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.
Jawan (private) Mansha, Punjab Regiment, Pakistan Army, sighted down the barrel of his MG 1A3 machine gun. Index finger outside the trigger guard: breathe in, breathe out, wait for Naik Sain’s order, then take up the slack of the first pull-off, block respiration and lemon-squeeze on the second pull-off to release 7.62mm rounds with a muzzle velocity of 2700 feet per second at 1300 cyclic rounds per minute.
He was in his forward earthen bunker in Chamb Sector, on the Kashmir Line of Control, 170 km southeast of Islamabad, ensuring the tenuous possession of the sylvan enclave divided by a sparkling tributary of the River Tawi. His battalion was deployed on a thousand metre frontage, two rifle companies up. The Indian Army was deployed opposite, at about two hundred meters.
Hereditary professional warriors facing each other, living rough, fingers on trigger guards, mindsets focused on killing and dying.
The bunker was cool in the April heat, especially due to the thick branches of the lop-sided ta’ali hardwood tree with roots and trunk in Pakistan but branches in India. Shelves cut from the earthen walls held mess tins, enamel mugs and webbing, all neatly laid out by size. Just like on parade. There was no running water, only a field toilet a hundred meters to the rear and certainly no personal phones. Mail once a week for those who could read.
“Ustad jee,” Mansha whispered calmly, using the customary form of address of ‘teacher’ for a Naik. “Five green uniforms entering my killing zone.”
Naik Sain put his tea mug on the ground, confirmed through his binoculars and wound the lever of the field telephone.
The battalion Adjutant, Captain Eric Peter, was enjoying his midmorning tea and samosas in one of the bombed-out rooms of Chamb Police Sation that served as the battalion headquarters. He was going over the morning’s SITREPS — situation reports submitted by spotters in observation towers along the LOC.
The field telephone rattled.
“Peter!” he barked into the mouthpiece, then listened attentively. Known for quick, bold decisions, he took one now.
“Well done, Ustad Sain. If they start trying to cut the branches, give them a verbal warning. If they ignore it or insult you, fire a five-round warning burst over their heads. I’ll put the battalion on stand-to and inform the Colonel Sahib and Brigade Headquarters … yes, if they return fire, waste them!”
Very quietly and without any fuss, the Pakistani Punjab Regiment battalion went through its stand-to drills. Every man and his weapon double checked, locked and loaded, ammunition belts in the feeding trays of MG 1A3s, razor sharp bayonets ready, last prayers.
Before sending out the wood-cutting party, Captain Diljeet Hooda, a Haryanvi Jat, Adjutant of the Indian Punjab Regiment battalion had put his unit on stand-to.
Now both sides waited in the nerve-jangling silence only experienced by active warriors.
The five soldiers of the Indian Punjab Regiment fanned out at the last line of trees, standing loosely, barrels of their 7.62mm SLRs pointed obliquely skywards in the high port. Two of them had axes in their belts. Sarfaraz Ali, their three-striper Havildar, , held his Sterling 9mm Sten gun in his left hand. His right, palm downward, extended in the Pakistani Punjab Regiment’s direction.
As one man, the Indian Punjabis fluidly went into the lying-loading position, each behind a pre-selected boulder.
On the opposite side, Sain gave an appreciative nod.
The glade had become deadly.
Even the birds and crickets seemed to know that it was time to hold their peace, and the water in the stream seemed to have surreally stilled.
At Sarfaraz Ali’s quietly whispered command, Jawan Mela Ram and one-striper Lance Naik Joginder Singh got up, slung their SLR rifles on their shoulders, removed the axes from their belts and started walking towards the ta’ali tree branches whose trunk and roots were in Pakistan.
Mansha coolly lined them up in his sights and queried in a low voice, “Ustad Jee?”
“Not yet. Peter Sahib’s order — warning first, then five round brust over their heads. If they fire back, waste them.”
“And if we get wasted, Ustad Jee?”
“Then we go straight to paradise!”
“And if they’re Muslims too?”
“Then we all meet up there! Now shut up and concentrate.”
The string running out through the back of the bunker tautened and shook the empty tin can. Twice. Once to attract attention, the second time to tell them that Lance Naik Siddique, the third squad member and a crack shot, had spotted his Indian counterpart from his perch. Which meant that he, too, had been spotted.
Jawan Mela Ram and Lance Naik Joginder Singh were now right under the overhanging branches. They were at a range of 50metres from Mansha’s MG 1A3.
The glade was deathly quiet.
The Indian Punjabis drew the axes from their belts.
At that second the graveyard silence was ruptured by Sain’s commanding voice.
“That’s a Pakistani tree. Don’t touch it or we’ll open fire!”
The Indians stood stock still.
“The branches are Indian!” Havildar Sarfaraz Ali’s battle hardened voice countered. “We need them for firewood. Cut them!”
Mela Ram and Joginder Singh raised their axes.
“Five round brust FIRE!” Sain roared.
Mansha had already taken the first pull-off on the trigger. He now blocked his respiration and very gently lemon squeezed the sherni — lioness — as the MG 1A3 was known by its operators.
Five rounds in a perfectly controlled burst ripped through the branches above the Indians.
Neither target showed naked fear, but it was there, controlled and present.
The marksmen in the trees didn’t open fire.
Then there was a single shot from the Indian side, and a thud behind the bunker, but no cry from Lance Naik Siddique.
“Fire!” almost simultaneously from Havildars Sain and Sarfaraz Ali.
Both parties opened up.
The fragile integrity of the sylvan glade disintegrated under the onslaught of 7.62mm rounds. Muzzle flashes, dust spirals, shouted curses in Pothohari Punjabi and Haryanvi. The sulphorous odor of cordite started creeping onto the glade’s freshness.
The first burst sliced through Jawans Mela Ram and Joginder Singh. Rounds went right through them and they fell, their gushing blood spilling on the arid earth. The remaining Indians were steadily firing back from behind their boulders, their 7.62 rounds thudding into the roof of the earthen bunker. One came straight through the shooting slit, and went cleanly through Mansha’s left shoulder. He grunted but held his aim, sweeping the barrel gently to cover the remaining three Indians. Out-gunned, the Indians withdrew in disciplined leapfrogging fire and move drills.
“Cease-fire!” and then Sain wound the field telephone again. Only after his report did he take the medical kit, bind Mansha’s flesh wound and go outside to check on Lance Naik Siddique, but it was too late.
Puffing his rosy cheeks with an explosive release of air, Brigadier General Shireen Yousafzai, Pakistan Army, put down the red phone of the hot-line with his Indian counterpart. His immediate staff of Brigade Major (BM) and General Staff Officer Grade III( GSO-III) looked expectant.
“Well, gentlemen, this is what’s going to happen.
“The Indians will come for their bodies and as always, we’ll return them under an honor guard — as they do too — wrapped in new blankets drenched in perfume. The bodies on both sides will be classed as border accidents ….”
“So that’s done,” Brigadier General Musarrat Hussein of the Indian Army was concluding to his BM and GSO-III.
“At 11H00, after we recover our bodies, the woodcutting parties of each side will move forward. They will work as one to cut the tree down, chop it up and burn it to the last twig. Lamb and chicken tikkas will be grilled on the embers, and we’ll all have lunch.”
The staff officers nodded their approval.
“Day after tomorrow is our our Diwali festival of lights, and two weeks later, the Muslim Eid festival. We’ll exchange sweets as we have been doing.”