Before we started our journey, Noor had left his commander’s vehicle behind a bridgehead under the cover of trees. He had travelled to Battal village below the Indian posts in an unmarked jeep without the brigadier insignia. I noticed it right away. “Why has he left his official vehicle behind? Does he think he would be targeted?” I asked my liaison officer. He just smiled and said nothing.
Perhaps Noor didn’t want the Indian Army to identify him and take shots at a high-value target. Not that soldiers normally shoot at high-value targets on either side. In fact, there is an unwritten understanding among the forces on both sides that they will not shoot at helicopters – helicopters often carry senior officers. But why take a chance, he must have thought.
Having left his official vehicle behind, Noor was going about like an unidentified Pakistan Army officer along with soldiers carrying personal weapons, and “someone” in civilian attire.
I pictured the Indian soldiers following our progress through their binoculars. Did it cross their mind to take a shot at the Pakistan patrol party? After all, they were in a position of strength there: they could shoot and get away with it. Moreover, they had no idea Noor was a brigadier, nor did they know that the “someone” in civilian attire was an Indian.
At a time when CFVs [ceasefire violations] were the order of the day, who could blame them if they took a potshot?
What would the Pakistan Army soldiers who were deputed to protect me from Indian firing be thinking? For them, at least for the moment, I might have been an Indian academic, not an enemy. They of course wouldn’t shoot me while I was on their side – rather they would protect me – but if I were to be on the other side, things would have been different.
Emotions and feelings of enmity, however strong they may be, are spatio-temporally contingent. For the Indians and Pakistanis working together in other parts of the world, the need for economic coexistence trumps enmity at home. Enmity towards those you do not know, have never met and have no particular ill will against is a product of modern nationalism. Human beings have fought and killed unknown people for survival since time immemorial, but nationalism has given a new meaning to modern forms of enmity.
We drove past the jungle post and several other posts along the ridge overlooking the road, slowly, carefully and watching intently to see if there was any activity on the Indian side – not that bullets would be preceded by a warning siren. Across the elevated ridge, Pakistani posts were facing the Indian posts. Given what Noor had told me I knew that the two sides would be carefully observing each other’s movements and would be ready to respond in case the need arose. They were in each other’s firing range and did exchange fire during stand-offs.
What changes the equation though is not the balance of forces, posts or even weapons, but the presence of Pakistani civilian villages in the bowl between the two ridgelines atop which the indian and Pakistani forces are perched.
The Pakistani forces are on tenterhooks here because they know any misadventure from their side will have grave implications for Pakistani civilians.
Troops manning geographically “disadvantaged” areas, therefore, have to perforce “behave themselves” so as to not get shot by the adversary or get the civilian population shot at. Vagaries of geography often determines one’s behaviour. General Tariq Waseem Ghazi once recalled an example: “When I was commanding an area in the Poonch sector we had an area surrounded on three sides by Indian positions. We had to deliberately keep this area quiet because the slightest disturbance meant those positions would not get their reinforcements and so on, and that may also lead to other CFVs.”
Not that the Indian side would fire for the heck of it – they know that what they do in the Battal sector will have implications in other sectors. There is a “delicate balance of terror” in operation here, to use a phrase from the American strategist Albert Wohlstetter’s 1959 Foreign Affairs essay describing the nuclear arms race between the Cold War rivals.
General Arshad pointed out during a conversation in Bangkok, on the sidelines of one of our track-II dialogues, that the location of response can be anywhere within a 200-kilometre radius of the location where the initial firing took place: “if fired at in one area it is not necessary that you respond in the same area. If there are no good targets on the other side to respond, the brigade commander will decide to respond where we have an upper hand so we could give a better response to the other side.”
Pakistani general Yasin who was part of the conversation between me and Arshad chipped in: “When the Indians would fire at my A post, my guy at B post would fire at the Indian side. It is the dynamic of the terrain and the tactical position. If it’s a large-scale violation then you may shift it by 50 kilometres.”
In other words, firing by the Pakistan Army in the Poonch sector could potentially be responded to by the Indian Army in the Rajouri sector. This “releasing of pressure elsewhere” dynamic could work at the brigade, battalion or even at the division level.
“You seem to be at a disadvantage here... so what do you do when the Indian side fires at you with no end in sight?” I asked Noor in the jeep. Despite all the tension around, he seemed to be in no hurry. He was carefully negotiating the village roads, with their occasional boulders and potholes.
“Well, we have earmarked places for retaliation not too far from here. There is a system of things on the LoC...nothing goes un-responded to.” Perfect symmetry, I thought to myself. Upon return, I created a website to present the data on CFVs, which included a graph to indicate the daily occurrence of CFVs. What the graph shows is indeed a perfect symmetry of firing by the Indian and Pakistani forces. Nothing goes un-responded to.
Retired Indian brigadier Arun Sahgal once explained to me the dynamics of revenge firing in these words: “If in firing or through BAT actions or through infiltration, a battalion suffers casualties, there is no question of the battalion pulling out of the sector, without causing similar or greater damage. This is the standard rule up there...The unwritten law of the jungle, as far as violations are concerned, is that any provocation, any casualty by either side is always responded to.”
After close to forty minutes on the worn-out road, and under the constant gaze of the Indian and Pakistani forces, we arrived at the Tatrinote–Chakan Da Bagh trading point. Indian trucks were just about to cross over to “our” side and to offload goods in special compounds earmarked for the purpose. The Indian drivers would be allowed to drive their trucks into the compound on the Pakistani side but would not be allowed to leave the compound.
Noor invited me to join him in the officials’ gallery to watch the gate-opening ceremony. The army men manning the gate on either side stomped the ground in preparation for the opening of the gate. Once the gate was opened, there was a great deal of cordiality: smiles, handshakes and pleasantries. The two army majors acknowledged each other, the quarantine officers shook hands and Trade Facilitation Centre (TfC) personnel double-checked the lists of items. Trucks whizzed past. Pakistani trucks are way more beautiful, adorned with legendary truck art – intricate green, yellow and blue designs that add a touch of colour and pride to the otherwise simple lives of the truck drivers. Noor pointed out one particularly fancy-looking truck whose well-adorned masthead seemed to bend towards the front, like a newly-wed woman weighed down by more-than-necessary bridal jewellery. “Look at those details,” he said with a tinge of exuberance.
“So much patience must have gone into this,” I responded. Indian trucks had nothing to show off: they just meant business.
The whole process around cross-LoC trade is detailed and time-consuming, though the trade itself is nominal, limited and based on a system of barter.
No cash exchange, no banking system – only goods for goods, though the values of the goods traded is registered so that they can be made even on the balance sheets. But then cross-LoC trade is more about symbols than substance. The limited, controlled barter trade of select items between the two sides of the former princely state makes hardly any economic sense. it’s the image of hope, of what’s possible, and what used to happen once upon a time, seventy years ago. There are occasional allegations of narcotics trade and hawala transactions under the cover of the cross-LoC trade. “While the traders are only allowed to trade in Kashmiri-origin items, they often source items from outside the state, in clear violation of the rules,” a police officer told me later on the Indian side.
“Well, so what? The more they trade the better,” I responded.
The officers on the Indian side looked warm and cordial and seemed to be displaying a certain amount of deference. The presence of a senior officer – a brigadier – on “our” side seemed to have made a difference. Interestingly, it is part of the protocol that junior officers salute seniors irrespective of which side they belong to, and soldiers from the two sides refer to each other as “your excellency”. In both Ferozepur and Wagah-Attari, the junior officers from one side take permission from seniors on the other side, if senior officers were to be present, to start the parade ceremony.
I wanted to walk up to the gate – around 20 metres from where we were seated – and say hello to the indian Army officers (Noor told me that one of the officers on the Indian side was a major). I would have to do it from across the tall iron gate on the Pakistani side. I was fascinated by the idea of walking up to the Pakistani gate, get it opened, walk to the middle of the “no man’s land” between the two gates marked by a white line on the ground, request the Indian Army major to walk down to the “no man’s land” for a chit-chat. He might come out. I would introduce myself as an Indian academic from New Delhi. What would his response be when I say I am an indian? Would Noor accompany me? Would the major salute the brigadier? Would the three of us share chai and pakoras? What would the conversation be like? What would the major go back and report about seeing an Indian with a Pakistani brigadier on the enemy side of the LoC? But more importantly, would they then get back to their respective sides and later start firing at each other?
Excerpted with permission from Line of Control: Traveling with the Indian and Pakistani Armies, Happymon Jacob, Penguin Random House India.
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