- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 5, 2002

JAISALMER, India The fiercely independent people of this ancient desert outpost near the parched Pakistan border where Indian soldiers still patrol by camel are aching for war.

A medieval sandstone fort that turns golden as the sun sinks into the Thar Desert and weary camels fall to their knees is a constant reminder of the people of Jaisalmer's heritage as great warriors.

"Bring on another war, we are ready," shouts Jagdish Prasad Vasa, a craggy shopkeeper who has lived through the three wars between India and Pakistan since independence from Britain in 1947. His war cries draw similar chants from the old turbaned men drinking sweet tea at the foot of the sandcastle-like fort.

"The Jaisalmeris are warriors by nature, always on alert and never afraid to fight," says Mr. Vasa, spitting out juice from his "gutkha," a concoction of tobacco, betel nut and spices. "It's time to put Pakistan down, for good."

As Indian tanks, artillery and soldiers stream into this western desert state of Rajasthan and other border regions, including neighboring Gujarat and Punjab states and the Indian-held part of the disputed Kashmir region, Jaisalmeris are proud their city has been of strategic military importance for centuries.

From the legendary Rajputs the traditional Hindu warrior clan who ruled much of western India during the medieval era to the 1998 nuclear tests in nearby Pokharan, the desert people are enveloped by a warrior tradition passed down through generations.

"The people here have a legendary bravery and pride for their desert lifestyle. And they are not afraid of war," said Nand Kishore Sharma, Jaisalmer's chief historian and author of several books on the desert citadel.

"The Jaisalmeris are people who, like me, have been at the center of three wars," said Mr. Sharma. "The attack on our Parliament has made us realize that terrorism is now our new enemy. So there must be war a war between good and evil, not a war between Hindus and Muslims."

The new tensions between India and Pakistan were provoked by a suicide attack on India's Parliament Dec. 13. New Delhi blames Pakistan's spy agency and two Islamic militant groups that have operated out of Pakistani territory. Nine Indians and the five attackers were killed in the Parliament attack, and border forces have exchanged fire almost daily since the assault.

New Delhi has said it wants to avoid war, but refuses to pull back tens of thousands of its troops massing at the border until Islamabad ends its backing for Islamic militants.

"I have said before and I would like to say it again: We do not want war, but a war in the form of cross-border terrorism has already been thrust on India," said Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.

India calls Pakistan the "epicenter" of terrorism in the region. Thousands of Islamic guerrillas from a dozen-odd militant groups in Pakistan have sneaked across the Kashmir frontier for 12 years to launch attacks on the Indian army.

Pakistan denies that it supports the Islamic militants or that it was behind the Parliament attack. It accuses India of exploiting the assault to paint Pakistan as a terrorist state.

The overnight train from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer the only means of transport to the desert town other than a daunting two-lane road dominated by camels and speeding trucks is packed with soldiers headed to the desert military bases and local tourists heading to the sand dunes.

"Our in-laws and other friends said, 'You're going right to the war front. Are you crazy?'" said Anjali Sharma, a teacher from New Delhi who traveled to the Sam sand dunes just west of Jaisalmer and 28 miles from the Pakistan border.

She and her husband wanted their 4-year-old daughter to take a camel ride and experience the rosy sunset over the sand dunes.

"The troops are moving in, that's true. But I think it's now a wait-and-watch policy," Mrs. Sharma said. "Meanwhile, we have to live our lives."

Jaisalmer was once a wealthy princely state along the Silk Road camel routes to Central Asia. The city, which today has some half-million people, was devastated by the shipping trade and the partition of India and Pakistan.

It wasn't until the federal government recognized its strategic importance during the 1965 and 1971 wars with Pakistan that Jaisalmer was rewarded with roads and electricity. The Indira Gandhi Canal to the north is intended to restore agricultural life and the isolated city is banking on tourism.

While politicians and pundits in New Delhi, the capital some 435 miles to the east, say they don't want war, the Jaisalmeris are clamoring for it.

"We badly want to go to war," said Lalit Gopa, a travel agent at the Gorbandh Palace. "They assassinate our people every day. We know the strength of the Indian military. If Pakistan drops four bombs, within 10 minutes we will drop 40 bombs."

That both India and Pakistan are now armed with nuclear weapons doesn't seem to faze many out here.

"Let them drop a nuclear bomb and we'll do the same," said Mr. Vasa, shrugging. "Then we'll finally be done with it."

The desert people of Rajasthan have a long history of bravery in the face of death. The Bhatti Rajputs of Jaisalmer were so determined to ward off the Islam forced on them by the Mogul emperors of the 16th and 17th centuries that they would sacrifice their families when faced with defeat. The clans would perform ritual "johar," Hindi for "valor": Men on the battlefield about to be defeated would don ceremonial saffron robes and fight to the death, after sending a messenger back to the fortress telling their wives to burn themselves to death.

Jaisalmer, the last of the Indian Rajput states to become a part of the Indian union under the British Raj, was also at the center of India's three wars with Pakistan.

The battle of Laungewala during the 1971 war with Pakistan over Bangladesh has become the stuff of ballads. About 71 miles northwest of Jaisalmer, some 60 Pakistani tanks crossed the border into Laungewala. A company of Indian infantry held them at bay until four jet fighters from Jaisalmer swooped in, wiped out half the tanks and sent the remainder into retreat.

Yet the Jaisalmeris, 40 percent of whom are Muslim, have had traditional ties with Pakistanis across the 295-mile border with Pakistan's Sind province. There is much trade between the two states and many marriages between the two peoples.

"Here in Rajasthan, our relations between Hindus and Muslims have been like those of brothers and sisters," said Iqbal Khan, a Muslim stonecutter. "We don't want war with our neighbors. But if Pakistan doesn't control the terrorists, then we are ready to fight again."

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