Suchetgarh border (Jammu): The rattle of guns was replaced by the excited noises of people clicking selfies and dancing to the beats of drums at the Border Out Post (BoP) here as the J&K government launched its border tourism initiative.
Ahead of their departure to Amarnath cave shrine to pay obeisance at ice-lingam of Lord Shiva in South Kashmir Himalayan shrine, a group of nearly 100 pilgrims from various states of the country made a beeline at Octerio Border Out Post (BoP) along IB with Pakistan which has a three-tier border fencing.
Minister of State for Culture & Tourism, Priya Sethi led the group which traveled in a special tourism bus to Suchetgarh border belt in R S Pura tehsil of Jammu district.
“This is an effort by the government to promote border tourism in the state. After this, the next step of the government would be to promote cross-border tourism,” the Minister told reporters.
“Tourists and pilgrims are ambassadors for our state and the government wants to send a message of peaceful atmosphere and cultural harmony across the country through them,” she said, adding that such visits would become a routine excercise in the coming days.
Rakesh Kumar Verma, an Amarnath pilgrim from Varanasi, said, “We are happy to be here. We keep reading in media that it is the most active battleground between Indo-Pak troops as they keep firing and shelling these border areas resulting in death and destruction. There is no fear today.”
Like him, Suresh Kumar from Tamil Nadu, who has visited Wagah border a few years back, feels that most of the people wish to visit the borderline in Jammu and Kashmir and today “I feel my desire has been fulfilled”.
“We appeal to the government to make this Octerio BoP in Jammu as a place of tourism similar to Wagah border. It has huge potential. This IB should become a line of peace and bonhomie,” Kumar said.
Anuradha Kumari, who has come for pilgrimage with her family from Maharashtra, was excited at the opportunity to be so near the Indo-Pak border.
“Fear has taken a backseat as I visited this border…
saw border pillars, was told about the history… I am very excited and will go home with selfies. Government should encourage this border tourism effort and making all logistic facilities,” she said.
Shelja and her family from Uttarakhand, who were visiting the International Border in RS Pura, were busy clicking selfies along the border fence.
“We saw bunkers and flags of India and Pakistan. We felt very good and hope that tourists from Pakistan also come to see the border areas,” said an excited Shelja.
“I feel that places along the borderline be it pilgrim centres, wetlands and border contact points at BoPs should be developed and this IB should be converted into an attraction of Indo-Pak friendship instead of firing and shelling,” she said.
“Every day 200 to 300 people including tourists visit Octerio BoP as border tourism initiative. On Sundays, the footfall of tourists goes upto to 100. It is open for tourists from 8 AM to 6 PM daily,” a BSF officer manning BoP Octerio said.
Indo-Pak border has seen major ceasefire violations as Pakistani troops resorted to heavy firing and shelling during past few years triggering fear among resident many of whom have frequently been forced to flee.
Pakistani troops have violated ceasefire on Line of Control (LoC) and International Border (IB) in Jammu and Kashmir for 11,270 times since 2002, claiming the lives of 313 people including 144 security personnel, Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti told the state Assembly recently.
Amid the excitement, pilgrims chanted slogans ‘Bum Bum Bole’and ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’ as they danced to the beats of dholaks at the Suchetgarh tourist centre.
Jammu and Kashmir launched border tourism at low key in a bid to attract tourists and pilgrims with a twin-aim to boost the economy of the border dwellers and also increase the footfall along the Indo-Pak border (a mission taken up by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti).
The tour buses are being operated by the Department of Tourism in collaboration with Jammu and Kashmir State Road Transport Corporation (JKSRTC) from Amarnath base camp at Bhagwati Nagar in Jammu, the Minister of State for Culture & Tourism said.
The border tour buses take the pilgrims to Suchetgarh border and its adjoining places while the city tour buses take them to Ranbireshwar Temple, Raghunath Temple, Peer-Kho, Bawe Wali Mata, Fish Aquarium, Amar Mahal Palace, Mubarak Mandi and Balidaan Stambh.
The Minister said the government would restore old colonial Octroi BoP building to a gallantry gallery, besides constructing a multi-purpose hall, children’s park and border meeting post at Suchetgarh border under Himalayan circuit of Swadesh Bharat Scheme of Central government.
The other places of historical and cultural importance including Jio Pota Ghat, Baba Chamliyal and Gharana Wetland would be included in tour circuits for promoting tourism in the state, she said.
“Adequate arrangements for security of tourists and pilgrims have been put in place by deploying police personnel and traffic police officers in the bus, besides providing them with clean drinking water, information pamphlets and a guide for providing them information about the places of historical and cultural importance in the city,” Director Tourism Jammu, Sushma Choudhan said.
The Department of Tourism has also installed a stall at the Octroi post for assisting the pilgrims at the border, she said.
During her less than 3-months rule, Mufti, has made several visits to border areas close to International Border (IB) with Pakistan where she pitched for opening new cross-border points to expand people-to-people contact.
The Chief Minister said that she would be delighted if Suchetgarh is promoted as a people-to-people meeting point after reopening the cross-border route connecting it with Pakistani city of Sialkot.
She said that her government will soon approach the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) with a request to explore the possibility of bringing Suchetgarh-Sialkote corridor between India and Pakistan along the IB within the ambit of cross-border trade and travel.
“Suchetgarh can be J&K’s Wagah. I will approach the Centre to make it a people-to-people meeting point across the IB,” she had said, adding that “with improvement in overall situation, we can also explore the option of promoting Suchetgarh as a trading point with the neighbouring country.”
Suchetgarh is about 27-km from Jammu and served as the route to Sialkot during the pre-partition era, the (now) Pakistani town which is just 11 kms from the border post.
The Jammu-Sialkot railway line through Suchetgarh was a 43-km narrow gauge branch of the North-Western railway and the first railway line in Jammu and Kashmir.
Since 1947, the line has fallen into a state of despair on both sides of the border.
The shrine of Daleep Singh Manhas popularly known as Baba Chamliyal, close to the IB, attracts thousands of devotees from both sides – Pakistan and India -on the annual mela held on fourth Thursday of June.
Mehbooba during her visit to this shrine urged the media to highlight the cultural camaraderie that exists between the people of India and Pakistan.
“I wonder if hostilities can become news between the two neighbours, why can’t cultural bonhomie,” she asked.