August 1998 News


Firing In Jammu-Kashmir

20th August 1998

Thousands flee Kargil

JAMMU— Panic has again gripped residents of Kargil town forcing thousands of people to flee to safer places following renewed shelling of the Kharbu and Kaksar areas by Pakistani troops.

Official sources said Pakistan troops resorted to heavy shelling of three inhabited pockets in Kargil in which three civilians were injured. Some of the shells damaged several houses. The passenger transport services on the Drass- Kargil road were affected.

What has caused concern in government quarters is that militants have extended their activities to Kargil sector. This was confirmed when a group of militants equipped with sophisticated weapons opened fire on one Army picket at Matiyar in Drass. Though there was no casualty the firing on Army picket by the militants in the area is the first of its type. Earlier, the militants damaged a security vehicle with IED blast on the Drass-Kargil road.

Reports said during the past three weeks Kargil has witnessed intermittent but heavy Pak shelling and one main reason behind this unprovoked shelling has been to provide fire cover to the militants. According to these reports, some groups of militants have sneaked into Kargil town from across the border others have travelled from Kashmir to the Shia-dominated area soon after the Srinagar-Leh road was thrown open in June last.

Official sources are of the opinion that Pak plan was to involve more area in the state so as to create confusion among the security forces and force the government to bear additional burden on its exchequer. During the past nine years insurgency which took roots in Srinagar travelled to other parts of the valley which was followed by subversive violence in Doda district. And during the past two years, Poonch, Udhampur and Rajouri districts have been made the target for militant operations. And now it is the turn of Kargil to bear the brunt of insurgency.

As compared to Doda or Udhampur Kargil is a highly strategic and sensitive area. In case militants succeed in establishing their bases in Kargil town and its adjoining areas it could pose serious threat to the security of entire Ladakh region which is surrounded by Pakistan, and China. In addition to this the Srinagar-Kargil-Leh road can come under threat of the militants.

Knowledgeable circles are of the firm opinion that Pak agencies were trying to lure Shia-youths belonging to the Kargil area to militancy. So far the people of the town have remained away from anti-India armed campaign. And by creating terror among the people by shelling the Kargil town Pak agencies want to force people to allow the militants to establish hideouts from where they could operate freely against the security forces.

Defence Ministry sources said that Pakistani troops resorted to intermittent shelling on Kaksar-Drass-Kargil area to snap the supply line by damaging the Srinagar-Leh road. The sources said that on the basis of the reports that several groups of militants have sneaked into Kargil sector an action plan had been formulated to launch a manhunt for the insurgents.

The sources said Pakistan troops used several types of weapons, including air defence guns, for pounding the Indian villages. The Indian troops retaliated everytime Pak soldiers opened artillery and mortar fire.

Indo-Pak: Frustrated by the Indian troops' successful operation against infiltrators, Pakistani gunners target civilians on the Kashmir border

V.K. SHASHIKUMAR in Srinagar

There was a virtual war along the Line of Control (LoC) between India and Pakistan between July 30 and August 6. Civilian areas as far as 25 km from the LoC were hit by Pakistani shelling. "It was not a skirmish, but a war," Colonel Narendra Mehta of the 12 Infantry Brigade, Uri, told THE WEEK. In his sector, every village was affected. Never since the 1971 war have civilian areas been attacked like this. For the first time, there was large-scale migration of villagers to safer areas.

Changing ground realities: The Amarnath yatra was a success with 1.5 lakh pilgrims taking part in it (above)

While the Jammu and Kashmir government puts the figure of those who migrated from the border villages at 4,775, people in Baramullah say that about 10,000 migrants are seeking refuge in camps and a gurdwara in the town. Places like Gurez and Tangdhar in the Kupwara sector have been devastated; Buniyar and Chandanwari, which are less than 20 km from the 19 Infantry Division headquarters, were shelled for the first time.

The deputy general officer in command of the 19 Infantry, Brigadier U.S. Klair (pic: left) told THE WEEK: "The scale and volume of shelling is unprecedented." Last year, in the months of July, August and October, there were exchanges of artillery, but those were nothing compared with the current duel. In fact, it was only last year that Pakistan first used artillery in the trans-border duels.

According to Colonel G.S. Grewal of the same division, direct firing in the LoC is business as usual, but the indirect fire (artillery fire) from gun positions far away from the LoC was definitely unusual. "This time artillery has been used extensively. Pakistan used all kinds of artillery to target civilian areas, light mortars (6 km to 8 km); field artillery, 105 mm guns (12 to 14 km); and medium artillery, 155 mm (20 to 25 km)."

The 155 mm shells are the heaviest and a lot of such unexploded shells are lying around in the villages. At 5.20 a.m. on July 30 the Pakistanis resorted to heavy artillery fire along the Baramullah division from gun positions south of the Pir Panjal in the Hajipir bulge and along the Muzafarabad axis which is the extension of Jammu-Srinagar highway into PoK.

The Indian assault was launched at 6 a.m. The emphasis was on preventing infiltration of militants and mercenaries and destroying the Pakistani "fire support means" (their gun positions). The main purpose of the trans-LoC firing is to facilitate infiltration when the Indian soldiers take cover and organise a retaliation.

If the Pakistanis have been pushing in mercenaries and militants by resorting to direct firing, what made them target innocent civilians? According to Brigadier Klair this is the peak period (June to September) to push in the militants, but the deployment of Indian forces across the LoC had prevented it to a large extent. So they resorted to artillery firing to push in as many militants before the border areas became snowbound.

"By September the upper reaches become snowbound; the passes close by November and all the routes are blocked till February. By March the snow starts melting, but the routes remain closed till April," Colonel Grewal said. According to Major General V.C. Patankar, the GOC of the Kupwara sector, time is running out for Pakistan. "We have thwarted infiltration during the shelling," he said. Of course, a few could always sneak in.

Commander R.P.S. Malhan of the 161 Infantry Brigade thinks there could be another reason, too. "Shelling had a political message to the civilians of the border villages, it was a punishment for their withdrawing support to militants," he says.

The Indian retaliation did not target civilian areas. "Collateral damage cannot be ruled out," says Klair. The Pakistanis deviously place their artillery guns close to civilian areas and most of their gun positions are located within villages. So when India targets their gun position it results in civilian casualties. Whereas no Indian gun position is located close to civilian areas.

"What advantage do we get from killing civilians if it does not enhance our military potential? It's a waste of ammunition," Klair told THE WEEK. According to Commander Malhan, the Indian retaliation has resulted in 10 to 12 times more damage and 15 times more casualties in Pakistan. "At the tactical level as long as we suppress their fire support means, stop infiltration and maintain a moral ascendancy on the LoC, our aim is met," says Klair.

It is clear that Pakistani shelling was targeted at civilian areas. Villages like Balkhote, which is just 1.5 km from the LoC, were hit. And the nearest Indian post is more than 2 km away. "Either the Pakistani gunners are inaccurate and have to be schooled in artillery firing or their firing was deliberate," said a senior officer. Though bunkers in the forward posts can survive direct hits, houses in villages will face absolute destruction. "Anything within a radius of 30 metres will be wiped out," says Colonel Grewal.

The manner of the shelling also points out the deliberate strategy to target Indian villages across the LoC. When the shell (which is more than one feet long) bursts in the air (airburst) its purpose is to cause death. When it lands on houses or any solid structure (contact burst) it causes death and destruction. Both kinds of shelling were done by the Pakistani gunners.

According to senior army officers, one of the aims was to help the militants further their agenda by creating a fear psychosis. The Inter Services Intelligence's plan was to create a civil administration problem which could then be used to fan the flames of militancy. The ISI needed to do something dramatic in the face of changing ground realities in Kashmir valley.

The Amarnath yatra was a success with 1.5 lakh pilgrims taking part in it, there is a promise of a tourism boom (this year a record 2.5 lakh tourists including yatris visited J&K) and the combined forces deployed in the state has had one success after the other in counter-insurgency operations. Recently, in the Kupwara sector it was the villagers of Drugmula who informed the nearest army post about 30 militants, including mercenaries, who had entered their village.

According to a senior military intelligence officer, "the militants used to sneak through the border and seek refuge in border villages before moving on, but this does not happen anymore." The army now dominates these villages by virtue of having established a strong civil-defence liaison.

The phenomenon of reverse migration which started in 1994 has intensified lately. "Youths who had gone across the border to become militants have started surrendering disillusioned by the false promises of their agents in Pakistan and many others have surrendered after seeing the horrible living conditions across the border," he said.

Many who have recently infiltrated with mercenaries have also turned themselves in to the Indian armed forces. One big difference between the militants and the mercenaries is that the latter do not surrender but go down fighting. They are fanatical killers. "The Kashmiri militants have also reversed their roles. They have become the guides of the mercenaries and it is the latter who kill," says the military intelligence officer.

He told THE WEEK that the mercenaries, Afghans, Libyans, Sudan-ese, are given Rs 1 lakh for a six-month contract. "If a mercenary dies his family is given a compensation of Rs 2 lakh by the ISI," he revealed. The ISI finances the mercenaries through drug trafficking.

More than 60 per cent of recent infiltrators are mercenaries. Since the tide has turned against the militants the information flow is massive from locals in villages and towns. According to senior army officers artillery duels like those witnessed in the first week of August may become the norm instead of the normal small arms firing as Pakistan's covert activities in the valley are suppressed.

Ultimately it is the Kashmiris who have sounded a death knell for Pakistan's insidious game plan. After suffering for 10 years at a huge personal, economic and social cost they want peace and prosperity. One needs just a look along the Dal lake front or visit the Mughal gardens or see the shopping centres in Srinagar to realise this.

Bordering on ruin

It was around 10.30 a.m. Dr Ghulam Mohiuddin had just seen a couple of patients at his dispensary when shells rained down in Balkhote village. He ran out along with the waiting patients and lay down on a grass field. All the 1,488 villagers similarly dived for cover wherever they were. During the lull between shellings they would make their way to their houses.

Targeting civilians, a new tactic: A house destroyed by shelling in Nambia village

For eight days the village was shelled mercilessly and during those days many of them had to go without food. They just huddled together in one corner of the house praying for survival. Sijad Ahmed Zargar, 10, says: "For eight days we survived on tit-bits." Few among the 200 houses in Balkhote escaped damage in one form or the other. The tin roofs of the houses in the village were ripped open by shell splinters.

The people are not as upset by the damage to their houses as by the destruction of nut (akrot) and green apple (naspati) trees and corn fields. "My house is damaged, but it can be repaired in a year or two. The trees in my yard will take 20 years to grow and the destruction of my corn field will take years of rectifying," wailed Basheer Ahmed. Akrot, naspati, makhi (corn) and grass are the means of sustenance for the poor villagers.

They do work as labourers whenever there is work in Uri town, but such employment is rare. The villagers have nothing to do during the six months of winter and they take money from money lenders, which they pay back through the income from selling fruits, corn and grass. This winter will, however, be terrible for them. "We are not even in a position to borrow money because we have no means of repaying it," says Basheer.

The village lambardar (headman), who has seen the 1965 and 1971 wars, said the recent shelling was fiercer than anything that he has seen. The same story is true of other villages. Asks Habib Sheikh, 60, of Nambla village: "What has Pakistan got against poor people like us?" he asks. The casualties in Nambla could have been higher but for the fact that the shells came after the village school was closed.

People of Kashmir are clearly tired of militancy. They want peace and economic development. They have realised that militants' promise of azadi (freedom) was illusory and they feel betrayed for having been misled.

Though the situation in Kashmir is not normal yet, the Indian armed forces have seized the initiative. It now depends on the political and civil administration to capitalise on this advantage.


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Copyright Md. Sadiq, All Rights Reserved, 1998