Back To The Trenches
6 August 2001
Shishir Gupta and Irshad Wani
NEW DELHI: Kargil has always been an accurate barometer to gauge the levels of tension between India and Pakistan. During the 1999 border war it was the eye of the storm. Last year the army celebrated Vijay Divas, or victory day, on July 26 with much fanfare and the faces of the villagers reflected the peace that had descended in the region. Last week, the change was evident. The residents were busy refurbishing underground bunkers. Hotel owners were mourning the cancellation of bookings by foreign tourists.
Barring a brief wreath-laying ceremony by the army on Vijay Divas at the base of the famed Tololing peak, the armed forces in the region too kept the celebrations subdued. The caution was understandable. Just a week earlier, after an almost two-year hiatus, the Pakistani artillery had rained shells in the Kargil sector. Coming soon after the failure of India and Pakistan to move forward at the summit between the leaders of the two countries in Agra, it was a clear signal of Islamabad's intentions. "Courtesy the summit, we are possibly back to square one," says Mohammad Jaffer, a resident of Kargil whose house received a direct artillery hit in 1997.
A violent backlash in the Valley was always on the cards after the talks collapsed. But Pakistan struck with a ferocity and speed that surprised India. Barely had the Kargil shelling subsided when militants reportedly backed by Pakistan exploded two bombs and fired upon pilgrims who were on the annual Amarnath yatra. The attack in Sheshnag left 13 dead but reports now indicate that some of them may have been accidentally killed by security forces when they returned the fire. The militants remained undeterred. The next day in the Jammu sector, they killed 19 people, including 15 Hindu residents, women and children in Doda. In the following days in sporadic explosions in Srinagar, Kupwara and Bandipora, explosions left two dead and several injured. Even in the Siachen sector, Pakistan stepped up artillery firing in the world's highest battlefield.
Security forces are expecting more. "Intelligence inputs do suggest that groups dominated by foreigners will increase violence further at the behest of Islamabad which is keen on internationalising the Kashmir issue," says R.P. Singh, chief of the Border Security Force's (BSF) G Branch in Srinagar, that monitors militant activity. Intelligence inputs indicate that the Valley would witness stepped up militancy with the Pakistani propaganda blaming the Indian "hardliners" for the failure of the Agra summit. Official sources say that infiltration continues unabated in Uri, Gurez and Keran sectors where the Srinagar-based 15 Corps are in charge of security. The situation is pretty much the same in Poonch and Rajouri sectors of the Nagrota-based 16 Corps. Signal intercepts reveal that jehadis have been told by their Pakistani mentors to "take advantage of the loc", as according to them the Indian Army is "complacent" along the 540-km line.
The Indian Army's assessment is that Pakistan will keep the loc active through infiltration and artillery firing. The objective is to keep the loc simmering without escalating the artillery duels. Militants of pan-Islamic outfits such as the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), Hizb-ul Mujahideen and Jaish-e-Mohammed will continue to test the counter-insurgency grid in the coming days by taking advantage of the Indian security forces' focus on the Amarnath pilgrimage. While the Pakistani guns have tried to engage Indian positions in the Kargil sector, there has been intense mortar shelling in the Keran sector-located south of the Mushkoh Valley-to provide cover for the infiltrators. South of the Pir Panjal ranges, Pakistani troops have intensified small arms fire in a bid to aid infiltration as well as prevent India from fencing the border in the Jammu region. The BSF and the Pakistan Rangers have also been exchanging small arms fire on the international border in Jammu.
Lt-General Hari Mohan Khanna, former Northern Army commander, says that it is normal for the Pakistanis to escalate tension on the loc around the time of any Indo-Pak dialogue. According to him, massacres of the Amarnath pilgrims for the second consecutive year shows that militants want to sabotage any peace initiative in Kashmir. Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, former Union home minister, agrees and says, "Common people are being sandwiched in the war of nerves between the two countries."
However, Union Minister of State for Home I.D. Swamy spurns reports that the impasse at Agra fuelled jehadi fire and hostilities along the Indo-Pakistan border. "In fact the jehadi operations and firing along the international border and the loc never stopped," asserts Swamy.
In a bid to ensure that killings like the ones in Doda and Sheshnag are not repeated, the army has chalked out a strategy to tackle cross-LoC firing and infiltration. Sources say that the Indian commanders have been instructed to "retaliate with effect" to any Pakistani firing on the LoC and the depth areas. The message is to punish with pinpoint accuracy so that the adversary feels the heat. The instructions to Indian artillery are to reply in the same sector to avoid "horizontal" escalation along the LoC. The army is keen to get its response just right. Lt-General Arjun Ray, corps-commander of the Leh based 14 Corps that guards the Kargil sector, says he did not order his troops to counter the latest "unprovoked Pakistani shelling". Ray says Pakistan's aim is to turn these sectors into warzones to invite international attention.
The Indian Army expects a calibrated increase in infiltration across the LoC as "unbridled intrusion" would be a retrograde step for any future Indo-Pak dialogue. Indian commanders have been told to closely monitor 10 km on both sides of the loc using human as well as electronic intelligence. This means that traditional infiltration routes will come under the magnifying glass and the jehadis will be targeted before they enter Indian territory.
The drive to beef up surveillance equipment after the Kargil war has helped. The Indian Army has been able to obtain high-resolution images of Pakistani positions along the loc through flights of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and reconnaissance aircraft in the area south of Pir Panjal. But there are still stretches from the north of Mushkoh Valley to the Siachen sector where local commanders have only low resolution satellite images. They have to use higher resolution hand-held thermal imagers and battlefield surveillance radars for the complete picture. Even with these state-of-the-art devices, its is difficult to pick up the infiltrators in this daunting mountain terrain. The internal assessment is that Pakistan will try to engage Indian positions in such sectors.
The Indian Army is concerned by the possible escalation. Last week General S. Padmanabhan, chief of army staff, briefed Defence Minister Jaswant Singh on the various scenarios. The army is keen on pursuing a much tougher line and wants tolerance levels to be lowered. But for the moment the Government does not want to go proactive and escalate the violence. It prefers the calibrated approach. With Pakistan President General Musharraf calling the jehadis "freedom fighters" and pledging "moral and political" support to them, the Indian security forces are prepared for a long haul. For them peace will continue to be a victim in Kashmir till the question of cross-border terrorism is resolved.