Jammu, March 31 : A folk song, "Jade log de jandene ithe qurbaniyaan, duniya chi rendiya ne undeya nishaniya" sung by farmers in the agricultural fields of Jammu, means -- the ones who render sacrifices are the ones remembered by the world after their lives. However, this tradition of singing in the fields has been on a decline, at least in the village of Suchetgarh, which is a stone's throw from Pakistan along the International Border in Jammu's RS Pora sector. Bombings across the border have made farming a life-threatening livelihood to pursue in this village that has a little over 200 households. Singing or being carefree is out of the question.
However, things are looking different this year. Last month, India and Pakistan declared a ceasefire -- it's the first time in many decades that a truce has been called here during the harvesting season, which spans from March to April. A ceasefire was announced earlier too, during the holy month of Ramzan in 2018, but it proved to be short-lived.
In fact, India and Pakistan had signed a ceasefire pact in November 2003 but they haven't been able to honour it, especially after the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks.
Given the chequered history of this agreement, it's difficult to say how long the latest ceasefire will last but the locals are hailing it as the new dawn. It's been unusually quiet in Suchetgarh for the past few weeks. The thuds of the guns and mortar shells have been replaced by the carefree chirping and warbling of birds. The families are wandering into their fields without fear, admiring the crops and hoping for good returns.
As per the government records, 454 hectares of land in Suchetgarh is under cultivation and is used mostly to grow Basmati rice and maize.
"The feeling that no one is going to kill you (in the crossfire) is inexplicable. You have to experience it (to know what we are feeling right now"," shares Madhu Kumari. Her family's four-acre farmland is the closest to this border, which the locals call 'the zero line'.
What's farming like on the border? According to Kumari's husband Bhaga Ram, more than 20 residents of Suchetgarh have lost their lives in the ceasefire violations but none have died while working on their farmland. "But there hasn't been a single year since my childhood when harvesting wasn't a scary affair. All the time a sword was hanging over our heads that artillery fire might hit us as we reap the year's hard work," the 61-year-old says.
In Avinash Kumar's case, the mortar shell missed him by a few metres in the cross-border hostility that escalated in 2018. The violence that year was worse than it was during the 1971 Indo-Pak war, residents of the border villages have described in this report.
"I remember it was February. My father wasn't well. So I went to the field to prepare the land as the harvest season was a month away. Suddenly,I heard a loud thud and a strong blow of air threw me off to a corner. My ears were toggling with strange sounds as I tried to crawl around to take shelter. Within one hour, we all were taken away in a government bunker and later shifted to a safe-house. The land, the crops, the harvest -- everything was destroyed," remembers the young farmer.
It's a drill the residents of Suchetgarh have got used to. Every time the armies trade fire across the border, they have to flee their fields and homes and take shelter in government safe-houses. And when the tensions subside, they return to bruised homes and farmlands. Farmer Talib Hussain dubs the experience nightmarish.
"(After the skirmishes in 2018), we would often find some unexploded shells lying around. Our own fields had become death wells for us. We were reluctant to sow the crops (the season begins from September). We were even hesitant to harvest them," he recalls. That year, he incurred a loss of more than Rs 2 lakh as a part of his crops got damaged in the violence.
Forced to do other jobs Farming in Suchetgarh has suffered in more ways than one. The bombings have left behind toxic residue on the farmlands, turning them infertile in most places. A putrid odour greets you when you visit the fields and there is no respite from the constant buzzing of mosquitoes. In fact, according to government records, an estimated 17,000 hectares of land get destroyed due to shelling every year all over Jammu & Kashmir.
Suchetgarh's Vinaay Kumar knows the pain of losing his land and crops all too well. He could not sow anything on his two-acre land after the intense shelling from Pakistan in 2018. "(I was hoping for a profitable yield that year). But I got nothing at the end. I could not sow any crop the next year. The land was giving off the pungent smell of a burnt powder keg," Kumar remembers.
The volatile situation has forced the residents to look beyond farming, which has been their traditional source of livelihood -- A quintal of Basmati rice sells for Rs 4,000. "Farming is in our blood. My father often tells me that his farmland is dearer to him than his three sons," says Avinash with a gentle smile.
But now, many have either started migrating to nearby towns or have taken up odd jobs to supplement their income. Vinaay, for instance, runs a shop to sell bicycle spare parts while his brothers work as masons. Vinaay has little choice but to do this because the compensation given to the farmers after the crop loss due to firings is too meagre to even cover the basic farming costs.
He explains, "We were given Rs 6,000 as compensation in 2018. Initially, I thought it was a joke or maybe the government was planning to pay us in instalments of Rs 6,000. But I was told by the local relief officer that the amount was full and final." A farmer in Suchetgarh, on the contrary, spends almost Rs 12,000 to buy seeds and fertilisers for an acre of farmland alone, he adds.
'Let us live & sing' Despite the disappointment, the farmers haven't protested against the paltry compensation yet. They don't want to be thrown into this situation ever again, that's all they say. They want the ceasefire to be honoured in true spirit.
"Saving our lives and the lives of our families is always a priority for us. We can only hope that the ceasefire remains intact so we can live and do our work without any fear," Ram says. And do it with joy, adds Avinash as he says: "Believe me, the toilers of this land had abandoned that trend (of singing songs in the fields) a long time ago. But now, it seems the truce will last and we can euphorically sing 'Jade log de..." (The author is Srinagar-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters. Views are personal)