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The Indian Army believes that the beheading after killing two soldiers was aimed at shaming the nation, and at dragging India back to those bloody days on the border

By Syed Nazakat

Buddies Hemraj and Sudhakar Singh, lance naiks in the 13th battalion of the proud Rajputana Rifles, were on a routine area domination patrol in Barasingha in Mendhar sector, 200km north of Jammu. The daybreak of January 8 was still several hours away; the night was dark, the fog thick, and visibility almost zero.

Patrolling here involved ‘walking around’ over a stretch that was beyond the fence that protected Indian-held territory from insurgents. Most of the fence on the 770km line of control (LoC) lay like this—far inside the Indian-held territory—since Pakistan had objected, with words and firepower, to erecting the fence right on the mutually agreed LoC. The Indian Army has static posts on the stretch beyond the fence and closer to the LoC, but patrols, which are small mobile units of 6 to 10 troopers led by young officers or subalterns, are often launched from this side of the fence.

Crossing the fence, a double-row (triple, in certain places) of concertina wire wall 12ft high and 4 to 9ft wide, is easy for the Indian trooper. His thermal imaging devices and alarm systems tell him how to find his passage through the electrified wires, sharp metal tapes and glass pieces on the ground, which make infiltration, from the other side, nearly impossible. The pickets beyond the fence look out into Pak-held territory for signs of military activity, as well as insurgent movement.

The difficult part lay there, in the stretch between the fence and the LoC. No one can say exactly where the LoC lay; there is nothing on the ground to delineate it. You could stray across and be shot at; you could step on a landmine the enemy had laid in his territory, lose your limbs and be accused of having intruded.

Every border sector is divided into grids, each under a commanding officer. There are four to seven forward posts (beyond the fence) every kilometre, with five to eight soldiers in each. The posts are alerted about the patrols; while on patrol, the scouts do not talk, smoke, use flashlight or carry cellphones. They do not even use aftershave, the smell of which could be picked up by dogs accompanying insurgents.

The patrol that included Hemraj and Sudhakar was playing safe, by not venturing far beyond the fence. They mostly remained nearly half a kilometre short of the LoC. The party had seven troopers and, as per the decades-old practice, had divided themselves into three pairs with the commander attaching himself to one. Each pair was to remain within the line of sight of another, but that was impossible in the thick fog and the thick woods. The result: the pair that was to keep Hemraj and Sudhakar in their line of sight did not see who were shooting at them in the fog; they only heard reports of automatics firing away.

As the second pair leapt for cover, before rushing to reinforce Hemraj and Sudhakar, they, too, came under fire. This fire, they realised, was not coming from the woods, unlike the bullets that had felled Hemraj and Sudhakar. This was cover fire, coming from the hilltops on the Pakistani side. Very unlike militants, and verily military. Militants would have fired at everyone in sight. Here, the enemy was killing only two; the cover fire was being provided only to keep the rest of the patrolmen away. The intention was to kill two, and only two, and then seize their bodies.

Indian posts returned fire; the exchange lasted several hours, well past daybreak. As the fog cleared, a couple of remaining patrolmen saw the enemy—clad in dark black, the uniform of Pakistan’s dreaded Special Services Group known as the Black Storks. The cover fire, the patrolmen knew, was being provided by the 29th battalion of the Baloch Regiment, which had been there for several months.

As the firing finally ended at 11:32, the sight in front froze them. Hemraj and Sudhakar lay dead and frozen in pools of blood, far away from each other. Sudhakar’s head was missing; Hemraj had deep slashes on his neck, indicating a failed beheading bid. “The raiders carried the head back across the border as trophy,” an officer told THE WEEK later.

But, why the SSG? The group, headquartered at Cherat in Peshawar on the Afghan frontier, and commanded by Major-General Farrukh Bashir, has never revealed its actual strength. Its troopers have, through long association with bloodier-minded militants, acquired a few notorious non-militaristic practices, such as torturing captured enemy and dishonouring corpses, (like beheading them) which regular troopers are loath to indulge in.

Regular troopers, even in Pakistani regiments, adhere to certain norms of military honour. Less than three months ago, an Indian Army Cheetah helicopter had strayed into Pak-held airspace. The four crew members, who were captured, were subjected to interrogation, but extended all kinds of soldierly courtesies, and sent back. In fact, straying across the LoC used to be quite frequent in the pre-1990s, and ‘strayers’ were more often than not sent back with a warning, but after being treated to tea and biscuits.

Not so with SSG men, who have been long exposed to the dirty tricks of the Inter-Services Intelligence and their militant cohorts. It is believed that the SSG had been deployed around the Kargil heights in 1999 and that the patrol commanded by the young Captain Saurabh Kalia had fallen into their hands. Even the doughtiest soldier in India shudders at the thought of how Kalia’s mauled body was returned to India.
The Indian Army headquarters now believes that the January 8 incident was well planned. Though there had been several attempts at insurgent intrusion and occasional violations of the 2003 ceasefire agreement, there has been no ‘military’ intrusion into Indian territory and no attempt at such scale of violence. The ceasefire was established in 2003 as a prelude to the undertaking given by President Pervez Musharraf to Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee in 2004 that Pak-held territory would not be allowed to be used for terror against India.

There had been around 75 ceasefire violations in 2012, and eight soldiers had been killed. But these have been downplayed as part of the hazards of manning a non-delineated border. There had even been a couple of beheadings, one in 2010, and one in Karnah sector in 2012, but even they were attributed to non-military or non-state actors.

There is also a historical reason for this. In 2000, Al Qaeda commander Ilyas Kashmiri attacked a Nowshera post, beheaded Sepoy Bhausaheb Maruti Talekar of the 17 Maratha Light Infantry, and displayed the head to his followers in Kotli. Newspapers published photos of the incident, which gained Kashmiri instant notoriety. Kashmiri was killed by a US drone on the Afghan frontier in 2011. So beheading has all along been considered a terrorist and very un-military practice.

This time, the Indian Army is convinced, it was not a rogue mission by the likes of Ilyas Kashmiri, but an attempt that had been blessed by the General Headquarters at Rawalpindi. So, within minutes of getting the report from the Northern Command, Army chief General Bikram Singh spoke to Defence Minister A.K. Antony and National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon at night on Tuesday, January 8. Menon called up Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who was in Kerala to inaugurate the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas.

For the political leadership, the problem was manifold. Regimental troops would demand blood for blood; and middle-level commanding officers in the field would find it difficult to keep up the morale of the troops. The Army as a whole would demand retaliation. Even those military veterans who have been advocating military-to-military talks with Pakistan and withdrawal from Siachen urged the government to get tough. “We should have blasted that Pakistani post to dust,” said Brigadier (Retd) Gurmeet Kanwal, referring to the post that had provided cover fire to the SSG raiders.

The option was there, but strangely, the field commanders, too, remained restrained. “Only for artillery firing you need clearance these days from the headquarters,” explained an officer. “We could have used mortars, which are infantry weapons, and blasted the post, taking a few casualties.”

That was not done. The weekly Tuesday call between the DGMOs, a practice started in the early 1990s, was called off so as to respond with the full picture in hand. The call was made on Wednesday morning. Lt-Gen. Vinod Bhatia’s words to his counterpart Maj.-Gen. Ashfaq Nadeem were precise and tough. He gave Nadeem the exact location, the timing and the gruesome nature of the incident. Bhatia did not mention the SSG, but put the blame on the entire Pakistan Army for the beheading, which was against the established rules of engagement. Nadeem, in denial mode, offered to get the incident investigated by the United Nations Military Observer Group in India and Pakistan (UNMOGIP). A meaningless offer, since the UNMOGIP had been derecognised by India since 1972!

The Army is convinced that the outrage has been carried out with a specific ‘military’ aim, unlike militant actions which are done more for propaganda. Pakistan had been objecting to the rebuilding by the Indian Army of a forward ‘ambush post’ in Churunda village, high above Uri town, atop the desolate mountains overlooking the strategic Haji Pir area. India’s argument has been that the construction is part of its publicly announced border infrastructure development plan of 2009. “It is not a new post; we are renovating an old one,” said Army spokesman Colonel Jagdish Dahiya.
As part of the 2009 plan, the government suddenly increased the fence-building fund from a modest Rs 380 crore to Rs 1,201 crore. The hike was towards raising an all-weather fence capable of withstanding heavy snowfall, which damages around 80km of fencing every season. “The damaged stretches provide a window to the militants to sneak into India,” pointed out former Army chief General N.C. Vij, during whose tenure the fencing commenced.

Pakistan had been objecting to the fencing all along, and so India had erected the fence mostly deep within Indian territory. But, the posts are closer to, or right on, the LoC. Indian commanders concede that ‘construction’ per se is in violation of the terms, but it did not actually threaten Pakistani positions on the LoC.

As the Army went ahead with the construction, the Pakistan side used loudspeakers to threaten action. Finally on October 16, Pak troops fired mortar shells, killing a pregnant woman and a class 9 student. The villagers protested; the outside world heard little. Then on January 6 night, Pak troops opened fire again. The general officer commanding India’s 19th Infantry Division ordered retaliation. But, “we responded only with small arms,” said Colonel Dahiya, in contrast to heavy mortar fire from the Pakistani side.

However, Pakistan maintains that Indian troops had raided their Sawan Patra checkpost in the Haji Pir in which a naik, Aslam, was killed and another badly wounded. The Indian Army has denied the charge. “We never crossed the LoC,” said Dahiya, pointing out that the Pakistan posts were located at such heights that it was impossible for Indians to cross the dry rivulet that separated the Indian and Pak posts, climb the mountain and return to their bunkers without being hurt. “We just retaliated to the Pakistan’s unprovoked firing,” said Dahiya. “It is Pakistan which had been violating the ceasefire since October,” apparently to abet infiltration. There have been around 150 infiltration bids last year, many of them in Uri and Poonch.

Many in the security circles feel that Pakistan would now try to punch holes in the fence to restart the infiltration with all the vigour of the 1990s. Before the three-tier fence was built, “over 1,000 militants used to infiltrate into our side of border,” said Gen. Vij. “The fence has made it almost impossible for militants to sneak into Kashmir. Today, infiltration is below 150 attempts a year.”

The portions of the LoC which come under the Kashmir-based 15 Corps and Jammu-based 16 Crops are fenced, but there are stretches where fencing is not possible. In Mendhar and Churunda, the fence is built deep—500m to 2km—within the Indian territory. There are Indian posts located in the stretch of land that lies between the fence and the LoC, and these posts are now found to be too vulnerable. It was in one such stretch that Hemraj and Sudhakar were killed.

What is worrying Delhi is the steady increase in the ceasefire violations not only along the LoC, but also the demarcated International Border (IB) in Jammu. There were 117 violations (93 on the LoC) in 2012, as against 61 in 2011, and 57 in 2010. Infiltration attempts, too, have increased. A multi-security agency assessment obtained by THE WEEK puts the total number of infiltration bids to 121 in 2012, against 52 in 2011.

The Army has been extremely cautious, fearing that the beheading incident was designed to provoke India, and make Pakistan return to its old India-centric military doctrine. The new doctrine, yet to be formally adopted by the Pak army, suggests that the primary military threat to Pakistan is from the internal insurgencies and the Pak army needs to be equipped and trained to combat this threat. This would mean scaling down the build-up on the Indian border, buying fewer tanks, cannons and fighter jets, but investing more on small arms, infantry training and small-ticket purchases.
A large section of traditionalists within the Pak army are reportedly upset with this. The fear now is that there could be more such provocations directed against India, forcing India to rattle its sabres. “These ceasefire violations could be the decision of a brigade commander or a local area commander who is not happy with the India-Pakistan thaw,” says Lt Gen (retd) Prakash C. Katoch. “In the last two years, the Pakistani army has moved a good number of soldiers from the Indian border to the Afghan border to defend the country from the growing Taliban and militant attacks. Many within the Pakistan army do not think this is in Pakistan’s best interest.”

For the moment, there is a lull at the LoC. The message from the government to the military is not to escalate border tension, but there is anger in the ranks. In fact, brigade commanders who gathered for a briefing at the 25 Division headquarters in Rajouri, under which Mendhar falls, bluntly told their general officer, Major General V.P. Singh, that their immediate challenge was to keep the morale high. “The attack was carried out not only to kill our soldiers, but to shame us,” said one of them. “The battalion has to regain its honour. They have to hit back. That is the nature of this battle.”

with R. Prasannan

(January 21, 2013, THE WEEK)

Border blows

Peace process is the main casualty in the flare-ups on the Line of Control

By Syed Nazakat

The phone call was short and sombre. Lt-Gen. Vinod Bhatia, director-general of military operations, spared pleasantries and told his Pakistani counterpart, Maj.-Gen. Ashfaq Nadeem, that India did not want to escalate the tension along the border, but Pakistan had to respect the Line of Control. Before he hung up, Bhatia reiterated that Pakistan must probe and take appropriate action against its soldiers who violated the LoC and mutilated the bodies of two Indian soldiers in Mendhar on January 8.

It was the third hotline call between the two generals since the confrontation started on January 6. Bhatia had been India’s contact person to the Pakistani army’s top brass. And he kept the Army headquarters in Delhi informed.

After getting reports from the Northern Command that the mutilation of the Indian soldiers killed in Mendhar was a pre-planned operation, General Bikram Singh talked tough. The Army chief called the killings “gruesome and unpardonable” and said he had given clear directions to the Northern Command to strike back strongly if there was any further provocation. He met the other service chiefs and discussed the strategy on dealing with Pakistan.

While the Army retaliated with increased fire power, the government tried to stop tension spiralling out of control. It advised the Army to stay calm. However, it was aware of the anguish and anger within the Army over the mutilation. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh chose the Army Day celebration at the Army chief’s residence in Delhi on January 15 to send a strong message to Islamabad. “After this dastardly act, there can’t be business as usual with Pakistan,” he said. “Those who are responsible for this must be brought to book. I hope Pakistan realises this.”

What angered Delhi was Pakistan’s outright denial of its troops’ involvement in the mutilation. At the flag meeting between brigade commanders of India and Pakistan at Chakan-Da-Bagh crossing point, the Pakistani commander said that their inquiry had ruled out any intrusion at the LoC or killing of Indian soldiers. “He read out from a prepared text and denied everything,” said Lt-Gen. K.T. Parnaik of the Northern Command. At the flag meeting, the Indian Army showed photos of landmines planted by Pakistani troops in areas inside Indian territory. Pakistan rejected the proof and accused India of violating the ceasefire agreement by building new bunkers and watch towers along the LoC.

There has been strong resentment in the Army over the government’s renewed peace process with Pakistan, which many commanders said was not in sync with the ground situation. Yet, Manmohan Singh was keen to improve relations with Pakistan, and the peace talks resulted in an agreement on relaxed visa regime, reopening of borders and improvement in sports and trade ties. According to some reports, India was even willing to discuss the Siachen dispute directly with the Pakistan army through track-two channels.

The flared-up border tension and hostility, however, have left little hope for any further progress on disputed issues listed in the composite dialogue process. In fact, the areas where progress was made in the last two years became the immediate casualties of the new animosity. The new visa regime meant to make travel between the countries easier for elderly people and children was put on hold. The sports relations between the countries took a hit when nine Pakistani players in the Hockey India League were asked to go home.

There had been earlier incidents in which at least three Indian soldiers were beheaded at the LoC allegedly by the Pakistani army. But the January 8 killings sparked an outrage across India, with many political parties taking up the issue. Manmohan Singh sent National Security Adviser Shiv Shankar Menon to brief the opposition BJP’s Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley on the situation along the LoC. Swaraj had said that India must take revenge, bringing back 10 heads of Pakistani soldiers.

But by the weekend it was clear that India did not want to escalate the tension. The Army, though still furious, accepted the truce offer made during the talks between the director-generals of military operations. “An understanding has been arrived at between the two director-generals of military operations to de-escalate the situation along the Line of Control,” said Army spokesperson Jagdeep Dahiya. The Pakistani DGMO said orders had been given to his troops to strictly observe the ceasefire and exercise restraint.

Interestingly, the truce offer came amid a political turmoil in Pakistan, with the Supreme Court ordering the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf in a corruption case, and the firebrand cleric Muhammad Tahirul Qadri running a mass agitation against the government. The Pakistan government, as Pakistani politician Ayaz Amir said, is twisting in the wind, and the army is just watching it happen. The Pakistani army, as always, seems to have other plans for the country.

(January 27/ 2013, THE WEEK)

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