By: P A Mushtaq
KASHMIR SCAN : NOVEMBER 2013
First time since hard-earned ceasefire of 2003 between India and Pakistan, a small ‘infiltration’ bid on September 21, according to the army, in north Kashmir’s Keran Sector, more than 150 km away from Srinagar, triggered a month long skirmishes at several locations on the Line of Control (LoC) and the International Border (IB).
A quick look at the sequence of events: In the last week of September, the army claimed to have killed a ‘militant’ in Keran. The ‘militant’ turned out to be an unidentified 60-year-old man; very few militants in this age group have been active in the valley. The killing was followed up by a police investigation.
A top police source told the Kashmir Scan that first the police took the slain 60-year-old man for infamous militant guide, Atiqullah, from north Kashmir’s Bandipora district.
Just couple of days of this incident, the army claimed to have spotted 12 dead infiltrating militants and released unmanned aerial vehicles’ images of movement of a group of militants apparently on this side of the LoC. The army, which held a press conference on September 26, suspected 30-40 heavily armed militants inside this part of Kashmir in Keran Sector.
“Heavy fire fight is on in Kupwara’s Keran Sector. Our troops have observed 10 to 12 bodies of militants. We are in no hurry to retrieve the bodies till all terrorists are killed,” said Srinagar-based 15 Corps GOC Lt Gen Gurmeet Singh.
“These infiltrating militants belong to the Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jash-e-Muhammad, Al-Badr and Hizbul Mujahideen. Our troops have displayed highest level of dedication by thwarting the bid,” he added.
What followed this sensational disclosure by the army were daily reports of exchange of fire between infiltrating militants and the army for almost two weeks. Once the operation was called off on October 8, the army failed to produce any body of militant, which, according to the army were fanned out in over 6 km range and were hemmed in inside ravines, gorges and tall shrubs.
As a cloud of suspicion blanketed the Keran operation, Kashmir Scan delves deep and works on scenarios that may have triggered Kashmir longest but mysterious border clash.
Theory one: Was this limited intrusion by Border Action Team (BAT) of Azad Kashmir to revenge kidnapping
The Keran operation came just a day after the army claimed to have foiled an infiltration bid in Keran Sector and killing a “militant” and recovering a new kind of pistol from him.
“The operation was meticulous unlike the random infiltration bids, more than two dozen times, made in Kupwara district this year. The infiltrating armed men had advance information on the movement of the army regiment, had details of bunkers in the area and complete idea of topography and about strategic altitude points,” said a counter-insurgency on-ground official.
In the last week of September, a unit of the army’s Kumaon Regiment was replacing another when armed men were spotted on the night of September 23-24. “Even the places of stockpiles of soldiers were identified,” said the official.
The infiltrating militants are received either by guides or use mode of communication to constantly stay in touch with militant commanders inside Pakistan-occupied Kashmir to be received by militants on this side.
“The infiltrating armed men apparently seemed more resolved to stay back in an area and apparently returned without a trace of any body or stockpiles”, said intelligence sources. This, he said, was not possible without huge logistic support from across the border.
The operation came just a day after the army claimed to have foiled an infiltration bid in Keran Sector and killing a “militant”, who turned out to be a civilian, apparently from across the border. Was he kidnapped or had trespassed remains unresolved.
Thus, the operation could be because of the fact that the Pakistan army was under pressure from border residents to ensure their safety.
On August 21, a group of residents from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir’s Neelam Valley met Pakistan army representatives after alleged displacement of locals in Indian shelling. At least six civilians were killed near the border there.
PoK authorities claim that various villages of Nakial sector, opposite to Poonch in India, came under Indian fire, damaging houses, cattle and injuring 11 civilians.
The BAT, since then, is in touch with the Village Coordination Committees (VCC) of the border areas. Pakistan army has warned the VCC members from going close to the LoC with the cattle fearing kidnappings.
Theory 2: Are there elements within the army who try to flare up border clashes for political goals
The Keran operation ironically coincided with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharief meeting at New York on the sidelines of United Nations assembly session. Experts suggest the border clash was to corner Singh for any peace overtures leading to any meaningful dialogue between the two countries to end decades of animosity. Two, with the parliament elections nearing, any war-like posturing against Pakistan could fetch voters for the national level political parties.
One cannot rule out the Pakistan army playing foul to restart a fresh cycle of militancy in the state and opposing Sahrief’s attempt to normalise relations with India at the cost of the Kashmir dispute.
Theory 3: Was it a knock by the Taliban ahead of 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan
There are many experts who see the Keran incursion by a bunch of militants Taliban-style militancy aimed at unnerving Indian security establishment ahead of the Afghan withdrawal. The preparation and steadfastness of the militants to occupy three pickets in Keran and succeed it returning back to Pakistan-administered Kashmir and taking injured and dead along do pose a challenge for the security agencies. The fact that these militants secured vantage points over the hills and survived two weeks with constant supply of food and arms point towards a new trend to engage Indian army at the vortex of the Line of Control to inflict maximum damage and internationalise the Kashmir issue simultaneously.
Year of border skirmishes
January 6-15: Two Pakistani and two Indian troopers were killed near the border in separate incidents. Both the countries accused each other of crossing the LoC at least once to launch an attack.
June-July: A Junior Commissioned Officer of Indian Army was killed in cross-border firing in Poonch district in June and a Pakistan soldier was killed in July.
August: Five Indian army soldiers were killed in firing by Pakistani army’s BAT. Later, three Pakistani civilians and four soldiers were killed in separate firing incidents in the same month.
September: A woman was killed and a man injured Pakistan-occupied Kashmir’s Kotli area
October: Two civilians killed and three injured in PoK in cross firing