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Barbed Lives

By Ashutosh Sharma

07 May, 2012

The fence along the border with Pakistan, which has been erected several kilometres behind the zero line, has left hundreds of Indian villages sandwiched. Residents of such villages, which are almost cut off from the rest of the country, consider themselves prisoners in their own country, writes Ashutosh Sharma from Jammu and Kashmir

Life is tough in Indian villages and more so in the border villages. It becomes even tougher in areas caught between the barbed fence put up by the Indian security forces on the border with Pakistan that runs through many districts of Jammu region.

The fence at the border was erected at a time when there used to be heavy shelling and infiltration bids by terrorists from the Pakistani side in the aftermath of the Kargil war. However, the fence was erected several kilometres behind the zero line. It has virtually cut off areas in between from the rest of the country.

For people living in these villages, it is like crossing a border in the form of the fence to enter their own country for basic facilities like health, education and other administrative works in a tehsil or district office. Their freedom of movement has been severely curtailed by the fence as they believe that they have become prisoners in their own country.

The size and population of such villages is not small. One such village Bhagyal Dara, which is 15 km from Poonch district headquarters, has two panchayat constituencies - Degwar and Bhagyal Dhara.

There are hundreds of such villages which have been separated from the rest of the country due to the erection of the fence.

Due to security reasons, the civil administration has a limited role in the affairs of residents living in such “barbed corridors”. The villagers are under constant surveillance. At the same time, they live under constant fear of shelling from the Pakistani side.

There are gates at the fence which are the entry and exit points for the villagers. The gates are manned by soldiers. The fence looks like a barbed barrier comprised of two rows of fencing and coils of concertina wires which are usually 12-15 ft in height and nearly 10 ft in width. During the night, the fence is electrified whereas the areas between the fence and the border are usually mined.

The Army has issued identification cards to the villagers. If one loses it or does not have it for any reason, he or she might be in a serious trouble as the Army does not recognise any other proof of identification.

Says a newly elected village head on the condition of anonymity: “At such gates, the villagers are frisked thoroughly and security men rummage through their belongings. Thereafter, their identity is established on the basis of identity cards issued to them before they are allowed to go ahead. The whole drill puts children and women to severe stress and vulnerable to indiscreet body touch. They go through the agony of invasion of their privacy every day, a price that they pay to be at their own place”.

“Our people are usually patted down in the name of security checks. Young soldiers usually indulge in groping or other acts that go against respecting the dignity of our women and girls,” he adds.

Parents in such villages do not send their girls to study beyond middle level because of the fence and security checks at the gates.

“There should be woman cops at the gates. If the government cannot shift the fence, it must depute woman personnel,” says a student of Government Degree College, Poonch, who comes from one such village.

People living in these villages are cut off socially as well. It is difficult for a relative to visit them. “At the time of marriage or other social functions, we face a lot of problems,” rues a resident of Bhagyal Dhara, who runs a small shop in Poonch.

“The visitors are permitted after going through an excruciating exercise. First, the security personnel at the gate call the villager concerned for the verification of the visitor and only after that the visitor is allowed to enter the area on the responsibility of the villager,” he adds.

The same procedure is followed when the visitor leaves the area. The family members of villagers working abroad too face the same problems for visiting their near and dear ones or their ancestral home. They have to seek identification proof from the local police. “It seems going to Pakistan is easier than visiting our own homes where we were born,” say people living in such a situation.

The civil administration maintains that journalists can visit any forward village without any restriction, but in reality, they are not allowed inside the villages by the Armymen guarding the gates.

The writer had been to the border district of Poonch to interview scores of victims belonging to villages like Kerni, Degwar and Bhagyal Dhara, who had not got justice despite judgments passed in their favour by the Jammu and Kashmir Human Rights Commission at different points of time. But unfortunately, he was never allowed to go in despite hard efforts.

Mohammad Matloob Khan, additional deputy commissioner, Poonch, maintains that no authority letters are issued to mediapersons to visit villages across the fence. “Those villages are part of India and any person can go there without any check. Nobody has the authority to stop you,” he says.

People living in villages across the fence not only lack basic amenities like roads, transportation, health centres, water and electricity, but they have also been denied human rights and civil liberties.

“In the evening gates, are closed for the villagers. If the villagers have to take a serious patient to the hospital during the night, they have to seek permission, which sometimes takes long. Delays prove fatal at times,” says a senior resident who works in the city and returns to his village well before the sunset.

According to Kerni residents, only one member of each family is allowed to stay inside the fence during the night. In 1990, they were shifted to Qasba village outside the fence by the government as there was a war-like situation. The villagers have their agricultural lands inside the fence and therefore they visit Kerni every afternoon.

Such villagers work in their fields the entire day and in the evening, they return to their kutcha houses in Qasba. It has been their daily routine for the past 21 years.

Even Qasba village is not connected through road. To reach the city, the people have to trek down three kilometers to board some passenger vehicle.

Border residents do enjoy relaxation in government jobs on the basis of certificates issued to them by the Revenue Department, but the rate of employment is negligible.

Kerni village has a population of more than 600, but ironically, there is only one ex-serviceman, a working clerk in government department and an ReT teacher. Rest of the villagers are BPL (below poverty line) cardholders.

“Due to lack of educational facilities for our children, they are not able to study beyond class VIII, how can they get government jobs despite reservation,” said a villager, adding that those who have land in border villages but live in cities avail all benefits accorded to border residents by the government.

Going by the annual reports of the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission, the rate of human rights violation is many times higher in such villages as compared to other conflict-ridden and insurgency-hit areas of the state.

“Many people belonging to these villages have lost their lives and limbs in war-like situations during nineties. Besides barbaric atrocities by militants, there are cases of custodial deaths, extra constitutional killings, fake encounters, disappearances, torture and harassment at the hands of security forces,” says human right activist Sardar Kamal Jeet Singh, who claims to have filed more than 850 complaints of rights violation with the commission.

“Their victimisation has happened on many accounts. They have suffered due to repeated wars, insurgency and counter insurgency operations. But they are also victims of bureaucratic apathy as most of them have not been compensated or inadequately compensated,” he says, adding, “Even such cases of relief and compensation which were recommended to empowerment committee of the Homes Department by the State Human Rights Commission have not been settled. Action taken reports or proposed action taken reports are hardly submitted to the commission by the departments concerned”.

“Many victims have stopped visiting the office of the deputy commissioner after they did not get compensation or relief for decades,” he added.

“The fence was erected with an aim to discourage infiltration and smuggling. Now that the guns have fallen silent and normalcy has been restored, the Ministry of Defence in consultation with its counterparts should push the fence to the actual border so that the villagers living across it are not barred from enjoying their natural rights and civil liberties,” said a sarpanch of one such villge, who is presently living in his another home in Poonch town.

“If it is not possible then we should be rehabilitated somewhere else. For how long our generations will suffer because of hostility between the two countries?” he asks.

Aiyaz Jaan, Poonch MLA, says 90 per cent of his constituency runs along the LoC.

“I am aware of the problems of the people who have been living across the fence. On my proposal, the Army has started shifting the fence to the zero line in my constituency. The work is going on in the Sabzian area and 20 per cent of the work has been accomplished so far. The remaining may get done in the next couple of years. We need to understand that it will happen in a phased manner,” he maintains.

”I have constituted village-level committees in the areas across the fence and it is ensured that a local girl or woman is deputed along with the Army at the gates. However, it is not possible in the far-flung and inaccessible areas for obvious reasons,” he says, adding, “The Army has been very helpful to the local residents. Where the civil administration fails, the Army comes into play. I had requested the Army to enhance the number of gates at the fence. Last year, they added four more gates for the convenience of residents”.

“The Chief Minister has assured me to enhance the Border Development Fund which is likely to solve most of their problems,” he says, and adds: “I have also asked the government to accrue benefits of all welfare schemes like Indira Aawas Yojana and issuance of BPL ration cards to the border residents. One of such proposals that aim for the creation of health and educational facilities in the villages across the fence is lying with the Finance Department”.

“The villagers of Kerni would be allowed to live inside their houses in a phased manner. We have completed two phases, another four are remaining,” he adds.

(The writer is a freelance journalist and his e-mail is bulawaa@gmail.com)


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