Surjeet Singh owns a large, pucca house in his village. But he, along with his wife and three children, spends the night on the roof of a public building, along with several other families, in the town 5 km away. “It is so humiliating to sleep like this in the open. I fear for the safety of our girls. I wonder what’s worse — dying due to Pakistani shelling at our home or sleeping at a public place in the town,” he says.
Singh’s village Rangpur Malanian, home to 300 families, is located on the international border in Jammu’s R S Pura sub-district, and has been hit by Pakistani shelling for 45 days. Since the past 20 days, when firing intensified, Singh and his family have been spending the nights at the ITI building in R S Pura town. The building is one of the many public spaces the Jammu and Kashmir government has earmarked to accommodate people from border villages at night, when Pakistan Rangers fires shells.
But every day, at the crack of dawn, Singh and his family are up to make the trip back to the village. As he kick-starts his bike, his wife, two teenage daughters and an eight-year-old son, lugging their blankets and bedspreads, follow on a tractor with other families. The tractor belongs to one of the villagers.
Singh’s father, 90-year-old Khazan Singh, is the only family member who stays the night in the village house, amidst the shelling from across the border.
One person from every family in Rangpur Malanian stays back at night to guard the house, and Khazan Singh volunteered.
As soon as the elder Singh opens the door for him, Surjeet Singh rushes to the room where he ties up his three buffaloes every night to protect them from shellfire or sniper shots. He unties them, brings them to the courtyard, and feeds them fodder.
His wife Paramjeet, meanwhile, gets into the daily grind, sweeping the floor and preparing breakfast. The children get ready for school. They have to reach a nearby road by 7.30 am to catch their school van. They study at a private school on the outskirts of the village as the government schools in the area are closed for most of the year, either because they fall within the firing range of Pakistan or because they have been occupied by people from other border villages hit by firing.
Singh has little time to waste. With a sickle in hand, he walks to his eight-kanal land close to the border. Since the last month, farming activity here has been practically nil. The only work Singh does in the fields these days is preparing fodder for the buffaloes. “I can’t work in the fields or water the crops. The shells might just hit me,” he says. Even as he prepares the fodder, he keeps looking towards the border. “One Santokh Singh has been confined to bed for the last 20 years after a sniper shot hit his stomach while he was fetching water from a hand pump for his buffalo,” he says, pointing at a Pakistani observation post.
With little to do in the fields, Surjeet heads next to the chaupal to talk to the other villagers. The discussion centres around the cross-border shelling. Hansraj, a 60-year-old farmer, complains about how he has been unable to go to his fields for the last one month. “The shelling has created deep potholes in my field, damaging the paddy,’’ he says. Swarn Singh, 40, is also worried about his crop. “I cannot go there even during the day as my land is right at the border and the Rangers open fire on seeing anyone approaching the zero line,” he says.
The villagers feel Indians are less prepared to deal with the shelling. “We have spent hundreds of crores erecting the barbed wire fence. Between the fence and the border lie thousands of acres of fertile agricultural land. BSF outposts are tin sheds in full view of Pakistan
Rangers. On the other hand, Pakistan has grown a dense tree line on their side, giving a natural cover to their civilians,” says Hansraj.
The talk veers towards electricity bills. “In the absence of metres, they are charging us a flat rate even when there is no power for most part of the day,” says Choudhary Dev Raj.
It’s lunch time and the chaupal ends, with villagers planning to meet again in the evening.
At home, Khazan Singh is listening to news on the transistor. “It is no use talking to them,” he grumbles as he hears about talks between the director-generals of military operations of both countries. “They will still resort to unprovoked firing unless taught a lesson,’’ says the ex-Armyman.
As night approaches, Singh takes back the buffaloes to the room and locks them up. Paramjeet cooks an early dinner, while the daughters pack their blankets and bedspreads. It’s time to leave for the town. Singh’s son reminds his uncle who lives next door to visit his grandfather at least once in the night.
Singh gets on his bike, and his family on to a tractor, for the town. At the ITI, the family struggles to find space to spread their bedspreads. Only last Tuesday, the Army pitched tents to serve free food to families. There are no frightening sounds of fire or bullets at the ITI, but sound sleep is still elusive. Singh often stays awake, waiting for the crack of dawn to return home.