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Posted at: Sep 8, 2019, 7:37 AM; last updated: Sep 8, 2019, 7:37 AM (IST)

Bother along the border

Brig Sandeep Thapar (Retd)
MILITARY MATTERS
Brig Sandeep Thapar (Retd)

Brig Sandeep Thapar (Retd)

The recent NRC issue took me back to the days when I was commanding a battalion in Punjab (2001-2004). The period coincided with Parliament attack and Op Parakram. We were deployed along the border in general area Kathua (J&K). Those familiar with the area know there are several nullahs (minor streams) which flow from India into Pakistan. Though the BSF has a fence on the border, there are broken patches as no fence can be made in the nullah or river for obvious reasons.

After our deployment, we laid minefields along the border, strengthened our defences and practised our battle drills. But as each day passed, it started becoming clear that war was unlikely. The schedule then heavily transformed into VIP visits, war games and briefings. Strict vigil along the border, however, continued. Since it was clear that Pakistan could never attempt to start the hostilities, the emphasis was on preventing infiltration by terrorists, which could not be ruled out. But even in our best of thoughts we had not anticipated exfiltrators! 

It was 0300 hours on an August morning when the phone in my tent rang. It was a company commander on the line. “Sir, there is some movement in the vicinity of the minefield ahead,” he said. Within half an hour, I was at the location. This company was on a 1.5-km stretch of land between two nullahs that flowed into Pakistan. A minefield had been laid ahead. Through the surveillance device, one could make out some presence. I was annoyed, how come they had come in so deep without our devices detecting them?

“Open fire,” I ordered after some deliberation. What happened thereafter was never imagined by me in my wildest dreams. In the staccato of firing, one heard shrieks and loud cries. “Stop firing,” I yelled. We realised it could not be terrorists. Had some civilians strayed into this location?

After the firing stopped, we shouted, “Kaun hai?” No response. We kept at it. After five to six minutes, someone shouted back: “Don’t fire.” We told them to come out with hands in the air. We were in for a shock. Over 100 men, women and children slowly trooped out of the darkness. Clutching small bags and clothes, this was a ragtag motley bunch. My company commander went ahead to check. He was back with a strange look on his face. “Sir, they are Bangladeshis.”

Their story was a revelation. Keen to move to Pakistan, they first sneaked into West Bengal. There they contacted touts and paid them. They were transported to Pathankot by train, kept in small lots during daytime and smuggled in a bus into Kathua district that night. Each one had paid a fortune, ranging up to Rs 10,000. After debussing a couple of kilometres behind the border, the touts, who had taken their money in advance, indicated a nullah, saying they had to walk through it and Pakistan was just 1 km ahead. Later, on some pretext, the guides disappeared.

After waiting for a few hours, the elders decided to follow the nullah. This also explained how our devices failed to detect them, till they came out when the water in the nullah got deep.

We soon realised they were harmless. Some ‘dal chawal’ was made. We asked them a lot of questions in chaste Bangla. They were most forthcoming with their tales, some heart-rending, some pitiable. Bangladesh was a struggling economy then (unlike now) and better opportunities was the main reason behind this attempted migration, religion the only common thread.

The police were informed and the Kathua SP turned up. After seeing the numbers, he kept muttering under his breath. “Sir, you should have let them go. They would have added to the problems of Pakistanis. Now they are my problem. I am wondering where to keep them and how to feed this lot. The government gives only Rs 9 per person!” The Bangladeshis were off my area by late afternoon.

After six months, I met the SP at a dinner. He smiled when I asked him about the Bangladeshis. Initially he was reticent, but after much prodding, he confessed. “The trial in such cases takes up to one year. Who will feed them for that long? We simply hired a bus, went 100 km into Punjab and dropped them by some roadside.” Such is life.

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