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BUILDING CONFRONTATION

Published : May 25, 2002 00:00 IST

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India is talking war, and there is an ominous military build-up on the border. But a full-scale war seems unlikely at this point.

EACH TIME someone talks peace in Jammu and Kashmir, something particularly ugly happens soon afterwards. On August 1, 2000, seven days after Hizbul Mujahideen commander Abdul Majid Dar declared a unilateral ceasefire, 91 people were killed in eight near-simultaneous massacres, from Pahalgam to Doda. This time around, the tragic massacre at Kalu Chak came 11 days after Dar's final break with the Hizbul Mujahideen leadership. Now, as in 2000, Pakistan-based terrorist groups were signalling that they had no intention of allowing dialogue to derail their war against India. But in 2000, the Union government responded by pushing on with its dialogue with the Hizbul Mujahideen. Now, it is talking war.

Along much of the international border in Jammu, it is easy to imagine that the war has already come about. Several thousand rounds of mortar fire were exchanged along the international border in Samba, Akhnoor and Kathua on May 19. Full-blown artillery exchanges began that evening to the north along the Line of Control (LoC), from Lam and Rajouri to Uri. Almost 500 rounds landed around the single village of Gakhriyal, near Akhnoor. Till May 19, only two soldiers and two civilians had been reported killed, while some 25 civilians had been reported injured. But losses in terms of property and cattle have been high, provoking an exodus reminiscent of the one that took place in January this year. Government officials in Jammu say that an estimated 10,000 villagers have already left their homes fearing an outbreak of hostilities. In areas like Poonch, where villagers displaced in January had started to return to their homes, refugee camps have begun to fill up again.

It is not that such border skirmishes are in themselves a sign of imminent war: there were exchanges of fire of a similar scale before the Kargil war of 1999 and again after the border build-up in January. Sources in the 16 Corps headquarters in Nagrota told Frontline that casualties were so far lower than in January, perhaps because villagers have learned to cope with the firing. And unlike in January, public fear has largely been confined to the Jammu area. There have been few reports of families leaving their homes in Punjab or Rajasthan, since most had already moved valuable possessions to safe locations. Farmers are still being granted access to fields on the western side of the border fence in both the States. The main problem in these areas is heat-triggered land-mine explosions, which have led to crop fires. In Gujarat, Army units committed to combating communal violence have yet to be ordered back to forward positions.

But with an estimated three-quarters of India's 1.2-million strong Army massed along the frontier with Pakistan, it is hard to miss the sense that something could well give way. India's problem is simple. Since the military build-up that followed the December 13 attack on Parliament, India has been unable to pressure Pakistan into either reducing infiltration across the LoC, or reducing the levels of violence executed by terrorist groups based there. At a meeting in early May in New Delhi, top military officials made plain to the Chief of the Army Staff, General S. Padmanabhan, that the build-up had lost any deterrent value it had. New plans for Air Force-backed attacks into Pakistan-held Kashmir were considered, along with possible limited armoured offensives in Punjab and Rajasthan. The discussions were speculative, but proved enough to provoke the United States into sending Assistant Secretary of State Christina Rocca to cool down tempers. And then, almost as if part of a macabre script, came the Kalu Chak killings.

On May 14, passengers in the Himachal Roadways bus service from Kulu in Himachal Pradesh to Jammu had little idea that they were about to be at the centre of such dramatic events. Few of them even noticed three uniformed men who got on board at 6 a.m. near Sapuwal, a few kilometres ahead of Jammu city. The bus conductor remembers being given a Rs.50 note, and returning Rs.20 in change. The three Hindustani-speaking men sat quietly at the front of the bus, apparently minding their own business. The bus sped past Ratnu Chak, a major Army cantonment near Jammu's Bari Brahmana suburb. Then, as it approached the Army's family accommodation at Kalu Chak, 3 km away, the men suddenly ordered all the passengers to the back of the bus. At first many passengers thought some kind of search was about to be carried out.

Seven assault-rifle empties were found scattered around the bus afterwards. After a short burst of fire, the terrorists lobbed two hand-grenades at the passengers. Three women and three men died immediately, while 23 persons were injured in the twin explosions and gunfire.

The terrorists, meanwhile, ran into the Kalu Chak residential accommodation, where they systematically fired at the families of Army personnel. Eight women and 11 children died of gunshot wounds. Most of the 25 injured persons were women and children. Many of the victims were mothers and their children, getting ready to leave for a nearby Army-run school. Not one of the five men killed in the building was in uniform. All the fire was at near point-blank range. The terrorists who entered the building clearly meant to provoke outrage.

No one is certain why the terrorists were not challenged at the gates. The quarters are surrounded by a two metre-high fence, but the gates were open and unguarded. Highly placed Army sources told Frontline that a guard was supposed to have been there, but that he appeared to have taken a break in the course of the night. There was little immediate armed response by the Army, and two of the three terrorists were killed by Jammu and Kashmir Police personnel who arrived in a few minutes. The area around Jammu city has not in the past seen attacks on the several Army facilities located there, unlike cantonments in the province's rural areas, or in Kashmir. Even the 16 Corps headquarters at Nagrota is thinly guarded compared with the 15 Corps headquarters in Srinagar. Therefore, there might have been a somewhat relaxed attitude to security tasks at the family quarters.

If so, someone ought to have been paying more attention to developments in the area. The Jammu zone as a whole has been the principal target of terrorist assaults since December, and traditionally peaceful areas close to Jammu city have in recent times seen serious terrorist violence for the first time. On March 24, troops clashed with terrorists at Kharwa Nallah in Bani. The terrorists are believed to have been the same ones who had set homes, government buildings and two partly-built police posts on fire at Palwal and Daggar in Bani four days earlier. On March 17, two Pakistani terrorists, Azmat Ullah of Gujranwala and Shaukat Zaman of Katak, were shot dead on the Tawi island in Jammu. Sapuwal, from where the bus was hijacked, had seen a major encounter in August 2000, after troops were ambushed inside a Forest Department plantation.

WHILE the Kashmir zone has seen no high-profile terrorist strikes since February, Jammu has been targeted for special attention this summer. Some terrorist strikes, like the recent massacres of villagers near Reasi and Kishtwar, have been typical of past years. But there has also been a serious effort to provoke a communal conflagration in the region. Just before the suicide bombing of the Raghunath temple in Jammu city, State police troopers interdicted a terrorist group planning a similar assault on the Vaishno Devi shrine. The high levels of violence in Jammu have compensated for the relative lull in Kashmir. Data show that the level of terrorist activity in Jammu and Kashmir as a whole has been higher in recent times than in past years, despite Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf's supposed desire to end terrorism. Infiltration from Pakistan, after a winter cessation during heavy snowfall, has again reached high levels.

What motives might there be for the new offensive in Jammu? At one level, it makes plain sense in tactical terms. The Pathankot-Jammu road and rail links, the only all-weather connections between the region and the rest of India, are just a few kilometres' walk from the international border. Indian intelligence officials believe that the Kalu Chak killers, identified as Pakistan nationals Mohammad Munir, Mohammad Suhail, Amjad Salam and Mohammad Gisha, used this route to cross the border after starting their journey from Gujranwala. Despite the existence of an electrified fence in some areas, a welter of small rivers and dense elephant-grass fields make penetration of the international border only too easy. Terrorists crossing into the area can then use relatively unguarded routes through Mansar, Udhampur or Reasi into Doda and the Kashmir Valley. A series of incidents in April suggest that Pakistan's intelligence services were seeking to reactivate the near-defunct Khalistan Zindabad Force network to execute terrorist attacks south of Jammu, bringing Indian communication lines under pressure.

But the Kalu Chak massacre, while being part of this tactical project, served a larger purpose. Indian counter-terrorist policy since the December 13 attack on Parliament has been premised on the threat of a conventional offensive. By executing the attack, Pakistan-based terrorist groups were, so to speak, calling India's bluff. One official justification for the border build-up was that it would serve to restrict cross-border movement, a claim official data themselves rebut. Through the Kalu Chak massacre, terrorist groups have advertised that they can continue to operate in the face of Indian threats of a full-scale military response. A related objective may have been to bring about public pressure to pull troops back for counter-terrorist duties. Counter-terrorist forces have been thinned through the Jammu zone after December, allowing terrorists more than usual freedom of operation in the region's mountains.

Interestingly, the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) made no real effort to conceal the fact that it had executed the Kalu Chak killings. Although a claim of responsibility was issued to a Srinagar-based news service in the name of an unknown organisation, al-Mansoorian, the spokesperson who made it, code-named Abu Usama, had spoken on behalf of the LeT on several occasions in the past. The organisation knows that Indian intelligence listens in to calls to destinations in Jammu and Kashmir originating from Pakistan, and was presumably making a point. Neither the LeT, nor the Pakistan government nor the media in that country rebutted Indian intelligence reports that the Kalu Chak suicide squad was made up of Pakistan nationals. The LeT, intelligence officials say, now assigns different names to each target-oriented cell. Members of the assassination squad who were shot dead in New Delhi on May 10, for example, used the name of Tariq bin-Ziyad, the medieval conqueror of Spain. Earlier, the LeT operated in four Mujmas, or groups, named after the Khalifas of Prophet Mohammad, Hazrat Abu Bakr, Hazrat Omar, Hazrat Usman and Hazrat Ali.

PAKISTAN clearly sees potential advantage in the post-December 13 build-up. India, confronted with the prospect of even a limited engagement turning into a nuclear conflagration, is deeply uncertain about how it might use its conventional forces, and whether a limited engagement is even possible. Should India decide it is unable to make operational its conventional military deterrent, Pakistan would be able to raise the threshold of violence in Jammu and Kashmir. The presence of United States troops in Pakistan, and the continuing conflict in Afghanistan, also make it near-impossible to consider any kind of full-blown military response. U.S. pressure on Pakistan not to escalate the tensions is visible, notably in the form of the arrest of LeT chief Hafiz Mohammad Saeed following the Kalu Chak carnage. Saeed was, however, arrested on sedition charges, not for the attack. Camps run by the LeT and other groups continue to operate freely in Pakistan-held Kashmir, albeit without the public profile they had in the past.

Indian military planners also have several secondary concerns. Six months of forward deployment, of late in intense summer heat, has physically drained the soldiers. Although the Army does its best to make conditions bearable, facilities in these positions can at best be described as rudimentary. Armoured formations have also been reporting a relatively high rate of heat-related engine problems in the T-70 main battle tank, the main weapon used by the Army's strike corps. On top of it all, planners did not anticipate the problems which have arisen with the MiG-21 multi-role fighter, which is the mainstay of the Indian Air Force. Pakistan's armed forces have their own share of problems, but many experts agree that the chances of any short, decisive engagement going in India's favour is minimal. That leaves the option of limited engagements, perhaps targeted air or missile attacks on terrorist training camps. Since these camps constitute little more than a few makeshift huts and tents, however, such attacks would serve little purpose. More important, there are real risks that even a limited assault could snowball into a full-scale war.

When the border build-up began, Army officials had been told that the enterprise had the support of the U.S., which wished to use it to leverage Pakistan to de-escalate in Jammu and Kashmir. If the claim was indeed true, the U.S. evidently backed out of its end of the deal. By March, U.S. officials had begun to assert that there was a reduction in cross-border movement. This assertion flew in the face of Indian intelligence data and the demonstrable fact of high levels of violence in Jammu.

The sole advantage India gained was that Pakistan was forced to push its own troops forward, and moved the 10, 11 and 12 Corps from their Afghan frontier locations near Rawalpindi, Peshawar, Quetta to its eastern frontier. The Pakistan Army, which has had to do little over the last two decades even as Indian troops were drained by incessant counter-terrorist operations, now had to suffer in the heat as well. Unreal hopes that the deployment would be beggared by the additional costs invloved melted away.

There is little sign of just what line of action the Union Cabinet might be thinking about now. Indeed, there is some evidence that it may not be thinking at all. External Affairs Minister Jaswant Singh's May 19 assertion that the Border Security Force had been placed under the command of the Army is a case in point. That decision was made in late December 2001. The Army, frustrated by seemingly endless forward deployment, is demanding that the build-up be taken to its next stage.

The risks of a full-scale war, however, are incalculable. Even limited Indian reprisals across the LoC are certain to provoke a massive response from Pakistan. Threats of the use of nuclear weapons, meant seriously or otherwise, are also probable. This is because Pakistan believes that it stands to gain in Jammu and Kashmir by forcing international intervention on the issue. India has a clear interest in avoiding that outcome. A war started by India, then, could well prove militarily indecisive and strategically disastrous. On the other hand, if it fails to find credible means to deter Pakistan, another bloody summer of terror lies ahead in Jammu and Kashmir.

Either way, the India-Pakistan engagement seems set to become enormously worse than ever before.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated May 25, 2002.)

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