New Delhi, Aug. 24: Defence minister George Fernandes and army chief General S. Padmanabhan held separate meetings in Kashmir today to review the situation along the Line of Control, a day after Pakistan claimed to have beaten back an alleged Indian assault near Gultari.
Defence sources said Dras, in the northern stretch of the LoC, was shelled last night by the Pakistani artillery. On the western stretch of the LoC, mortar and artillery fire was exchanged at 18 places in Rajouri, Akhnoor, RS Pura, and Samba sectors. Mortar firing does not indicate escalation but use of heavy artillery does. There is no official word on the intensity of the firing.
Defence ministry sources said the visits of Fernandes and Padmanabhan were pre-scheduled. At Leh, Fernandes was given a briefing at the 14 Corps headquarters, the army formation that was created following the Kargil war. Divisional and brigade commanders attended the meeting. The 14 Corps’ command area stretches from Matayen near Dras to point NJ 9842 and Siachen, apart from the border with China in Ladakh.
General Padmanabhan was in Srinagar at the headquarters of the 15 Corps, which is tasked for internal security and LoC duties in and around the Valley.
Both Fernandes and Padmanabhan are likely to visit the Northern Command headquarters in Udhampur.
Military observers say skirmishes along the LoC, including artillery duels, are likely to continue for the time being. As long as the skirmishes do not lead either side into too deep a “probe” — an incursion that can lead to occupation of territory and, therefore, alteration of the LoC — the military operations will be manageable.
Army officers who have served along the LoC say even use of air support near the LoC without crossing it may not necessarily mean that a confrontation is imminent unless it causes heavy casualties and provides cover for advancing infantry.
The latest complexity in the security scenario in Kashmir is heightened military activity. Three other factors complicate the situation in any case: the forthcoming elections, infiltration and prolonged deployment of the army.
The latest element in the already delicate situation means that the jostling for strategic heights is on. By itself, it is usual in late summer for both sides to try and capture key peaks along the LoC. When the efforts of the two armies for a single target coincide, a battle can break out.
Such activity is spread almost all across the LoC, but is probably more frequent east of the Zoji La — in Dras, Kargil, Batalik — along the National Highway 1A. The road is snowbound in winter and this is the time when army rations are moved and stocked.
India rejects protest
Delhi today rejected Islamabad’s diplomatic protest on an alleged attack on a Pakistani post in the Gultari sector near the LoC, terming it one more incident of Pakistan’s “questionable conduct of diplomacy”, adds PTI.
This is also the area where Indian forces are at a slightly diadvantageous position because many heights across the LoC in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir look down on Indian positions. Elsewhere — to the west — along the LoC, the Indian army mostly overlooks Pakistani positions.
The LoC does not follow a well-defined geographical marker and peak-grabbing activity before the onset of winter is not a departure from the routine. The Indian side tries to capture heights from where it can keep a vigil on potential targets across the LoC and a watch on infiltration routes.
The Pakistani side, in pursuance of its military doctrine of forward defence, targets heights that can force Indian troops to fight uphill. This exercise is fraught with possibilities of escalation depending on other factors. But brigade commanders in sectors of more intense activity generally manage to ensure there is no spillover of hostilities.
In the past fortnight, there have been two reports that indicate that the process of capturing the heights is on. The first was in Machhil, in Gurez, in late July and early August where a post manned by a battalion of the Sikh Light Infantry was attacked. It is not clear whether the attack was by the Pakistani army or by a Pakistani mujahid battalion. (Mujahid battalions are part of regular Pakistani security forces that are placed between the paramilitary and the army).
The second — India has denied that it has happened at all — was in the area near Tiger Hill. Pakistan spokesman Major General Rashid Quereshi claimed yesterday to have beaten back an Indian assault near Gultari, across the LoC from Dras.
Since the war in Kargil, the practice of abandoning snowbound heights in peak winter has been done away with. Military observers say the Kargil war has “Siachenised” the LoC, meaning that patrolling and vigil on the heights here are just as intensive as they are in the glacier in the harshest of wintry conditions.