September 18, 2020
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Defending pass
Safeguarding Pir Panjal from aggression
The Pir Panjal range in the southern foothills of the Himalayas in Jammu and Kashmir is the sentinel of the Kashmir Valley. Any breach of security of the Pir Panjal range directly threatens the Valley. Ever since 1947 defending it has been a very difficult proposition especially in the southern reaches around Chhamb which have been the scene of ding-dong battles in 1947, 1965 and 1971 and further north westwards at the Haji Pir pass which gives direct access to the Valley itself.

Over the years Pakistan has made it a point to try and infiltrate and dominate the narrow stretch of land connecting Jammu division with Punjab through which the National Highway traverses and more recently a railway link has been laid connecting Punjab to Jammu and Kashmir through Jammu, Udhampur and Srinagar to Baramulla.

That it is a very strategic stretch of land is highlighted by the recent discovery of a tunnel dug under the barbed-wire fence along the international border in the Samba sector.

This is the same area from where one contingent of Indian troops entered Pakistan in 1971 (the second entered the Pakistan-controlled Skakargarh bulge from the south) and one prong entered from Gurdaspur side to threaten Sialkot by reaching the crossroads at Narowal.

Strategic importance

This illustrates the strategic importance of this piece of land for both India and Pakistan. One objective was to relieve the Pakistani pressure in Chhamb in the north at the critical juncture where a breakthrough by Pakistan would have cut off Jammu and Kashmir from the rest of India.

It is a fact of life that India has managed to retain control of whatever it could save from Pakistan’s first attack in 1947.

But ever since then it has either not had the political will to secure the vacation of aggression of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir and China-occupied Kashmir or has allowed itself to be constantly unbalanced by Pakistani tactics of the use of asymmetrical/guerrilla warfare using Islamic jihadists as the forward echelon of its armed forces or been surprised by new stratagems (like Kargil of 1999) that has led to the loss of portions of the Chhamb district in Jammu subdivision.

In Kargil the might of the whole nation had to be deployed to end the intrusion of the Pakistan Army Northern Light Infantry into a 60 km long and 10 kilometer deep salient-a manoeuvre intended to present another faith accompli to India.

The trauma to the nation could have been avoided if the Chief of Army Staff at the time had not underestimated the enemy’s will to create trouble for India.

What could have been avoided-with lesser cost to the nation- was allowed to become a festering sore that took more than two months of severe military activity, and unnecessary loss of very brave and gutsy fighters, to cure.

Given this track record one has to be cautious in any assessment of how the Indian Army will tackle the next attack.

It will come (because for Pakistan the Kashmir Valley is the core issue) and because the geopolitical scenario has changed dramatically with the advance of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army into the Gilgit-Baltistan segment of Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir under pretext of helping to rebuild and widen the Karakoram Highway that was affected by landslides in 2010.

This has added the possibility of India being confronted with a “two-front” war in the high Himalayas. Much of the success or failure of Indian defensive operations will depend on how well it handles the military situation along the Pir Panjal range.

Time and again India has been surprised by what Pakistan does in this sector. In Chhamb for instance India was able to contain the intrusion on the banks of the Munnawar Tawi river in 1965 after a miscalculation of the enemy intention.

The same thing happened again in the 1971 operations when the Pakistanis attacked in strength from a different direction but the same intent of cutting off the road link between India and Jammu and Kashmir at its slenderest point.

Past experiences

In this second attempt India had to resort to unconventional use of air power-which, by itself, exposes the kneejerk method of securing national objectives of security and territorial integrity. India used the Antonov AN-12 transport aircraft to bomb weapons stockpiles and tank concentrations in the man-made Changa Manga (names of two highway robbers) forest north of Islamabad to ease the pressure on Chhamb.

With stocks destroyed in three successive nights of this kind of unconventional bombardment, the Pakistan Army could not sustain its thrust into Chhamb and had to settle for whatever it captured there when ceasefire was declared on 16 December, 1971.

This was the result also of India’s thrust into the Shakargarh salient to threaten Sialkot and the Pakistan Punjabi heartland. The Pakistan Army Corps with its HQ in the city of Gujrat had to divert its resources.

Further north, India recaptured the Kargil salient. Unlike as in 1965 no territory captured in Jammu and Kashmir was returned to pre-war alignments on the very justified logic that the whole of Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India and, therefore, nothing was to be returned to Pakistani illegal occuption.

Given the record of India being surprised time and again in assessing and countering Pakistani intentions and actions in Jammu and Kashmir (with the sole exception of the Siachen deployment in 1984) there is need to reiterate what needs to be done to defend the Pir Panjal approach to the Kashmir Valley.

First of all, experience has shown, withdrawing from snowbound and difficult-to-reach forward post is an invitation to the kind of disaster best illustrated by the Kargil intrusion.

Given the length and depth of the intrusion (60 kmX10km) it is clear that the Pakistanis did not arrive there as soon as the snow melted. It would take weeks to trek up the many high crests from where they were eventually evicted.

The Ministry of Defence needs to be wary of such winter withdrawals without at least a modicum of early warning system that will alert the absent Indian troops of any unilateral change in the winter status quo.

Any dependence of the kind of “unwritten gentlemen’s agreement” of the kind referred to by General V P Malik in defence of his action of withdrawing troops in winter should be avoided like the plague.

Instead, some kind of alternative surveillance arrangements need to be put in place that will forewarn of another Pakistani perfidy.

With an increase in the dependence by the Indian Army on unmanned aerial vehicles it would be appropriate that some of these are used to check out at least twice a day if a forward outpost, appropriately marked to ensure detection from the air, remains inviolate.

If there are any signs of a Pakistani attempt to capture the vacated post, it should be nipped in the bud immediately either with an air strike by helicopter gunships or the conversion of the experimental Rustam-I indigenous UAV into an airborne strike aircraft the weapons package of which is geared to a Global Positioning System aiming device for accuracy.

Attack could be secondary. The prime requirement should be an unambiguous awareness of the situation on the ground around the vacated post.

Risk analysis

There needs to be a reassessment of the geography of the area in the vicinity of the Pir Panjal range which runs in a south-east to north-western direction with gaps that have in the past been exploited by the Pakistan Army for infiltration of terrorists.

Sand model studies should be done of every feature from the foothills to the crests to assess all the axes of approach and how best to defend them without any exceptions (we lost a large part of Chhamb because of the failure of the local commander to do this). Appropriate reserves should be in situ to deal with any surprise moves by the enemy.

Hopefully, India has learned a lesson that there is a new way of infiltration of defences by the use of underground tunnels.

One was discovered after it collapsed during the monsoons. There must be more undiscovered ones because this is being done by the Pakistanis after learning lessons from the North Koreans who dug as many as four very deep tunnels under the Demilitarised Zone separating them from the South Koreans.

It is clear from the way the Indian Army and the Geological Survey of India have gone about looking for the mouth of the tunnel that they do not know how to look for deep-laid tunnels even though they had been forewarned of the possibility that the Pakistanis would use the techniques used by the Afghan Taliban to enter the Kandahar jail from the outside through a tunnel to free several hundred hardcore commanders.

Another possibility that needs to be incorporated into the calculus of defence of Jammu and Kashmir is the use of “sleeper cells” for operations behind Indian lines.

The seizure of large quantities of arms and ammunitions from certain locations ought to warn the Army HQ of the possibility that these are intended to be used by indigenous terrorist groups as soon as they receive a message from Pakistan to coordinate an attack from the rear with a Pakistani thrust either through the international border or the Line of Control.

Some years ago a deep underground shelter capable of accommodating as many as 40 men (equal to a military platoon) stocked with clothing, food, weapons and ammunition was discovered in Hilkaka.

Some time later a large-calibre recoilless gun that can be used very effectively against concrete bunkers and as an anti-tank weapon was found elsewhere. These are lucky discoveries.

Systematic methods need to be used to ensure that geography and habitation are not being used systematically to undermine our defences from within. The greater use of trained dogs will make the task easier both on the LoC and behind the lines.  

In the final analysis military commanders and the political leadership must be clear about the objectives of any future war in Jammu and Kashmir.

Does India liberate it? Or does it suffer the consequences of a job half done for the rest of our remaining lives and that of the next generation?