Preamble. LOC Kashmir will offer autobiographical short fiction in one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints, the 740 kilometer Line of Control dividing the Pakistani and Indian parts of Kashmir. Approximately 500,000 Indian and 300,000 Pakistani armed and battle-hardened troops face each other across their gun-sights. Both sides indulge in infiltration and aggressive patrolling. Exchanges of fire occur with regular frequency. This is where and how I spent my late teens, as a young officer in the wake of the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War, before having to enlist in the French Foreign Legion. I wish to see peace in beautiful Kashmir during my lifetime, even though I am not very hopeful.
Cattle Rustlers across the LOC Kashmir
Part III of V
Chamb sector facing the Line of Control in Kashmir is a three-hour drive southeast of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. In the years following the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war, the officer’s mess of the Punjab Regiment battalion was headquartered in the bombed out police station of Chamb town, captured and retained by the Pakistanis in the 1971 war. Partial roofs were completed by tarpaulin over shell-pocked walls, blown out doors and windows. Offices, kitchen, staff officer’s quarters and the mess cohabited without complaint.
I had spent dinner in silence.
“Its okay, Gill. Soldiers are meant to follow orders,” the Colonel said, which only made it worse.
“Young man,” Major Waraich lisped. “Your men followed your orders. Then you followed the orders of the Brigade Commander.”
“Have another meat boti, Gill badshah,” the Quartermaster urged, his close-set eyes glowing.
“Thank you sir, no problem sir!” I replied equally to all the sincere and insincere condolences, seething inwardly over having to return the Indian buffalo I had unthinkingly ordered my men to retrieve.
Then one by one they all yawned their way off the steel folding chairs and left.
I sat there for a while in silence, then looked at my watch and lit a cigarette, waiting.
The three-striper havaldar who ran the mess stamped his foot at the salute and broke into my thoughts.
“Havaldar Mehram just rang, sahib. He says they’re ready and waiting.”
His hand rose in the salute. “Good luck, and be careful, Saab!” he said.
I smiled and nodded — no secrets in a bloody infantry unit!
In shorts and a tee shirt, I was at the crossing point thirty minutes later, a surplus M-1 bayonet and two grenades in my belt, a small pouch and a tent picket in my hand.
Three shadows emerged from the saroot reeds. They assumed shape in a moonless night under sporadic clouds. The water in the Tawi shimmered dully.
Havaldar Mehram, one-striper Lance Naik Sudagar and Jawan Allah Ditta, in shorts, dark tee shirts, ropes across their chests, bayonets and grenades in their belts and tent pickets in their hands. Their eyes shone.
“Make sure you walk behind me, stepping into my footsteps.”
It was 02H00. The silence ensconced sentries on both sides. They were awake and alert, muzzles pointed at each other. Especially my company, which knew what was going down. At the slightest suspicion, safety catches would slide to the off position, and on orders, deadly 7.62mm rounds and 60mm mortar bombs would rake and explode the saroot cane stalks.
I sank into the lying loading position behind the saroot reeds.
My men followed.
Soundlessly, we crawled slowly down the embankment. Since we carried no firearms, there was no point leapfrogging for a fire and move sequence. But movement was very slow. Inch by inch, with pauses to listen. However soundless your own move for another, you may be overwhelmed by your own imperceptible sounds. Respiration, heartbeat or a breath of air stirred by a moving limb can overwhelm your own hearing.
The undulations in the terrain might have appeared flat, but to the trained eye they were a series of dead ground providing concealment and cover. Tiny waves lapped the pebble beach. At the water line we paused, listening, observing and studying in a single, silent line, our silhouettes too low to be made out by the Indians. I turned back and got a thumbs-up from Mehram. Sliding into the icy cold water with my head just above the surface I had to start fighting the current and the numbing cold of the Himalayan stream. But there was no ripple, no rustle and no skyline break.
We crawled out of the ice-cold water on to the opposite bank, clothes wet. The breeze rustling through the high saroot reeds and over our wet clothing was numbing, but welcome. It would also mask any sound we might make. In absolute terms, the silent approach is only possible in fiction. Otherwise it is silent only in relation to the adversary’s ability to pick it up.
We lay like crocodiles waiting for their unwary prey. We were now in Indian Territory, without passport or visas, on my personal initiative. On their soil, violating their sovereignty. Shooting us dead would be justifiable homicide, at the least, though my men would have replied in force.
This was the flood bank. The sandy channels between the reeds were our allies, and the Indian sentries sky-lined on top of their crescent shaped concrete bunkers were hereditary, professional warriors. Like us. Yet, between the undulating channels and high saroot reeds there was dead ground to be exploited with patience and skill.
But before that there was the minefield to be crossed.
Even a fake minefield can delay, disorganize and hinder the enemy from using an area or route. It also has the advantage that the side laying a fake minefield can always go through it. This one was different. Just after the 1971 war, some cattle and careless or unlucky soldiers had been injured. For the past few months, the freely grazing cattle within it had not caused a single mine to explode. Over time, persistently inclement weather causes even the best-laid mines to drift or become inoperative. But the possibility could never be erased unless a marked minefield passage had been cleared.
Fifty meters ahead of us, the minefield hungrily brooded behind its rusty barbed wire strung on oddly-leaning wooden posts. Just short of it, the reedy saroot clumps rose above head height. We quietly listened but there was no sound alien to the environment. I started crawling forward while the others waited on the beach.
Inch by inch, I covered the fifty meters. From the lying-loading position I probed the posts. They were suitably wobbly. I signaled and then Havaldar Mehram crawled to my side. We both knew what to do. We raised two fence-posts about ten inches and rolled them aside to form a meter and a half gap. Then we crawled forward into one of the sandy undulations until we reached the saroots. Being higher than us, we would be able to walk upright on the soft sand. I stood up and signaled.
Then Lance Naik Sudagar and Jawan Allah Ditta joined us, teeth smiling in the dark. I gave each one his share of alfalfa from the pouch in my belt. We crushed it in our hands and rubbed it over our palms. Hoping to catch the sound of buffalos breathing, we cocked our ears. Then Allah Ditta sniffed. He had caught the smell in his nostrils, and then we did too. I signaled, and Sudagar and Allah Ditta moved into the flanks while Mehram and I went ahead. Two turns and the buffalo stumbled up, snorting.
Before the animal could come to full wakefulness, Ditta and Sudagar had secured their nooses around its horns from either side. Mehram and I went up and stroked the buffalo and let it smell the fodder on our palms. It followed us meekly until the edge of the saroot line. A patrol is most vulnerable during exfiltration and we were doubly careful. The buffalo being untrained in fieldcraft, there was no real stealth option. Allah Ditta and Sudagar walked the buffalo across, hunched next to it, molded to its rounded silhouette. Once they were across, Mehram and I folded the fence back in place, crawled to the beach, went back into the water and crawled back up the embankment.
Subedar (warrant officer) Khizar Hayat stood stone-faced behind the first bend, blanket held out to wrap around me. Three other soldiers did the same for Ditta, Sudagar and Mehram and another two took charge of the buffalo. The track back to my bunker ran parallel with the front line posts. I could feel my men’s fierce looks. I felt no fear, no cold, no pride, no arrogance. Just the relief of a job well done.
Subedar Hayat led us to the company cookhouse a few hundred meters behind the lines. This time, the salutes from the men were different although there was anxiety behind their eyes. I understood.
“Saab?” I addressed Hayat — even the Presidents of Pakistan and India address Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) as saab.
“Slaughter the buffalo now. Cut it up, distribute the meat to all the company cookhouses. Send the liver and kidneys to the officer’s mess.”
There was a second of silence. Then grizzled smiles split the night. They understood. You can’t return a dead buffalo and once the officers had smacked their lips over a spicy, masaalaedaar liver and kidney balti, they would be in no position to complain.
“And the skin, saab?” Havildar Shahnawaz wanted to know.
“You’re in charge. Clean it, salt it and then take it to Sialkot and sell it. The money goes into the company fund.”
There was a general smartening up and we got down to the serious business of consuming semolina makhadi halwa made with ghee and dried fruit, washed down with hot cardamom tea.
It was a fine night.
Wait for Part IV