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Why the Poonch attack must not go unpunished

August 13, 2013 20:59 IST

Why the Poonch attack must not go unpunished

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It is India that has emboldened Pakistan in its belief that it can literally get away with murder. We have ourselves to blame for it. The danger is, since its transgressions go unpunished, Pakistan has been trying to push the boundaries of Indian patience even further, says Colonel (retd) Anil Athale.

In an apparently unprovoked act, around 20 Pakistani soldiers intruded into Indian territory in the vicinity of ‘Sarala’ post west of Poonch. In this cross Line of Control attack, five Indian soldiers were killed.

The attack took place in the early hours of August 6 and soon got embroiled into a major political controversy as apparently under pressure of ministry of external affairs/the Prime Minister’s Office, the defence minister tried to water down the gravity of provocation by blaming ‘terrorists’ and not the Pakistan army for this transgression.

It seems that a section of the government was extremely keen to somehow make sure that forthcoming India-Pakistan talks are not derailed. But thanks to the media, opposition and public outrage, the defence minister had to retract his earlier statement and it seems doubtful if the talks would take place in September on the sidelines of the United Nations.

There are some grave short term issues that this episode has raised and need to be addressed at the earliest. This author has been a company commander at Sarala Post and is familiar with the terrain.

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Image: Border Security Force soldiers patrol over a footbridge built over a stream near the Line of Control, a ceasefire line dividing Kashmir between India and Pakistan, at Sabjiyan sector of Poonch district
Photographs: Mukesh Gupta/Reuters

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The post is indeed of great military significance

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The area also has an emotional connect as this post, then called just post 8, was wrested from Pakistani forces by a sister battalion of the 9 Gorkhas, the 3rd battalion, on August 27 in 1948 after fierce fighting. This saw 21 of brave Gorkhas make the supreme sacrifice.

As an interesting aside, the name ‘Sarala’ was given to this post by the battalion commander since it happened to be name of his girlfriend! A monument in honour of brave soldiers stands even today on the hilltop.

The post is indeed of great military significance as it overlooks the road to Islamabad. Lying to west of the PoonchRiver and across Betar nallah, it gives very good observation in the PoonchRiver valley to the south. This can help bring accurate artillery shelling into the depth areas of Pakistan.

Ever since Operation Parakaram of 2002 when the area saw heavy fighting, the LoC has been peaceful since the latest ceasefire agreement of November 2003. While areas to the south of Poonch, particularly Mendhar sector has been scene of armed clashes, the area close to Sarala post has remained peaceful. In June 2006, a direct bus service and border trade began though Chakan Di Bagh area, to the south of Sarala post.

The two armies have been peacefully interacting with each other at this border check post for last seven years. Unlike the Uri crossing in the Kashmir valley, the Poonch border opening has been very popular amongst the locals.

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Image: The Sarala post, named after the commander's girlfriend. It is a monument in honour of brave soldiers who made the supreme sacrifice while wresting it from Pakistani forces in 1948 after fierce fighting.
Photographs: Colonel (retd) Anil Athale

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There are very few divided families in the valley

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There are very few divided families in the valley. However, in Poonch area these are the majority. For all intents and purposes, the Chakan Di Bagh border crossing is not very different from any other border crossings elsewhere.

The near normalcy on this sector of border, where situation has been peaceful for last seven years, actually facilitated the Pakistani attack. It is almost like the border guards at Wagah in Punjab were to suddenly go at each other’s throats.

No civilized country or its armed forces are expected to behave in this manner during peace time. As a matter of fact, on the very day that the attack took place, less than a kilometre away, there was normal cross border movement going on!

The Chakan Di Bagh area is very heavily militarised on both sides. To say that the Pakistan army was not involved, as the defence minister initially implied, is to stretch the credibility too far. The Pakistanis as usual denied their army’s involvement on a technicality.

Anyone familiar with J&K knows that Pakistan maintains a large number of Mujahid battalions. Sort of scouts, mainly manned by locals, but officered by the Pakistan army. These troops are trained, paid and equipped by the Pakistani state. But when it is convenient, Pakistan claims that they are NOT Pakistan army. It is like the fiction that Pakistan Occupied Kashmir, called Azad Kashmir by Pak, is an independent country with its own president and prime minister!

In the past, in 1947, 1965 and more recently in Kargil in 1999, Pakistan steadfastly maintained that the intruders were ‘Mujahids’ or freedom fighters and had nothing to do with the Pakistan army or the state.

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Image: A view of Pakistan's area from the Sarala post
Photographs: Colonel (retd) Anil Athale

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It is India that has emboldened Pakistan

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But the basic reason these incidents are taking place is that Pakistan has broken its solemn promise given in 2003 (and guaranteed by the US) of not letting its own territory or territory under its control for terror attacks against India. So irrespective of whether the Pakistan army was involved or not, Pakistan is responsible to maintain peace. The major breach in this agreement was done in 2008 when Pakistan-based terrorists attacked Mumbai on 26/11.

Instead of holding Pakistan responsible and ending the ceasefire on the LoC, India decided to ‘forgive’ Pakistan. US for its own interests in Afghanistan was not interested in helping India.

It is India that has emboldened Pakistan in its belief that it can literally get away with murder. We have ourselves to blame for it. The danger is, since its transgressions go unpunished, Pakistan has been trying to push the boundaries of Indian patience even further.

The real worry is this behaviour affects the credibility of our nuclear ‘deterrent’ (minimum or otherwise). The Delhi durbar circus has only a vague understanding of the nuances of the nuclear game. It is thanks to the popular outrage and likely electoral costs, the current regime may decide to act to punish Pakistani transgressions.

It is hoped that the public pressure is maintained or else like the 7/11 Mumbai train attacks or 26/11 Mumbai attacks, these too will be just a memory and we again begin the friendly diplomacy with Pakistan.


Image: The author at the Chakan di bagh post
Photographs: Colonel (retd) Anil Athale

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