Crossing the line

The battle is still on in Kashmir. But on the Line of Control,it is more of a hide-and-seek game than a military operation.

Written by Muzamil Jaleel | Published: March 29, 2009 8:59 am

As the Indian Army is locked in another encounter in Gurez in Kashmir,MUZAMIL JALEEL looks at how the LoC is guarded and meets a guide who has helped infiltrators breach the security at the border for over a decade

The battle is still on in Kashmir. But on the Line of Control,it is more of a hide-and-seek game than a military operation: the watchful soldiers on guard and the militants waiting to sneak in. Here the victory is not determined by the superiority of the fire power or battle hardiness of the soldier but the agility of feet,presence of mind and a lot of patience.

Hidden and isolated,these lofty peaks,rugged mountains,thick forests and even fresh water streams deep inside the Himalayas in Kashmir have always been a battlefield. But insurgency has changed the rules of the game.

Although India and Pakistan decided on a ceasefire along the LoC in November 2003,the silence of the guns didn’t bring peace. For the troops,even confidence building measures like the opening of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad road or the crossing points along the LoC didn’t spell peace. The militants never stopped coming.

On the ground,India’s war on terror begins from a tiny post erected over a ridge where a lonely soldier watches over an empty valley in a no man’s land,peering through a binocular or gazing through the bushes for hours at a stretch.

Sources in the Army say a soldier’s tenure to a forward post situated above 9,000 ft lasts for two years while the standard posting in other places along the LoC is a minimum of three years. “It is a thankless job. But it is always worth doing,” says a Colonel who was sent to a post on a mountain in Gurez sector after he joined the army. “I have spent five years of my career up there in forward posts. And trust me,the nights up there are very,very long,” he says. A jawan,he says,is on duty for a minimum of six hours inside a forward post but that can go up to even 12 hours. He then has to join a patrol for another six hours,walking and crawling and at times even running to ensure that nobody violates the sanctity of the line that loosely defines the geographical boundaries of the country. “But it happens. It is impossible to stop infiltration,” he says. “It is a very difficult terrain and everything including the weather is an enemy for a soldier.”

Then he talks of luck. “We keep vigil. But the soldier is a human being too. One wrong move,one sleepy hour and you could allow a group of militants to sneak inside and disappear,” he says. “We watch them. But then they too watch us consistently. Crossing this line is the first step they take to become militants. They don’t want to fight us there at the LoC—they just want to enter.”

The ceasefire,however,did help the army increase its vigil along the LoC. It gradually erected a 434-km-long barrier made of razor-sharp barbed wire and concertina rolls to fence the LoC and installed a hi-tech Israel-made Surveillance Grid at sensitive areas. The Grid is the first monitoring system of its kind in South Asia that makes use of high-power cameras,thermal sensing cameras and long-range observation system to register all movements.

But,it was never enough.

Recently,the security agencies captured a man who has,over the years,managed to get past all barriers several times. Frail,with a sharp nose and a long flowing beard,he says some call him Gulam Nabi,others ‘Gilgit Baba’. Both are,however,aliases of this 55-year-old man who is skilled in manoeuvering the rugged tracks along the Line of Control. Ever since the militant movement erupted in 1990,he remembers sneaking across the Line of Control 74 times. He didn’t come or go alone. Each time,he says,he crossed and smuggled groups of militants and ammunition along. His eyes light up as he talks of the LoC or “cease line” as he calls it. “I know every inch of it,” he says,raising his bony hands. “I have grown up grazing cattle and sheep on those mountains. I know every pagdandi (walking path),every minefield out there.” Baba had been a guide for 17 years till he ran out of luck one day in 2007 and was arrested.

So,how do militants manage to breach the Line of Control? “It is not very difficult,” he says. “But it is only possible if they get a good,thinking guide. And there aren’t many good guides,” says Baba,who belongs to a Gujjar family that lives in the upper reaches of the mountains between Bandipore and Gurez. “Before 1990,there was no tension in those mountains. We would take our cattle to the meadows up there every summer. It was like a playground for us. We would cross over for fun. There were men who would steal cattle across and bring them to this side. Bringing men is much easier,” he says. “And when militancy began,I was approached by a group who wanted me to become a guide. After that I never stopped.”

He says he can breach the LoC from Jawdor in Gurez sector all along to the edges of Keran. “Our first rule is to walk only during the dark nights. We would hide in the day and rest. We would talk to each other in whispers,” he says. “We would walk slowly and make sure that we don’t leave foot marks or leave a trail through the standing grass.”

He says there are dozens of tracks unknown to the soldiers. “I would do a fresh recce whenever a track was exposed,” he says. “I would choose paths that were away from the posts. Then we would have to keep vigil of the patrol parties only.” The sympathetic among the villagers who live close to the LoC,he says,would inform them about the timings of the patrol parties. “For example,there was generally no patrol out before 9.30 p.m. We would then try and cross the forward posts on the LoC before that,” he says.

The guides are equipped with the latest gadgets. “They (the handlers) would give us mobile mine detectors and Chinese scissors to cut the fence,” he says. “The fence is not a big problem. It only delays the journey. We cut it anyway. And these Chinese scissors can cut anything.”

Baba insists that crossing the LoC is only a mind game. “It is all a psychological game. The army frequently changes the timings of the patrol parties. They keep track of all footmarks. But there is always a way. There is always a patch along this LoC which is not manned,” he says. “And we keep looking for that particular patch.”

Ever since he became a guide in 1990,Baba says he spent the winters in Pakistan where half his family lives. “I would come and go every summer,” he says. The guides,he says,are extremely important for the groups and the handlers keep a close watch over them. “Without guides,it’s impossible. Each time,I would return after taking a group (of militants),there would be a serious question-answer session,” he says. “In the initial days,they (the handlers in PoK) would ask three questions about the journey. Then there were 14 questions,about the route,the position of the posts,the patrolling schedules of the army and every danger,every incident that took place during the journey. The last time,there was a big questionnaire with 43 questions and I had to detail everything—even how the boys behaved during the trek.” He says his answers made a thick file. “One man would ask questions and the other would write down the answers,” he says.

His crossings have not always gone unnoticed. The army has confronted his group on three occasions. “Once I had a group of five. The army had prior information and had laid an ambush for us in a gorge,” he recalls. “Everyone was killed but I escaped unhurt.” He says that the only way the troops can prevent a breach is by detecting the movement of the militants before the infiltration. “Otherwise,an encounter with the army is either a coincidence or a guide’s stupidity,” he says.

Security agencies are now concentrating on intelligence gathering. Apart from the three tiers of physical presence of the army preventing infiltration along the LoC and the Rashtriya Rifles cordon in the hinterland,the emphasis is on human and electronic intelligence.

The recent breach in Keran sector by a group of 25 militants was halted only because the army knew the militants’ plan well in advance. Sources reveal that the J-K Police had picked militant communication several weeks ago about this infiltration and had later confirmed it from their “assets” on the ground. A report,sources say,was sent to various security agencies and the army on March 12. The army,however,avoided a confrontation at the LoC to prevent militants from retreating to PoK. Thus,the group was allowed to infiltrate well inside before the army launched an operation in the Shamsbari range.

Security agencies also have been trying to co-opt the guides to help halt the infiltrating militants and prevent their entry into the Kashmir valley. But that doesn’t always work. Farooq Tiger,a guide who switched sides and was covertly working with the police,was exposed during an infiltration bid through the Gulmarg sector. The militants accompanying him suspected foul play and killed him even before he could call for help.

The current Gurez sector infiltration,where the army is still engaged in an operation,didn’t come as a surprise to the security agencies. Sources reveal that there was prior information,which was not immediately acted upon. A group of 20 militants,sources say,managed to sneak in several kilometres. They had come so far that the guide’s cell conversation was picked during phone surveillance,sources said.

“Till this issue (of Kashmir) doesn’t end,militants will keep on crossing,” says Baba. “There is no way that such a long and difficult LoC can ever be plugged completely,” he adds. The Colonel agrees but emphasises that the infiltration will end only if the Pakistan Army disallows it. “There is no way they (militants) can cross two armies.”

The LoC fence

The LoC fence,also known as the Anti Insurgency Obstacle System in military terms,was completed in September 2004. It cost India close to Rs 250 crore. Due to the heavy snow that damages major portions of the fence—which runs across 743 km of the LoC—the annual maintenance bill is over Rs 50 crore.

The 9-ft high,three-layered obstacle system is based on the Israeli model and incorporated with infiltration detection equipment. There are two barbed wire obstacles with a concertina wire roll in between. Between the barbed wire fences is a thin wire through which a non-lethal but decapacitating electric current is passed. The entire fence is fitted with floodlights that are activated at night. High-tech Israeli and French underground motion sensors are fitted along the fence. These sensors are wired to trigger off an alarm as soon as someone passes by the area. Thermal sensors are also fitted at certain locations to trigger off an alarm.

The fence,however,has not been constructed at certain areas like gullies and ravines,where it would be impossible to set up a structure. These areas have been heavily mined by the army.

The army’s own anti-infiltration network revolves around the fence. While several anti-infiltration posts have been constructed along the fence,patrols are carried out between the fence and the international border.

Army patrols are usually armed with night vision equipment,thermal imagers and Long Range Observation Systems. A successful strategy is to shoot down infiltrators as they attempt to cut through the fence. But army officers say that there are fence-crossing training camps across the border that form part of the final training of militants. Specialised gloves,boots,Chinese cutters and ladders are used by militants to cross the fence.

Manu Pubby

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