Zones of incursion

Published : Sep 14, 2002 00:00 IST

The occupation by Pakistan's troops of Sangarh, a secondary position on the Indian side of the Line of Control, raises questions about how territory has been conceded at a time when the Indian Army is engaged in an aggressive forward deployment.

SECRET skirmishes are continuing along the Line of Control (LoC), two full months after the Indian Air Force (IAF) bombed positions in the Machil sector to vacate a major Pakistan Army intrusion.

On the night of September 4, Indian and Pakistani forces traded intense artillery, mortar and small arms fire in the Bhawani sector of Rajouri. The fighting was sparked by the Pakistani occupation of Sangarh, a secondary position on the Indian side of the LoC near the Kangarh permanent post. Kangarh faces a key Pakistan position that the Indian troops call Mela Post, on the Bhawani Bulge northwest of Jammu. Informed sources told Frontline that Indian troops had made several unsuccessful attempts to take back the Pakistan-occupied positions at Sangarh and that more offensive operations were scheduled to take place.

As in several recent instances of this kind, the negligence of local Army units seems to have been central to the loss of Sangarh. Until early this summer, the Gurkha Rifles unit posted at Kangarh Post regularly patrolled the makeshift bunkers and trenches at Sangarh, some 200 metres from the LoC. The positions used to be occupied at night to prevent the kind of intrusion that has now been detected. When the Gurkha Rifles was replaced by the 10 Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry, the practice of patrolling Sangarh was abandoned. It was only on July 19 that a patrol sent into the area discovered the presence of Pakistan troops there. Although it is unclear if any casualties were sustained during the fighting, sources described it as "intense".

On July 22, the 80 Infantry Brigade, commanded by Brigadier U.K. Dhar, launched a major artillery-backed effort to reclaim Sangarh. The assault followed the failure of informal efforts to persuade Pakistan to vacate the area. Informed sources in the Nagrota-based 16 Corps say that Pakistani commanders asserted that the land was on their side of the LoC. Pakistani counter-bombardment forced residents in the nearby hamlets of Sair, Makri and Numb to evacuate their homes and scores of people are now staying with relatives and friends at a safe distance from the combat zone. Informed sources in the military say that Pakistan is digging in for prolonged fighting in the Bhawani Bulge and has reinforced its positions at Qila Khambah, west of Kangarh.

While the fighting over Sangarh is in one sense unexceptional - both armies routinely scramble to occupy advantageous positions along the LoC each summer - it has raised serious questions. For one, there was so far no explanation of how territory was conceded at a time when the Indian Army is engaged in an aggressive forward deployment. Frontline had earlier reported of the use of air power to recover Loonda Post in the Machil sector, which was again lost as a result of an undetected offensive by Pakistan (Frontline, September 13). The intrusion was finally vacated after Mirage 2000 aircraft used laser-guided bombs to destroy the Pakistan-held positions, in the process killing about 28 soldiers. Indian troops have also been struggling to take Point 5070 and Point 5301, two key peaks in the Drass sector. However, their efforts have been thwarted because of Pakistan's occupation of the dominating feature in the region, Point 5353, which was again lost because of local negligence.

THE larger implications of the recent intrusions are even more disturbing. The undetected intrusions suggest that months of forward deployment has started to wear down the troops, leading to a decline in operational efficiency. This proposition is borne out by the fact that the forward deployment has failed to check infiltration. Union Ministry of Home Affairs data obtained by Frontline indicates that of the 205 terrorists who made their way across the LoC in August, 147 were foreign nationals. The large-scale infiltration, which comes after a sharp fall in cross-border movement during June and July, is similar to the levels seen in August 2000. In fact, the level of infiltration is considerably higher than that is estimated to have taken place during the same month in 1999 and 1998, a disturbing sign given that the process of Assembly elections is under way in Jammu and Kashmir.

All of this raises the serious question of just what purpose the prolonged military build-up on the LoC is serving. "Everyone in the Army is fed up with what is going on," a senior officer of 16 Corps told Frontline. "But no one has the courage to bell the cat. We respond quietly even to intrusions by Pakistan because no one wants to face the embarrassment of admitting that mistakes have been made."

There also seem to be serious issues of accountability that the Army needs to address. Although Colonel V.K. Malhotra, the officer who was in command when the Loonda Post intrusion occurred, was recently cleared of the charges against him, no one else has been held responsible. Worse, several LoC units deny that any intrusion is taking place through their areas of responsibility, but no effort has been made to establish how infiltration levels are so high. Unfortunately, neither the Army nor anyone else seems interested in setting right problems before they become worse.

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