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Which is why every day, one to two-thirds of a company is withdrawn a few hundred meters to the rear for training, education and firing.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