Cattle Rustlers across the LOC Kashmir Part IV of V
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 IV of V
This was the fifth cattle rustling sortie into Indian territory and, I was more careful than usual. There was still the risk from stray mines and, we had to operate among the Indian lines almost right under their gun muzzles. They, too, were all hereditary professionals, from a culture with no real conception of conscription.
Yet, the bigger risk came from ourselves. In the last four sorties we had rustled nine buffaloes. My men were getting smug but Subedar Hayat, a seasoned veteran of two wars, countless patrols and cease-fire violations, looked worried. Surprisingly, not about me, a nineteen year old lieutenant, but the more experienced men. He gritted his teeth, cursed and at this sortie had even given Ditta a paternal smack on the back of his head.
“No worries, Subedar saab,” he had reacted cockily. “Gill saab’s leading us. He’s charmed!”
“Shut up and make sure you’re back for the makhaddihalwa!”
The starry, but moonless night was good for skylining. From a kneeling or lying-loading position any vertical object against a low horizon was easy to spot. So we stayed below our immediate skylines and snaked into the concealing saroot reeds, which were higher than our heads. The sand made our moves noiseless.
We could hear the buffalo breathing and swishing the saroots. Mehram and I crouched to get a better look of anything against the skyline. The cattle were to our left. Ditta and Sudagar were also to our left. The top curve of a crescent shaped bunker showed itself at fifty meters. An Indian sentry was sky-lined on it, and we could sense rather than clearly see that he was straining at observation to our left.
We suddenly realized Ditta and Sudagar were no longer there.
My blood ran cold.
The Indians had obviously heard or sensed something, otherwise the sentry wouldn’t have been exposing himself against the skyline.
There was a loud rustling in the saroots, strong animal grunts, the pawing of a powerful animal and then the pounding of hooves. A snorting buffalo emerged from the saroots to our left and darted across our vision towards the Indian bunker. Oblivious to all else, Allah Ditta was sprinting at the buffalo’s heels, intent on his prey, completely unaware that he was heading straight for the Indian bunker. Armed only with our tent pegs, ropes and bayonets, Mehram and I also started running on the soft track between the saroots in the direction of the bunker.
We broke into the clearing which was the bunker’s field of fire to witness single-minded raw courage.
Ditta, an ace player of kabbadi, the millennial Punjabi contact sport, gave a loud barak battle-cry, sprinted harder and jumped on to the buffalo’s back when it was a few metres short of the bunker. At about the same time, the buffalo stopped short of the bunker’s crescent, lowered its head and sent Ditta fliying head over heels at the foot of the bunker. Before the surprised Indian sentry could react, Ditta rose, seized him by the ankles and hurled him to the ground. The sentry gave a loud shout of surprise just as the buffalo wheeled and ran back, Ditta at its heels.
Mehram and I sank into the sand. A machine gun burst raked the saroots over our heads. Had we been kneeling, a firing position derided in our combat training, we would have been ripped to shreds by 7.62mm rounds.
“Stop firing — it’s me, Chandu Ram!” The Indian sentry screamed in the Haryana dialect.
He rose, gathered his wits about him and recovered his 7.62 mm SLR assault rifle.
“What the hell was all that?” an authoritative voice asked from the bunker.
“Pakistani commando, Ustad jee,” Chandu Ram reported to his two-striper naik. “I’ll check it out.”
“Good! Be careful and don’t hesitate.”
“I won’t, Ustad Jee!” he said with relish as he fixed his bayonet to the muzzle of the rifle.
Mehram and I stayed stock still. The slightest movement or sound would betray us to Chandu Ram. Indistinct sounds from inside the bunker told us he wouldn’t be alone for long. Slightly crouched, Chandu Ram started clearing the saroots by poking them with his bayonet, in a rightwards trajectory to where we were concealed.
Our ears also picked up the faint sounds of weapons being cocked on our side of the LOC, on average 300 meters by crows’ flight. This could turn into a major cease-fire violation but I had no time to manage career challenges while our lives hung by a thread.
Chandu Ram was getting nearer. He was below us and to our right by about three meters, at our 4 o’clock, making bayonet thrusts into the saroots, grunting for a kill. Mehram was to my right. He looked at me. I nodded. We had trained together and needed no words. Mehram rushed Chandu Ram’s knees in a tackle from his 10 o’clock flank. As he fell, I wrested Chandu Ram’s SLR from him, reversed it and smashed the butt in his face. He gave a loud grunt, there was no blood but he was knocked out cold. Must have got him in the forehead. Following my Infantry School training, I reversed the weapon again for a killing bayonet stab in the throat but Mehram’s hand on my arm stayed me. His experienced eyes screamed negative saab! and I understood. He had not wanted to compound our violation by humiliating the Indians with a kill or the loss of a weapon and risk an escalated local reprisal. I dropped the rifle near Chandu Ram and we sprinted out of the trap towards the clearing into which Ditta had disappeared.
It was empty.
Our eyes darted in all directions, ears cocked for any sign of Ditta or Sudagar.
There was a knot in my stomach and for once in my life I was almost at a loss to decide.
Then the saroots moved and Ditta and Sudagar strolled through, each leading a buffalo by a rope as though they were taking their dogs out for a stroll.
It was too late for total silence. The imperative now was to cross back to our lines as quickly as we could. I raised my arm, biceps parallel to the ground, fore-arm vertical, fist clenched, and pumped my forearm up and down in the field signal for double up. We started running for the river on soft sand, eyes and ears alert. Behind us, the torches were out, there were shouts and curses. If the Indians opened fire and it reached our lines, my men would open up. They were on the alert to give us covering fire, but unless they could pinpoint our location, they couldn’t do that. That was why they hadn’t replied to the burst of machine gun fire.
Two Verey light flare guns blasted and the sky above our heads lightened. We were at the river and plunged in, Ditta and Sudagar leading.
The Indians didn’t open up. They had a wise commander.
This time Subedar Hayat’s face was grim, his eyes reproving. “I think we’ve made our point, Saab, from Islamabad to Delhi. Halwa time now,” he growled as he wrapped the blanket around me.
My men were at their weapons, squinting over their gun barrels at the local alert opposite, grinning with anticipation at a scrap.
The makhaddi halwa, oozing desi ghee, was particularly good.