Tue, Aug 16, 2011 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: On the India-Pakistan border, a cold peace holds sway

Reuters, SUCHETGARH, INDIA

It has been nearly eight years since India and Pakistan agreed a ceasefire over Kashmir — long enough for residents to start building brick houses and plant paddy fields up to the edge of one of the world’s most heavily militarized borders.

However, for soldiers guarding the disputed frontier, it is a fragile peace that can be broken at any time.

“I wouldn’t call our relationship on the border cordial. We characterize it as professional,” an officer of India’s Border Security Force (BSF) said, speaking on condition he not be identified because of the sensitivity of his assignment on the frontline.

As India and Pakistan embark on a tentative peace process and try to decide how to open their borders to trade and travel, it will be the situation on the ground in places such as Suchetgarh that determine the pace of the detente.

In June, trouble erupted in the area when the BSF lost a soldier and blamed Pakistani sniper fire. The Pakistani Rangers, who are within shouting distance, denied any involvement and suggested it could be an internal issue.

The Indians retaliated with small arms fire, but the exchange lasted barely an hour. That was in contrast to the artillery duels the foes engaged in along the Line of Control in Kashmir — sometimes every day during particularly bad spells of their relationship — -before the ceasefire in November 2003.

Ever since, a cold peace has held on the zigzag border that begins in Suchetgarh, in the dry plains of the Jammu region, and winds its way to the rugged heights of Kashmir.

“We are not on hair-trigger alert, but we cannot lower our guard either. Not even for a moment,” said the officer, sitting in a tent barely 100m from the border crossing, marked by two high gates with the flags of the two countries fluttering.

Both gates — India’s in a dark blue and Pakistan painted in deep green — are firmly shut, used only when commanders need to walk across for flag meetings, or to allow members of the UN Military Observer Group, set up after the first war over Kashmir in 1947 to 1948, to travel between the two countries.

A lone BSF soldier peers across from a bunker set up on the terrace of a British colonial era building that served as a customs center for freight trains from what is now the Pakistani city of Sialkot not far from the border.

The command post offers covering fire to a string of bunkers dug in the high ground not far from the zero line to stop incursions from militants fighting Indian rule in Kashmir.

Further back, a double-layered barbed wire fence 2.5m to 3.6m high with concertina wire that India has erected all along the 2,900km border stretching from Kashmir to the marshlands of Gujarat offers a second line of defense.

The fence is electrified and connected to a network of sensors, thermal imaging devices and alarms that India says has brought infiltration of militants into Kashmir to zero this summer for the first since the revolt began in 1989.

“The fence cannot stop them from trying to come, but it slows them down and gives our soldiers time to respond,” said Swaran Lal, the headman of Suratgarh Village who leads the civilian effort to keep a vigil on the border.

The tenuous ceasefire has helped crack open the border, but only slightly.

In 2008, the two governments agreed to allow limited trade and travel between the two parts of Kashmir they control, bowing to a long-standing demand of residents who often describe themselves as trapped between two big armies.

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