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The Siachen Factor

This is the first spot report from the sensitive Turtuk Sector where there has been a blanket ban on the media since the war began. Ishan Joshi and photographer Gauri Gill smuggled in and out to report on a harsh mountain war. Given the army's securi

The Siachen Factor
To the West, the Northern Areas of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. To the East, the Aksai Chin/Karakoram frontier with China. Turtuk-in many ways a "chicken neck" caught between these two-in the inhospitable, barren remoteness of Ladakh, is the eastern-most sector of the main battlefront which begins after crossing the Zojila pass on the Srinagar-Leh highway. Turtuk is perhaps strategically the most crucial sector for both sides in this conflict. Men and material are being pumped into the area. Truckloads of jawans are arriving into the sector almost daily.

The frontline of the war being waged by the Indian army moves west to east from Zojila, passing through the Mushkoh Valley, Dras, Kargil and Batalik. But from here, the LoC turns sharply north to Turtuk. While the other sectors of the war are approachable (to the north) from the Srinagar-Leh highway, to reach Turtuk, nestling on the banks of the Shyok river, Indian troops have to travel up to Leh from where they are transported across the 18,380 feet high Khardungla Pass and through the Nubra Valley.

But the journey here is the easy part. The army, aware of how vital this sector is, has put everything into a determined battle to contain and repulse the intrusions. The casualties are rising, but as the Bofors guns, backed up by 105 mm field guns, return the barrage of shelling from across the LoC, the intruders are more or less stuck where they were first intercepted. "We were quicker here (than in other sectors). They had occupied a ridge on the LoC itself and had advanced less than a kilometre or two when we swung into action and they couldn't advance any further. We have pushed them back in some places as well. And in this sector, the possession of the heights is divided; actually, we are better off," says a senior officer directing operations near Turtuk village.

He echoes the assessment of officers Outlook spoke to in the field and many experts in Delhi, that Turtuk is vital to this war. For one, over two-thirds of the route to Turtuk is the same as that for Siachen. If the Pakistanis were to advance down the Shyok valley, it would put pressure on the flanks of the Siachen route. Also, any Pakistani advances in this sector would not only give them control over the high altitude Thois airbase, but also open up the possibility of establishing a direct axis to Batalik (via Chorbatla) and from there on to Kargil. "These are some of the reasons for the secrecy in this sector," adds an officer at the Brigade HQ in Partapur.

It is the footsoldier of the Indian army, the jawan, who is in the forefront of battle in Turtuk as well, led by the hardy Tibetan jawans of the specialised Vikas regiment or "Lama Fauj". While the Bofors and other heavy artillery guns were already in place due to the sensitivity of the sector, there has been a manifold increase in support logistics-khacchars, the pack animals used for carrying supplies in this steep mountain terrain, were aplenty en route to Turtuk across Khardungla.

There is, undeniably, a "secret war" aspect to the fighting in Turtuk, hidden as it has been from journalists by preventing them access to the sector. Take the confusion over casualties, for instance. A senior medic in the region told Outlook that he was surprised that the two confirmed officer casualties in the sector were reported in the media to have been killed elsewhere. "In fact, Lt Hanifuddin's body has still not been recovered despite valiant attempts by our boys," he said on Thursday.

According to army officers in the region, the fact that the Turtuk area was captured by India from Pakistan in the '71 war (the Pakistani claim is 254 sq miles) has meant that Pakistan is using the "liberate Turtuk" slogan to boost morale among the infiltrators. The army has made some wireless intercepts to this effect. "The residents of these villages apart from being co-religionists, are of the same ethnic stock-Balti-and many have families across the border. These are hard facts which we have to take into account without any undue sentimentality," says a young officer posted in the sector. In fact, barely one generation has grown to adulthood as "Indians".

But how can that be held against us? We have never been disloyal to India despite living in the border area. The proof of our patriotism is that we are sitting here in Diskit (the district headquarters) as refugees because our houses have been reduced to rubble by Pakistani shelling," says 60-year-old Haji Hassan in an emotion-choked voice. He is one of the over 250 residents of Turtuk village the district administration has evacuated. Another 1,200 have fled the village and are camping with their cattle in the open or in hastily-constructed shelters downstream from the village. He says that Ibrahim, a double agent and leader of the group of 24 men from Turtuk who were arrested recently for helping prepare the ground for a major Pakistani offensive and storing a vast quantity of sophisticated weapons in the village, should be "dealt with harshly." (See Double Jeopardy).

Army personnel, meanwhile, point out that Pakistani shelling has been on target in the sector-an Indian artillery camp has taken a couple of direct hits, as have the villages of Turtuk (where the police post was destroyed and two jawans killed last Tuesday), Tyakshi and Ceepi, among others-because of two reasons. First, the Pakistanis have detailed maps of the area as it was part of their country till '71 and second, that their intelligence network is rather effective.

This "Fifth Column" dimension has created problems for the army and the differences between the forces and the civil administration are showing up. A jco (egged on by locals) felt that the Sunni-dominated villages were not being targeted as much as Shia-dominated ones and this only showed that the Pakistanis were "sparing their own". District officials, however, respond saying "rounding up all men between 15 and 50 as porters is hardly the way to deal with a few rotten apples". But, says an officer at Bodang village, "you should know us by now. We act without religious or political bias; our only aim is to do what it takes to defeat the enemy." That this region of High Asia is traditional Great Game territory and has a tortuous, bloody history of intrigue and deception doesn't help them any.

Meanwhile, the airstrikes on the Munthodhalo camp of Pakistani intruders north-east of Batalik in the direction of Turtuk on June 17 was confirmation, if any was needed, of just how strategically crucial the sector is. Large stores of ammunition and other military equipment were reported to have been destroyed in Munthodhalo, a key logistical depot for the intruders, which was being used to step up activity in the Turtuk sector and retain control of the heights in adjoining Batalik. Sources, in fact, pointed out that the army chief, general officer commanding, Leh, and the brigade commander recently had a closed-door meeting in Partapur to discuss the situation in the sector. On the Indian side, Turtuk is regarded by many as a priority for a counter-offensive if it comes to that: Prahnu, in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, is on the Pakistani approach to Siachen and is not too far from the last Indian post in Thang.

While there is some debate over whether Pakistan's intention in launching this aggression was limited to widening the low-intensity conflict to bleed the Indian army or whether it is actually looking to capture Indian territory, officers and jawans on the ground believe that the intensity and scale of fighting leaves very little room for doubt. "This kind of aggression is clearly not meant only to harass but to occupy," says an officer at Partapur. The army believes that the enemy had planned a coordinated attack in various sectors simultaneously, to cut off Dras from Srinagar, Kargil from Leh and to capture Turtuk. Isolating the Dras-Kargil access would enable them to gain control over these main sectors (Mushkoh Valley and Kaksar sub-sectors fall within) which, along with an occupied Turtuk, would mean that a push down the Indus river valley towards Leh would be on the cards.

Army and intelligence sources assert that Skardu, divisional headquarters for the Pakistan army in what it terms the Northern Areas (essentially Baltistan and some adjoining areas) of "Azad Kashmir", is the operational hub of this plan. It is across the Turtuk sector, inwards from Prahnu. "The airborne troop concentration and force accretion in Skardu point to a larger sinister design...to grab a large area," said the Director General of Military Operations at a press briefing earlier this month. Except that the Indian army is, in the words of a senior officer Turtuk, "ready and waiting".

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