Kargil realities

Published : Aug 04, 2001 00:00 IST

Skirmishes along the Line of Control in the Kargil area have been taking place in the past few weeks, but India has showed stoic restraint here. Its premise is that building public confidence is more important than a military engagement that would yield no real tactical gains.

THE night before Drass residents were treated to the impresario Amir Raza Hussain's triumphal sound-and-light narration of the Kargil War, they had a disquieting reminder of their real-life experience.

On the night of July 25, the day before victory celebrations were held in Drass, an astounding 1,100 rounds of Pakistani artillery fire carpeted the sector. The barrage targeted Indian forward posts on Tiger Hill, the scene of one of the most high-profile battles of the 1999 war, along with villages along the Srinagar-Leh highway from Drass to Gumri. The July 25 firing, extraordinary in scale even by the standards of the 1999 war, marked the climax of five days of sustained bombardment. Over 1,800 shells hit Drass during this period, while 520 shells fell on the southern and western Siachen Glacier, 220 in the Kargil sector, and just under 200 in the Chorbat La area, east of Batalik. Kargil town and military outposts in Channigund and Badgam, narrowly escaped direct hits.

Surprisingly, Pakistan's artillery assault claimed only two victims - a soldier who sustained shrapnel injuries in the Siachen area and a porter who was killed while hauling ammunition to a forward post. Moreover, Indian guns positioned south of the Line of Control (LoC) have been silent, offering no response to the aggression. Lieutenant-General Arjun Ray, 14 Corps Commander, offers a stoic explanation for his orders to refrain from counter-bombardment: "Pakistan's objective, quite obviously, is to generate an escalation in hostilities. I'm not going to give them that satisfaction. My job is to protect the people who live here, and I do not want to give Pakistan an excuse to begin shelling civilian areas. If my troops suffer casualties, I will respond in an appropriate fashion. If civilian areas are hit, then we will ensure Pakistan suffers the consequences."

Skirmishes along the LoC in Kargil have, unnoticed by the media, been under way since mid-June. The fighting began when Pakistani troops began to construct a new post above an existing Indian position on Point 5310 metres in the Chorbat La area. Indian soldiers, who occupied the until then unheld Point 5310 during offensive operations last summer, responded with mortar and small arms fire. Exchanges continued between June 19 and 22, resulting in the death of six Pakistani troops. As reprisal, Pakistan irregulars planted explosives on a bridge on the Sando nullah (stream) that leads to Pathar Post, India's key position in the Marpo La area. The bridge suffered serious damage, but four Pakistan irregulars were also killed in the explosion, possibly because they mishandled the device. The three remaining members of the team died when they strayed into a minefield while seeking to escape fire from Pathar Post.

Matters came to head in early July, when Indian soldiers set up a counter-infiltration position below Point 4432 metres, some 3 km inside the LoC. The post lay below a Pakistan position that the Indian Army calls Chor Post, and the Indian position facing it, Mata Post. The counter-infiltration position was at first only used occasionally during the night. But as stocks were built up at the position and its use became more frequent, Pakistani officials came to believe it was, in fact, meant for offensive use. Small arms exchanges between Mata and Chor Posts rapidly escalated, until Pakistani artillery targeted and obliterated the counter-infiltration position. On July 20, the fire continued, expanding first to nearby Badgam village, and then to Channigund and Kargil. Indian troops were ordered not to respond, and retaliatory artillery fire was confined to the Siachen Glacier.

NO one has missed the strategic meaning of the Pakistan artillery offensive in Kargil. The use of artillery in the Point 4432 area came a day after Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf briefed the National Security Council on his talks with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee. At his press conference the next day, held even as the artillery bombardment was beginning, Musharraf made clear he believed no progress could be made towards peace until a final status resolution of Jammu and Kashmir was achieved. "Can we have peace without resolution of the Kashmir dispute," he asked. "Certainly not," the General continued, as his artillery underlined the point in Kargil for the benefit of the Indian policy establishment. Read in the context of the broader escalation of terrorist violence in Jammu and Kashmir, the shelling in Kargil appears intended to signal Pakistan's willingness to force the pace of dialogue.

Predictably, then, many within the Indian Army are sceptical about Lt. Gen. Arjun Ray's insistence on restraint. "We were simply lucky that we did not suffer serious casualties on July 25,'' says a senior 14 Corps officer, "but sooner or later, one of our positions is bound to be hit and soldiers will be killed. Will we still observe restraint then?" Junior officers Frontline spoke to were even more disturbed by the orders. Many of them point to the qualitative superiority of Indian artillery in the sector and suggest that restraint is likely to be interpreted by the Pakistan Army as a sign of weakness. "It is just ridiculous to sit inside your bunker and do nothing while you are being shelled," says one Captain in an artillery unit near Channigund. "The sense of powerlessness is very demoralising." One of his superiors endorsed this point of view: "Can you imagine a batsman being asked to face hostile fast bowling with his helmet, gloves and pads, but no bat?"

However, Ray's position is well thought through, founded as it is on the experience of a year's work of rebuilding the Indian Army's often troubled relationship with people living along the LoC. For the last nine months, much of the General's energies have been focussed on Operation Sadbhavana (Goodwill), an ambitious project to build a functional community-Army relationship. In collaboration with major multinational and Indian corporations, as well as non-governmental organisations (NGOs), 14 Corps has set up a number of schools, hospitals, adult education facilities, skills centres and even computer training resources in some of the most remote border areas of Kargil and Ladakh. Sadbhavana schools, unlike governmental institutions, offer mid-day meals and teach the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) curriculum, instead of State board syllabus. Similarly, Sadbha-vana medical facilities airlift seriously ill patients to facilities in Chandigarh.

The villages of Thang, Pachthang, Thyakshi, Chalunka and Turtok, which became part of India after the war of 1971, are focal points for Operation Sadbhavana. In June 1999, the Leh Police arrested 25 residents of the area on charges of working to form a terrorist unit. Investigations led to the recovery of assault rifles, machine guns, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and explosives. Ray's predecessor, 3 Infantry Division commander Major General V.S. Budhwar, had responded to this pro-Pakistan mobilisation by seeking to relocate forcibly village residents further inside the LoC. This ill-guided enterprise, predictably, fuelled alienation. Now Ray has sought to undo the damage. Gun positions that Budhwar believed might be compromised by local residents have been pulled back, rather than making the people resettle. The villages have been major beneficiaries of Sadbhavana projects, and Ray has promised local residents that he will help rehabilitate three members of the Turtok terrorist cell who are expected to get bail shortly.

HENCE, India's stoic restraint in Kargil rests on the premise that building public confidence is more important than a military engagement that would yield no real tactical gains. But how plausible are Ray's claims that Operation Sadbhavana has generated significant military gains? The evidence is mixed. Intelligence sources told Frontline that at least residents of the Turtok village had left for training at camps in Pakistan well before the Kargil War. Dossiers exist for three residents - Shabbir Ali, Abbas Ali and Liaqat Ali - of the Thyakshi area. That such mobilisation existed prior to the Kargil War would seem to suggest there is at least some level of ideological support for the Islamic Right. Yet, the fact remains that Ray has become some sort of a local hero. Officials say levels of information flow from the community have improved significantly and the absence of infiltration from the Mushkoh valley or Drass into Doda signals the absence of local support for terrorism.

None of this is to suggest that Operation Sadbhavana does not have real limitations. For one, critics charge that much of Ray's high-profile media interaction and community liaison work has been designed to enhance his career prospects, and not to empower the community. "There has been a huge duplication of resources," argues one senior official in Kargil. "For example, we have an excellent hospital in the town, with several specialists. But a Sadbhavana clinic has been opened as well, for no good reason," he says. Others doubt that the initiative will prove sustainable. Ray was able to use his personal equation with Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah to good effect, but others who succeed him might have neither the right connection nor the inclination. It is also not hard to see that the ideological agenda of Operation Sadbhavana's corporate backers has shaped some of its working. Kargil, with just 120,000 residents, has a livestock population of over 350,000: a sign that meat and milk cooperatives might have been better investments than computer centres.

More important, Operation Sadbhavana rests on the reductionist premise that development alone shapes history, to the exclusion of ideas and ideology. No number of schools and hospitals will prove sufficient to engage with the central force driving ethnic chauvinism and religious bigotry in Ladakh. For example, early this summer, 14 Corps troops stopped Bakkarwal shepherds from moving beyond the Bobang Gali (gully) into their traditional grazing grounds around the Rangdum Monastery. The decision was made after the killing of three Rangdum monks by the Lashkar-e-Toiba in last July, a massacre carried out with the aid of some Bakkarwals. The killings provoked anti-Muslim mobilisations in Leh. Both Kargil Superintendent of Police P. Namgyal and Ray believed that any repetition of the incident would have serious consequences. However, Kashmir Division Commissioner Khurshid Ahmed Ganai backed the Bakkarwals, provoking a general strike in Leh on July 23.

With both Buddhist and Muslim politicians cashing in on the confrontation in Rangdum, the real issues have been sidelined. Both the Buddhist and Shia communities around Rangdum have a long history of antagonism with herds coming from Jammu. Although Bakkarwal herds have been arriving in Rangdum since the 1930s, the monastery won a District Court battle for control of a 70-km stretch of land between Osgam Rock to the Pensi La Pass. The lower court judgment was upheld by the Jammu and Kashmir High Court early this year. Resource shortages underpin the conflict. Where some six Bakkarwal tolas (family groups) reached Rangdum with 5,000 sheep, 70 tolas come each summer now, with 35,000 animals. The already scarce grazing land has, inevitably, been devastated. However, Bakkarwals too have legitimate rights to pastures, of which they have now been summarily stripped.

Rather than address the issue with modern livestock management practices or the introduction of an ecologically sustainable land use regime, communal politicians have cashed in on the conflict. Right-wing organisations in Leh, notably Tsering Samphel's Ladakh Buddhist Association, have used the dispute to press for the sundering of Ladakh from Jammu and Kashmir. Samphel has, over the last two years, joined Hindu fundamentalist organisations in Jammu who have also been demanding a separate state. Muslim politicians, ranging from Bakkarwal representative Mian Altaf to Leh's Shafi Lassu, have in turn used this and similar disputes to fuel community insecurities. The Union government's official Jammu and Kashmir envoy, K.C. Pant's recent visit to Leh provided an opportunity for both sides to engage in a frontal battle. Unless political effort is made to heal the ethnic fissures in Ladakh, Pakistan's offensive will most certainly have its desired effect: the cutting apart of communities tied by a shared culture, language and history on the basis of their religion and ethnicity.

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