosses who call the shots,” he adds.
Amid constant threat of fire from Pakistan, the BSF jawans are confident and jovial. “The Pakistani soldiers are so casual that they move around wearing shalwar-kameez,” one of them laughs. “They know we will not shoot them. They know there will not be any infiltration attempts from our side. We will not capture their territory. So they are not bothered,” he adds. As the Arnia SHO, Kulbir Singh says, “Woh log to masti mein rehete hain (They have a fun job). It is we who are always in a state of high alert.”
Pakistan has far fewer outposts than India along the IB and if border “gossip” has to be believed, “the Rangers visit certain outposts only once in a while”.
TIT FOR TAT AND A LITTLE MOREScore Card
The BSF knows it has dealt a lethal blow to Pakistan border posts and morale is high. “Earlier, orders were not clear. Nowadays we have been given a free hand to reply with equal firepower when Pakistan targets us,” they say. “The locals too are happy that we are replying with equal ferocity,” they say. As the BSF Inspector General of Jammu, Rakesh Sharma tells this newspaper later: we will retatlite with equal force when hit and perhaps a little more.
The BSF does not believe that there was any particular reason why the Pakistan Rangers targeted Arnia with such heavy shelling, even as it indulged in cross-border firing at various points of the 192 km long International Border in Jammu. Pakistanis knew about the town and wanted some civilian casualties, thinks the BSF. Amid this, the question that is bothering everyone in the border areas is about the 24×7 TV coverage of the cross-border firing. Did Pakistanis monitor Indian news channels to realise that the town was taking a heavy hit and that there were civilian casualties? Was that the reason why they would not stop the shelling?