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Notebook: Let loose on India's fragile front

On the road to Kashmir, the journalists run around like excited children while the boy soldiers boast of heroic combat
You can drive 125 miles up the road that leads to the Kashmir front - 125 miles in 13 hours, average speed about 10 miles per hour - and at the end stand squinting up at the fearsome crags where the fighting is going on, and it's almost as abstract and unreal as it was before you set off.

India's war with the Pakistani-backed "intruders" in northern Kashmir is being fought over a road: a narrow, fragile, madly looping and twisting road that they call National Highway 1A but which in many places is scarcely wider or more substantial than a cart track. In places, especially at Zojila Pass, the near-vertical stack of hairpins that carries you out of the Kashmir Valley and into the rocky high desert of Ladakh, it threatens to disappear altogether, taking you with it.

The road is puny but it is a great feat of engineering - the Indian engineer who built it threw himself off one of its bends when his pen-pushing boss took the credit. And from India's perspective, it is perhaps the most important road in the country. Running from Srinagar, Kashmir's capital, to Leh, 250 miles away, which is 12,000ft above sea level and the highest city in the world, it is the twine that ties India's northernmost extremity to the rest of the country.

All Kashmir's natural routes link the state, not with India but with Pakistan. The bulk of the state's population are Muslims and incline the same way. They are India's surliest and most unwilling citizens. But India is sure that it cannot let Kashmir go.

For centuries, Kashmir has been the conqueror's route of choice into the north Indian plain. "Today Srinagar, tomorrow Delhi!" was the Mughal conquerors' war cry as they clattered down into the plain. India believes nothing much has changed. The British Raj struggled for decades to secure this northern front - against marauding Pathan tribesmen, and against the remoter but even more menacing Russians. India's nuclear weapons have done nothing to diminish that front's fragility. This thin grey line must hold.

And after weeks when all journalists except the two or three Indians already ensconced at the war front were kept away, last Monday we were finally given permission to have a look at it.

We started before first light, leaving behind the lotus pads on Dal Lake, the Chenar trees framing a view of far mountains, the famous Kashmir idyll that the valley's endless political woes make a mockery of.

In the town of Kangan, one hour out of Srinagar, Sikh soldiers in black turbans patrolled both sides of the main street. Outside Kangan, a gang of young boys were tarring the road: most of them still in their teens, tattered and piratical, sweat pouring off them as they melted oil drums full of tar in a raging fire, then ladled it onto the road with shovels. A roller stood by to flatten it.

"Welcome to the Enchanting & Picturesque Valley of Sonamarg" read the sign - location, they might have added, of a thousand Bollywood dance sequences. Snow-capped mountains, curling plashy river, soft grassy fields with ponies - Sonamarg has the lot. All a bit spoiled now by a whopping parking lot containing not less than 500 army lorries.

At the start of this war, journalists were racing up and down this road in taxis. In Sonamarg the journalists - for by now we had grown into a convoy - had to leave their cars and transfer to buses. Like all armies, the Indian Army is deeply ambivalent about journalists. They dimly recognise our necessity, and they are suckers for glory like everyone else. But they sincerely loathe our indiscipline, our prying, our cheap and dangerous talk. Finally they blew their collective top and banned the lot of us. Now we were back, but only in that dreaded manifestation, the hack-pack gang-bang: carted off to war in five buses like a school outing.

Sonamarg is the boundary between the valley and Ladakh. And it marks another divide too. Down in the valley the soldiers wear only one expression, the scowl. From here on up they grin, expecting cheery waves. Occupying force metamorphoses into patriotic heroes.

Into the high valleys now: ice flows, scree and a sign by the roadside: GOD BLASS YOU. We passed a group of nomads with ponies laden with colourful blankets; a cross-eyed girl, a dog, a man in turban and bushy beard who paced alongside our crawling buses crying "Baksheesh! Baksheesh!"

Fifty minutes on and we were entering, we were told, the battle zone. No photos from inside the bus, only get off when we tell you to. We passed troops on their way to the front: woollen hats, white rubber snow boots, sun visors. Then an anti-aircraft gun draped in camouflage netting, pointing up the valley.

An hour later we were finally unleashed for a press briefing. Of course we fled in all directions across the slope, in search of, perhaps, a goat or goatherd to debrief. "Get back here all of you!" bawled tiny Brigadier- General A K Chopra, whose moustache stuck out in spiky strands like steel wool. "Why do you behave like immature kids? If you do not behave, we will confiscate your cameras and take away your films!"

At the briefing we were confronted by the commanders of the battalions which have taken - so they claimed, and independent verification is impossible - important positions called respectively Tololing and 5140, 6,000ft up these barren crags.

Captain Rajinder Nath, a mere lad in sunglasses, said: "We had the proud privilege of having been tasked to capture Tololing. It was a fight from one boulder to another. It took 20 days to reach the top, under continuous fire. The enemy was valiant but I told my men: 'Come what may we will take this feature!' Our regimental josh [spirit] took us to the top. I lost one officer, two NCOs and seven men, and we killed 15 of the enemy." One striking fact about this war: India has taken no Pakistani prisoners. Given the terrain, it's understandable. But it makes you think.

At 1.30, nine hours out of Srinagar, we finally saw action: three of India's famous Bofors guns firing simultaneously up into the peaks. The three barrels rose together, and at the command there was in very quick succession a flash, an epic crump, a quaking of the earth, brown dust swirling everywhere, darkness, daylight again. "It's miserable, really miserable," said nice Major Puroshottam, who was in charge of us, shooing us to a safe distance. The dust cleared and we blinked up at the impossibly high peak - Tiger Hill - where the guns were pointed. This was as close as we were going to get.