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September 3, 1999


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Campaign Trail/ Barmer

'What would be the state of our country if there was a war? He protected us'

Chindu Sreedharan

"That is Pakistan. Look through this, you can see it clearly."

I take the binoculars from the Border Security Force personnel. Actually, I don't need it. Some 200 metres away from where I stand is the wire fencing where India ends. Beyond it, for another 500 feet, is no man's land and then Pakistan.

I am at a BSF border outpost in Gattara road, about 80 km to the west of Rajasthan's Barmer town. Curiosity, more than the election, is what has brought me here. Two hours earlier I had started from Barmer where the additional district collector -- a wonderfully co-operative man, -- had permitted me to visit villages along the border. On learning that I would not mind a look at the Pakistan border in the Thar desert, he had spoken to the BSF authorities, and that had done it.

The BSF officer conducting me is as communicative as a clam. So I try the jawan at the post. He turns out to be a south Indian, like me, and soon we are chatting along fine.

''Things were very, very tense when the Kargil trouble was going on," he tells me after we have dealt with each other's hometown and such like, "even now the situation is far from normal."

Till war broke out on the northern front, the border along Rajasthan was the BSF's baby. But now, as you move out to the west, you will find enough army presence to start doubting whether you have wandered into Jammu and Kashmir. Though it is the BSF that still mans the border, fearing a full-fledged war quite a few army units had been moved here to fortify it -- and they continue to be here.

The election, the jawan continues, has not helped matters. There is the fear that something might try to disturb it and the vigil hereabouts has become extra-tight. Plus, so says my friend, security personnel have been redeployed for all duty, and hence more pressure on the rest.

While returning to Gattara road, I take the road to village Trimoy, a 400 people affair. The border is hardly a kilometre away, and the village boasts of a school, built under a Rajiv Gandhi foundation scheme, a water tank, a pipeline that occasionally brings water and a polling booth. Miniature-flags bearing Atal Bihari Vajpayee's face can be seen flying in the wind atop three huts.

During the Kargil conflict, fearing war, the villagers had taken their goats, cows, camels and everything previous, and walked all the way to Gujarat, where they had stayed for over a month. Its only a fortnight since they returned.

Trimoy, like the rest of the villages I plan to visit today, falls under the Barmer constituency. Sitting MP and Congressman Colonel Sonaram Chaudhary versus the BJP's Manvendra Singh, but the people I talk to are not aware of either Chaudhary or Singh. The Congress and Janata party -- that is how they know the BJP -- are in the fray, yes, but who the hell is Chaudhary?

For that matter, who is Sonia Gandhi? Amar Khan, one of Trimoy's 168 voters, has no clue. Vajpayee, Atal Bihari Vajpayee? Ah, Khan recognises the name, but he will vote for the Congress all the same.

"Idhar brar (the Sindhi word for campaign) ke liye koi nahin aaya. Nobody has told us who to vote for. So I will vote for the party that I have been voting for before," he explains. I speak to a few more villagers. They are all as concerned about politics as I am about metaphysics. Entirely unaware about the issues at hand, they will vote as the mood moves them then, or as habit dictates, or as the elders tell them to.

The Vajpayee flags, I find out, are there not because of any saffron sentiment. The children had got it somewhere and promptly made use of it.

Earlier at Ramser, a shopowner had briefed me about the trends in the area. The BJP phool, he had said, had two things going for it. One, water trouble. It is one-and-a-half months since water has been supplied to Ramser. People have to buy water at great cost. So there is a lot of anti-Ashok Gehlot feeling. Two, the "Mohammedans" (the border areas are mainly populated by Muslims and Rajputs) are happy at the way Vajpayee handled Kargil.

"During the last Indo-Pak war," he had said, "many Muslims had to move to Pakistan. The Mohammadans were scared that would happen again. But the BJP leaders assured them that they could stay, come what may."

In Tamlor, the village I visit next, I don't see any sign of the BJP. It seems deserted except for the womenfolk. The residents live in igloo-like huts. These are round structures, the walls thick and made of clay. The roof is thatched, again thickly, with desert grass, on top of which are placed the thorny branches of the local kher tree. I enter an empty hut -- and find it refreshingly cool.

"This is their AC room," my driver smiles.

I emerge to find Shetan Singh, the only male in the village at the moment, approaching. He is aware of Manvendra Singh and Sonaram Chaudhary, yes but Singh is more interested in telling me about the main grouch the villagers have -- namely, what else, the water shortage. Tamlor has a polling booth, electricity, a pipeline -- but no water.

So how do they manage? There is a nadi, Singh tells me, a little way from here which they use.

A youngster guides me there and shows me another fact of desert life. The nadi turns out to be a man-made depression. Some 20 metres by 12 metres. It has some three feet of dirty, green water that smells powerfully of cow dung. A few camels are drinking from it. This is what the villagers use for everything.

''Yeh barsaat ka pani hai," says the government official who is accompanying me (courtesy, the collector). "We had rain in June and another in July. This particular place gets flooded then. These villagers drink the water just like this, without boiling. They are hardy people and nothing happens to them."

A few km to the west, we reach Amir ka Phar. It is one-and-a-half km from the border. The village elders who gather around us are, surprisingly, well aware of the election issues. Their main complaint, besides water, is an issue of compensation. Apparently, till 1996, they lived bang on the border. Then they were asked to shift their settlement here when the government started fencing the border. (Incidentally, only the Indian side is fenced; Pakistan's is as open as the Thar). They were promised compensation -- the needed papers, recommending a package of Rs 21,60,000 was sent to the Centre. But, to date, they have not received a single paisa.

''Whichever party that does good work is the one we would want to vote for," says a villager, "Unfortunately, there is no such party. The Congress comes to power, they don't work. The BJP comes to power, they don't work either."

But most of the 140 voters, Shafi Mohammad, the teacher here, tells me, will vote Congress --- by habit. "They are illiterate people," he adds as explanation.

I raise the videshi bahu issue and get a surprisingly progressive view for a people so rustic.

"Ham kehte hai woh Bharat ki bahu hai," says the same villager. "Rajiv Gandhi brought her here. She has been given Indian citizenship. So how can people say she is a foreigner?" Mohammad elaborates: "Before Independence many people from across have settled here. Do we call them Pakistanis?"

The Kargil conflict, how do they see Vajpayee's performance?

"He is the best PM we have had,'" Mohammad says. "But for him what would be the state of our village? What would be the state of our country if there was a war? He protected us."

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