Kings of Desert

The BSF personnel fight weather and loneliness

Squinting against the glaring sun, a young assistant commandant focuses his pair of binoculars on a cluster of small buildings a few kilometres inside Pakistan territory. “That’s the Pakistan Border Out Post,” he points out in the sandy horizon. For a brief moment it seems that sun is up to its old tricks, after all, mirages are not uncommon of in these areas. But from the third level of the BSF observation tower, at the height of nearly 30ft, it turns out to be no mirage. But the enthusiasm of watching an enemy BOP is considerably dampened when despite concentrating on it for a few minutes one sees no activity at all, not a single Pakistan Ranger. In a sharp contrast, Indian BOPs are a hub of activity. “The Pakistanis are not as active or vigilant as we are,” explains the assistant commandant. “We dominate the border completely. They don’t even patrol as much as we do and their BOP’s are way behind the border, unlike ours,” While an average Indian BOP is about 800m inside the border, the two-tier fence is 150m from the border pillars. And the average distance between two Indian BOPs is about 4km, just a few hundred metres more than the prescribed ideal of 3.5km.

S.N. Jain, Inspector General, Rajasthan sector, Jodhpur, explains Pakistan’s apparent lack of concern about its national security. “Basically, they are the culprits. They try and infiltrate through the fence, we don’t. So we need to be on the vigil all the time.” According to the BSF, before fencing was done, the border was extremely porous. Apart from gold and drug smugglers, there used to be a general flow of civilians for economic, social and family reasons. Sometimes, smugglers used to load the contraband stuff on camels and let them loose. Straying across the border, the camels used to reach their destination. “Camels are very good with directions. They know exactly where they have to go,” says one BSF officer. While fencing put a stop to all that, stray cases of infiltration still take place. A typical incident of border crossing occurs during bad weather conditions, especially sand storms when the visibility becomes zero. To prevent such an occurrence, the BSF personnel spend sleepless nights here.

There is no doubt that the BSF dominates the border completely in Rajasthan. Barring 42km, the entire stretch of the Rajasthan border, about 807km has been fenced and is floodlit at night. Not taking any chances, the BSF men in groups of threes establish checkpoints every 500m along the fence at night. At sunrise, the camel patrol comes with a footprint expert, called ‘khojis’. They scour the entire border to see infiltrating and exfiltrating foot-prints. The khojis are local experts who have inherited the art of recognising the footprints from their forefathers. Though officially part of the force, khojis owing to their expertise stay in the Rajasthan sector only and are never posted to other locations. Says Rajeev Dasot, DIG, HQ Jaisalmer Sector I, “They are such experts that by looking at the footprints they can identify the gender, age and species of the trespasser. If it is a camel, they can say how many people were mounting it. They can also figure out the general time infiltration.” Anyway, theoretically, khojis have interesting lives. In the morning when the footprints are identified, then depending upon the time of infiltration, the prints are trailed to its destination. Sometimes, a chase is mounted, and the trespasser arrested. If it is a case of exfiltration, the footprints are trailed to their origin, and villagers or the family members questioned. An animated light comes in the eyes of the BSF officers and men when they talk of the daily khoji ritual. Unfortunately, in practice, khojis have very dull lives. There aren’t many footprints to be found at the border. Combing the desert in blazing sun for nothing is tedious and thankless. Once the camel patrol ritual is over, the foot patrolling begins and the BSF men in a party of four to five walk the length of the border. At various gaps, others man the observation towers for a bird’s eye view. While all BSF officers and men get similar training at the BSF training centre in Tekanpur, those deployed in the desert sector get additional training at the battalion level.

According to Jain, in the last decade or so, smuggling at the border has been completely wiped out. “There is no crime on the border,” he says with obvious pride. The Rajasthan and Gujarat border has traditionally been notorious for gold and narcotics smuggling. In the years when Punjab was reeling under terrorism, a few arms consignments were confiscated by the BSF in these areas which gave rise to the thinking that Pakistan may use this route for supporting terrorism in other parts of India. Hence fencing, which started here after the Punjab border was fenced and was completed in 1996. The sector was bifurcated into Rajasthan and Gujarat frontiers for effective management and the strength of the BSF was beefed up. Today, the Rajasthan Frontier alone has 18 battalions and Jain is happy with the force level. There are four sector headquarters in Rajasthan frontier; one each in Ganganagar and Bikaner and two in Jaisalmer. Barmer in southern Rajasthan is another sector but now it forms part of the Gujarat frontier. “Even if I have the option of having as many battalions as possible, I will probably only want two more. We don’t need that many people here. Though I admit that in Gujarat there is a requirement for more battalions,” he says. The borders are calm here, and the BSF personnel don’t even feel the need to move around with weapons. The only firing that happens at the borders is when Pakistan Rangers go hunting chinkara deer or other stray cattle for food. Ironically, fencing has made this easier for them. All they have to do is chase the hapless animal towards the fence and trap it there. But, there fear of things not remaining calm is what drives the BSF. Dasot says that in the last few months they have killed at least three infiltrators in the Jaisalmer sector alone. This reinforces the need for the BSF men to remain vigilant day and night, prompting one local to sneer, “The BSF is unnecessarily making the life of its personnel miserable. There is nothing here, no threat and no infiltration. Even if there are a few stray cases of crime at the border, the question is does it merit this expenditure and effort?” The sentiment finds a bleak echo among young officers who yearn for more action-packed postings.

Unlike other borders, the opposing forces here live in an atmosphere of relative calm and cordiality. The gates of the fence (one every 500m) are opened every month and the BSF men patrol jointly with Pakistan Randers. The sector commanders of the two forces also meet once in three months to chat, exchange cricket, film and political gossip and to chalk out the joint patrolling programme. The meetings are alternately held in each other’s territories and both sides do their best to play good hosts. Says S.S Dabas, Second-in-Command, 92 BSF battalion, “The Pakistan Rangers are quite badly off. Except for game which they manage occasionally, they survive on rice and lentils. During our sector meetings when we serve them ice cream, they are quite surprised. We tell them that we have deep freezers at our BOPs. As far as conversation goes, we stay off Kashmir.” When the issue of stray infiltration is raised, the BSF registers a protest and Rangers feign ignorance. Sometimes, the tables are turned and Rangers complain about infiltration from the Indian side. Then it is the turn of the BSF to feign ignorance and things fall in a usual pattern. This bonhomie was set aside during Operation Parakram, the 10-month-long military stand-off between India and Pakistan. The BSF had come under the operational command of the army and there was razor-sharp tension in the air.

Jain puts infiltration into three categories: sabotage, espionage and smuggling. Of the three, the most probable one today is espionage. “Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) in collaboration with the Rangers tries to infiltrate Pakistani modules or resident agents in India,” says Dasot. “In most cases they are caught in a few days of infiltration, but sometimes they go undetected.” Do India agencies also try to smuggle agents across the border? An officer at the Rajasthan Frontier Headquarters, who would know about these things, smiles in response. Among the most vulnerable areas are the Kishangarh bulge and the Shahgarh bulge. While the former is in north Jaisalmer, the latter falls close to the Barmer sector to the south.

Among the force-multipliers for the BSF in Rajasthan are the famed camels. The BSF has a total of 700 camels, with about 50 to 60 camels per battalion. They are used for patrolling and ferrying logistics. Though the BSF now has a range of 4X4 jeeps which ply well in the desert and are used for patrolling also, the bulk of it is still done by camels. Besides, for footprint tracking, the BSF believes in relying on the camels. Camels find their big advocate in Dasot, who says, “Through camel patrolling, the BSF has been able to do complete domination, as camels give you a 360 degree view. Apart from being cheaper than fuel-guzzling automobiles, they are like mobile OP towers.” But not everyone agrees with this. In the past few years there have been a number of incidents of camels turning violent, injuring their handlers and soldiers, sometimes even killing the men. Says one officer, “Camels are big grudge-holders. If a handler beats a camel, he remembers it and waits for an opportunity to avenge that, Moreover, the economy factor also does not hold for the simple reason that they are living creatures and have to be taken care of differently. Their food composite itself is quite expensive.” There may or may not be merit in this debate, but the fact remains that since not all BSF soldiers are of Rajasthan origin, their association with camels begin only when they are posted in the desert sector, hence there is a degree of fear among them, unlike the local Rajasthanis.

Despite the fact that the border is calm, for personnel deployed in the Rajasthan sector, it is far from a peace posting. A-24-hour job with little to break the monotony comes with its own stress factors, Jain list five problems that his men face in the line of their duty: Tough job, cruel weather, boredom, isolation and poor communication. While the difficulties of the job and the weather is hardly an issue for anyone who wears a uniform, boredom, isolation and lack of communication pose the biggest morale questions in this area. In the last few years, the BSF BOPs have moved closer to the border and away from the villages. In any case, the villages, or ‘dhanis’ as they are called are reasonably mobile with shifting population, hence the BSF people remain completely isolated from the local people. It is sometimes weeks, or even a month before they come across a local. While men at each BOP, manned by a company, can still interact with one another, the single officer posted in these BOPs finds himself completely alone, with only a television set for company. Well, there are books and magazines as well, but clearly, they are not enough amusement. “All our 122 BOPs have Direct to Home (DTH) cable connection,” says Dasot. But both Jain and Dasot admit that televised entertainment is not what men want at the end of the day. They need to be in touch with their families, they need some activity and they need to see some other faces apart from each to see some other faces apart from each others’. Though the Rajasthan Frontier has six satellite telephones, and hey are even circulated among the BOPs , they are not used by men as calls are very expensive. “Unless it is an emergency, the men come to the battalion headquarter once in 10 days to make a call home. Besides, we ensure that their mail reaches them at the earliest.” Says Jain.

Given the pattern of deployment and the service conditions, the biggest health concern for the BSF is emotional and mental well-being of its personnel. Cases of depression and other stress-related disorders are not uncommon. To prevent these disorders and to keep the men busy, the BSF has been encouraging creation of ‘Pakshi Vihars’ or nesting places for birds, apart from tree cultivation. Every BSF battalion has a 10-bed-ded hospital with two authorised doctors, but they usually have only one. Each BOP has a constable trained in first-aid. Most common are the cases of malaria, dehydration, snake and animal bites. Says Jain, “Traditionally, malaria was unheard of in these areas as mosquitoes didn’t survive in this weather, but I suppose they have developed immunity against heat.”

Despite the inherent limitations, things have improved for the personnel in the last few years, insists Jain. The BSF has spent Rs50 crore on infrastructure in Rajasthan alone in the last couple of years. New messes, compuses and accommodation have come up in a number of places. Two new BSF compuses have been approved of in Jaipur and Udaipur, which will house a battalion each, Jain says that land for construction will be allotted this year only. The BSF also has adequate family accommodation, even in Jaisalmer sector, though it is  less than what is authorised. “I would call it adequate because not everyone wants to bring their families here,” explains Jain. The biggest achievement has been in the area of living comforts at the BOPs Today. Almost all BOPs are concretised with the exception of just a couple which are still tented. This has not only made life a bit more comfortable but has also reduced the incident of snake-bites, as earlier it was quite common for snakes to creep inside the tents. “Most of the Pakistan Rangers still live in tented BOPs” remarks one officer. “We have also been able to bring down the rate of accidents through better training and equipment,” says Jain. The BSF has also been able to manage the water problem effectively in the desert where the ground water is usually high in chloride and sodium. Water tankers transport water to all the BOPs which store them for a week. While they do not have running water, there is no shortage either. Desalination or distillation plants have not been cost-effective; hence the BSF relies on few known sources of sweet ground water. The Indira Gandhi canal has also heled to some extent. The life science laboratories of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) had developed some tablets by which brackish water could be made potable in the Rajasthan sector. However, Jain says that such experimental have not worked and the BSF still relies on their water tankers.

Yet, keeping the moral of the men high remains an ongoing challenge. As one officer comments, “One does not join a service to sit idle watching sunrise and sunset. There is a need to take pride in one’s job and that can only happen if one is involved in operations.”

The other sectors of the long India-Pakistan border have their own set of complexities, which makes BSF’s task of guarding even more formidable. For example, the 554km long Punjab sector has nearly 150km of river line that are the tributaries of Ravi and Sutlej. Unlike Rajasthan and especially Gujarat sectors, the population in the Punjab sector is high and lives close to the border. Land being fertile, people cultivate the land right up to the zero line. Moreover, being a militarily valuable sector as many strategic and economic targets are close to the border, the army has liner Ditch-Cum-Bandhs (DCB) here to provide the first line of defence against Pakistan. The BSF here has the important task of permitting the villagers to go till the zero line, and to ensure that they do not indulge in establishing clandestine contacts across the border, which is rather common. Moreover, the BSF also has to assuage the perennial fear in this sector, that of terrorism getting rekindled in Punjab.

In sharp contrast, the 498km Gujarat frontier, with 100km of the creek area, is just the opposite. The land is marshy with no vegetation, and the topography is flat, featureless and uninhabited. For miles on end, the only human habitation in the Rann is the BSF and the only physical features are the BSF BOPs. There is acute shortage of drinking water throughout the year. At many places there is a need to store water, including for drinking purposes, for a few months at a time, particularly during monsoon months. Living conditions are extremely harsh and the combination of fine particles of sand and salt, which remain suspended in the atmosphere all the time, cause irritation in the eye and serious skin problems. In sheer contrast, the lay of the land on the Pakistan side is much more favourable, including fresh water resources, high ground and combatively more vegetation.

As far as the 350-km-long coastline along the Gulf of Kutch, there are daily cases of fisherman from both countries entering the waters for fishing illegally. During the recent summit meeting in Delhi, Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf said that with improved relations between the two countries, both sides should not arrest these fishermen. The problem is that these people usually serve as conduit for carrying even explosives inside India. Clearly, the resources available with the BSF, police and the customs have been inadequate to meet the challenges in this area. The BSF, however, has acquired a few fast boats for its water wing in the area. But more needs to be done.

Probably, one of the important things that need to be looked into is the wartime role of the BSF along the entire border. Unlike the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir, where the BSF is constantly under command of the army, he BSF and the army got their first exposure after the 1971 war in joint-operations during the 10 month long operation Parakram, which was disheartening. Neither side knew what was expected of them, and worse, they had little idea of each other’s tactics, capabilities and weapon systems, Senior BSF officer, however, say that their wartime roles are well-defined. These include being guides to army units, providing protection to army’s logistics column, and being the first line of defence. While there is little doubt that the BSF would know the border areas which they dominate during peace time like the back of their hand, the problems in being the first line of defence is that the army, which exercises in the area and remains deployed in depth, rarely has any interaction with the BSF interestingly, the BSF in the Rajasthan sector has two regiments (36 number) for the indigenous 105mm artillery guns. In the absence of any joint training and firing with artillery units, these will be a liability rather than an asset in war.

In this respect, the Pakistan Rangers enjoy a decisive edge over the BSF. They make no distinction between peacetime and wartime roles. All officers upwards of a battalion are regular army officers, who have sighted their BOPs along the entire border in tactical fashion rather than for policing duties. All rangers are conversant with regular infantry battalion weapons, and unlike the BSF are equipped with anti-tank weapons. In war, the Pakistan Rangers will provide a tough line of defence to the Indian Army’s mechanised columns. This is something that the army and the BSF should seriously mull over.


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With fencing, floodlights, camels and heavy presence, BSF dominates the tranquil border





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