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Bushfire to bullets: Face-off threatens to spin out of control

BSF Director-General DK Pathak described as the worst face-off on the India-Pakistan International Border since the war of 1971.

Written by Praveen Swami | New Delhi |
October 9, 2014 1:47:01 am
For a while, it looked like the tactic had worked: no shots were fired across the India-Pakistan border in Jammu that day, or the next. (Source: PTI) For a while, it looked like the tactic had worked: no shots were fired across the India-Pakistan border in Jammu that day, or the next. (Source: PTI)

Early on Eid morning, Indian border guards at Pital Post, not far from the small market town of Arnia in Jammu, began their routine march along the giant, barbed-wire border fence that runs from the Rann of Kutch to Kashmir. Like any other day, they wore body armour and carried guns — but this time, they had an unusual message to pass on. “Let’s stop firing”, they had been ordered to shout out to every Pakistani patrol passing by, “it isn’t good for your people or for ours.”

For a while, it looked like the tactic had worked: no shots were fired across the India-Pakistan border in Jammu that day, or the next.

Then, before dawn on Monday, mortar shells arched over the border, landing in middle of Arnia and the adjoining hamlet of Mashan-De-Kothe. Lined up at Arnia’s cremation ground that evening were the bodies of Parshottam Lal and his 13-year-old daughter Kajal; Satya Devi, wife of Chajju Ram; Rajesh Kumar, son of Makka Ram; and Ram Lal, an ageing shopkeeper. The ground had space for just four bodies, and space had to be made for the fifth.

Soon, what Border Security Force Director-General DK Pathak described as the worst face-off on the India-Pakistan International Border since the war of 1971 had begun to spiral out of control. Now, the level of firing is threatening to undo a ceasefire crucial to India’s counter-terrorism defences on the Line of Control — and worse, both sides have begun to deliberately target civilian populations to force the other to back down.

Like so many of the little wars that have erupted on the India-Pakistan frontier in Kashmir, military sources told The Indian Express, the spark that lit the fire was small: a pile of burning bushes outside the BSF’s Pital Post — so named, local accounts have it, because brass artillery casing was piled up here after the 1971 war, to be auctioned to scrap-dealers. The BSF had begun clearing the undergrowth along the border late in the summer, and the Pakistan Rangers had protested, saying the fires threatened their positions.

Then, at 11:15 am on July 17, a day after a flag meeting held by local commanders to sort out the problem, constable Sanjay Dhar of the 192 Battalion was shot dead outside Pital Post, killed in a burst that left three of his colleagues, and three more labourers, injured.

“We’d had some firing in the sector because of the undergrowth dispute,” an officer familiar with the area told The Indian Express, “but they were in the nature of warning shots. No one was expecting someone to be shot.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, military sources said, then issued orders at a June 13 meeting for ceasefire violations to be responded to in strength. And that’s just what the BSF did, firing for days at several Pakistan Ranger positions facing Pital Post, killing at least four soldiers, according to sources in the force’s intelligence wing, the G-Branch. The unusually hard response drew retaliation, with every cycle turning the heat a notch upwards. Each week after, both sides fired thousands of rounds at each other, and clashes reached levels of magnitude higher than anything seen since India and Pakistan almost went to war in 2001-02.

Indian intelligence officials say the Pakistan Rangers got the worse of it, and responded by stepping up the fire from their side. In an August 18 battle, for example, the Rangers shelled the villages of Treva, Suhagpur and Pindi, around Arnia, with 82 mm mortar, after two of their soldiers were injured in small-arms firing. In Suhagpur, Des Raj Saini’s home was blown apart by a direct hit.

Finally, in August, the Director-Generals of Military Operations from both countries held talks to defuse tensions. BSF and Rangers then met to discuss ways to do that. But less than 24 hours after the August 26 meeting, firing broke out again and kept going.

But now, following the shelling of Arnia, the rules have changed and civilians on both sides have begun to pay the price. The village of Dhamala, perched near the border east of Sialkot, took the brunt of the BSF’s first display of rage, hours after Arnia was shelled. Salima Bibi, an ageing resident of the village, was shot dead along with 10-year-old Adeel Ahmad and his four-year-old brother, Hamad Ahmad. In nearby Tulsipur, another senior citizen, Mohammad Ishaq, lost his life.

”They killed our people,” one mid-level BSF official told The Indian Express. “We’re not going to shower their villages with rose-petals for doing that”.

In New Delhi, a BSF spokesperson said its troops had strict instructions to avoid targeting civilians. Local commanders, however, admitted villagers across the border were targeted in an effort to mount pressure on the Rangers.

Fighting now rages on a giant arc running from Jammu to Poonch — where shelling of civilian settlements has also broken out. In statements issued on on Wednesday, Pakistan said three of its nationals had been killed in the Sialkot sector, while Indian authorities reported one fatality.

The fighting may continue to spiral, and Indian commanders have warned the government that a meltdown of the ceasefire which came into place on the Line of Control in 2003 will hurt their counter-terrorism efforts in Kashmir. Fighting along the Line of Control, the army says, would make it impossible to conduct the aggressive patrolling and ambushes that have claimed the lives of 18 terrorists in the last 30 days.

”There are elections coming in Kashmir,” a senior army commander told The Indian Express, “so blocking infiltration is absolutely critical. Letting the Line of Control go up in flames will be a gift to Pakistan — and we shouldn’t let them provoke us into rash actions”.

For now, Pakistan is showing no signs that the BSF’s harsh response will push it to climb down. The country’s National Security Council is scheduled to meet in Islamabad on Friday, where military commanders will brief Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on their next steps. “The border tension suits Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan army just fine,” a senior Indian intelligence official said. “Both are facing crises of legitimacy, and this will rally people behind them.”

Prime Minister Modi, who promised an aggressive response against ceasefire violations during his election campaign, cannot, however be seen as backing down either. India has rejected calls for a flag meeting until the firing ends.

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