Unknown heroes of Batalik

Print edition : July 17, 1999

FEW people know their names or the fact that they were responsible for saving the Batalik heights from a potential military disaster. But a Frontline investigation has established that Tashi Namgyal, Morup Tsering and Ali Raza Stanba, the three residents of Garkhun village, were the first to spot the Pakistani intrusion, on May 3. There were vague references in the media to shepherds who informed the Army about an intrusion, but for some reason the military and bureaucratic establishment chose to black out their names and stories.

The three shepherds were not present in Batalik to share in the rejoicing over the triumph. They were not even available in their villages. Local residents said that they had left for Leh or elsewhere to stay with their relatives. But officials and villagers Frontline spoke to provided a cogent account of their discovery. Had the shepherds not seen and reported the intrusion, vital weeks would have been lost and Pakistan would have been enabled to fortify further its positions in the area.

In the first week of May, Namgyal and Tsering went to Ali Raza's home in Judi village, which is located just below the Banju heights. They had planned to take their sheep to the high mountain meadows together, a common practice in the Kargil area. Shepherds pool their herds at a single hut above their villages, and groups of two or three persons are assigned in turns the task of looking after the livestock of all the families. Namgyal's friends are a little coy about just why the three decided to move up the mountains quite so early this summer. But it seems probable that the group had decided to spend a little time poaching wild goats. Whatever the truth, Tsering carried a pair of field binoculars he had purchased years ago in Leh.

On the morning of May 3, Namgyal had moved up some 5 km along Jubbar Langpa stream when he scanned the mountain through the pair of binoculars and saw groups of men in Pathan attire digging bunkers. Some were armed, although at that distance their precise numbers and equipment were impossible to detect. Namgyal promptly called his friends back and they made their way to a local detachment of the 3 Punjab Regiment. It appears that initially the officials did not take Namgyal's account quite seriously. The first patrol to go out on May 6, a lightly armed group of eight, lost one soldier in an ambush ahead of Yaldor. Soldiers of a second patrol sent out the next day were injured, and on May 9 a third patrol was ambushed. Tashi and the other shepherds had set up a trap, but this bizarre reaction soon gave way to a realisation of the grim realities that had arrived on the Batalik mountains.

Garkhun's first encounter with Pakistani intruders, back in the summer of 1996, had also involved Namgyal. Two men, who spoke a dialect he identified as that of Ganoks village on the other side of the Line of Control (LoC), had stuck a gun in Namgyal's ribs while he was asleep on a meadow. The two claimed that they had lost their way while hunting for mountain goats, but Namgyal was too frightened to report the incident. Again, in the summer of 1998, Namgyal and his friends Afzal and Tsering Norphel encountered three armed men at a sheep hut above Garkhun. The men offered to buy a watch, probably a move to procure an Indian-made instrument in order to prove to their handlers across the border that they had indeed crossed over. Namgyal refused to comply, coming up with the ingenuous fib that the Army kept an inventory of all their possessions.

Local officers responded with some concern. "There was a Major Vasudevan from Kerala and Subedar Rawat who were particularly helpful at the time," recalls Tsering Sumphel, a government-employed Junior Engineer in Kargil, who is a friend of Namgyal and is familiar with the Garkhun area. Three Ladakh Scouts troopers were posted in disguise with the villagers at the sheep hut in 1998, but they encountered nothing. That appears to have acted as a disincentive to further surveillance, despite the apprehensions of ground-level Army personnel. In September 1998, troops began to move down the mountains with the villagers. Just a few posts remained. Until Namgyal went up the mountains again, there was no one to keep a watch on movements across the LoC.

In a context where relations between civilians and the military have on occasion been less than cordial, with porters complaining of occasional abuse and villagers of collective suspicion and high-handedness, Namgyal's story illustrates the fact that the best guardians of the border are its people. It would be tragic if at the end of the Kargil war Namgyal and his friends are obscured.

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