In the Line of Fire

They are on a per­ma­nent vigil on a for­bid­ding ter­rain, pit­ted against an ag­gres­sive enemy. The life and times of the In­dian sol­diers along the Line of Con­trol.

India Today - - INSIDE - Text by Asit Jolly on LoC in the Tangdhar sec­tor Photographs by Chandradeep Ku­mar

They are on a per­ma­nent vigil on a for­bid­ding ter­rain, pit­ted against an ag­gres­sive enemy. The life and times of the In­dian sol­diers along the Line of Con­trol.

On a pitch- black Au­gust night, nine bat­tle- ready In­dian sol­diers silently take up po­si­tions at the en­trance of a for­bid­dingly steep Hi­malayan ravine. Weapons primed, the men, in cam­ou­flaged com­bat fa­tigues and faces painted to merge with the dense un­der­growth, use hand­held ther­mal im­agers to scour the moon­less night for in­trud­ers. A rustling in the dis­tance pro­vokes a fusil­lade of gun­fire for sev­eral min­utes, un­til Sube­dar Gul­sher Khan, 49, sig­nals his men to stop. “It was only a pan­ther,” he ex­plains later, for once relieved that the prowler got away. “A Pak­istani would find his grave right here on the Line of Con­trol ( LOC),” the vet­eran troop leader says grimly.

Sol­diers pa­trolling the 772- km LOC be­tween Pak­istan and In­dia in Jammu & Kash­mir are ev­i­dently on edge. The fir­ing by Khan and his trig­ger- happy troop­ers on the night of Au­gust 28 a short dis­tance from Jogi, their post in the Teet­wal sec­tor, 230- km north­west of Sri­na­gar, drew an in­stant re­sponse from Pak­istani po­si­tions 400 m away. In­ter­mit­tent fir­ing, not par­tic­u­larly tar­get­ing each other but more to mark a wake­ful pres­ence, con­tin­ued un­til day­break.

This is part of a seem­ingly un­stop­pable es­ca­la­tion in vi­o­lence that be­gan on Jan­uary 8 with the be­head­ing of two In­dian jawans— Lance Naik Hem­raj and Lance Naik Sudhakar Naik— in Jammu’s Mend­har sec­tor. Till Septem­ber 29, when Prime Min­is­ters Man­mo­han Singh and Nawaz Sharif, in New York, tried to re­solve the im­passe on the LOC, there have been nearly 150 skir­mishes re­sult­ing in ca­su­al­ties on both sides, in­clud­ing 26 In­dian sol­diers.

Life un­der con­stant threat in the most hos­tile ter­rain on In­dia’s fron­tier is clearly tak­ing its toll on men of the In­dian Army’s cel­e­brated Richh­mar Bat­tal­ion, de­ployed in the Tangdhar area on pre­cip­i­tous ridges at al­ti­tudes be­tween 7,500 and 9,500 ft. “I’ve done this at least once, some­times twice, ev­ery other day, for the last two years,” Naik Anil Ku­mar, 32, says, as he ne­go­ti­ates an im­pos­si­bly in­clined and deeply rut­ted road in his 4WD Gypsy. Climb­ing sharply for over 3,000 ft, the 22- km dirt track stops nearly 500 ft be­low the bat­tal­ion’s field head­quar­ters at Jogi.

Gul­sher Khan’s am­bush party tra­verses many kilo­me­tres along the tight­est,

Pak­ista­nis and pan­thers aren’t the only dan­gers here: A wrong step on the nar­row path along a sheer cliff, and a jawan could end up re­turn­ing home in a cof­fin.

of­ten non- ex­is­tent, trails in pitch dark to get back to Jogi. “Pak­ista­nis and pan­thers aren’t the only dan­gers here,” says Rakesh Ku­mar. The 28- year- old se­poy, who took a 200 ft tum­ble af­ter a wrong step on the way home, is nurs­ing a deeply- gashed shin and mul­ti­ple bruises on his torso. “I man­aged to grab some bushes, oth­er­wise I’d be on my way home to Mathura in a dibba ( box),” he grins sheep­ishly. Ku­mar was for­tu­nate he did not trig­ger one of the thou­sands of anti- per­son­nel mines spread across the moun­tain­sides.

Back at the post, the boys at­tend a manda­tory de­brief­ing ses­sion be­fore they can in­dulge in the lux­ury of a brief wash to rid them­selves of sweat and face- paint. Wa­ter, pumped from a moun­tain spring at the base of the 9,000- ft- high Karachi Tip, a Pak­istani post, is scarce. “If you’re lucky you’ll find the time and a bucket of luke­warm wa­ter for a bath ev­ery fifth day,” says Lance Naik Jabeer Ali. He doesn’t mind; he’s used to worse wa­ter short­ages in his vil­lage Bhaaru in Ra­jasthan’s Jhun­jhunu dis­trict. Gre­nadier Vir Ba­hadur, 20, joined the

pal­tan ( bat­tal­ion) this Jan­uary. He has spent the past eight months in a sub­ter­ranean bunker man­ning a medium ma­chine gun with its sights set on Pak­istani posts on the other side of a deep gorge cut by a tur­bu­lent trib­u­tary of the Neelum

A break­fast of hot poories with bhaji or chhole, fol­lowed by a ses­sion on the car­rom or ludo board are the only lux­u­ries at the for­ward post.

river as it briefly fords the LOC into In­dia near Pak­istan’s Naush­eri vil­lage. Still shy of a de­cent stub­ble on his chin, the young­ster shares the soggy un­der­ground with a mil­lion mil­li­pedes. The in­sects in­fest ev­ery inch of the 400 m- long maze of tun­nels that con­nect the bat­tal­ion’s op­er­a­tions room with a pro­fu­sion of steel­re­in­forced pill­boxes. One has to crouch re­ally low, but the pain is well worth it as Pak­ista­nis can’t see you.

Pro­tected from enemy eyes by the moun­tain they hold, the men can stand down and oc­ca­sion­ally re­lax— a break­fast of hot poories with bhaji or chhole, fol­lowed by an in­tense stand­off on the car­rom board. The manoran­jan kaksh

( recrea tion room) at Jogi may be ba­sic but they love it— a flat screen TV with a cable con­nec­tion and a set of ludo and snakes & lad­ders. The some­what- lim­ited se­lec­tion of read­ing ma­te­rial in­cludes dog- eared ti­tles of Dhan­waan kaise bane,

Gun ka faisla, and Ti­ranga phaer­ayenge Pak­istan mein.

“This is lux­ury,” says Naik Sub­hash, 35, who spent sev­eral months with a pla­toon at Kela, a for­ward post at 9,200 ft that gets snowed un­der and cut off for more than four months ev­ery win­ter. An ar­du­ous, six- hour climb from Jogi, the post is a sim­i­lar maze of steel- cov­ered trenches and bunkers, from which sol­diers never stick their head over

Sol­diers take turns at keep­ing watch at Jogi, an In­dian post on the LoC hemmed in by Pak­istan on three sides

A gre­nadier cov­ers his com­rades as they pre­pare to exit a for­ward bunker in J& K’s Teet­wal sec­tor

Sol­diers re­turn to their post on the LoC af­ter a night mis­sion search­ing for

in­trud­ers

Sol­diers of the Gurkha reg­i­ment catch up on news from home dur­ing a brief respite from gru­elling moun­tain pa­trols

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