With fencing, floodlights, camels and heavy presence, BSF dominates the tranquil border
Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab
The fiercest battles in the BSF’s Jaisalmer sector are fought on the sandy dunes. Hundreds of diligent hoarders fight one another for tiny pieces of cow and camel dung, which are rolled by the victors to their tiny holes in the dunes. From dawn to dusk, the black worms of the desert move about in a matter of fact manner from dune to dune, fighting and carrying their booty. But as darkness creeps in, the predators become the prey as nocturnal creatures start stalking the vast wasteland. In the morning, as the BSF’s daily camel patrol, along the ‘khojis’ (foot print trackers) begin to track the footprints of the trespassers on the border, the train of tiny prints lefts behind by the black worms of the desert are largely ignored. Worms, reptiles, animals and birds are at best amusement for the soldiers who are mostly left fighting boredom and loneliness.
“These are deadly worms. They feast on human flesh,” jests one bored assistant commandant who has recently been transferred to Jaisalmer sector I after an action-filled tenure in the Kashmir Valley. On seeing the look of horror on his visitors’ face he gives up the joke. “No, actually they are harmless,” he says watching the worm getting gobbled up by a bigger insect with great interest. “The biggest killer here is lack of activity,” he says by way of some explanation. His superior expounds further. “Birds and animals are a source of entertainment,” he says pointing to the nestling places for birds, ‘Pakshi Vihar’ that most BSF Border Out Posts (BOPs) in Rajasthan are developing. Camels, cows and dogs are other animals that keep the beleaguered men company. Most BOPs are also developing patches of green by planting trees, and one BOP has actually succeeded in forcing grass out of sand. “It was very difficult to grow grass here. The sand simply wouldn’t turn into soil,” explains the company commander responsible for a BOP which stands out like a small oasis. According to S.S Dabas, Second-in-Command, 92 BSF battalion, the green drive has been quite a success. “Apart from ecological advantages, it has helped in relieving the boredom of the men,” he says. “Each man has his own tree to look after; when he goes on leave he entrusts it to another. Watching his tree grow gives him a degree of emotional stability.”
Emotional and mental stability are big issues for the BSF in the desert, where temperature usually touches the 50 degree Celsius mark in summers. But more than the weather, it is the lack of activity and absence of local population that most personnel find unbearable. The road from Jodhpur (closest airport and the main railhead, though a few stray trains go to Jaisalmer is straight with few curves and the landscape offers no respite: Endless stretches of stark wasteland where nothing grows. The famed sand dunes make occasional appearances breaking the monotony of the drive, but for most part it is tedious. Quaint villages, or ‘dhanis’ as they are called, appear suddenly, and multi-hued scarfs and turbans of the local people lend colour to the cruel rock and sand backdrop.
Pokhran, which has acquired the dubious distinction of being a symbol of national strength following the 1974 and 1998 nuclear tests, appears halfway through the drive. And after that, despite the prominent markers about the Pokhran Fort and other places of tourist interest, the military presence becomes increasingly pronounced. There are a number of army and air force training ranges off the small, and now overcrowded town. As the car drives past the state tourism guest house and remains of some old fort on the outskirts of Pokhran, army tanks and artillery guns stationed on either sides, covered with camouflage tarpaulin become conspicuous. Squinting in the horizon one can also see uniformed men moving around.
The onset of Jaisalmer district is announced by the changing colour of the buildings: From plain sandstone to golden yellow sandstone. Apparently, the yellow sandstone is a speciality of Jaisalmer. It is extremely malleable and hence lends itself very well to carving. But it is a delicate stone and cannot stand the onslaught of rain, which explains why architects in other parts of the country are yet to discover its lustre. Jaisalmer district, which is roughly the size of the state of Kerala, wears a lovely golden hue. Even small roadside shops flaunt intricately carved arches, door-ways, pillars and canopies.
Leaving Jaisalmer behind, the desert starts encroaching on the road. Driving past the golden city, replete with history, myths and mysteries, one gets deeper in the heart of the Thar desert which is briefly overtaken by innumerable windmills on either side. Chinkara deers, peacocks and antelopes cross the narrow sandy track at whim. “The animals are familiar with the BSF,” boasts one officer. “They are not afraid of us. Often we have to force them of the road, as they refuse to budge.” Countless film songs and movies sequences flash across the mindscape, as the desert gradually stars growing on you. For the first timers, the desert holds an unexplained attraction: a blend of mystery and adventure. And as the evening draws, the head gives way to cool breeze. Soft dunes, almost like fresh snow in its texture, are fun in a romantic sort of a way; but only as long as northing bites you, especially the vipers which are quite common in these parts. One officer helpfully informs that all BOPs keep anti-viper serum, so there is nothing to fear.
No wonder, the BSF men ae untouched by what appears to be stark golden beauty. The nocturnal sounds of various insects breaking through the quietude of the night lend an air of adventure, just as sitting in the middle of nowhere on a starlit night does. Yet, matters of earth crop up. And the recurring theme is boredom. Given that there is no real enemy, at best an opponent across the border who is seen infrequently, life is quite tedious for the BSF men who most often yearn for the action of Jammu and Kashmir. “Though there is a constant threat of death there, at least we are involved in operations,” says one officer. “Here we are constantly on the vigil, day and night, but there is no enemy.
Kings of Desert
The BSF personnel fight weather and loneliness