Just hundred metres from the international border (IB), a BSF company prepares to take positions in concrete bunkers as dusk sets in. Company commander Jerin Varghese begins to brief his men. “Last night you fired very well. Keep it up. Goli ka jawab goli se dena hai (We must respond to every bullet with a bullet),” he says.
Like all company commanders in the area, Varghese is relaying orders received through the chain of command. Sometimes they are told to give a “befitting reply” and at other times, when the instructions are to hit Pakistan harder in the face of increased firing from across the border, the jawans are told, “Hilne mat dena (Don’t let them move).”
“Secure your bulletproof vests and wear your helmets at all times,” Varghese says as mortars are loaded into armoured vehicles which take the jawans to their bunkers. Two kinds of mortars are being used — 51 mm that can hit targets at 800 metres, and 81 mm that carry up to five kilometres.
Read: Pakistan taught 'befitting lesson', says Modi
Over the past week, the 192-kilometre international border has been on fire and mortars have been met with mortars. But this time the Indian intent has been redefined by New Delhi and “Hilne mat dena” includes damaging Pakistani posts and fortifications and inflicting casualties.
HT got special permission to spend a night at the border outpost. The driver accompanying this reporter preferred to move to the safety of his uncle’s home, saying, “I got married in December. I can’t take any chances.” Varghese who heard the conversation smiled, and said, “I got married in mid-September, less than a month ago.”
“How many Pakistani rangers have we killed?” is a question that has suddenly come to acquire meaning and intent. Listen carefully and it is clear that the vocabulary of BSF officers has changed.
After they received clear instructions not to seek a flag meeting and to retaliate effectively, senior officers at the BSF’s frontier headquarters often begin sentences with, “gone are the days...” “Gone are the days when we were told to hold flag meetings... Gone are the days when we were told to be restrained... Gone are the days when we were told peace will be affected...”
A BSF officer in-charge of intelligence has gathered information — through technical intelligence and intercepts — and the force believes the Pakistan Rangers have suffered up to 40 casualties.
“Gone are the days ma’am. We have hit them (Pakistan) so hard, they are not letting their media into the forward areas.”
The Narendra Modi government has drawn a new red line in its Pakistan policy: fire will be matched with fire and the BSF is gung-ho.
But there are questions that need answering: how do you de-escalate? The military response may be clear, but what is the larger strategic vision? Will a “befitting reply” silence the Pakistani guns? Isn’t last night’s calm deceptive?
It’s not for the BSF to answer these questions, the soldiers say. They’ve left them to their colleagues in the ministries of home, defence and external affairs and to officials in the Prime Minister’s office.
On ground zero, Varghese and his men know a simple truth: every day, day after day, they will have to wear their bulletproof vest and helmets and stay alert in their bunkers. The finger will stay on the trigger – in peace and in near war.
Read: After 9 days of firing, all’s quiet on western front
In Pics:Indians under Pakistani fire