Late one evening in the winter of 1987, as his minibus pulled into the Kupwara bus stand after a bone-rattling ride from Sopore, Syed Bashir Ahmad decided he wanted a new life. His passengers that day included a gaggle of Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front recruits, among the first wave headed for training at Inter-Services Intelligence-run camps in Pakistan. Ahmad decided to go along. That evening, he began the short hike across the Line of Control (LoC) towards Dudhnial, past India’s last military outpost, Gulab — there wasn’t a soldier in sight.
WATCH | Pakistani troops violate ceasefire in Jammu Kashmir’s Rajouri District
Almost three decades later, New Delhi is rolling out a plan to hermetically seal its borders with Pakistan — a dramatic expansion of technology on existing fencing on the 3,323-km land border and 740-km LoC for an integrated system that links drones, sensors, radars and cameras. The goal: Reduce the odds that anyone like Ahmad — he is out on bail after being arrested on his return in 2012 — would have of crossing over to zero.
Led by retired bureaucrat Madhukar Gupta, the classified report of a committee that recommended the reforms calls the fence ‘a permanent strategic asset’ after the terrorist attacks in Gurdaspur and Pathankot, followed by Uri, as well as a surge in infiltration in Kashmir — around 150 terrorists this year, up from 100 last year and upwards of 1,500 before the 2003 ceasefire allowed India to start building up its fence at the LoC.
Falling number of active terrorists in J&K: 1,700 to 146 in 10 years
* Source: J&K govt
Experts, though, are sceptical if India’s wall will work. “Nowhere in the world has a wall ended terrorism. Even worse, they often induce false complacency, and suck resources from more important tasks,” says a border security official.
From the dawn of modern warfare, vulnerable states have relied on walls to beat off predatory armies — with mixed results. China’s Great Wall held off barbarian marauders, until Genghis Khan’s highly mobile horse-borne forces breached it in the 13th century. The battlements that guarded Constantinople could not protect it from Mehmet II’s artillery and engineers in 1453. France’s supposedly-impregnable Maginot Line was side-stepped by Nazi mechanised forces within days.
India’s wall had its genesis in the late 1980s, as security forces in Punjab struggled to fence off routes supplying Khalistan terrorists with weapons and cadre. The end of that insurgency in 1992 was attributed, in part, to the fence, leading to the adoption of the model in Rajasthan and Gujarat. In the late-1990s, the Border Security Force (BSF) pushed forward the fence along the International Border in Jammu, often engaging in construction under direct fire, using metal plates as shields.
It wasn’t until 2003, though, when the unsigned ceasefire went into force, that fencing could be undertaken on the LoC. The immediate results of the three-tier fencing were dramatic, with infiltration tapering off. In 2002, Intelligence Bureau figures show, over half of all infiltrating terrorists made it across the LoC. In 2010, 52 of 247 attempts were estimated to be successful; in 2012, 97 of 277; and, in 2014, 65 of 209. These numbers have justified the almost Sisyphean task of maintaining the fence: three-quarters of stretches along the LoC have to be rebuilt after each winter because of avalanches and landslides.
But is reduced infiltration a result of the fence — or a consequence of Pakistan turning off the terror tap because of international pressure? Army studies show it takes terrorists about eight minutes to cut a passage through the fence, suggesting determined adversaries can get through far easier than imagined, particularly under covering fire. This year, infiltration has gone up again, in large part because cross-border firing has made Indian defences vulnerable.
Even the United States’ state-of-the-art anti-immigrant fence with Mexico, experts point out, remains surprisingly permeable. In a recent paper, scholar Pia Orrenius noted that “when one site has been chosen for a crackdown, migrants have responded by crossing elsewhere”. US officials have pointed to a plunge in the number of illegal migrants caught on the southern border — where over 700 of the 2,000 miles are fenced off — from over 1.6 million in 2000 to around 400,000 in 2014. But a single kilometre of that fence cost up to $6 million to build and $6.5 billion to operate over 20 years.
Experts say funding for capital-intensive projects drains resources from less visible counter-terrorism investments. In recent years, most Indian states have seen severe cuts in police budgets, after the central government scrapped support for some modernisation programmes introduced after 26/11. In border states like Punjab, police have had to call off night patrols, because of shortages of funds for fuel and vehicle maintenance. More than 200 bullet-proof vehicles whose engines were destroyed by the Kashmir floods are yet to be replaced.
Then again, no one in government is quite sure just how effective the new border move will be. “Each barrier leads terrorists to invent a work-around, there is no such thing as a silver bullet,” says a government official.
The world’s other walls
To keep immigrants out, to beat back terrorists, to hold back insurgents: 34 fortified boundaries have been built since 1990, and many European countries have plans on the anvil now.
US-Mexico | 3,360 km (under construction)
* Intended to block the flow of immigrants from Mexico to the United States, the fence has become a major election issue, with Republican candidate Donald Trump vowing to make Mexico pay for its construction. Now spanning 930 km, the barriers focus on areas where immigrants most often passed into the US, using a mix of air surveillance, sensors, cameras and on-ground interdiction. The barriers have seen a sharp drop in the numbers of illegal immigrants arrested, which authorities claim as evidence of their success.
Western Sahara Berm | 2,700 km
* The Berm, or sand wall, runs through the Western Sahara and southeastern Morocco, separating the Moroccan-controlled southern provinces and the Polisario-controlled Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic. Its purpose was to keep out Polisario insurgents from Moroccan-controlled territory. The Berm consists of sand and stone walls about 3 metres high, with cobra-wire fences throughout. There are guardposts and bunkers every few kilometres, while artillery posts and airfields line the Moroccan-controlled side.
Iran-Pakistan | 700 km
* Intended as a counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism barrier, the Iran-Pakistan fence is a 100 cm thick, 3-m-high concrete wall, fortified with steel rods, running the length of the frontier from Taftan to Mand. The project includes large earth and stone embankments as well as deep ditches to deter illegal crossings and drug smuggling into Iran. The border region is dotted with police observation towers and fortress-style garrisons for troops. Baloch nationalists have opposed the fence, saying it will further divide the ethnic group, who live on both sides of the border.
Israel-Gaza | 60 km
* Touted as the most sophisticated counter-terrorism fence in the world, the Israel-Gaza barrier was built in 1994—and again in 2000, after being demolished by Palestinians—in response to suicide attacks and arms smuggling by terrorist groups. The fence uses physical means, as well as an array of electronic surveillance means, to restrict the movement of would-be attackers and weapons. However, terrorists responded to its construction by using rockets and mortar, forcing the Israeli army to intervene in Gaza—the outcome the fence was meant to avoid. Terrorists also burrowed tunnels under the fence, which Israel is now seeking to counter by building underground walls.