29 September 2016
The Line of Control
India and Pakistan square up over Kashmir.
by Neil Tidmarsh
Siachen glacier, Kashmir – a desolate wilderness of ice and snow high up in the Himalayan mountains. At 72km long, it’s one of the two biggest glaciers outside the polar region; and at an altitude of over 6000m (20,000 feet), with temperatures as low as -50C, it’s one of the most inhospitable environments known to man. It’s also the world’s highest battlefield.
The glacier sits on the Line of Control – the boundary between Indian-held Kashmir and Pakistan-held Kashmir. It has been militarized for over forty years; following the conflict between India and Pakistan over Bangladesh in 1971, both countries established military outposts on the mountain ridges surrounding the glacier. The United Nations officials who had mapped out the Line of Control hadn’t been too precise about its course across the glacier, due to the difficult terrain and an assumption that no one would ever want to fight for an uninhabitable wasteland of ice and snow. But they were wrong. In 1984 India launched Operation Meghdoot, which successfully pushed the Line of Control northwards so that the whole of the glacier came under Indian control, and the two countries have been fighting over it ever since. Pakistan launched unsuccessful attempts to take it in 1987, 1989, 1992, 1995 and 1999, and there have been innumerable skirmishes over the last few decades, even though a cease-fire was negotiated in 2003.
Today, India and Pakistan have about 3000 troops apiece deployed in some 150 outposts on the edge of the glacier all the year round. The cost and the logistical challenges of supplying them are phenomenal, and it must be one of the most dangerous postings in the world; at least 2000 troops have perished on both sides since the hostilities began, with 97% of the casualties being due to the climate and terrain (avalanches, frostbite, exposure, falls into crevices, etc.) rather than enemy action. This year, 9 Indian soldiers were killed when an avalanche buried their camp in February, and four Indian soldiers were killed by an avalanche while out on patrol in January. The worst incident occurred in April 2012, when an avalanche hit a Pakistani military base and killed 129 soldiers and 11 civilians.
India and Pakistan both lay claim to the whole of Kashmir, and have been fighting over it ever since Partition. The first war was as early as 1947, and the hostilities were frozen along a cease-fire line now known as the Line of Control and which today still separates Pakistan-controlled territory in north-west Kashmir from Indian-controlled territory in central and southern Kashmir. (The north-east portion is controlled by China, and was one of the flash-points for the Sino-Indian war of 1962.) Pakistan and India went to war over Kashmir again in 1968, with the UN negotiating another ceasefire when both sides had fought themselves to a standstill. A third war – the Kargil War – was fought in 1999, at high altitudes, with Pakistani forces capturing posts among the highest mountains in the world and being flushed out of them by Indian troops. The Lahore declaration of 1999 brought an end to open warfare between the two countries, but conflict continues.
As well as war with Pakistan, India has had to contend with separatist movements in some of the three regions of Kashmir which it governs. In Ladakh, the population is mostly Budhist; in Jammu it is mostly Hindu; but in Kashmir Valley it is mostly Muslim, and here many people see the Hindu Indian army as an oppressive, occupying force. Separatist movements here seek independence from India, either as an autonomous state or as part of Pakistan. Since the late 1980’s, these movements have flared up into armed insurrection, fanned by protests against flawed elections, demonstrations for more autonomy, and allegations of widespread brutality and human rights abuses (including torture, rape, murder and abduction) by the police and the army.
India has accused elements of the Pakistan military and security services of backing the insurgency, and has claimed that militant Islamist groups from abroad, e.g. Afghanistan and Pakistan, are exploiting the situation. Suspicions that the Taliban and al Qaeda have been involved remain unsubstantiated, but it is certain that Lashkar-e-Taiba, the terrorist group responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attack and which seems to be sponsored by the Pakistan security service ISI, has been active in Kashmir. By the year 2000, this insurgency against Indian rule in Kashmir Valley had claimed tens of thousands of lives; but peace-talks and the restoration of diplomatic ties between India and Pakistan this century have seen a considerable decline in the violence.
However, events have taken a dangerous turn in recent months. In July, the army killed the 22 year old separatist leader, Burhan Muzaffar Wani, during a raid on militants. He was a commander of the militant Hizbul Mujahideen, and was an extremely popular figure with a huge following thanks to his mastery of social media. Some 20,000 people gathered from all over Kashmir for his funeral and his death triggered violent protests. Riot police and the army responded by firing tear gas, rubber bullets, assault rifles and bird shot. A curfew and a media blackout were imposed, with internet and mobile networks suspended.
In the last two months, 72 people have been killed (including three policemen) and 11,000 people have been injured. At least 3800 of those were injured by bird shot fired at crowds of protestors – densely-packed wads of small shot which spread into a cloud of tiny pellets once fired. This ammunition is “non-lethal” – but it can result in horrific injuries. 100 people have been blinded by it, and another 500 have received eye-damage resulting in partial blindness.
Two weeks ago, the violence escalated with an attack by armed militants on an Indian army base at Uri in Kashmir. Several hours of fighting resulted in the death of the militants (four gunmen suspected of belonging to the Pakistan-based terror group Jaish e Mohammed) and of 18 Indian soldiers. Indian officials have blamed Pakistan, but Pakistan has denied any involvement.
Since then, the tension has continued to rise. The attack generated huge public anger in India – crowds have burned the Pakistan flag and called for revenge. There have been renewed skirmishes and exchanges of fire along the Line of Control, with Indian forces killing at least 8 suspected militants.
Prime minister Narendra Modi is under huge pressure from the Indian military for large scale retaliation. In recent years India has shown great restraint in the face of a number of provocations, and Modi has worked hard towards normalising relations with Pakistan, but last Saturday he publicly criticised Pakistan as an exporter of terrorism, and it’s difficult to predict India’s next step as the tension rises and the pressure grows.
Both India and Pakistan are nuclear powers. Another war between them could have catastrophic consequences. Most commentators believe that neither of them would be mad enough to precipitate a fourth war over Kashmir. But let’s not forget those United Nations cartographers who believed that no one would be mad enough to fight for the frozen waste of the Siachen glacier. The shivering soldiers facing each other across its seventy kilometres of ice and snow, so high up in the Himalayas, must be on full alert now. No doubt they’re wondering if it’s suddenly going to get very hot indeed for them.
Let’s hope they’ll carry on shivering for a long time yet.
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