The Rival Games

Beheading soldiers and taking heads as war trophies is just one dimension of the macabre rivalries of the two armies manning Kashmir ‘frontiers’ since 1947. R S Gull revisits the interesting and dangerous ‘games’ the two sides have indulged in so far.

Widow of Hemraj Singh mourning the brutal slaying of her husband
Widow of Hemraj Singh mourning the brutal slaying of her husband

The beheading of Hemraj Singh, one of the two soldiers of Indian Army’s 13- Rajputana Rifles, by their rivals across the divide in a remote grove in Poonch’s vast Krishan Ghati (KG) sector, which has remained otherwise active since most of the last summer, created a verbal war between India and Pakistan. TV channels were at the forefront of mounting tensions between the two countries who used an ultra-nationalistic narrative to create new TRP records. Tensions might take some more time to ease but it is fairly clear that media can not be the sole stakeholder of strategic interests of any state.

As the dust is settling down, it is the most opportune time to understand that while hinterland is preoccupied with the peace process and the border belts are enjoying post-ceasefire life, borders literally never change. The cat-and-mouse games are just a routine for the rival armies having an eyeball to eyeball contact, almost 24 x 7. These ‘games’ have been there ever since the ceasefire line came into being after the first war over Kashmir in 1947-48. With the passage of time, these games have gone intelligently crude, especially after the militancy broke out in Kashmir in 1989.

Till the two countries announced a ceasefire on November 26, 2003, a vast section of people in Kashmir and Ladakh were living in cave-like structures. These nearly 7000 dungeons were constructed, mostly during nights, after the people living within the firing range of the Pakistani gunners protested. These bunkers varied in size and style and even in the use of material that went into their construction but were formidable enough to save the people caught in the crossfire from shelling. The government approved nearly 6000 of them in 1998, a year ahead of the Kargil conflict, and involved the entire LoC – 1481 dungeons for 83 villages in Baramulla, 3681 for 71 hamlets of Kupwara, 2000 for 21 Kargil villages that already had 700 in operation. This decision envisaging an outgo of Rs 16 crore was taken after Kashmir lost more than 60 civilians to shelling from across.

As the tensions peaked before and after the Kargil war, especially during the Operation Parakaram launched after Parliament Attack, thousands of families shifted out from Jammu borders and the LoC. Shelling was round the clock phenomenon then, till de-escalation led a ceasefire.

The ceasefire marked an end to this shelling and people finally resumed routine lives. They could till their fields and take their herds out. There was visible day movement of civilians and even soldiers started waving at each other. For the first year, no violation of any significance was reported from anywhere. But that changed as soldiers resumed their routine games. Beheading of Hemraj within a few days after killing of a Pakistani soldier near Charunda in Haji Pir sector is just a continuation of that routine. The government always knew it. The only difference was that it was fed to the media simultaneously, this time.

Soldiers have been even crossing the LoC and occupying posts. In October 1998, Pakistan’s former Army Chief, General Aslam Beg, claimed that in 1990, a divisional commander had crossed into valley and sent his battalion deep inside that resisted a brigade-sized counter attack by Indian Army. Reacting to the statement, the then Defence Minister, George Fernandes, said he had no knowledge of the particular incident. But, Fernandes added, Pakistani Army made three incursions in J&K in 1990.

Sometimes rivalries like these created situations like Kargil even before 1999. Take, for instance, the Rawalakot sector. In 1981, military historians have recorded, Indians and Pakistanis mutually agreed that they will vacate two and one bunkers respectively. Once that happened, Indian Army soldiers returned and re-occupied their bunkers. It infuriated the other side who resorted to heavy firing, killing a captain rank officer. It became a major issue that was later fought diplomatically. It is almost the same situation that took place near Churunda in Haji Pir sector that triggered the recent ‘crisis’. Even one report said that the Indian Army was constructing a tunnel to make the dangerously located bunker accessible which invited Pakistani firing.

Islamabad has been considering any new construction near the LoC as violation of the Karachi Agreement that created the ceasefire line in 1949. New Delhi, however, does not accept it, saying the Shimla Agreement is the new bilateralism between the two countries. India has never stopped strengthening its defences after the 1972 agreement, something that was rare between 1949 and 1971.

As recently as 1998 summer, Pakistan occupied two major posts in Gurez’s Bagtoor and Izmarg mountain villages. The twin posts at the peak of Kanzalwan range would get massively snowed during winters and the Indian Army would desert them and re-occupy in March. That year, when the Indian Army went up to man the posts, they found rivals in control. Since 15 km of the highway connecting Gurez with Bandipore is open to observation and attack from the twin posts, Pakistani gunners forced a literal halt for a few months. Locals said the highway was shelled by Pakistan for the first time after 1971 war.

Beheading rivals has remained an old inhumanity of the human history. Armies and warlords have taken heads as trophies and exhibited it as bravery across cultures and continents. This is brutal and brutality stays as contemporary phenomenon.

LoC: Described By UNMOGIP

“Its unfortunate location at many places is the chief cause for most of the ceasefire violations we have…. There is a good deal of unrest caused by the restrictions of the ceasefire line imposed on normal intercourse between groups of civilians who have lived in these districts for generations. There is also much human suffering and hardship. The line in certain places cuts across farming and grazing lands; divides communities living in the same valley; cuts off food grain areas from their former grist mills; blocks natural access routes used by communities in the mountains, forcing people to climb thousands of feet to get in or out; renders valuable stands of timber unobtainable by either side and so on. In other words, the ceasefire line, whilst serving to keep apart two opposing military forces, is proving more and more to be a most unsuitable civil boundary and is, in my opinion, a very real source of tension and irritation among the people on both sides. Rather than trying to prevent all movement across the line, I think by the exercise of a little generosity on both sides, a spirit of give and take ( subject, of course, to the requirements of military security), it should be possible to obtain some relief for the people whose interests lie in the immediate zone of the ceasefire line.”

Lieutenant General Robert Harold Nimmo
Lieutenant General Robert Harold Nimmo

This is excerpted from a letter that Australian Lieutenant General Robert Harold Nimmo  (22 November 1893 – 4 January 1966) wrote as Chief of UNMOGIP to Andrew Wellington Cordier (March 1, 1901 – July 11, 1975) who was a senior official with United Nations Secretary General before becoming the President of Columbia University. Nimmo headed UNMOGIP from 1950 until his death on January 4, 1966 in his sleep of a heart attack at Rawalpindi, Pakistan. He was buried in the Anzac section of Mount Gravatt cemetery, Brisbane, with full military and UN honours and senior representatives of both India and Pakistan attended his funeral.

Almost everybody in the media-conscious sub-continent is aware of Captain Saurabh Kalia’s father, NK Kalia. Initially he approached the Apex court and later the United Nations Human Rights Council, seeking action against Pakistan for torture and brutalities which his son was subjected to during the war in 1999. He terms his son’s death as a ‘war crime’. The young Kalia was allegedly subjected to extreme torture and brutality during his detention of 22 days by the Pakistan Army after he was captured while leading a patrol team along with five other soldiers.

By and large, the media at local level is least aware of these ‘games’ that rivals play. Usually the defence forces of the two countries skip offering details for their own reasons. But once a Hemraj incident happens, details tumble out of the garrison closets.

India’s mainstream newspaper, The Hindu has reported a number of such instances. Last year, it reported there was fierce fighting in Karnah 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,” the report said.

In July 2008, the newspaper reported that 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, codenamed 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,” it added.

Shishir Gupta also reported on similar lines in Hindustan Times newspaper. “In July 2011, an infiltrator and cross-border source of the Pakistan Army was killed in Keran sector of Kashmir by Indian Army,” his report reads. “The Pakistan Army’s reply was swift as two troopers of 20 Kumaon regiment – Jaipal Singh Adhikari and Devinder Singh – were beheaded.” Their bodies were sent to their families in Uttarakhand in sealed caskets as they were “badly mutilated”, and cremated as such. Three months later, Gupta reported that heads of three Pakistani soldiers went missing with Islamabad lodging a protest with New Delhi on the alleged killing.

“In August 2003, Pakistani troops ambushed an Indian patrol in Nowshehra sector and killed four troops of the Jat regiment. The intruders beheaded one solider and took his machine gun,” the report said. “A month later, nine Pakistani soldiers were killed in the same sector with heads of two missing.”

Offering interesting insights into the rivalries, the Hindustain Times report on Feb 27, 2000 said that Sepoy Bhausahed Maruti Talekar of Maratha Light Infantry was beheaded by Pakistani troops in Jangad in Rajouri sector. “Curiously, a top-rank, pan-Islamic jehadist, Ilyas Kashmiri of al-Qaeda was given credit, with Islamabad displaying the badge and weapon of the soldier in a macabre display. This apparently was a response to allegations that Indian troops had killed 20 Pakistani villagers in a raid after the Kargil war,” Gupta added.

Writing in the Times of India, Josy Joseph reported that raids from rival armies are adding to the pressures on the commanding offices as the soldiers they command usually want reactions. But they are unable to oblige the solders because they have to follow a chain of command. In the same sector where beheading took place, Joseph reported that “almost a similar drama had played out over a decade ago” when Pakistani army carried out a cross border raid. The Colonel commanding the unit ordered a retaliatory raid.

“Revenge was taken, his men’s morale was at an all time high, but his superiors were not pleased,” the report said. “A COI (court of Inquiry) followed, and the CO, a rising star his contemporaries thought would make it to second ranks, paid with his career.” He could never become a Brigadier.

In comparison, when Pakistan Army raided an Indian post in 2000 in Kargil, killing seven soldiers, injuring three as a subedar went missing, besides weapons and equipments, Colonel Sandes, the CO, was blamed for the “command failure”. Result: He had to fight a protracted legal battle to become a Brigadier. Even now he is fighting to get the next promotion.

The Brigader level flag meeting between the two armies in Poonch's Chakan-da-Bagh
The Brigader level flag meeting between the two armies in Poonch’s Chakan-da-Bagh

The Delhi High Court verdict in the Colonel Sandes cases that upheld the officer’s position and status in the February 27, 2000 Pakistani raid on Ashok Listening Post offers interesting information. It quotes the inquiry officer conveying in his report that “consequent to the ops at Pallanwala in Jan 2000, and at Mendhar on 15 Feb and 25 Feb, 2000, Pak raids in our posts were expected.” It suggests that the cross ‘border’ raids are no exception but a routine sort of an affair on the LoC.

These rivalries sometimes even involve the populations living close by. Neelum Valley that is located just on the other side of the Neelum (Kishanganga) river in Keran is the most recent instance. On Aug 5, 2012, the entire valley observed a shutdown against activities of militants. Led by the local bar association, the strike sought an immediate end to the occasional attacks on Indian positions by militants.

The strike forced the government in Muzaffarabad to send its civil and police administration officers to Athmuqam, Neelum’s capital spot, to listen to the residents. Locals said militants somehow managed to reach the valley and after firing projectiles towards the Indian positions on the other side of the river, they flee using the motorcycles. It triggers Indian gunners action and the local population becomes the main victim.

That was not for the first time that Neelum valley reacted. In 2011, when three Pakistani soldiers were killed in Indian shelling, the residents took out a rally on the day of Eid-ul-Fitr appealing Islamabad and New Delhi to exercise restraint and respect the ceasefire. In July 2008, around four dozen women were led by Chand Bibi to stage a barefoot march and a symbolic sit-in at Athmuqam against the militant actions in the area.

If it is not shelling, there are other reasons which victimizes the local populations. In September 2007, a large number of residents from twin border hamlets on the other side of the LoC – Dhakki and Chaknar falling in Neelum Valley, migrated to Athmuqam. Reason: they alleged that Indian Army raided the village and kidnapped three civilians – Sayab Khan, 30, Saeed Khan, 25 and Muhammad Shafi, 35. These Pashto speaking hamlets remain disconnected from the rest of the Neelum during winters. Nothing much was known about the trio as late as April 2008, according to media reports, and most of the families that migrated were actually rehabilitated elsewhere. A similar incident had taken place in Lepa Valley in August 2005 that involved two PaK youth.

It is not necessary that all these allegations might be true. The ceasefire line on which the LoC was created more than two decades later is so unnatural (read excerpts from an United Nations Military Observers Group for India and Pakistan – UNMOGIP official’s letter) that it divides the life and alters with the ecological and emotional homogeneity. Sometimes, people go to the water sources and find themselves in a rival’s area.

In August 2004, two boys – Alamdin and Shakeel, returned through Wagha after being in Pakistani jail for five months. They were caught by the Rangers on the other side of the LoC. In Srinagar, the Army had handed over a boy to the police for detention for LoC trespass in 2001 who could not tell his name. He would usually cry and point towards the mountains. For records, police officials had named him Behra waldi Gounga (deaf, son of dumb)!

This has been happening throughout. In 1950s, the records of UNMOGIP that was deployed in the subcontinent after India took Kashmir to UN in 1948, suggest there were organized cattle lifting gangs, which sometimes would be armed. Once it became sort of crisis when a gang of 50 lifters fired at four people in a raid on this side of the divide and killed them as one survived injured and another was kidnapped.

Unlike India, Pakistan, as a matter of policy, does not discourage civilians from being as close to the ‘divide’ as possible. These raids created such a crisis that New Delhi formally requested UNMOGIP to help reduce the civilian trespass. In 1954, UNMOGIP intervention led to a situation that Pakistan Army seized cattle and handed over to them and then Western soldiers shepherded the cattle home to J&K! It was only in 1958 that UNMOGIP agreed to get into this task of investigating civilian trespass. UNMOGIP has recorded instance when it acted on Indian complaints and made Pakistani Army – then led by Yehya Khan, to go for cordon and search operations on the other side to recover cattle or arms.

Deployments near LoC add security drills to the civilian population --Photo: Bilal Bahadur
Deployments near LoC add security drills to the civilian population –Photo: Bilal Bahadur

The case of Sadpora village in Tangdar (Karnah) was very famous for a long time. After the two countries imposed an unseen line and sliced Kashmir, two groups of villagers from the two sides would come and till their respective lands which straddled the LoC. At the harvesting time, they would tend to cross the line and harvest from other side because the land actually belonged to them prior to the division. It created a law and order situation one year as farmers from both sides got their respective police forces. As the battle ensued, J&K Police fired upon on the villagers from other side. India lost that complaint in the UNMOGIP.

Even UNMOGIP that had the mandate of the United National Security Council would get caught in the rivalries sometimes. The first major test for UNMOGIP was in March 1954 when 18 Americans were part of its 44 observers. A ‘non-aligned’ India, then tilted strongly towards USSR, launched a major campaign against the US in the UNMOGIP and since then no American was ever deputed to this mission.

The second major issue was after a new line came into being on December 17, 1971, a few months ahead of Shimla Agreement. India stated that since UNMOGIP was mandated to mange the ceasefire line, LoC being a new phenomenon was beyond its mandate. Immediately afterwards, New Delhi started refusing visa to the UNMOGIP officials but withdrew the idea once it was taken to the UN Security Council by Pakistan. Then, New Delhi said since Kashmir was a bilateral issue, the two armies would be settling issues through flag meetings at their own levels, thus there was no requirement for a third party. Immediately, India restricted the movement of the UNMOGIP and ceased offering any cooperation other than boarding and security. The policy remains unchanged till date.

New Delhi did lobby for winding up UNMOGIP. After extensive informal negotiations at the UN headquarters in 1979, it was decided that UNMOGIP should record any strengthening of defences but not condemn it as a violation. This, independent military historian suggest, weakened UNMOGIP mandate and somehow strengthened New Delhi’s position.

Pakistan’s stand is slightly confused. They are extending every cooperation to the UNMOGIP unlike India. They still think strengthening defences is a violation. But they continue settle issues in flag meetings. The recent “fruitless” meet took place in Poonch at the brigadier level.

These non-Asian soldiers also face real life dangers. As early as May 1960, UNMOGIP had lodged a case against Indian Army for attacking its members on the LoC. As recently as 1998, UNMOGIP had lodged two complaints against Indian Army – fourth in two years, accusing them of attacking their observers when they were touring forward positions from the other side in Keran and Kargil sectors. Brigadier General Sergio Espinoza Davies, then heading the UNMOGIP, probed the incident but nobody knows what his verdict was?

Border is a divider. It could be ad-hoc, invisible, soft, porous, decorated, flood-lit, fenced or fancy. Manned by the humans, it rarely is human.


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