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.

Sport
Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Voices
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
Sport
world cup 2014
Sport
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
News
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
News
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
people
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
Sport
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
News
business
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

£600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

E-Commerce Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice