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Fine Line of Conflict, no less lethal
- New kind of cross-border war is severely testing peace along the Line of Control and making the army remodel its counter-infiltration grid

Recently in Tutmarigali on the Line of Control: Brigadier Jagbir Singh Cheema of the Indian Army surveys this frontier from a glasshouse at 12,000 feet on a “saddle” of the Shamshabari Range northwest of the Kashmir valley.

This is the theatre of a fine line of war — between a fence and a disputed border. Literally a war on the margins.

The Indian Army has spotted the beginning of a new kind of cross-border conflict here. At least four times since July 28, the ceasefire along the Line of Control (LoC) here has been shot up.

Brigadier Cheema’s sector has a frontage of just 21km but keeping the peace on this terrain is a delicate task. At least once, say Indian Army sources, there was an intrusion by a Pakistani army patrol that killed India’s Sepoy Mahesh (on July 28).

“This shooting is an effort to force us to remodel our counter-infiltration grid by forcing us into our posts and keeping our heads down,” the commanding officer of the Baramulla division, Major General Syed Ata Hasnain, said in his headquarters before we set off to survey the “battlefield”.

Technically, there has been a ceasefire — the biggest military confidence-building measure between India and Pakistan — along the LoC since November 2003. But on the evidence of the violence in this sector alone, the “sitrep” — situation report — is “little fire, little ceasefire”.

The ceasefire is best illustrated along the road up from Nowgam to Tutmarigali (TMG for short) where the 155mm Bofors and the 130mm artillery guns have their barrels sheathed. It’s been four years since anyone heard the blast, whistle and explosion of an artillery shell here.

But in four weeks in July and August, machinegun and mortar firing severely tested the peace. The Indian Army has been sent into high-alert status and the generals into ‘ops’ (operations) briefings to understand what is unfolding. Firing has also broken out on posts south of here, in the Uri sector, and beyond the Pir Panjal and towards Kupwara, north of here.

This new “window” of conflict is literally a war on the margins. Unlike Kargil in 1999, it does not involve taking and retaining territory, targeting a highway with heavy artillery, repeated intrusions or waves of troops clambering up steep hillsides to eject or kill illegal occupants.

But like Kargil again, Indian forward posts are being targeted from the Pakistani side with Islamabad maintaining a high degree of deniability. Indian troops are coming under fire from little groups of gunmen near — not in — Pakistani posts who are rarely seen in uniform. It is difficult to identify who the attackers are. Are they soldiers? Are they militants? Are they a mix of regulars and irregulars?

For the men in the frontline, however, these skirmishes are no less lethal. “If you are sitting in a forward post of 15 soldiers and eight have gone out on a patrol when firing breaks out, you will feel bloody insecure,” says General Hasnain. In Delhi, army headquarters is hoping — but is less than certain — that the firefights will remain localised.

Gunfire rakes between India and Pakistan (not necessarily the Pakistan army) in a narrow sliver of territory between the anti-infiltration fence inside Indian territory and the crooked LoC along which Pakistani and Indian posts are often within handshaking distance.

Brigadier Cheema explains the new war with a survey of his sector without which, he says, it would be difficult to explain the nature of the current conflict.

Directly in front of Tutmarigali, the brigadier points out, Indian positions run nearly halfway down a steep hillside. The fence to keep out militant infiltrators runs north-south across a little “bowl” that is reached after 20 hairpin bends on a muddy road.

Indian and Pakistani posts are bunkers of stone and mud and some of concrete structures. They are both behind and ahead of the fence that is in Indian territory.

Two Indian and Pakistani posts called Gabdari between a spur of marching pines are only about 35 metres apart.

Further ahead from here, smaller hills rise on Indian territory and roll into Pakistan’s Lipa Valley. To the right, the Shamshabari Range with heights of up to 14,000 feet runs north towards Tangdhar and, to the left, it merges into the Kafir Khan Range in a “Y” that extends all the way into PoK.

Opposite this post in Tutmarigali and across and beyond the Lipa Valley, the Pakistan army is said to have a major post called Chand Mastana on the Kafir Khan Range.

Holding such terrain through the year is not possible. Even after the experience of Kargil in 1999, the two armies have to vacate some posts in deep winter when they are unsustainable but both rush back to retain them at the first signs of the snow thawing.

The 45sqkm of territory in front of this glasshouse (the largest post of the 19 Infantry Brigade) till the LoC was captured by the Indian Army in the 1971 war. The army has held it since then and its posts are almost into the Lipa Valley. Brigadier Cheema’s sector has a frontage of 21km in an arc between Tangdhar to the north and Uri in the south.

“We have the heights but there is a lot of forest cover,” explains Brigadier Cheema. Holding the heights is the key in mountain warfare — as every army knows — but high altitudes take a toll on efficiency and ability.

“Day can equal night and with the weather packing up so often we can’t see very well even with the best surveillance equipment,” the brigadier says.

Despite the terrain and gunfire, the word from army headquarters to its field formations is clear and precise: infiltration must be stopped at all costs, all gaps must be plugged.

How does Brigadier Cheema propose to do it? “That is what all this is about,” he says. “We are operating at the limits of our tolerance.”

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