Exclusive Tit-for-tat actions over a case of border crossing

Indian bunker construction on the northern reaches of the Line of Control — initiated after a grandmother crossed into Pakistan-administered Kashmir to be with her sons — sparked off a spiral of violence which culminated in the brutal killing of two soldiers in an ambush earlier this week, highly placed military and government sources have told The Hindu.

The clashes, among the worst on the Line of Control since a ceasefire went into place, have provoked fears that the ceasefire may melt down. In India, news that the two soldiers were beheaded has provoked widespread outrage and calls for large-scale military retaliation.

Read: LoC firing — Defence Ministry ‘clarifies’, The Hindu responds

Innocuous origins

However, the officials who spoke to The Hindu had a very different account — of how a relatively innocuous incident spiralled into a series of murderous clashes, before culminating in the killing of Lance-Naik Sudhakar Singh and Lance-Naik Hemraj. Both armies, the officials said, engaged in aggressive action, driven by the still-fraught situation on the Line of Control.

Early in September, 70-year old Reshma Bi, left the village of Charonda, near Uri, to live with her sons and grandchildren across the Line of Control.

Ms. Reshma and her husband Ibrahim Lohar, a highly-placed military source said, had remained in Charonda after their sons crossed into Pakistan-administered Kashmir several years ago, to escape police investigations of their alleged role in cross-border trafficking. Police officers contacted by The Hindu said that Ms. Reshma appeared to have left in the hope of living out her last years with her family.

Ms. Reshma’s September 11 flight, a senior Srinagar-based military official said, set off alarms at the Uri-headquartered 19 infantry brigade. There, the incident was seen as highlighting vulnerabilities in defences along this stretch of the Line of Control. Charonda is located within metres of the Line of Control, outside of the three-layer counter-infiltration fencing which runs along the frontier.

Inside of a week after Ms. Reshma’s departure, troops of the 9 Maratha Light Infantry began constructing observations bunkers around Charonda, seeking to monitor the movement of villagers.

The construction work — barred by the terms of the Line of Control ceasefire which India and Pakistan agreed on in 2003 — provoked furious protests from Pakistani troops. Indian commanders, the military source said, conceded that the construction was in violation of the ceasefire.

However, they refused to stop work, arguing that the posts faced out towards the village, posing no threat to Pakistan. Early in October, the official said, tensions began to escalate. Pakistan even made announcements over a public address system, demanding that Indian troops end the construction work.

Following the announcement, shells followed. Pakistani troops fired mortar and high-calibre automatic weapons at Indian forward positions. The fire missed its intended target, but killed three villagers, 25-year-old Mohammad Shafi Khatana, 20-year-old Shaheena Bano, and a ninth-grade school student, Liaqat Ali. In the weeks leading up to the New Year, military sources said, hardly a week went by without occasional shots being fired at troops headed to the new observation posts.

Finally, on January 6, matters came to a head. Following a low-grade exchange of fire that night, 19 Infantry Division commander Gulab Singh Rawat sought and obtained permission for aggressive action against the Pakistani position from where his troops were being targeted.

Pakistan insists its post, Sawan Patra, was raided by Indian troops. India has denied the allegation. “None of our troops crossed the Line of Control,” said Jagdish Dahiya, an Indian army spokesperson.

Either way, though, a Pakistani soldier was dead before the shooting ended — and another critically injured.

“Let’s just put it this way,” a senior government official in New Delhi said, “there was no formal permission to stage a cross-border raid to target Sawan Patra. However, in the heat of fighting, these things have been known to happen. Pakistan has done this, and our forces have done this, ever since fighting began in Jammu and Kashmir in 1990.”

Pakistani retaliation

Pakistan chose to retaliate against the Indian action in one of the few sectors on the Line of Control where its troops have a relative tactical advantage. Fighting has been underway in the Krishna Ghati sector, on the southern end of the Haji Pir pass, since June. The skirmishes there had earlier claimed the life of Border Security Force constable P.K. Mishra and Indian Army soldier Harvinder Singh. The fighting in the summer also began with disputes over the construction of new border outposts by India.

Few details have emerged on the attack, but government sources in New Delhi said a Pakistani Border Action Team — assault units that in the past have been reported to consist of both jihadists and members of the élite Special Services Group — are believed to have carried out the attack.

“It is almost certainly a retaliation for what happened in Charonda”, a military official in New Delhi said. “This kind of thing has often happened in the past, though it hasn’t got quite so much media attention.”

Last year, for example, there was fierce fighting Karnah, some 140 kilometres from Srinagar after two Indian soldiers were beheaded in an attack on a forward position by a Border Action Team. Indian special forces responded by targeting a Pakistani forward post, killing several soldiers and, by the account of one military official, which The Hindu could not corroborate independently, beheaded two.

Earlier, in July, 2008, four Pakistani troops and an Indian solider were killed in fighting near Handwara, again because of disputes over the construction of new fortifications around an Indian position, code named Eagle Post. BSF constable Bhanwar Lal was killed in a separate clash along the LoC in Rajouri, while 8 Gurkha Rifles’ Jawashwar Lami Chhame died when jihadists backed by Pakistani troops shelled an Indian forward post in Poonch.

In some cases, fighting and bonhomie have gone hand in hand in different stretches of the LoC. In September 2009, Pakistani military commanders gave their Indian counterparts packets and sweets on the occasion of Eid, even as their soldiers were exchanging fire along the Krishna Ghati sector, as well as on Pargwal island, near Nikowal in Jammu.