‘Pak infiltrators out there somewhere in the forest…waiting, just like us’

The Indian Express travels to the frontline in Macchel, scene of the biggest counter-infiltration operation in five years.

Written by Praveen Swami | Khanabal Post | Updated: September 2, 2014 11:53 am
The LoC fence must be rebuilt every year. Source: Praveen Swami The LoC fence must be rebuilt every year. Source: Praveen Swami

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.

Trouble ahead?

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.

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  1. R
    Oct 5, 2014 at 5:17 pm
    Hurt the enemy where the enemy is weak, not necessarily where firing takes place. If a shot is fired in Ladakh, reply at Sialkot. Supply and train Balochis and Hazras to create mayhem in Pak hinterland. Offence is the best defence. Even the Maginot line could not save France from Hitler's onslaught.
    1. H
      Sep 2, 2014 at 2:07 pm
      Go into Pak and destroy them. Once and for all. No matter what happens.
      1. I
        Sep 5, 2014 at 3:07 am
        As the USA withdraws from Afghanistan,a substantial portion of the troublemakers will be freed up there.We may ume that these people do not have anything else to do other than murder and create mayhem.So where do they go after that?A logical choice is stan which is already burning under their onslaught.So a sly stani high-command will obviously try to turn this excess load of smoking guns towards India.....urgent need to frame a new suite of diplomatic,military and political responses in this changed scenario.....meanwhile we pray for our soldiers......
        1. G
          Greg Savage
          Sep 2, 2014 at 3:42 pm
          Smoke the rats out and kill them. Close your hearts to pity.
          1. i
            insas223 insas223
            Sep 2, 2014 at 10:37 am
            If that were possible there would be no need to man the LOC at all!!All these cease fire violations are the doing of the stan army to provide covering fire to infiltrate terrorists into Kashmir.If we move one inch,they will grab it.Have you forgotten Kargil?
            1. K
              kris kumar
              Sep 2, 2014 at 7:07 am
              If there is a meeting between India and Pak next time they should first agree to move away the forces from LOC at least 5 miles and any intruders caught in between should be blown out with the explosives.
              1. C
                Chopra TP
                Sep 2, 2014 at 6:17 pm
                Luxury villas on LOC? This is what you understood from my comment? I guess it is acceptable to people like you that army has to rebuild 80%of the fence year after year. Just like the roads in India break even monsoon season and people like you are against learning from others. Have you ever wondered why others don't have these problems. No, it is too much for you if someone suggests that we should learn from others who do it well. I am telling people that the swiss are really good at building at high aludes and securing their borders in avalanche prone areas. s never attacked the Swiss. One reason was that their border tunnels were rigged with explosive and could be collapsed on any invading army. You just keep on making useless sarcastic comments while picking your nose, instead of learning from others. I can imagine you being one of the useless paper pushing babu who is holding India back. Just because you haven't seen anything outside your town doesn't mean that the w world looks like your rundown neighborhood.
                1. C
                  Chopra TP
                  Sep 2, 2014 at 12:23 pm
                  Why does 80% of the fence need rebuilding even year? I understand that it is rugged terrain but I think with better planning and construction most of it can survive the winters. Learn how to build in the mountains from the Swiss. They have luxury hotels and restaurants on mountain peaks in the alps. I have been to a couple myself.
                  1. M
                    Mriganka T
                    Sep 2, 2014 at 4:57 am
                    Messengers of peace.
                    1. S
                      Sachin Jagade
                      Sep 2, 2014 at 3:54 pm
                      The strategy of firing back heavily at stan forward posts, especially those from where terrorist ambushes occur, is most apt. Heavy fire power and sophisticated weapons must be deplo by us to destroy both the stani forward posts as well as the infiltrators. In the absence of covering fire from stani forward posts, chances of eliminating terrorists would increase manifold. stan would pay a heavy price with the destruction of its forward posts. Hence heavy retaliation is a must, in fact in the run up to the winter months, our strategy should be to first go on the offensive on the known forward posts of stan that aid infiltration. A change in tactics is necessary to inflict a heavy price on stan and the terrorists.
                      1. D
                        Sep 2, 2014 at 1:21 pm
                        We should find out who the generals in stani army that is involved in planning and take them out by conducting secret operations. stani military is corrupt beyond belief. All we need to do is enlist some of them to take out their generals.
                        1. N
                          Nallavan Virumandi
                          Sep 4, 2014 at 9:36 pm
                          Messengers of peace loving religion indeed.
                          1. N
                            Nallavan Virumandi
                            Sep 4, 2014 at 9:39 pm
                            Why no muslim or secular post a comment on support for this... ah... I got the answer... never mind.
                            1. W
                              Sep 2, 2014 at 2:57 pm
                              I can imagine the troops relaxing in a luxury villa on the LoC after you have provided your expertise that comes from spending some time in the Alps.Please, go forth quickly. The nation and troops need your expertise.
                              1. W
                                Sep 2, 2014 at 3:01 pm
                                Tough job being a soldier on the LoC. To top it, we have a political structure that does not bother much and a world that is a mute spectator to terrorism from standia should pay them in kind.
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