At 11.40 am on December 31, 2014, BSF constable Ram Gowria, who was patrolling the zero line along the International Border (IB) in Jammu with seven colleagues was shot dead in what has been described as a sniper attack from across the border. Gowria was shot twice — on his temple and abdomen. He collapsed immediately. This was followed by week-long tension at the IB, with more than 10,000 people forced to flee their homes and take refuge in temporary shelter homes. What started as local tension snowballed into an international issue, with the BSF seeking an apology from their counterparts — the Pakistan Rangers.
It is not certain whether Gowria fell to a bullet fired by the Pakistan Rangers or if he was targeted by one of the militants waiting on the other side to cross over into India. As soon as Gowria was killed, BSF opened fire and four Rangers who were spotted patrolling the zero line near Dhandhar, roughly 150 metres away, were also shot dead.
In order to give a “befitting” reply to Pakistan, BSF fired from almost all 22 posts in Samba and Kathua district. Then they sought an apology from Pakistan. “We told them quite clearly that either you say sorry or face the consequences. They did not listen to us and we kept firing at their posts. The jawan was patrolling the zero line as part of an agreed border defence mechanism; this was like backstabbing. Though we are prepared for sniper attacks, attacking a jawan who is patrolling the zero line was just not acceptable to us as both sides are vulnerable at that point,” said a BSF officer on condition of anonymity.
Following this, Pakistan made desperate attempts to contact the DGMO and the defence secretary in New Delhi to ease the situation as India refused to talk. When they did not get any hearing, Sartaz Aziz, advisor to the Pakistan PM on foreign affairs, wrote a letter to Foreign Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj protesting against the BSF.
Emboldened by the Centre’s backing, there is a “sea change” in the way the BSF is dealing with ceasefire violations and the killing of its men along the border. “We are no longer mute spectators. The leadership is with us and we have been given a free hand to reply to Pakistan,” said a company commander at a BSF post in Samba. The change comes after the NDA government came to power and message went down the line that every firing from across the border would be taken “very seriously”.
National Security Advisor Ajit Doval is in constant touch with BSF DG DK Pathak and, unlike earlier times, no intermediaries are involved. “We, however, never initiate the fire. We sometimes even ignore one or two rounds fired from their side,” said Pathak.
The 192-km-long IB in Jammu had been relatively peaceful since 2003, when India and Pakistan signed the ceasefire pact. However, the border, which Pakistan refers to as the “working boundary”, has become the new battleground since October 2013. “While earlier we were asked to give only measured response, Pakistan started violating the agreement since July last 2014. It continued for almost two months, only to stop briefly, and then resumed again in October. The fresh round started from New Year’s eve,” said the official. Security forces are confused with the pattern of firing this time. In 2012, only 16 ceasefire violations were reported along the IB. In 2014, that number stood at 140.
“While earlier almost all the border outposts or BOPs in Jammu were targeted, this time only the Hindu-dominated Samba and Kathua are being targeted. We cannot say anything with certainty but this has been the trend in 2014 and even now,” said the company commander.
Compare this to the 250-km Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu sector, which is defended by the Indian Army and has witnessed no ceasefire violation in the past 45 days. “Unlike the IB, which is a settled boundary, this boundary is yet to be defined. So the Indian Army is deployed here. Here, too, we have villages dotting the boundary but it has remained largely peaceful. Unlike the BSF, here we are posted beyond the fencing. The risk is more… just last year, two Army jawans were abducted and beheaded by the Border Action Team (BAT) of Pakistan in this sector,” said a senior Army official.
He added that while the aggressive response of the BSF could be new for them, the Army always maintained the same line. “We try to maintain calm and peace at LoC in the interest of India. But when need arises, we give quite a tough time to Pakistan. Unlike the BSF, we don’t have to ask our Delhi headquarters every time for such a response. The Indian Army has its own policy. The BSF has recently woken up to this aggressive posture, but we have always been like this,” said the Army official.
Security forces say Pakistan is trying to incite trouble along IB due to its densely populated civilian population. “This may be a new strategy by Pakistan to disturb the IB by targeting its civilian population. They hope India falls into their trap by reacting aggressively,” said a senior Home Ministry official.
India has also readied an alternate plan for the safety of border residents. Minister of State, PMO, Jitendra Singh told The Indian Express, “We have identified alternate parcel of land where the border residents can go whenever there is a situation like this. They get to keep both the places and can always shift to the alternate accommodation being given by the government whenever there is shelling at the border. This will save them from living in temporary shelters.” He said the state administration has identified 3,700 kanals of land in Kathua district for this purpose.
Balak Ram Sharma, a resident of Baingalar, which was pounded by mortar shells last week, said such a move is long overdue. “We have been demanding bunkers and an alternate place to live for quite some time. If the government has taken a decision, we welcome it. In 2014, we spent almost four months in shelter homes,” Sharma said.