India is fighting hand to hand for Kashmir

Click to follow
THE LITTLE Suzuki runabout with Delhi plates and seven passengers that had been dodging in and out of the Bofors guns and Shaktiman troop carriers all the way up the narrow mountain road, darted ahead. But the sentry at the barrier waved us back. "No press allowed," he declared.

After a noisy protest he relented: we could proceed as far towards the Kargil battlezone as the Indian visitors. But 300 yards on, at the far end of the shabby little tourist village of Sonamarg, both we and the Suzuki ran out of road. Kargil and Dras, where India has been fighting Pakistan-sponsored infiltrators for the past month, were more than 100km further on. Yet this was as close as we were going to get.

For the first fortnight of the Kargil campaign, journalists were allowed free run of this road, into the battlezone and beyond. But then the army did an about-face and banned access to all foreign journalists and all but a handful of Indians who were already well dug in.

The likely reasons for the ban depend on who you ask. Foolish journalists were giving away operational secrets and aiding the enemy, says one. The army was reported to be pressing villagers into working for them as unpaid porters, says another, and when this came out in the Indian press they hit the roof and banned us all. The possibility of fears for journalists' lives is dismissed. Why would they worry about that? But perhaps the simplest explanation is the best, and that is that India is losing this war - or at least winning too slowly, which amounts to the same thing.

At a briefing in Srinagar, capital of Kashmir, on Thursday, Brigadier A K Chopra showed off a cache of weapons and other equipment captured during the army's most striking success to date, the capture on 13 and 14 June of two peaks above the crucial highway, known respectively as 5490 and the Hump. But in the process he revealed that India was still taking severe punishment.

These peaks are just two of the numerous high, arid crags where the infiltrators have built themselves near-impregnable bunkers. One soldier down from another peak reported finding there a cement built bunker three storeys high with an electricity generator and women's garments, among other evidence of long-term occupation.

From eminences like this the enemy, said to be composed of a mixture of battle-hardened Afghans and regular Pakistan army troops, look down and pick off the Indians toiling up towards them, often suspended from ropes.

It is a brutally old-fashioned fight at the end, even if the early stages involve softening with thousands of high explosive shells. "Eyeball to eyeball" and "hand to hand" are phrases in frequent use at Indian army briefings. In the taking of 5490 and the Hump, India claims to have killed 15 of the enemy, while 21 Indians were killed, including three officers.

But evidence that India still has miles to go came when Brigadier Chopra admitted that earlier in the week brigade headquarters at a place called Matayam was badly damaged by enemy shelling, with one Indian soldier killed. Matayam is just above Zojila Pass, which marks the crossover into the high Himalayas of the Ladakh region and the beginning of the battlezone. If something as critical as Matayam's brigade headquarters can be destroyed, all talk of India making "steady gains" means little.

More than 100km down the mountain, meanwhile, at a village a few hundred feet below Sonamarg, dozens of families who fled the first shelling of Matayam last month are living in cramped and squalid conditions, traumatised by the loss of their homes and livestock.

"The army told us to leave when the shelling started," said one elderly lady, whose family shared a room like a small cow shed with three other families. "We came the whole way on foot - everyone in the village came. Since then we've heard that everything in the village has been smashed by rockets and artillery. I left behind my cattle, my mules, everything..."

These are the crucial months of the year for farmers at these high altitudes: the few warm months when crops are sown and reaped, wood cut and burned for charcoal and all the other necessary preparations made for winter when the snow can be 12 feet deep and ordinary life stops. Now the villagers are bitterly resigned to being away from home until next spring at the earliest.

Their chances of an early return may pick up if the Indian Army wins its latest battle. At the moment these almost unbelievably brave soldiers are fighting "eyeball to eyeball" to relieve two more peaks, 5140 and Tiger Hill. India's key problem is that the enemy in these toughened, high, inaccessible bunkers are directing the fire of Pakistani army artillery 10 to 12 km away across the Line of Control. If these forward positions were destroyed, the artillery might continue to boom and crump, but it would be far less effective.

Brigadier Chopra claimed that between 350 and 400 intruders had been killed so far, but admitted that there were still "800 to 900" remaining in scattered positions along the battlefront. That is up to 300 more than India admitted were occupying the heights when the war started. He furthermore admitted that "infiltration of men is still continuing". "We are hopeful that all supply lines can soon be cut," he went on, "but this will be a long-drawn out and time-consuming operation."

At the village of Sonamarg villagers try to cling on to what is left of normal life while the wave of war steadily engulfs them. Two buses full of tourists pulled into the car park at the far end of the village's single street; the local touts and guides pushed and shoved to get close to them, sticking close like gulls round a ferry. "The first tourists we've seen in 10 days," said one tout.

But the euphoria did not last: after all, these were Indian holidaymakers, not Westerners, and the pickings were slim. "These Indians have very meagre budgets," said my own guide, who - like most Kashmiris one meets - is hostile to his compatriots from the south. "They are beggars, how can they spend money?"

Later the same visitors could be spotted, plodding into the hills on ponies, pony-trekking being one traditional way to enjoy Sonamarg's fabulous alpine scenery. But the tents and massed troop carriers of the army at the other end of the village dwarfed them.