FROM THE FRONT

Print edition : February 02, 2002

A report on the mood and movement along a stretch of the Line of Control in the strategic heights of the Jammu region.

AHEAD of the border village of Mandi, the Line of Control (LoC) is an endless, unbroken wall of white. Soldiers perched on the mountains are just too busy fighting the bitter cold to fight each other. The latest exchange of fire here took place on January 12, when Pakistan targeted Indian forward posts with 120 mm mortar around a peak marked Point 9029 feet.

Troop movement near the Line of Control.-RAJEEV BHATT

Three days later, snow up to four metres thick cut off forward posts on either side of the LoC, putting an end to the violent mortar and small-arms skirmishes. To the north, in Tangdhar, Karnah and Keran, at least 14 soldiers and high-altitude porters have died since then in avalanches. Talk of war might seem insane under the circumstances.

Four weeks into the massive military build-up along the LoC, no one seems clear about what might happen next - and when. Mortar and artillery exchanges have de-escalated, bar occasional exchanges in Lam, Mendhar and the international border in Jammu, but troops remain in place. In military terms, the northern LoC is a defensive sector for Indian troops, whose principal lines of assault would be towards Lahore and into Sind. But international pressure, and the real threat that such an offensive might snowball into a nightmarish nuclear confrontation, would seem to render the prospect of such a full-blown war unlikely.

Alternative scenarios exist. Last year, for example, 14 Corps Commander Lt-Gen Arjun Ray suggested a doctrine of short assaults on Pakistan's forward positions on the LoC. The idea was to inflict punitive costs on the Pakistan Army for its support of terrorist groups.

Most of the troops in upfront positions do not seem overly concerned about the consequences of a full-scale war. Having faced a decade of attrition in the course of Pakistan's war in Jammu and Kashmir, calls for retaliation, whatever the cost, seem to have struck a responsive chord among ordinary soldiers.

At the Poonch police station on January 22, screening candidates as part of a recruitment drive for the police force.-RAJEEV BHATT

In practice, the build-up has started to turn into an elaborate - and potentially calamitous - game of poker, built as much on bluff as on the cards India actually possesses.

A FEW kilometres inside the LoC, the real costs of the poker game become only too evident. Counter-terrorist operations in much of the Jammu region have come to a near-standstill because of the forward movement of troops a week after the December 13 attack on Parliament. At Thanamandi, for example, the 163 Brigade has been pulled out and replaced by two battalions and a company of the Rashtriya Rifles and a single company from the 1 Para Regiment. The 120 Brigade at Bimbar Gali and the garrison at Rajouri have been shifted to the LoC. Key areas of Rajouri and Poonch, such as Loran, Kandi, Buddhal, Darhal and Thanamandi, are now almost without cover. Some troops have been moved in to replace the seven battalions withdrawn from counter-terrorist duties in Poonch, but they are mostly committed to keeping the roads open for Army traffic.

Unsurprisingly, the killings in the districts have assumed a communal colour. On New Year's eve, the Lashkar-e-Toiba executed six Hindu villagers at Mangnar, a half-hour drive from Poonch. The victims were members of the family of former soldier Baldev Singh, and included six-year-old Kuldeep Kumar and five-month-old Sunil Kumar. Baldev Singh had refused to join the Village Defence Committee (VDC), counting instead on troops posted nearby to protect his home. Those troops were, however, committed to the LoC, opening the way for the killings.

Rajouri has also seen a welter of killings. Madan Lal, Moti Lal and his wife Lachmi Devi were shot dead at Sadda on the night of December 29, while two more Hindus, one of them over 70 years old, were executed at Sehr Nain on January 1.

Muslims perceived as backing Indian interests have also been hit hard, although their stories have largely passed unreported. On January 6 Nazir Hussain was killed in his house at Kakora village on January 6 for having rented it out to the troops, while Bagh Hussain was executed along with him because he had served as a soldier. A photograph of Hussain in uniform was found on the body of Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) commander Siraj Talibani who was killed a few days later along with his associate Yasir Ahmad. At least five persons were branded informers and executed. Of them, two, Mohammad Hussain and Abdul Rashid, were killed on December 27, Mohammad Shabbir on January 1 and Mohammad Shafi and Mohammad Bashir at Darhal on January 19. In a dramatic raid on December 23, terrorists stole 14 weapons from guards at the village home of the National Conference candidate for the Jammu Lok Sabha byelection, Choudhari Talib Hussain.

A Jaish-e-Mohammad pamphlet distributed in Rajouri warns that "the blood of the mujahideen will prove difficult to digest" and threatens to execute those who cooperate with the security forces.-RAJEEV BHATT

mujahideen

No one in the mountains of Jammu has missed the message of the killings: the Indian state cannot look after its own. JeM cadre, Frontline found, had distributed leaflets in dozens of villages calling on Special Police Officers (SPOs) and policemen in the Special Operations Group to resign their jobs. Other leaflets warned villagers not to attend the funerals of Muslims executed by the JeM. Homes and schools used by Army posts at Manjakote, Buddhal and Thanamandi were torched after troops left for forward positions. If it was not for the presence of VDCs, things might have been worse. Terrorists attacked Daggal Allal, Nerojal and Kheri villages in Rajouri, killing one village resident in each assault, but withdrew after the return of fire inflicted losses on their group.

The strengthening of the Islamic Right in Jammu has a significance that transcends such killings. On January 21, former SPO Nazim Mohammad Sharif, along with three friends, walked into the home of schoolmaster Zakir Sher Mohammad. He then shot dead the schoolmaster and 11 of his family members one by one, with a .32 handgun. Those killed included one-year-old Mohammad Ikhlaq, four-year-olds Robina Kausar and Rabia, six-year-olds Abad Hussain and Mohammad Ishaq, eight-year-old Mohammad Yasser and 10-year-old Mohammad Mahfooz. Investigators found that the killers had sought to avenge a family feud that began with Zakir Sher Mohammad abandoning his wife, who was Sharif's aunt. After his term as an SPO he ran enough errands for the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen to obtain the gun, which he used with tragic effect.

That guns have started to become a medium of conflict resolution in rural Jammu points to what may lie ahead. In another two months the snow along the LoC will melt and routes across the Pir Panjal from Jammu to Kashmir will lie open again. There is little doubt that infiltration levels have declined in the wake of Musharraf's January 12 speech, but this seems less the consequence of policy than a combination of bad weather and the massive presence on troops along the LoC. No group, for example, has been able to cross through the Sawjian area, the entry point to the funnel through Mandi and Loran over the Pir Panjal, since January 5. But where there is no snow on the LoC, such infiltration continues. One group is known to have crossed through the Jhalas area, half an hour's drive from Poonch, on January 17. Intelligence officials in Rajouri reported four possible crossings, through Keri and Gambhir Mughlan.

At a refugee camp.-RAJEEV BHATT

BY April, if troops continue to be tied down to the LoC, terrorist groups strengthened by fresh cadre would be in a position not just to hit civilians, but inflict serious military harm. Last summer, troops in Poonch discovered that terrorists had used the Ramzan ceasefire period to build fortified concrete defences in the Hill Kaka area of Surankote. If similar events take place over the next few months, terrorists could well bring military convoy movements and installations under pressure. Over the last three years, terrorist groups are known to have strengthened their arsenal, bringing in mortar and heavy machine guns. Such weapons are clearly designed for a conventional guerilla role in support of a regular Army. So far the opportunity for their use has not arisen, but the dislocation of counter-terrorist forces could provide just such an opening. "Pakistan inflicted a Kargil upon us," says a senior Army officer wryly, "and now we're going to inflict one on ourselves."

From their homes in Jhalas, villagers could look out at the LoC, a few hundred metres away. Now just three of the village's 10,000 residents remain. On January 11, almost 200 rounds of mortar fire landed around their homes and in their fields. Now, the residents of Jhalas have joined the estimated 30,000 refugees who have left their border villages fearing imminent war. Some 252 of them are huddled into 11 rooms at the Industrial Training Institute in Poonch, forced to live off rotting wheat and rice handed out by the government. Despite the hardship, Jhalas' residents say they will not return to their villages. "Our village lies on an infiltration route," says local resident Surjit Singh, "so we always have a war there. I stayed on during the war of 1971, but the last few years have been far worse. Last Deepavali, the firing raised so much dust you couldn't see five feet ahead of you."