He looked out into the grey shroud blowing off the cauldron of cloud below, watching two dark dots move up the Bhui nar — a stream leading up to the wall of concertina wire, battlefield radar and thermal sensors on the Line of Control (LoC). They were just bears, playing on a small patch of ice that had survived the summer. Sipahi Vaibhav Kumar’s fingers didn’t, however, come off the trigger guard on his assault rifle.
“They’re out there somewhere,” he said, “waiting, just like us”.
Last week, seven men, camouflaged inside the cloud, made their way up a stream just like this, their backpacks stuffed with packets of Sooper Egg and Milk Cookies, Nimko masala-mix, medicines, grenades and ammunition, sparking off the biggest counter-infiltration operation since 2009.
Five of the terrorists, and three soldiers, have since died in the fighting that continues to rage in northern Kashmir’s dense Kalaroos forest — a battle that is part of a larger war sparked by growing infiltration across the LoC ahead of elections to Jammu and Kashmir’s legislative assembly.
Exchanges of fire at forward posts have become more frequent through August; exchanges the Army says result from the Pakistan military’s support for infiltrating groups.
The LoC, many in the Army fear, might be about to catch fire — and Vaibhav Kumar and his comrades, stationed at the 4,100-metre post on top of the Khanabal ridge, are manning the ‘great wall’ that is meant to keep the flames out of Kashmir.
The Kalaroos battle
Last week, when rifleman Ghulam Ahmad pushed open the door of an earth-and-stone shepherds’ hut near the Gurdaji stream, not far from his hometown in Kupwara, he started a battle that now involves hundreds of troops.
Local residents had seen strangers moving up the stream, and the 53 Brigade despatched troops to search the area. The patrol saw frightened women and children fleeing the meadow around the hut.
Minutes later, as Ahmad entered it, he would learn why.
Naik Neeraj Kumar, a resident of Khurja in Uttar Pradesh, was standing next to Ahmad when the bullets hit his buddy, shattering the soldier’s hip. Kumar fired back, killing three terrorists. But as Kumar dragged Ahmad out of harm’s way, he was himself shot at from up the hill — and killed.
The survivors of the group, suspected to be from the Lashkar-e-Toiba, fled into the forests, abandoning their backpacks and radio sets. Intelligence sources have told The Indian Express that the dead, or one of the survivors, appears to be an important commander: a wireless station across the LoC has been calling out the code name “Charlie 2”.
Troops from the 28 Infantry Division have fanned out across the sprawling Kalaroos forests, hoping to ensure the call is never answered. In terrain pockmarked by caves and boulders, cloaked in dense Deodar that reduces visibility to just a few feet, every movement invites ambush: one soldier has been killed, and another injured, in fighting that still rages.
From the first snowfall in November until June, unusually severe cold made movement across the LoC almost impossible — and reduced infiltration to near-zero. Now, with elections looming, jihadist groups are seeking to make up for lost time.
Guarding the wall
Legend has it that Sisyphus, king of Ephyra, was condemned for his scorn of death to push a giant boulder up a mountain every night, only to watch it roll back down again: there was no greater punishment the gods could think of than endless, futile labour. Eighty per cent of the 540-kilometre LoC fencing has to be replaced each year, metre by metre. Hollow cement blocks, concertina wire and metal poles all have to hauled up by foot and pony — 37-40 tonnes of equipment for each kilometre of wire.
In the years since the Kargil war, there have been substantial investments in technology — but it isn’t foolproof yet. Thermal imagers, imported from Israel, are ineffective in fog, and their battery life drops sharply in extreme cold. Battlefield surveillance radar isn’t always able to pick up movement in the rocky gullies cutting up the moutains. There’s no option but to build the wall, metre by painstaking metre, and walk it, every day.
But even then, as the fighting in Kalaroos shows, determined infiltrators get through.
Until early August, the year hadn’t been unusually bad on the LoC. Home Ministry figures show that fatalities of security forces and civilians from January 1 to August 18 were lower than in the same period in 2013. Indian troops and police succeeded in eliminating more terrorists. Perhaps most important, exchanges of fire along the LoC, and the India-Pakistan border in Jammu, fell in comparison to 2013.
Even in the last few weeks, as violence has escalated, the LoC remains relatively peaceful. Part of the reason for that, senior military officials say, is that a policy of aggressive retaliation was put in place last summer, after Indian troops were targeted in a series of ambushes and improvised explosive device attacks along the LoC — starting with the beheading of two soldiers in January 2013. The tempo of these attacks built up steadily from 2008, culminating with major skirmishes at Charonda and Shalabhattu in Kashmir last year.
“It was a fool’s errand chasing after ambush parties in the forests,” a senior Indian military official told The Indian Express. “So we instead targeted military posts from where the attack had emanated, with force adequate to annihilate the position altogether.”
Few details have become available on the retaliation strategy, but outgoing Army Chief General Bikram Singh said earlier this year that India gave a “befitting reply” to the attacks.
“Essentially”, the officer said, “Pakistan’s strategy now seems to be to keep the LoC alive to aid infiltration, but stop short of action that would invite major Indian retaliation. Heating things up just aids infiltration, so we exercise restraint too.”
Fighting has been steadily escalating since early August, though, with posts regularly exchanging small-arms fire, particularly on the northern stretches of the LoC, where Indian and Pakistani forward posts are often shouting distance from each other.
Through September and October, many military officers fear, things could get worse — and up and down the LoC, troops are bracing for that to happen.
Birla said her campaign this time is “very similar” to the last time.