BY COL (RETD) RAJINDER SINGH
KERAN EPISODE, KUPWARA, J&K in September/October 2013 raised a question in my mind i.e. Is this episode not bearing typical signature of Nawaz Sharif, as Prime Minister of Pakistan? Wasn’t it a similar attempt as was done in Kargil in 1999?
Let me at the outset say, all Line of Control (LoC) violations by Pakistan military are the attempts to gain advantageous ground positions through silent nibbling acts without any major military conflicts. The purpose of the nibbling is to straighten the LoC so as to insulate its soft underbelly of Northern Areas (FCNA), which is vulnerable from Keran Sector and Kargil sector on the Indian side. Therefore his hidden motive is to obtain dominating ground features in these areas for future negotiations of LoC as an International Border.
I am of the view that if Pakistan military allows Nawaz Sharif, he would seek a solution to Kashmir problem along the modified LoC. Businessman in Nawaz Sharif is particularly keen to do so. This is why he had invited Atal Bihari Vajpayee, then Indian Prime Minister, to Lahore in February 1999. No doubts, he had cleared Kargil operation but only for a limited extent of 2-3 kms east of LoC. But Pakistan military, led by General Pervez Mushareff, out-smarted him then and put paid to his plans by infiltrating some 8-10 kms. I personally feel that he had double aim, then, in clearing Kargil operations. One was to get into advantageous position along the LoC for ultimate negotiations on it as a border. Second one was to get his army’s wings clipped by engaging them with Indian Army and making them suffer loss of face by a strong countervailing act by it.
Coming back to Pakistan intrusion in KERAN Sector in September 2013, when Indian soldiers battled it out for 15-20 days to clear five square km area, infiltrated by some alleged militants. All sort of claims were being made to say that some 30-40 militants backed by Pakistan Army had infiltrated and 12 -15 had been killed, though bodies have not been recovered. Even today, there are different versions both by Army and civilian intelligence agencies. My question is: Were they really militants or Pakistani soldiers in the garb of militants who had occupied Shallabatho post in KERAN Sector? This village dominates the Neelam Valley road on Pakistan side.
Some newspaper reports had also stated that the strenght of the militants could be around 100 and their supply lines were intact, even 14 days after the counter offensive by Indian Army. The scene of action was around an abandoned Shalobatho village near the LoC. The area, as I stated was around five square km. I know the terrain backwards. But wait.
Was the Indian Army hiding something as it did during Kargil incident? Strange that the present chief General Bikram Singh was then posted as a Colonel in the DGMO branch of Army HQ and he briefed the Indian media daily along with his mentor, General JJ Singh. Is history repeating itself after 14 years?
I had served for three years in the KERAN Sector during Kargil operations in 1999. I was Deputy Commander of KERAN Sector, located at Pharkiyan Gali. I know the terrain fully and no one can fool me. It is a fact that the terrain is difficult but not so difficult that it can disallow the might of the Indian Army to ferret out some 30-40 militants. There is something more to it.
In the early 90s, Pakistan Army had in the same sector occupied GURJARTUR FORWARD (called Ramazan by Pakistan) post across the LoC in a similar manner. Somehow this was never reported. Similar thing had happened in the MAHCHAL sector, adjoining KERAN, and there is no secret about Point 5230 in Gurej sector. The Pakistan Army has been deliberately nibbling at some tactically advantageous positions along the LoC in North Kashmir whenever Nawaz Sharif has come back as PM. He has a clear and well defined aim.
You will ask me why? My answer is very simple. Nawaz, being a clever businessman, has realized that for Pakistan to grow economically it has to be at peace with India. His own business house would grow multifold if Indo-Pak relations are normalized and good business relations were established. But this was not possible till solution to Kashmir was found. To do so, he looks for an advantageous solution to Kashmir issue within its present realities rather than emotional strains of 1947. In so doing, he has further concluded that only solution to Kashmir problem was to accept the LoC with modifications as IB, which would also insulate his Northern Areas (FCNA), from any Indian misadventure in future.
It is this principle which made him invite then Indian PM Vajpayee to Lahore in 1999 for peace talks, while he asked his army to get into an advantageous position along the LoC to be able to negotiate better, when settlement talks begin. It is a different matter that then Pakistan COAS General Pervez Musharraf outsmarted him and went beyond his permission, which led to Kargil.
I have a lurking feeling that Nawaz Sharif plays a double game in such peace talks initiatives. I feel that he wanted his army to be sorted out, then as well as now. Therefore, he might have sounded to Atal Bihari Vajpaee, who along with his then Generals had exuded confidence that there was no intelligence failure. Lt General HM Khanna, then Northern Army commander, had boasted that he would throw out the intruders in 48 hours. Alas! he realized later that he was not only fooling himself but the entire nation.
Was it the same boast this time too when the present 15 Corps Commander claimed that there were only 30-40 militants, while 12-15 had been killed. What a laughable excuse he gave that to save own casualties his troops were going slow! Generals engaged in battle do not talk of caution, unless they were faking. How come they took 14 days to sanitize the five sq km area with everything at their disposal. Learned military minds would not buy this argument. Certainly, I won’t because I had choked LNVR (Lower Neelam valley road, life line for Pakistan troops in Northern Areas) of the Pakistan during Kargil.
It is no doubt that Pakistan Army had launched a well planned operation in KERAN. The operation had typical Nawaz Sharif signature for nibbling at the LoC. Therefore, though he makes noise for peace, whenever he becomes PM, he asks his army to straighten the LoC to Pakistan’s advantage.
His offer must have been so tempting that Manmohan Singh, and Vajpayee before him, could not say no. Therefore Singh went ahead and met him in New York despite a lot of hue and cry in the country. I wonder if the US had a hand in it.
Readers should know that KERAN sector dominates Neelam Valley Road of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK), which was the life line of Northern Areas of Pakistan. However in the early 90s, the Indian Army guns went silent and Pakistan constructed a shunt of 22 km outside the range of small arms fire of Indian troops. They made an alternative route and this was a tactical blunder by the Indian Army and its Generals then (Gujral Doctrine was in operation at that time, with the central theme of Love Thy Neighbour. This is emotional baggage of all refugees, whether it was IK Gujral, Kuldeep Nayyar, Manmohan Singh or even LK Advani. They all want to live in their past).
A village ATHMUQAM, along the banks of Neelam river (Kishanganga in Indian context) opposite KERAN Sector is the launching pad for the terrorists. This village is some 20 km from Muzaffrabad, capital of PoK. The shunt of 22 km takes off from ATHMUQAM village and joins the old Neelam Valley road at DUDHNIYAL, just short of KEL military base of Pakistan Army, which feeds Gultari and forces opposite Kargil. It is this shunt which is now under threat from enhanced weapon ranges of Indian Army. If it can be choked, Northern Areas of Pakistan can be effectively isolated because the only other route is a circuitous one from an inaccessible terrain in the winters.
This intrusion by Pakistan in KERAN sector is to safeguard its lifeline to Northern Areas, which can be easily cut off, as and when Indian Army desires. And it will result in areas like Gilgit, Hunza, Baltistan and Dardistan becoming untenable. Therefore, I personally feel this KERAN intrusion by Pakistan, under the garb of militants, is to give life to Sharif’s proposal to get into better position before he begins talks for peace with Indian leaders. Maybe the intrusion is by mix of militants and regular soldiers. This might be Sharif’s way of diverting militants and Taliban from Pakistan and let them be engaged with India. He achieves his triple aim:
- Get militants and Taliban off his back;
- Clip the wings of his army by getting it humiliated by Indian Army;
- And most importantly get into an advantageous position to negotiate with India along the LoC. Thus find a peaceful solution by asking India to act like a big brother and be magnanimous.
I am of the opinion, Indian Army should tell the truth about KERAN intrusion to the nation. It will lose credibility if it continues to mask the truth with white lies.
(Colonel Rajinder Singh is a retired Indian Army officer from the Bihar Regiment. He is also a Guest Blogger with Canary Trap)