Bawa Jitto and BSF

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Everytime rival armies exchange shells, Kanachak moves to newspaper front pages. The region has fascinating stories that usually get buried under the debris of the homes that shells devastate. Masood Hussain visited Jammu’s sprawling Marh belt to report an old, hitherto untold story

Sohan Post in Kanchak sector. (KL Image by Masood Hussain)

On the border of the Marh belt in Jammu is Jhiri, a major village, almost 18 km from the capital city. It is famous for a 15th-century farmer Bawa Jitto. The peasant has an interesting tale.

Born and brought up in Katra’s Ghaar village, Jitto in the early part of his life was dispossessed from his inheritance by the local Panchayat. Legend has that his aunt Jojan was hostile and usurped his lands. Along with his daughter Bua Kori, he migrated to Jhiri to live with his friend Iso Megh. Local Zamindar, Mehta Bir Singh, gave him some barren land to cultivate. Thinking that the land is too petty and barren and may not grow anything at all, Singh sought only one-fourth of the crop that this land would produce.

Jitto, actually Jit Mal, worked hard with Iso Megh on the barren land. It resulted in a bumper crop. Greedy Singh was surprised by the crop. As he came to collect his part, he took three-fourth and left the rest for the farmer. This was a blatant violation of the agreement. Shocked over the injustice that was meted out to the hardworking and god-fearing Jitto, he sat on the heap of grains and thrust a dagger in his heart and committed suicide. Legend has that Jitto had said while killing himself: Sukki Kanak Nain Khayaan Mehtya, Dinna Ratt Ralayi (Don’t eat raw wheat, oh Mehta, let me mix my blood in it.) After finding his corpse, Bua Kori is understood to have committed suicide also.

The peasant hero became an instant deity, especially after a massive flood that brought misery to the region, and is being worshipped for all these centuries of his immortality. Part of folklore and Dogra literature, Jitto was the subject matter of a fascinating play by Balwant Thakur’s Natrang. It was this play and a few research papers by the academics that helped him to re-emerge as a hero, almost on the pattern of Jambu Lochan.

After the harvest is over, thousands of farmers from the entire border region come with their share of the crops as their offering to their hero. It is an organised week-long Mela (festival) that is now being attended by 15 lakh people in November, according to Ajay K Sadotra, the NC leader who represented Marh earlier.

While Jitto has a majestic shrine where his farmer followers sing ballads in his memory, the script of the story has not changed at all in this border belt. The land, the subject matter of the legend is still the story.

Ajay K Sadhotra

Barely a few kilometres away from the shrine is a vast heap of soil that runs parallel to the International Border (IB). With hundreds of bunkers under this thick ‘wall’, it has a wide ditch that has swallowed tens of thousands of prime land. An old defence system, this is part of the war theatre. The ditch is routinely filled with water. The ditch marks the start of the highly sensitive border zone where life exists subject to the condition of what the rival armies would do. The armies – this side is manned by the Border Security Force (BSF) – are facing a literal eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation. Welcome to the Kanachak belt, a border area that is every time in the news when the Pakistan border guards open fire. This belt witnesses the quickest migration every time there are artillery duels between India and Pakistan or even light machine gun fire exchange. This belt is literally the border.

“When the shelling takes place, it is a state of literal war,” Om Prakash, a Kanachak resident, said. “It is really difficult to think of family; people actually try to run away, far away from the harm.” The belt lost two civilians last summer. The herds are the last on the priority list and there were instances in which a lot of cattle heads were lost.

Shelling, residents say, pushes them out of their dwellings, and the first casualty is their privacy. Normally, the civil administration houses them in distant government buildings, mostly schools and officials take over the routine listing of the displaced and their relief. “Despite having everything of our own, the migration, albeit temporary forces us to live like beggars and gipsies,” Roshan Lal said. “We do not blame anybody for this but this is the fate we live with.”

It is the same story almost in every village. “A number of major villages are located on the International Border (IB) and I have the IB passing through 18 km length of my assembly constituency,” Sadotra, who earlier represented Marh in the state assembly, said. “These include some of the populous villages of Marh tehsil including Kanachak, Kanchak Camp, Laliyal Camp, Getla, Gajanso, Gango Chak, Deore-a-Napu, Gool Pathan, Nai Busti, Bathore, Pangore, Chakrali, Makwal, Makwal Camp, and Chungian Pawan.”

Roop Rani                                          Nazir Ahmad                                                Gopal Das

Though these habitations are facing the brunt of the crisis between India and Pakistan, they are the least to be taken care of by the governance structure. “The governor’s administration is exhibiting the three monkeys who do not see, listen or speak for the population,” Sadotra alleged. “They have been seeking an alternative spot for setting up their dwelling units far away from the border so that they can live safely in times of tension but they are being denied the same.”

The border belt was happy for almost a decade after the 2003 ceasefire. Villagers said the life was normal and peaceful and they resumed tilling the fields they had literally abandoned. After the ceasefire was violated, the situation changed again even though the artillery duels are less frequent these days.

“We live on zero-line and we have been seeking dungeons for every family,” Roop Rani, the Sarpanch of Kanachak, said. “But the government has sanctioned four community bunkers and the spots were decided on basis of the political allegiance of the beneficiaries.” She said some of the bunkers were constructed far away and the people living on the zero-line were completely neglected.

“Those moments are terrifying,” Nazir Ahmad, a Gujjar who lives in Laliyal, said. “We were caught in shelling routinely but we get saved because we live too close to the border. Pakistani shells cross our homes and hit far away.” There are around 2000 Gujjar Muslims living in the belt in “absolute peace” with their neighbours. They have their lands and herds, but most of them are agrarian and not survive on milching cows alone. Nazir has more than 24kanals of land, all growing Basmati.

Gujjars’ usually have two homes – the one where they live and the other where they take their small herds for grazing. But in most of cases, they live with tons of dried grass to feed their cattle. Sometimes, even an ember puts it afire.

The belt has an interestingly mixed population and that has an interesting history. Nazir Ahmad was living somewhere else and is a proud resident since 1978. So is Gopal Das, a retired Subedar.

“In around 1975, a major flood devastated the belt,” Das, who now lives in Laliyal said. “I remember Getla village that ceased to exist and was rehabilitated elsewhere.”

When the then Chief Minister Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah visited the flood devasted belt, he found the people raising stone mattress in wire crated mesh. “He told people that Chenab cannot be managed by these things and then he flew some engineers from outside,” Das said. “They blocked the Chenab at Garkhal and pushed the waters towards Purgwal thus saving the belt once for all.”

Former Chief Engineer Irrigation and Flood Control V K Abrol said the ferocious Chenab flowing with six lakh cusecs would resort to massive soil erosion and has created a creek almost 2.5 km downstream Akhnoor bridge. “With every passing year, it would increase its width and create a huge island that would go as deep as Chicken neck on the IB,” Abrol said. “This has not only created problems for movement of the people but had also started eating the agriculture land.”

Finally, Sheikh flew a noted hydrologist HK Uppal who blocked this 200-meters wide creek and created a huge embankment for almost five km that stopped the recurring soil cutting by the river. “A lot of lands perhaps more than 10,000 kanals was reclaimed,” Abrol said. “Later, a lift irrigation station was commissioned near Garkhal that feeds the Chinor canal.”

This creek was branching off from Garkhal and after damaging lands in a vast belt up to outskirts of Makwal was joining Tawi. Tawi, the banks of which Jammu lives, crosses the IB and joins Chenab in Pakistan.

After the Chenab supply to this belt was blocked, it created a huge land bank. The most fertile land, this was distributed among people. “We were migrants from Chamb border after 1971 war and we were given lands from that vast chunk,” Das said. “This is how Sheikh Sahab helped us to live a dignified life by rehabilitating us properly and forever. These lands were transferred to us under Roshni law.”

Chenab, Jammu and Kashmir’s powerhouse is the major river that has six times more discharge than Jhelum. But quite a few people know that under one successful engineering intervention, its devastating capacity was plugged near Akhnoor. Now it roars into Pakistan as a single entity.

Residents admit that the plugging of the creek was the second major intervention of Sheikh Abdullah. The first was land to the tiller. There was huge resistance to the historic intervention as a result of which one person was even killed. Soon after the intervention, the government notified that any landlord who wishes to continue with the arrangement with the tillers will have to pay three-fourths of the produce to them. During harvesting, the landlords, mostly Rajputs, tried to compromise on this which led to the creation of a group of vigilantes who would ensure the farmers are treated fairly. One of them was Inder Singh Rakwal who was active on this front. “One day, some landlords conspired and shot him dead,” Sadotra said. “His Samadhi lies in Badrore village.”

Since then, the politics of the place is divided primarily on this basis. The erstwhile bourgeois who felt dispossessed are supporting the rightwing parties and the people who were benefitted are divided between Congress and NC.

The abundance of fertile land brought many landless to the belt. But living on one of the most active borders of the region remained a serious backdrop to its overall growth. This is despite the fact that part of the belt that was known as Tawi island – with 35 villages on it – had no access to the road. The location is its biggest crisis. Kanachak, for instance, has a peculiar address like many other villages: it is situated on the border, between the ditch and the fence.

The Sohan Border Outpost is an ideal spot to understand its proximity to the crisis. Located barely a few meters from the fence, this BOP overlooks Pakistan territory. Facing Kheli belt and a long line of invisible bunkers – some of them blasted and abandoned, the border guards literally watch every breath. The entire belt is flooded in fence lights for which special power supply lines are laid. The fencing has other gadgets that ensure the infiltration does not take place. It is a huge structure that is scattered like a serpent and the rivers moving in and out of the geographic territories.

“Our power supply line had a fault sometime back,” one farmer who uses the water pump to irrigate his Basmati fields said. “While the state power department is taking its own time in repairing the line, we are not permitted to use the power from the special lines feeding the fence lighting.”

A gujjar family in Laliyal village near Kanachak in Marh. KL Image by Masood Hussain.

Villagers regret that the government exhibits an interesting dichotomy as far as irrigation of the agriculture land is concerned. “We have a huge canal passing through Laliyal, Kanachak camp and other villages that takes water to Chinor Seed Multiplication Farm exclusively,” Nirmal, a peasant said. “But it is tragic that we are being permitted to even look at this canal, taking water from this is too huge a dream. This is forcing us to use electric motors to get water for agricultural activities.”

The farm set up in the 1970s is a major agriculture department asset where the seed for wheat, oats, mustard, potato and other crops is propagated. It does not consume all the water that the special canal takes to the farm, villagers said.

“Fence is ok, but how can we distinguish the Jammu side from the Pakistani territory,” I asked an official literally on the border. A pat came as the reply: “Haryali Pakistan Ki, Sarkanday Hamray.” (The greenery is Pakistan and the reed is ours).

This is literally true. The civilian and the security population, all live inside the fence as a vast patch of land running parallel to the fence is converted into the no-mans land.

“BSF has set up four doors which they are not opening so that we could go and till our fields as Pakistani farmers are doing,” one Kanachak resident said. “It has been two years now and we are incurring so much of loss. Our village alone has 200 acres of land caught behind the fence and these include so many families that have their entire landholding behind the fence.”

Residents and security officials said Pakistan has not created any barriers and their peasants come and till the fields. “Their cattle and herds come and graze on the land that we have abandoned,” one farmer said. “We are unable to convince the BSF that we can reap a great harvest that has been deliberately denied to us. In fact, they are unsure if the peace can prevail.” Now a delegation of the peasants is visiting BSF top brass to change the routine of the last two seasons. “We had a bout of shelling in June last year and since then it is relative peace,” one resident who was part of the delegation said. “We hope the security officials will understand our point of view that abandoning such a vast patch of land does no good to anybody.”

More than half a millennium after Bawa Jitto killed himself to safeguard the rights of the peasantry, the characters might have changed but the story remains the same. Then, Bir Singh took most of the land produce. Now the BSF controls most of the land.

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