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The Rediff Special/ Chindu Sreedharan
Three brigades to tackle just 300 Pak infiltrators!?
Seventy casualties and 17 days after Pakistani forces began engaging the Indian army in Jammu and Kashmir's Drass, Kargil and Batalik, it is time we took a closer, deeper look at what's on.
At least, as close, as deep a look as is possible from Srinagar, some 200 kilometres away from the battle zone, which is how far your correspondent has managed to get through the media blackout that the army has switched on since May 8. But before that the latest:
Another brigade and more artillery have moved to the affected area from Srinagar. It would reinforce the troops in Masko valley between Drass and Kargil, where, the army admits, several groups of infiltrators 'are holding the heights'. The brigade, expected to reach the area by Tuesday noon, would be primarily concerned with securing the Line of Control. The task of flushing out the Pakistani infiltrators would be left to the troops already there.
This is the third brigade that has been moved to the Drass-Kargil-Batalik axis. Two others -- each with depleted strengths of around 2,000 to 2,500 as compared to the sanctioned 3500 personnel -- were moved there last week. Thus, the army's 121 Brigade, the original protectors of the region, has received three more hands.
Army officers, however, do not expect a quick end to the operation. "Definitely not in the next few days, no," an official told Rediff On The NeT, "The terrain is extremely difficult and the infiltrators have the advantage. They are looking down on us, there is hardly any cover on the way up. And you are talking about climbing 700 to 800 metres uphill in four to six feet of snow."
The Indian troops are yet to completely encircle the hills. And though they managed to dislodge some groups from the heights, the infiltrators retreated to nearby hills thus maintaining their advantage. Armed with machine guns and automatic weapons, they have, an officer says, turned stone-shelters that shepherds have left behind into bunkers.
The army, the officer continues, is using artillery to dislodge the infiltrators. But not with much success till now -- all the infiltrators have to do is pick up the stones dislodged and restore them, and they have their bunker back.
Meanwhile, reports from the affected area, where shelling continued on Monday, say the army suffered more casualties, pushing its conservative figure of '70' higher.
Of course, there was no official comment on this till late Monday night. Neither, for that matter, was there on anything about Kargil. Questions about the heavy shelling on the township since Monday afternoon -- the heaviest in the past two weeks, according to police sources -- were negated with, "No, no, shelling continues, but with no increase in intensity."
Now for the closer look we had promised.
First, how did such a large group -- as per the latest claim there are 300 infiltrators -- manage to sneak in? It's okay to point to the vast expanse of the LoC and give numerous reasons. But the question is, was it a failure of the intelligence network?
Top army officials admit that the operation was well planned and executed. In fact, so smooth was it that they suspect that there are quite a few regular Pakistani soldiers in the group. Experts, hence, are of the opinion that the Indian intelligence network -- the Research and Analysis Wing included -- was caught snoring.
"That is why this media blackout,'' they claim. Even the regular media briefings have been suspended.
Another question that arises is about the seriousness of the situation. Definitely it is not as cool as the defence ministry projects. Their claim is that "Kargil gets shelled every year, this is just routine." But it cannot be routine if it needs three additional brigades -- that's nine battalions, folks, around 9000 troops -- to be rushed in.
The official claim of 'only 300 infiltrators' too looks suspect. Look at it this way, 300 scattered militants, however well trained they are and with the advantage of heights, have been holding off the Indian army for over 17 days. Not only that, they have inflicted notable casualties on the army. And this despite being 'cut off' from support.
"This opens two possibilities," reason sources, "The first is that many more than 300 have infiltrated and they have unbroken support from the Pakistan side. If the head count is correct, it may mean that a superior force, superbly trained with excellent support, probably a regular Pakistan army force, has come in."
This argument finds many takers. "One whole division against 300 people?" scoffs one such, "The army better pack up if they can't clean up 300 people."
Political experts for their part, point out another possibility. With the General Election approaching, the party that gains the most from an anti-Pakistan feeling, they say, is the Bharatiya Janata Party. For, anti-Pakistan feeling equals 'Hindutva, nationalist fever'.
"For all you know this may be an arranged war," a senior journalist says, "Both the Pakistan PM and the Indian government stand to gain from the anti-India, anti-Pakistan feeling that arises out of this..."
Meanwhile, there's the telephone... And yes, it's good news. Strong pressure from Delhi has opened the road to Kargil for the media. Which means that your correspondent can leave for the troubled area "at your own risk, under your own arrangement."
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