Print edition : August 15, 1998

Reflecting the geopolitical realities after Pokhran-II, guns blaze along the Line of Control in Kashmir, marking the worst round of skirmishes since the 1971 war, while A.B. Vajpayee and Nawaz Sharif have a face-off in Colombo.

A FORTNIGHT'S thunder of artillery across the Line of Control (LoC) subsided in early August, leaving over 50 persons dead on the Indian side of the border and perhaps twice as many in Pakistan. The shelling was the worst since the war of 1971. Most of the casualties were civilian, and artillery fire hit populated areas up to 30 km into the Indian side of the LoC. The intensity of the exchange, and the fact that it was timed to coincide with a meeting in Colombo between Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif and Atal Behari Vajpayee, make it clear that Pakistan is determined to force international intervention in its dispute with India. That prospect appears unlikely, but the fact remains that India has never been as bereft as it is now of space for manoeuvre. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition Government has no one to blame but itself for this predicament. The latest round of shelling, it is evident, is just one skirmish in a larger war set in place by India's nuclear tests at Pokhran: a war that could have profound consequences for India's position in Jammu and Kashmir.

Indian Army personnel in the Uri sector amid a haze of shelling and counter-shelling, in the last week of July. The recent shelling across the Line of Control was the worst since the war of 1971.-NISSAR AHMED

Not many people paid much attention to the beginning of the exchanges on the LoC on June 25. Such fire is routine through the summer months, when Pakistani forward posts have year after year used fire to aid groups of infiltrating terrorists to cross into India. The first shells fell in the Teetwal and Keran sectors of Kupwara district late that night, killing two civilians. Small arms fire was traded in the Samba and Ranbir Singh Pora areas, but without leaving any casualties. Similar incidents had taken place through the month, with an Army Colonel, P.B. Gole, losing his life in shelling on July 19. Twelve others had also lost their life in cross-LoC firefights when Indian villages and forward posts had been targeted in a significant way on July 3, 5, 12 and 15. By July 27, with Sharif and Vajpayee due to meet in just two days' time, the shelling escalated. Two shells hit Kargil, leading to a mass exodus from the town where Pakistani fire had killed 23 people last October. The next day, Pakistani troops fired over 50 rounds at positions in Kargil, killing one Army jawan and injuring six civilians.

Source KBK

Three successive days of shelling and fire was unprecedented, all the more so because they coincided with the meetings of both countries heads of government. "It was evident to me," says the General Officer Commanding of the Army's 15 Corps, Lieutenant-General Krishan Pal, "that they were deliberately provoking us to react." He added: "The fire was unusually heavy and persistent, but I wasn't going to give them the pleasure of responding in they way they wanted me to."

In the event, the meeting between Sharif and Vajpayee was, by most accounts, of little import. Although both sides agreed that their Foreign Secretaries would meet to discuss how further dialogue might take place, and what might be discussed during meetings, Sharif made clear in an interview that he expected little from this process. Pakistani officials, who had been pointing to the firefights on the LoC as evidence of a deteriorating ground situation in Kashmir, at this point evidently decided to raise the stakes.

Indian soldiers duck to avoid shelling by Pakistani Rangers from across the LoC.-AIJAZ RAHI/AP

As Foreign Secretaries Shamshad Ahmad and K. Raghunath engaged in their foretold-to-fail talks on the morning of June 30, a very different kind of dialogue was under way on the LoC. That morning, the Pakistan Army dramatically raised the stakes. An estimated 1,090 rounds of artillery were fired at Indian positions and civilian habitations, along with 510 rounds of mortar. Three anti-tank missiles, with ranges between 3.7 km and 4 km, were also fired at Indian military vehicles but missed the targets. Although officials at 9 Corps did not make available details of Indian retaliation, Pakistani television and newspapers showed that civilian locations on their side of the LoC had also suffered considerable losses. What is clear is that Indian retaliation was considerably more severe from July 30 than it had been over the previous three days, though Lt.-Gen. Krishan Pal told Frontline that his troops had been ordered only to respond "shell for shell, calibre for calibre."

The Foreign Secretary-level talks collapsed on July 31. In a blunt statement, Indian officials described Pakistan's "obsessive focus" on Kashmir as "neurotic", while Pakistan in turn blamed the crisis on India's "rigid and inflexible stand."

Ayaz Ahmad Naik, a 13-year-old Indian boy injured in cross-border firing.-FAYAZ KABLI/REUTERS

Artillery fire on the border mirrored this sharp deterioration in the talks. Pakistani artillery fire almost doubled, with 1,983 being fired, along with 750 mortar shells and six anti-tank missiles. By evening, 24 people had been killed, including seven soldiers, and over 41 people had been wounded. The intended purpose of the heightened shelling was to impress on the world the seriousness of the situation on the LoC, and at least to some extent Pakistan achieved its objectives. United States Ambassador Richard Celeste claimed that India and Pakistan were "closer to a war than the Soviet Union and United States ever were" during the Cold War. "India and Pakistan have weapons within minutes (sic) of each other's capitals and there is firing almost every day on the LoC in Kashmir," Celeste told his audience.

A Kashmiri woman and what remains of her home in Sogam village in Jammu and Kashmir.-FAYAZ KABLI/REUTERS

Presumably encouraged by this display of interest, the shelling intensified, reaching a peak on August 1. Within Kashmir, thousands of villagers and nomadic Gujjar shepherds fled the areas from Uri, Bandipore, Tangdhar and Keran. "We tried hiding out in nullahs and inside the jungles," Sikandar Khan, a shepherd, said. "But it became impossible to survive." "Homes and schools were being hit everywhere, and going out had become impossible. Our herds also scattered when shells fell nearby, threatening our survival. In the end, we had to run away." Impromptu refugee camps, run by the Army and the State administration, sprang up at Baramulla, Bandipore, Koregbal and Dawar, with villagers using schools, hospitals and government buildings for shelter. Conditions were generally abysmal. Akhtar Bi and her four small children, for instance, were stuck in Baramulla with no news of her missing husband's fate, dependent on Army handouts for food and shelter.

Many of the refugees had to flee leaving behind standing apricot crops, with newspaper reports suggesting that over 50,000 packed boxes were rotting in Uri town because of suspension of traffic owing to shelling. Stories of tragedy were common. Arab Jan, hit by splinters in Uri's Salamabad village, died leaving behind a four-year- old son, Shafat, himself injured by the 105 mm field gun shell that killed his mother. Her husband, Mohammad Rashid, however, was unable to cremate Arab Jan, simply because shelling was too intense to allow any sort of public gathering to take place. At Nambla village, villagers fled after 15 buildings, including the high school building and a panchayat property, were destroyed. "We've always had some shells landing in the hills around this area," said Manzoor Ahmad of Bayari village, "but I've never seen shelling as horrible as this." "Not a single window pane in our village is intact. We are all afraid that this is just the beginning, and that worse is to follow."

Members of a family who have fled their home in the Uri sector following intense shelling from the Pakistan side taking refuge in Gantmulla in Baramulla.-PTI/AP

Pakistan's objective in escalating tensions are obvious. Hit hard by the economic sanctions imposed in the wake of its nuclear tests at Chagai, and finding it impossible to sustain its terrorist campaign in Jammu and Kashmir, the Nawaz Sharif Government clearly needs international intervention to sustain its political position on Jammu and Kashmir. The BJP Government's mindless decision to carry out nuclear tests at Pokhran, and its even more mindless decision to link that decision with the future of Jammu and Kashmir, have offered the Pakistan Government precisely the space it needs. With the breakdown of bilateral talks in Colombo, and the wilful escalation of tension along the LoC, Pakistan can, and has been, arguing that a dangerous conflagration is imminent on the subcontinent, and also that international intervention is the sole prospect of preventing one. Both the U.S. and the United Kingdom have not so far gone beyond reiterating their willingness to mediate, but have not so far insisted that India accede to this demand.

Just how long this limited consolation will exist is unclear. For one, India's own position has been deeply compromised by Union Home Minister L.K. Advani's statements in May establishing a linkage between the Pokhran tests and the future of Jammu and Kashmir. Advani argued that India's "decisive step to become a nuclear weapon state has brought about a qualitative new state in India-Pakistan relations, particularly in finding a lasting solution to the Kashmir problem." "Islamabad," he said, "has to realise the change in the geo-strategic situation in the region and the world."

At Maqam, 75 km north of Muzaffarabad in Pakistan-held Kashmir, a school building destroyed by artillery fire from India.-ROSHAN MUGAL/ AP

This not-so-subtle blackmail provoked a strong response. A Pakistan Government press release asserted that any Indian "misadventure" would invite a "swift and telling reply." U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin, for his part, said that India was "foolishly and dangerously increasing tensions with its neighbours, and is indifferent to world opinion." "We call upon India to exercise great caution in its statements and actions at this particularly sensitive time, with emotions running high."

More critically, India now has few options left in dealing with Pakistani intransigence on Jammu and Kashmir, or elsewhere. Escalation of tensions on the LoC, now involving two nuclear powers, will invariably invite international attention on Kashmir, restricting India's options of a punitive conventional military retaliation to Pakistani provocation. By way of example, suggests a senior intelligence official, "one of the key proofs of strong Pakistani control over terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir was that although heavy anti-aircraft weapons had been brought in, they were never used against military and civilian targets. This was because they knew such attacks would provoke a severe conventional retaliation, and raise the stakes to a dangerous level. Now, they could just carry out such attacks, because nuclearisation and its aftermath has forced us to raise our threshold of tolerance." De facto internationalisation of the Kashmir issue could in turn subvert other key elements of India's core policies. The U.S., in particular, could exert pressure on India's Kashmir policy to secure concessions on its core concerns, including the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

The closing of India's strategic choices in Kashmir could not have come at a worse time, given developments within the State. That Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah's first public action on returning to the State after a holiday with his family in the U.K. was to inaugurate a cinema is symptomatic of the malaise that has gripped the Jammu and Kashmir administration. The importance vested by Abdullah in the Broadway Theatre is unlikely to have been comprehensible to the estimated 10,000 families displaced by firing, whom he did not find time to visit.

Similarly, while nobody would grudge the Chief Minister spending time with his family, there has been no cogent explanation of why he could not interrupt or reschedule his holiday so he could engage with one of the worst periods of violence the State has seen in recent years. Corruption, poor administration and an unfocussed security policy threaten to undo the goodwill expressed in the elections of 1996, and have created an atmosphere of discontent which international uncertainty is adding to.

Indians who have fled their villages near the border arrive at a transit camp.-FAYAZ KABLI/REUTERS

Perhaps the sole reason for comfort within India is that over the next three months the snows will fall on the high passes across the LoC, silencing forward artillery posts and halting terrorist infiltration. But when the passes open again next spring, it will become clear whether any meaningful introspection on this summer's events has taken place or not. Among the major issues will be plans to use helicopters for military and police commando anti-terrorist operations in Doda, a move that could lead to retaliatory attacks on aircraft by insurgents and unpredictable military consequences. Just how the Union Government and the State Government intend to contain terrorist attacks on minorities in the Doda belt, and check the communalisation of the Jammu region, will also become apparent.

Most important of all, the Union Government will have to shape a cogent agenda to address the crisis it has created with its post-Pokhran street-corner machismo. Sadly, few entities in the BJP coalition believe there is a problem that needs to be dealt with in the first place, making it near certain that its Kashmir policy will consist largely of hawkish posturing, and in time, complete capitulation.

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