Indian Army

Cattle Rustlers across the LOC Kashmir – BLOWBACK: Part V 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.

Kashmir

Cattle Rustlers across the LOC Kashmir – BLOWBACK:  Part V of V

The Indian General Officer Commanding (GOC) had got onto the hotline with my GOC, commanding the 23rd Division of World War II fame, carrying battle honors such as Imphal and Operation Zipper, upheld in the 1965 and 1971 Indo-Pakistan wars. Within the hour, we were on stand-down while I waited for the inevitable rocket to be fired up my backside. Nothing happened for a week — not a word from my Regimental Commanding Officer (CO). My men were proud, but worried for me. It was evident in their eyes. I braved it out until I was called to the CO’s office.
“Gill, I have to convey the GOC’s extreme displeasure.”
“Sir!”
“Although understandable, your decision was reckless and foolhardy!”
“Sir — but I would like to express my disagreement with this judgment.”
 “I put my ass on the line to save your Commission. Now shut up and don’t offer your opinion.” He growled with a gleam in his eyes. “You are being sent to the Army School of Physical Training for an Officer’s PT Course.”
“Sir!”
The Army School of Physical Training (ASPT) was a career-enhancing opportunity for a noncommissioned officer (NCO). After completing his contract, he could find a job as a fitness coach in a school. It was a dead end for commissioned officers. They were sent there when career-friendly courses were considered to be too challenging, or they were in disfavor with their superiors.
My men didn’t know that and thought it was a big deal.
And they were pleased as pie.
They had been gorging on buffalo meat for weeks. The company fund had swelled from the sale of the skins and I had already spent it on something they’d been hankering after. When they visited older units, they were served their meals in the troops’ langar mess on crockery embossed with the regimental crest. Our unit’s battalion fund or company funds couldn’t afford that luxury and they felt a mite deprived. Now, when my men’s guests and cousins from other units dropped by in the company langar, they would eat off spanking Pakpur crockery, shiny cutlery and drink from glittering glasses. We could have bought an embossed set but that would have sparked unhealthy inter-company rivalry and put the other unit officers on the spot. There were already a few unsavory mutterings.
Siddique, my batman orderly was worried.
“Saab, at the PT School, while the officers are training, their batmen are put on fatigue duties.”
I grunted. “I’ll think of something.”
He brightened up. He had faith in me.
Soldiers of all ranks require a movement order to go from one unit to another. I asked the head clerk for two blank copies of Siddique’s movement order.  His eyebrows went up imperceptibly but he complied. Usually it was filled out for an officer’s signature. On the office copy, his rank was sipahi, or private. On the outgoing copy, I filled in his rank as Lance Naik, or Lance Corporal. The Head Clerk’s eyes twinkled as he stamped both copies.
Gill Saab!” he sighed with heavy emphasis.
Siddique was delighted, bought himself a Lance Naik’s stripe and had his picture taken.
A hundred and ten kilometers north of Islamabad, the ASPT, Kakul, is nestled amidst the Sarban hills of Abbotabad. The officer instructors teach theory and supervise the physical training dispensed by NCOs and Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) on the PT ground. It is a very tough course. Before we saw a single officer, we were made to fall in by the grim-faced senior JCO Instructor backed by his full complement of NCO instructors.
They eyed us like hungry sharks.
“I am Subedar Sharbat Khan,” the JCO roared in his Raanghardh accent. “Your Chief JCO instructor. My instructors and I have respect but no pity, no sympathy. We do not run a hospital or a Recuperative Care Center.
“We will not salute you, but come to shun. You will not salute us, but come to shun. Clear?”
“Yes Saab!” we roared back.
“You will address NCO instructors as staff and JCO instructors as Saab. They will address you as Sir or Saab.
“We know the human body better than any doctor. We know where to give you pain. We will give you pain. There are two chains over the squat toilets — one for flushing. The other one to help you stand up in the first week. If any Saab can stand up in the first week without using this chain, report it to us so we can put our belts on the CO Saab’s table!”  Putting the belt on the CO’s table is an NCO’s or JCO’s way of offering his resignation.
Needless to say, that didn’t happen in the first week, after which I decided that there was no point getting jittery over a career-dead course and started taking it easy. I took no notes in class and was laid-back on the PT ground. Siddique, as a Lance Naik, was enjoying commanding fatigue parties all day long.
Captain Zaidi bhai had a motorbike but at the end of the day just dropped off to sleep. He was generous.
So, most evenings my buddy Captain Manzar and I would borrow Zaidi bhai’s bike and putt-putt to the Abbottabad Officer’s Club to sip a few vodkas in a picturesque colonial setting —polished wood, glistening marble, trophy-hung walls, turbaned and liveried waiters. We would then toddle over to Abbottabad High Street for bespoke lamb balti and sing mahyaas all the way back to the ASPT.
My punishment for cattle rustling was a pleasant time of much sweat, tiredness, fresh mountain air, vodka and stir-fried lamb in the company of carefree professional warriors in search of excellence.
End V of V.
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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.

Kashmir

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 makhaddi halwa!”

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.

 Another fine night on the Line of Control.

Wait for Part V — blowback

Cattle Rustlers across the LOC Kashmir Part III 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.

Kashmir

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.”

“Okay.”

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.”

“Yes Saab.”

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.

“Jee 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.”

“Jee Saab!”

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

 

Cattle Rustlers across the LOC Kashmir Part II 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.

Kashmir

Cattle Rustlers across the LOC Kashmir

Part II of V

The powerfully muscled Gurkha two-striper naik nimbly took a signed receipt from his officer, saluted him smartly, about-turned and, unruffled by Pakistani gun muzzles trained on him, walked unhesitatingly across the pebble beach to enter the shallow but fast-flowing river Tawi.

At the same time, I lithely walked down the stony path under the sights of the camouflaged Indian rifle company’s weapons. I could feel Indian and Pakistani warriors’ eyes boring into me as I, too, stepped into the ice-cold current of the Tawi. Total focus and sheer pride kept my balance over the treacherously slippery pebbles of the river bed. I could feel the current grabbing at my already numb ankles.

And it was the same for the Gurkha naik.

We came face to face accurately in the middle of the Tawi, an unrehearsed approach perfectly timed by the same instincts of professional pride.

We stopped.

The Gurkha’s raised his knee bringing his thigh parallel with the water. Then he stamped his foot down as though he was standing on a level parade ground in Dharamsala. A spray of water shot up in the form of an inverted triangle, masking us from each other and glistening like a supernatural omen. His right hand slapped the Sterling 9mm sten gun over his left shoulder in a sharp crack that reached the Pakistani lines.

Totally focused, I replied with a parade ground full stamp and return salute worthy of Subedar Major Asfar Khan’s approval at the Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul.

“Namaskar, Saab!” he welcomed me in his gravelly voice through the second shot of spray in his face, slitted veteran’s eyes boring into mine.

“Salaam aleikum, Ustaad!”

He smiled at my use of the customary Indo-Pakistani form of address for a naik which meant teacher, and stuck his large-sized hand out.

His grip was neutral. I was outmatched in musculature. He had the strength to crush my hand and the skill and experience to gently misbalance me. My troops were watching. But he didn’t start any rangbazi one-upmanship. He was a gentleman and I owe him one.

“How’s it going, saab?”

“Very well. And you — are you happy in the Indian army?”

He chuckled. “Yes, saab.”

“You’re a Nepali citizen. Why don’t you come fight for us?”

“No problem, saab. When I finish my contract with India and if you pay me more!”

I laughed. “What’s your salary?”

“Twelve hundred rupees, saab.”

He was lying and we both knew it. That was the salary of a second lieutenant, if at all!

“That’s great. You should have a lot of fun with that!”

He grinned cheekily and then in a pounding of hoofs and a screen of gravel Jawan Allah Ditta skittered down the embankment with the snorting buffalo for me to swap for a signed receipt. Another exchange of salutes from behind water jets and the unnamed Gurkha and I returned to our opposing worlds.

I walked back up the embankment through a wedding cake of total silence.

Wait for Part III

Cattle Rustlers across the LOC Kashmir Part I 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 I of V

To command a Rifle Company of the Punjab Regiment when you are not yet nineteen is a thrilling challenge. Commanding it in the field enhances the experience. On the Line of Control in Kashmir, a world hot-spot, it is unique.

In the 70’s, Pakistan army units were deployed opposite the Indian army in underground earthen bunkers, linked by open crawl trenches ankle-deep in slush after a rainfall. When cobras or Russell’s vipers fell into them, they had to be killed or tolerated in these confined spaces. The nearest Indian and Pakistani machine gun posts in the Chamb sector were 50 meters apart, the farthest 300. Our machine guns pointed at each other, ready to open up on orders. Both armies still have observation towers manned by armed soldiers equipped with binoculars and clipboards to spot and report enemy movement for analyses. On the slightest pretext, a cease-fire violation can stain the earth with blood. It is ugly trench warfare, with the only recreation being improvised sport. Boredom can lead to stagnation and affect performance levels.

Which is why every day, one to two-thirds of a company is withdrawn a few hundred meters to the rear for training, education and firing.

Young officers were hardest hit.

I would run and do Battle PT with my men, supervise and take part in tactical training and then walk two miles to the battalion headquarters, sten gun over my shoulder, magazines in their pouches, grenades and a combat dagger in my belt.  After doing my company’s man management paper work, I’d have lunch in the makeshift officer’s mess in a bombed out building and then walk back to my own bunker. Then I’d check over the sentries and either do afternoon sport with my company or walk three miles back to battalion headquarters for collective sport, then walk back again to have a bucket shower under a thorny kikar tree. After ensuring that the troops’ dinner was well cooked and distributed I had to walk back to the mess for dinner, then walk back. There were minefields everywhere and barbed wire was no guarantee against a mine sliding onto a cleared track after a rain. Coming back at night, I had to be alert against an ambush by an Indian patrol.

And every night, I got up at odd hours to check that the sentries were alert.

And if life was hard for me it was hard for all of us.

For example, there were no water points in Chamb. A towed water trailer brought potable water which had to be rationed for personal hygiene.

Which is why the Pakistan Army maintained the British habit of holding regular platoon, company and battalion durbars. Without having to seek his commander’s interview through ‘proper channels’, a soldier can just stand up, state his name, rank and number and announce his problem, which has to be summarily dealt with — a challenge at any age or rank but more so to a nineteen year old. By being a company commander I was supposed to be mother-father to nearly a hundred and fifty warriors, Muslim to a man and if I did my job they would ignore the fact that I was a heathen Christian and follow me into hell.

I was determined not to fail my men.

“2280224 Sipahi Pir Bakhsh Saab!” — From Pind Dadan Khan, he was a good wrestler and known for his honesty.

“Yes?”

“Saab, it’s a sin to have a wet dream and not wash right way. And there’s no water for a shower. What are we supposed to do when we have one in the middle of the night?”

Nearly a hundred pairs of eyes were locked on to me.

I thought on my feet. “How do you perform your ablutions before nimaaz prayers in the desert when there’s no water?”

“We are allowed to make the motions of washing and thus absolved, saab.”

I smiled smugly in the silence, then suddenly my men started smiling and clapping.

“2198651 Kudrutullah Saab!” — a two striper from Attock, he was a boxer known for his ready wit.

“Yes, Ustaad!” I used a corporal’s customary form of address, which means teacher, since that rank dispenses basic training in the Pakistan Army.

“Saab, many of our minefields and those of the Indians between our lines have been washed away.  Cattle wander through them safely. If they cross over to our side, what do we do?”

I was buoyed with my success at the preceding reply and completely unaware of its consequences.

“Grab them!

And that is exactly what they did.

 

That fateful and decisive morning, leaving, as usual, one third of my company to man the trenches, I had taken the rest of my men for firing practice. The firing results were good and we were in high spirits when we passed the company cookhouse at the time when I would have stopped anyway to taste that day’s lunch.

But there was something different that day.

A handful of Non Commissioned Officers (NCOs) and men were standing outside the cookhouse where the cook and his assistants usually lounged. They looked sullen. The “hoshyar” bringing them to shun was a battle cry. Their eyes smoldered at the salute.

“What’s up?” I snapped.

“Saab, following your orders, we grabbed a buffalo that had wandered into our territory. The Indians did a noisy lock and load and so did we. They then got through on the Generals’ hot line and now the Captaan Saahib from Brigade Headquarters is here. Said as soon as you got back, the buffalo would be returned.  He’s waiting at the front line for you. We obeyed your orders, saab.”

“Good!”

I strode off to the front line, only three hundred meters away and into an unforgettable scene.

 

The river Tawi flowed all of nearly a hundred meters wide with a medium current over a pebble bed. The sand and pebble beaches and flood channels rose to an escarpment on the Pakistani side, giving them the advantage of high ground.

Opposite, the Indians benefited from the concealment offered by the high rising reeds and dips in the sandy flood channels. Within this natural camouflage, they had spent a fortune in cover by building crescent shaped concrete bunkers, like tiaras, sloping down from the middle to either end. Standing on top, a sentry could see over the reeds, but otherwise the field of fire had very limited range. On the other hand, the intensity of fire at short range is devastating. In addition to the odd sentry sky-lining himself, the Indians relied on patrols and the bluff of minefields even when partially defunct.

On the beach below our positions on the escarpment facing the Indians, two of my men held a buffalo on a leash. All my men were on lock and load, itching for a fight. On the opposite bank, an Indian major and a muscular Gurkha two-striper naik coolly stood facing us, unperturbed by our muzzles trained on them.

I reached Captain Khalid Mujeeb standing on the escarpment like Thomas Hardy’s two handled mug and prayed the Indians would not notice his wimpiness. He was the General Staff Officer Grade III (GSO or G-3) which made him the Brigade headquarters de facto factotum. I gave him an angry salute.

He licked his lips. “Sorry, Gill badshah, Brigade Commander’s orders. Indians got on the hot line.”

“Sir!” I didn’t trust myself to say more.

“Brigade Commander desires that you be the one to return it.” I fought my annoyance at army English and its mixed up definite and indefinite articles.

“Right sir, I’ll get down to it.”

“Get receipt and leave your weapon here,” he sniffed.

“Am I under open arrest? Do you want my belt too?”

“No, Gill Badshah, I mean what if fight started.”

“In that case,” I said pityingly. “They’ll be unarmed and I’ll have nothing.”

“Okay, but stay cool, partner.”

Thinking it best not to reply, I walked down to the beach.

I was only about fifty meters from the two Indians.

I came to shun and saluted the Indian officer.

He returned the compliment with a smile.

“If the receipt’s ready, sir, we can meet midway.”

 

Wait for Part II

Tea and Halwa ‘till the Next Round!

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.

See original image

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Tea and Halwa ‘till the Next Round!

It was late and only two officers remained at the folding metal mess table. They were humming to the faint sounds of the regimental song Badlu Ram ka jisam zameen ka neecha hai, aur hamko uska ration milta hai, drifting in from the men’s bunkers. The field mess of the Assam Rifles battalion deployed on the Kashmir Line of Control (LOC) facing the Pakistan army was a large underground bunker about eight hundred meters behind the front line.

Major Manjit Singh Chander, holder of the second highest gallantry award, the Maha Vir Chakra, yawned. His Company Officer, Second Lieutenant Albert Bajwa, fresh out of the Indian Military Academy, snorted. “Sick of this shitty meat, sir,” he retorted. “But there’s nothing to be done except survive on scrawny local goats.”

“Don’t ever say that, young man. There’s always something to be done.”

Albert nodded. That attitude had earned his Company Commander a Maha Vir Chakra.

“So what should we do sir? Go on patrol and nick a couple of chickens from a farm?”

Major Manjit Singh stood up and snapped his fingers. “You got it! Fresh meat. There’s plenty around without raiding farms!”

“Oh yes, sir! There’s game but with our 7.62mm SLR assault rifles there won’t be anything left of a partridge!”

Ohé k’hughoo k’hordhé — hobby horse — I’ve got a shotgun!”

Albert’s eyes glinted.

“So tomorrow, 06H00, after stand-to, in front of my bunker.”

“Shouldn’t we inform the Pakistanis, sir?”

“No problem — they can tell the difference between the sound of a shotgun and an assault rifle!”

“What if we drift into their area?”

“Why the hell should we?”

Both Indian and Pakistani army la’angree cooks served the same breakfast of hot, sweet, milky tea, deep-fried puris and semolina halwa or chick-peas. By the end of the morning stand-to on the LOC, jeeps snarling on high revs rushed breakfast containers to the platoon headquarters where a jawan from each rifle section brought them through the crawl trenches to the bunkers.

That morning the Pakistani puris had been especially delicious, with halwa to match.

Due to the layout of the terrain, two-striper naik Ilam Din, Punjab Regiment, Pakistan Army and his two jawans, Karam Ali and Ghuncha Khan were in a bunker well forward of the line of deployment. It allowed the platoon to cover most of the dead ground in front although the rest of it sloped into Indian territory. After a clear field of fire of fifty metres their combat vision had to contend with man-high reeds on sandy soil. Which meant hard to see and hear. So they had to be alert at all times. It was thus.

Ohé chughad, you’re writing poetry again?” Naik Ilam Din asked with a playful slap behind Ghuncha Khan’s head.

“No Ustad Jee”, he replied, using the respectful ‘teacher sir’ form of address used for a two-striper. “I’m writing to my uncle. Look!” He ducked a second slap.

Naik Ilam Din couldn’t read.

“So what’re you saying to him?”

Ghuncha Khan grinned wickedly.

“That I’m in the best rifle section of the Punjab Regiment and commanded by its best naik —”

Ustad-jee!” Karam Ali’s urgent whisper from behind the MG-1A3 7.62 machine gun arrested Naik Ilam Din’s raised hand.

Ilam Din turned his head and Ghuncha Khan put his writing pad down, picked his G-3 7.6mm assault rifle and sighted along the barrel, index finger outside the trigger guard, thumb over the safety catch. Ilam Din cranked the handle of the field telephone and spoke in a rapid whisper.

The partridge were sprightly that morning and Major Manjit Singh a perfectionist. He wanted them from where he could get a decent shot. But they decided to move tantalizingly in short hops — birds do have their little ways. 2/Lt Albert Bajwa walked a little to his left, his 9mm Sterling sub machine gun slung casually over his right shoulder.  The worlds of both officers had shrunk to the sight of hopping partridges.

They ignored the gentle rustle in the reeds but stopped dead in their tracks at the harsh command of “Rukk – hath uppar – ta’ali bajao” — halt, hands up, clap your hands. The last to ensure against a clutched grenade, pin out, ready to be thrown.

Both officers stood deathly still, then slowly turned left.

Naik Ilam Din and Ghuncha Khan had sprung up from the reeds, their G-3 rifles rock steady, bayonets fixed, fingers on the triggers, first pull-off, eyes professionally focused.

Albert’s glance went to his superior, ready to unsling his Sterling and blaze away. A casual gesture from Major Manjit Singh stayed his resolve.

“We are officers! We were just hunting.”

“I can see that Sahib! And welcome to Pakistan!” Ilam Din added cheekily.

“Is this how you treat an officer?”

A Junior Warrant Officer suddenly loomed into everybody’s vision, though out of his men’s line of fire.

“No, like this, Sahib!” he declared with a parade-ground smart salute.

Both Indian officers replied in the same manner.

“Naib Subedar Ashiq Bajwa, Punjab Regiment, Pakistan Army!” he said, moustache and voice bristling.

“Major Manjit Singh and 2/Lt Albert Bajwa, Assam Rifles!”

The hard planes of Ashiq Bajwa’s features cracked open into a smile, teeth shining whitely. A low, rumble rose from the bottom of his belly, became a chuckle and exploded as laughter. His men were expressionless, eyes on the intruders, fingers steady. The Indian officers grinned.

“What’s funny, Sahib?” Albert asked. Regardless of rank, Indian and Pakistani officers and troops alike address a warrant officer as Sahib.

“Two Bajwa Jatts, on opposite sides, respecting our contracts. But what’s funnier is —” and he paused for a loud giggle — “that young officers of the Indian army are as foolhardy as our own — good news for the next war!”

This time they all broke into laughter even though Ghuncha and Ilam Din’s gun barrels remained rock steady.

“I reported to our Adjutant Sahib. He says to turn you back!”

“Good decision. Thank you,” Manjit Singh said.

“But I’m not going to. I have a condition.”

Both Indians were suddenly back on their guard.

“You come with me, have our tea and halwa and then go.”

“Otherwise?”

“My men will cut you down.” His eyes were pitiless.

The Indian officers exchanged looks and nodded.

“Well then, halwa and tea win, Sahib! You and your adjutant are gracious.”

The smiles were back.

“God in His majesty, Sahib. Come. Time for tea and halwa. Then go back and prepare for the next round.”

Sexually Repressed Military Police: LOC 1973

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.

http://www.google.fr/imgres?imgurl=http%3A%2F%2Fabuabdulsamadz.com%2Fwp-

Leaving over two hundred thousand rupees of the battalion’s monthly payroll in the care of my three-striper havildar and two privates, I strode light-heartedly down the bazaar in Gujrat, Pakistan’s 18th largest city with a population the size of Houston packed into Pasadena, 173km southeast of Islamabad, between the rivers Jhelum and Chenab. Gujrat was one of the transit points for getting to the Line of Control between Pakistani and Indian troops deployed in Kashmir.  It took an hour’s drive on a pot-holed dirt road, visibility obscured by khaki dust kicked up by a vehicle’s passage.

That day, and at that time in Gujrat, I wasn’t thinking of the dust cloud. I had had something better to think of.

The paper bag filled with just-bought Old Spice after shave and deodorant would please Dolly nicely, I thought. Not old Eden Roc from Mirpur, that backwater 97 kilometers north-west of Gujrat, known as Little England from where much of its population, displaced by the Mangla Dam (9th  largest in the world), had migrated to Britain so that the poor Brits could lay off their boiled-to-hell three-veg and overcooked meat for the pleasures of sizzling Balti gosht and heavenly table nan, leaving nothing behind in Mirpur for a young warrior to slake his desires.

I only went to Mirpur because I had to. That’s where the State Bank of Pakistan and the Pakistan Army, in their uncontested wisdom, had decided that my battalion should receive the monthly payroll. So I had been ordered to go there in an open jeep with an escort of a three-striper havildar and two privates to draw out the battalion’s payroll in cash. Pakistan Army troops liked their salary up front, handed out by their officers in command. Besides which, they didn’t have bank accounts either. Not many Pakistanis did, in those days, without a recommendation from some sort of a self-inflated VIP!

The armed escort was not to protect against bandits – I alone could have handled that, though looking at me one might be skeptical of that disability. Those battle-tested warriors accompanied me to ensure against the Indians ambushing a pay party on the back tracks. On occasions — typically to pay off a high-level informant — the intelligence services of both countries decided that they needed their enemy’s ‘real’ rather than the usual counterfeit currency with which they financed their clandestine operations. Natural law being unjust to the weak, it was usually a keen young Lieutenant who had the honor of either leading an ambush party or being the victim of one.

Life.

But in Gujrat, as on the metalled roads cutting through fields devoid of cover or broken ground, there was no risk of ambush. So I could leave the jeep and nip into the bazaar, which is what I did.

I breathed deeply and enviously — being assailed from either flank by the sensory explosion of centuries old spices from tantalizing pyramids of palaas and biryaanees in paraat dishes and a variety of hard-coal grilled meat – tikkas, tikkies, and those indecently enticing seekh kebabs! The gestures of moustached kareegar chefsand their assistant shagirds danced in my peripheral vision — glowing coals releasing primeval impulses. Gritting my teeth, I rained silent curses on my gastronomically illiterate Batallion Commanding Officer who’s competence stopped at the mess entrance but authority continued unabated. Having whipped our unit into shape, he was convinced that it was in the best interests of his officers to eat blander than the British: chillies, spices and ghee were considered more lethal than the Indian army! My mommy was upset for me.

And then another scene loomed in my vision, jerking me back to the harsh reality of border duty. At the chownk crossing, my three-striper havildar was standing to shun outside the jeep getting a rocket from a Military Police (MP) Major. The two jawans guarded the monthly pay in the jeep, eyes stroking the Major, waiting for orders to cut him down if necessary. I inserted myself in the Major’s vision, came to shun, gave him my smartest salute, and introduced myself in English.

He turned his full glare on me.

“Who the hell are you? Where’s your rank? I’ll arrest you for impersonation!”

“Sir, I took my pips off to go to the bazaar. Can’t buy Old Spice in Chamb sector! And Dolly likes it!”

“Don’t be cheeky and irrelevant! You took your pips off to visit a bloody brothel! And left your battalion’s payroll unattended in the jeep. ****ing negligence!”

“Sir, we’ve been taught that walking around in a bazaar displaying rank cheapens it! We’re also trained to trust our men. And they’re worth it!”

We stared at each other, neither of us backing down.

The Major drove off with his two MP stooges, promising retribution.

The sexually repressed MP Officer was from Corps Headquarters, Kharian, and sent a report about the incident to my anti-chillies-masala-ghee Commanding Officer (CO). Returning to the unit, I had immediately reported the incident to him. He fired a short verbal rocket up my what’s-it, then a long interrogatory one that left me twitching. However, in reply to the MP’s charge, he wrote that having full confidence in my integrity he was certain I had not sneaked off to a brothel to slake my lust.

Had the MP Major kept his nose out of my sex life, the CO might have put me on adverse report, or at least demanded a written explanation.

The major and my CO, whose sterling leadership qualities fizzled out in the officer’s mess, both got their comeuppance.

It was rumored later that the major had been caught in flagrante delicto with a lady of pleasure while his wife was having labor pains. Imagine. And eventually, the CO of unchallenged professional integrity, was weaned off his gastronomical perversions by a busty mistress who made superb — but absolutely superb — lamb korma and potato parathas.

LOC Kashmir – General Shuhrat the Slayer

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.

http://www.google.fr/imgres?imgurl=http%3A%2F%2Fabuabdulsamadz.com%2Fwp-

General Shuhrat the Slayer

Just as I emerged from the tomb into the sunlight, the one-star general commanding our Brigade was standing in my path like a two-handled mug, swagger stick dandily clutched in his right hand. Passing by in his jeep he had not failed to notice soldiers going in and coming out of the Sufi Saint’s tomb. He now wanted to give the officer responsible a dusting.

I gave him my smartest salute with the PMA Haider One flick, something I used to be known for.

He was of medium height, wheat-complexioned with a stocky body under a rocky face. One of his ancestors must have been an Uzbek, I thought behind my expressionless stare as I silently christened him Shuhrat the Slayer.

He looked me up and down.

“Follow me!”

We were now under the shade of a sukh-chaen peace and happiness tree to the side of the entrance. A little brook gurgled in the background. The setting was an appropriate balance to the rocket that would be fired up my behind.

“You’re on a route march, not a tourist trip. Your men are illiterate Muslims who need to be discouraged from saint-worship type practices. Yet, you, a Christian officer, are encouraging it. More, you’re leading it. Explain.”

Shuhrat the Slayer’s voice was tempered steel, eyes carved from marble.

“Sir, we Christians love Mian Mohammed for his t’ha dé masjid t’ha dé mandir. And if I participate in a ritual with my troops, it will strengthen my leadership and raise their morale. The old Brit officers used to do things like this.”

“Hmm, “ the Slayer grunted. “Your route march was supposed to be four hours, finishing time 12 hundred hours. Finishing time now is 1130 hours. Double up to the finish line, Lieutenant!”

“Sir!”

I came to the salute.

Shuhrat the Slayer replied, turned around, whacked his thigh with his swagger stick and hopped into his open topped jeep. At a nod, the driver gunned it, sprayed grit and they disappeared in a cloud of dust looking, no doubt, for other prey.

Mian Muhammad Bakhsh, the Sufi author of Saif-ul-Maluk is buried near Mirpur, in the northwestern foothills of Kashmir in Pakistan. His tomb is near enough to the Line of Control to give civilians a shiver, yet far enough from this front line to allow the Pakistan army to retrieve about a third of a rifle company’s strength from the trenches for continuous training.

Accordingly, back in 1973/74, I was taking my troops on an endurance route march, a welcome break from the sight of gun-toting Indian warriors on the other side of the LOC. While enjoying the view of the countryside, thoughts of Dolly intersected visions of mouth-watering makhadi halwa semolina desert and cardamom laced tea waiting at the finish.

Eyes fighting sweat-drops, glands exuding feline odor, we rounded a bend of the tree-lined back road straight into dazzling sunlight that overwhelmed my vision. It was reflected off the marble walls of a domed structure.  A shrine, I could tell and couldn’t keep my eyes off it. I might have ended up with a crick in my neck except for Subedar (Warrant Officer) Mohammed Khan, from Sargodha. Luxurious moustache twitching, he said: “Saab, that’s Mian Muhammed Baksh’s mazaar “.

He had an expectant look on his face, mirroring my own. The Sufi’s reprise of Baba Bulleh Shah’s original “t’ha dé masjid t’ha dé mandir” started buzzing in the tiny muscle between my ears:

Smash down a mosque

Smash down a temple

But break not the heart of man

For God resides in there: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rYMw4BbSCSg

Like other Punjabi Christians, I too read this segment of Sufi enlightenment as inspired by 1 Corinthians 6:19 in the Holy Bible. My heart and step quickened and I went in with my men on a quick rota system.

Which is what Shuhrat the Slayer had seen.

Although he had the tact to fire his rocket out of the hearing of my men, in English and without a single insulting discharge, I still felt a slight tingling where I shouldn’t have.

As my one-mum’s good little Christian boy, I confessed all to the Lieutenant Colonel commanding my  Battallion, an admirable officer in the finest traditions of the British Indian army. He gave me a long, keen look and chuckled. Then and later, we were both surprised to learn that the General had never officially or unofficially mentioned the incident. Appearances aside, Shuhrat the Slayer ended his day as an officer and gentleman.

From all accounts, this species of officer is still alive and flourishing!