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Demining Begins In Punjab but in Kashmir...
Let the perpetual minefield wait!
By Sara Wani
|Srinagar: Unlike Punjab where the Army has initiated de-mining borders, people in Jammu & Kashmir are pained that no such activity is visible anywhere on the Line of Control (LoC) and the International Border (IB). With around one lakh people, mostly from Jammu forced to migrate and over 25,000 acres of land heavily mined, accidental mine explosions are taking a huge toll in the otherwise strife-ridden state.
It was actually late last year when the Fidayeen attack on the Indian parliament on December 13, coerced New Delhi to rush its war machinery to the borders. Part of the war the armed forces and select paramilitary units started mining select stretches near the IB and the Line of Control (LoC), mostly in Jammu province. (J&K is divided from Pakistan territories by a 1,049 kms long border which comprises of 199 kms are of international border (IB) between Pakistani Punjab and J&K, 740 kms are Line of Control (LoC) with PoK and the rest 110 kms actual ground position line (AGPL) on Siachen heights.) Initially the armed forces said they have plucked all the 87 infiltration routes in various border areas of Jammu by heavily mining them.
"We are in a big minefield - fields, courtyards, mountains - everything is mined", says an MLA from the Jammu border. "Though chances of war have reduced, the status quo continues here", he added.
The heavily mined areas include Hiranagar, Ramgargh, Samba, R S Pora, Akhnoor, Pallanwala, Chicken Neck, Nowshehra, Laam, Sunderbani, Bhawani, Kalal, Hangargh, Chingus, Kerni, Balakote, Krishengangi, Bhimbergali, Mighla, Mendher and other areas in Poonch and Rajouri.
Although the minefields are marked with a sign - khatra - in the last two weeks, there have been as many as a score of incidents of "accidental" mine blasts killing an unspecified number of civilians and even soldiers in many cases. Finding no alternative the respective populations migrated to safer places, mostly to the Jammu city and its immediate peripheries.
In certain areas like Suchetgargh Kullian, Sherpur, Faqir Chak - all falling in Samba sector - almost the entire neighbourhood of the villages is so heavily mined that there was no option for the populace but to leave.
The sufferings of the people could be assessed by the fact revealed by an 11-member Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence (PSCD) that visited the state in March last. Led by Madan Lal Khurana the PSCD members said over 200 villages of Jammu, Kathua, Rajouri and Poonch districts have been affected by the build up on the borders in general and laying of mines in particular. Post December 13, according to Khurana led army to take over an area of 70,100 acres of land in border areas of which 25,000 have sprawling minefields.
A report said the mines were laid with a density of 1000 mines per square kilometer. This was done despite the "grave concern" expressed by the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL). Ms Elizabeth Bernstein, the ICBL Coordinator in an express communication to the Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee on January 4 last, had termed the process "a violation of customary international humanitarian law", because landmines are "inherently indiscriminate", and their "limited military utility is far outweighed by their negative humanitarian consequences". It is interesting to mention here that a 1996 study carried out by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), military experts concluded that in the three previous India-Pakistan wars, the "contribution of these minefields to the ultimate outcome of the conflict was considered to be marginal".
But this is nothing new to the people in the peripheries of Jammu or villagers inhabiting the adjacent stretches of the LoC in north Kashmir. Since 1947, every time there is a conflict, vast areas are mined. A sizeable population of the villages neighbouring the border are crippled and maimed.
It started after the Indian army landed at Srinagar to push back the tribal raiders in October 1947. The cease-fire line was mined to prevent further infiltration. The 1965 and the 1971 conflicts saw vast areas on either side of the IB and LoC being mined by the rival armies.
In August 1997, (then) Colonel G K Reddy told media persons in Srinagar that there were 51 minefields near the LoC in the border district of Kupwara with a minimum of 100 landmines in each field. These mines, he said, were laid in 1948, 1965 and 1971 and more recently in 1991 (when the militancy began) "to protect our areas from the enemy". He evaluated that in a 12-km stretch, an estimated 5,000-landmines lay buried for many decades. Admitting that despite minefield maps being displayed by the army, the underground kegs of doom continue to take their toll on the civilians living near-by. In the remote Karnah township, he had said, 25 persons have lost their limbs.
All the border villages have the same tale to tell. In the border township of Uri, virtually every village has a sizeable proportion of residents, of all ages, who rely on crude, hand-crafted crutches because their limbs have been blown off by mines. Although police have no record of the total number of victims, officers in the civil administration insist at least 70 people have either died or maimed by landmines buried close to their villages near the LoC in the recent years. In Uriís Charunda village three people have died and nine crippled. It is the same story in Saura, Silikote, Tilwari, Hathlanga and other areas. Some of them like Ghulam Khokar are crippled since 1965.
The same situation prevails in the frontiers of Jammu. "I am told that peasants often discover decapitated limbs in their fields," said a senior political activist Mohammed Sharief, a resident of Poonch. Mohammed Azam is a class IX student from Poonch. One day, two years back, he went to fetch lunch for his ex-service man father Mohammed Afzal in the fields. Midway, his foot hit a hidden mine, it blew oof his one limb. His elder brother Javed rushed to help him, he was also hit by another one. Within minutes the family got two crippled sons. But this is just one of the thousands of instances in Jammu & Kashmir.
A writer and former Director Information, Jammu and Kashmir government, S P Sahni, has noted that more than 2,000-victims of landmines have been recorded from the Rajouri-Poonch belt between 1947 and 1989. Conservative estimation, however, puts the number of surviving maimed population in Rajouri-Poonch districts at 1,600 of whom almost half are said to be children.
Jasbir Singh, who is running an NGO for the rights and the rehabilitation of the mine-blast victims - Pritam Spiritual Foundation Trust - believes there are over 5,000 victims living in the border areas of the state who are crippled today. He has provided artificial limbs to 1,620 people till February last.
Although military history suggests that after heavily mining their areas in 1971 war, the rival sides exchanged maps of the minefields and later removed them all (as is standard practice after a war is over), there are glaring instances that prove otherwise.
Changia is a small village in R S Pora sector of Jammu. As many as 23 residents have been maimed by landmines set up during the 1971 conflict. Most lost their limbs after the war was over and the fields were allegedly cleared of the landmines. Babu Ram is one of them. A 12-year-old at that time, Babu lost one of his limbs near Sain Kalan (Tangali) after he was returning from grazing his cattle. He is over 40 now but he remembers that the army had cleared the mined areas and had permitted the villagers to return. There are many others like him. They all have registered themselves with the Indian chapter of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) but nobody has come to their rescue so far. Even its Indian coordinator Dr Balakrishna Kurvey had paid a visit to the village in February 2001, but that did not prove to be of much help.
Although most landmines are easily detected, some are not so easy to find because of their low metal content, say defence experts. Once laid, a landmine cannot easily be traced on the basis of a map. It could change its position due to erosion, rains and soil movement. Although planting them is cheap - a mine costs only between $3 and $10 - once planted, its removal costs huge amounts, more than US $ 1000 each in certain cases. With an estimated 119 million landmines on ground in 69 countries, over 26,000 people across the world either die or get maimed by landmines every year. This is perhaps why the landmines are being hated so much across the globe these days.
UK's Princess Diana along with Jody Williams of the USA set up a non-government organisation (NGO) called the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) in 1991. In 1996, Canada initiated the famous Ottawa Process. In September 1997, over 100 countries had pledged support for it. It was in the same year that ICBL co-founder Jody Williams got the Nobel Prize for Peace that helped to get the menace of landmines into the sharp focus of the world. On December 3 - 4, 1997 more than 121 countries signed the "Convention on the Prohibition of the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of anti-personnel mines and on their destruction", commonly known as Anti-Landmine Convention (ALC). The signatories are supposed to get the convention ratified through their own respective parliaments, destroy the stockpiles within four years and remove the planted ones in one decade. So far, 142 countries have signed the treaty and banned landmines, and 122 of them have already got it ratified through their own parliaments.
India, it is interesting to mention here, followed the suit of USA, China and Russia and avoided signing the treaty for their own security reasons. Pakistan also declined saying since India has not done it, they are sorry. This is despite the fact that India has since 1995 supported "the objective" of a universal ban on antipersonnel mines.
While hostilities on Kashmir have made the rival sides mine particular stretches on the border, militancy has helped the deadly weapons get introduced in the plains as well. Perhaps because of its cheapness and easy availability, the militants have been using it for over 13 years now.
Though initially this dangerous weapon was used to destroy infrastructure, off late it has become the most potent weapon against the security forces. Militants use many kinds of landmines, including APLs and anti-tank mines (ATM) but the choicest is the remotely controlled Improvised Explosive Device (IED). The role of these deadly weapons can be assessed by the fact that between January 1991 to December 1995, landmines have killed at least 107 army personnel alone.
In order to prevent casualties from landmines, the counter-insurgency grid has to carry out a lot of exercises. Before permitting a vehicle to ply on any road, it is to be physically scanned by mine detectors. Every morning, one can see columns of security men patrolling the roads falling in their respective jurisdictions. Carrying mine-detecting devices and sniffer dogs, they hunt for landmines, which are usually concealed under the culverts, bridges, pipes or hidden in the bushes on either side of the road. So far, sniffer dogs have been a successful alternative to trace and neutralise landmines.
In order to manage a comparatively safe patrolling, the paramilitary forces inducted the armed chariot devised by the NSG. Named the Shatrugun, this armed personnel carrier, however, could not prove an effective tool to manage safety of the soldiers as the powerful IEDs destroyed many of them.
Off late, the Ministry of Defence imported the South African mine detector and destroyer Casper. It is a heavy specialised vehicle that was inducted by the Indian army in early 1999. It has the capability of detecting a mine and even blasting it without suffering any damage itself. It scans a stretch of the road for an hour and then needs a halt for at least 10 minutes for scrutinising a radius of one kilometer during which it is capable of detecting a landmine. Even though it has been instrumental in preventing some tragedies, landmines destroyed two of these costly vehicles in the recent years. More than once the Casper failed even in detecting the planted mines also.
However, this all has not prevented the militants from laying their own booby-traps. Last year, the police recorded 402 landmine explosions as various security agencies recovered 450 IEDs, 11 ATMs and 106 APMs. Of late, counter insurgent forces, including the army and paramilitary, have resorted to the use of landmines to bring down the suspected hideouts or houses in which militants are found during encounters.
Mine explosions are constantly adding to the population of the crippled in Jammu and Kashmir. Of late, a number of agencies have started working to provide a helping hand to these unfortunate people. The state-run Council for the Rehabilitation of Militancy Victims, an affiliate of the state's Social Welfare Department, is organising occasional camps in which the crippled get the famous Jaipur foot, calipers or crutches. "I have not collected the data from my district officers", said Prof. Awantoo, its Director. Its last records suggest that it has already helped these people by offering 549 calipers, 326 limbs and 656 crutches.
The Srinagar based 15 Corps has also launched Operation Sadbhavna under which some of these people get occasional artificial limbs. So far it has provided artificial limbs to 198 people, including some of the victims of 1971 and 1965 wars. The Jammu based 16-Corps has also fitted artificial limbs to many victims, including 35 children from Rajouri and Poonch districts.
Efforts by certain sections of the society to help the maimed apart, the crisis continues to take its toll. Every other day, the number of landmines being laid in Kashmir is rising. (It is interesting to mention here that the Jammu & Kashmir government offers an ex-gratia relief of Rs. 10,000 to the family of a person who gets killed in a mine-explosion that is laid by the armed forces. This is treated as natural calamity. As against this, those getting killed in IED - having almost the same ingredients and consequences get one lakh rupees. The PSCD has recommended a uniformity in the relief.) For instance, two separate landmine explosions in south Kashmir areas of Tral and Awantipore on April 15 and 16, led to the death of ten persons - security men and civilians - as 65 others were wounded and some of them will survive crippled for the rest of their life.
Even in the plains the security forces have mined the immediate peripheries of their camps to prevent Fidayeen (suicide attack) militants from barging in. Unless India and Pakistan decide not to drain their resources and address Kashmir politically, this will continue.
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