So, what really happened at Keran?

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Arms and ammunition recovered from militants. Photo: PTI

The jury is still out on the truth behind the fortnight-long Indian Army operation against Pakistan-backed infiltrators along the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir’s Keran sector which ended on 8 October. Unfortunately, there is no independent confirmation of the conflicting claims by the Army of fierce fighting that began on 23 September around the ghost village of Shala Bhata near the LoC.

After days of being repeatedly informed that the operation was nearing closure, we are no closer to knowing who the intruders were and how many of them were actually involved in the infiltration bid. Their numbers vary from 30-40 – as claimed by the army – to even 100, according to some accounts quoting official sources adding further to the fog of confusion surrounding the troubling episode. However, more alarming is why it took the Indian army, with it obvious terrain advantage in the Keran sector and vastly superior numbers, as long as it did to neutralise the intruders and re-establish dominance in the region.

By some accounts put out by the army, the entire episode, which was little more than a routine infiltration attempt before the LoC’s mountainous reaches became snowbound, acquired hyperbolic proportions after it was fuelled by frenzied television anchors. These belligerent news jockeys successfully ‘arm-twisted’ senior army commanders into making disjointed, contradictory and at times, even fanciful statements on the episode to cover up either their own inefficiency or operational lapses or both.

Even the Army chief, General Bikram Singh joined the chorus. He insisted that the infiltration bid in the Keran sector was in no way a serious military threat or an ‘intrusion’. However, he declined to elaborate on how the insurgents escaped the Indian army cordon, which included elements of the elite 9 Parachute Regiment around them and simply melted away into the precipitous hillside carrying back their dead.

To further obfuscate matters, the Northern Army Commander, Lieutenant Gen Sajiv Chachra and the local 15 Corps head Lt Gen Gurmit Singh made differing claims on the number of militants killed. Whilst the former maintained that eight of the 40-odd militants who tried crossing the LoC at Shala Bhatu were killed by the army, Lt Gen Singh claimed that 10-12 had died in an extended encounter in late September. But like a riveting Agatha Christie whodunit, no bodies have been recovered to back up either the officers’ claims despite extensive combing operations by the army in the mountainous and thickly forested Shala Bhatu area.

It now transpires that the eight dead militants referred to by Gen Chachra were killed not in the Shala Bhatu area but in nearby places like Gujjardor, Fateh Galli and Farkian in entirely separate attempts to infiltrate the LoC. And there is no confirmation of Lt Gen Gurmit Singh’s boastful claim that 10-12 militants were killed in Shala Bhatu soon after the intrusion was discovered. Ironically, Lt Gen Singh later contradicted his own statement suggesting that he had arrived at this number by monitoring Pakistani radio intercepts from across the LoC. Alongside, the army has also displayed a large cache of weapons – particularly handguns – and ammunition recovered from these militants. Yet again, the accounts on where and when these armaments and ordnance were seized remain nebulous.

Stirring the pot further are other – ostensibly more plausible – accounts which suggest that fighting ensued on 23 September after two Indian army posts near Shala Bhatu – Khukri and Kullar – were fleetingly seized by the infiltrators when they were left temporarily unmanned. This lapse reportedly occurred after the 20 Kumaon battalion, vacating the area ahead of winter deployment in this sector was relieved by the 3/3 Gurkhas.

The Gurkha battalion troops who are believed to have belatedly set out for these two posts – located on a strategically vital escarpment overlooking Pakistan’s main line of communication on its side of the LoC – were reportedly fired upon simultaneously by the intruders and the Pakistani army from across the LoC. After extended firing, in which at least five soldiers were injured, the Gurkhas managed to dislodge the insurgents and regain control of the two posts. Some media reports, quoting official sources, have hinted at the possibility of an internal Army enquiry into this blunder, but considering the web of obfuscation and feeble justification woven by the Army round this incident, it is highly unlikely that any investigation will be made public.

According to senior Army sources, the mobility, mountain and jungle craft and firing discipline of the infiltrators point to them being specialised Pakistani Border Action Teams (BAT) trained to execute raids on Indian military targets across the LoC and the Kashmiri hinterland. The 15-20 strong BATs normally comprise a mix of Pakistan Army regulars, special forces and military-trained jihadis who rarely, if at all, leave their dead behind.

Intelligence sources warn of similar BAT-led attacks over the next few weeks before the onset of winter. They claim that their aim is to push armed militants across the LoC to fuel Kashmir’s insurgency during the relatively quiet winter period ahead of a vigorous resurgence in fighting once US and NATO troops withdraw from Afghanistan next summer. “The Indian army should be prepared for a greater influx of terrorists from across the LoC next year once the foreign military drawdown begins in Afghanistan,” a three-star officer said, declining to be named. “The army,” he warned, “must ensure adequate reserves in every sector to cater to all possible contingencies that could arise in Kashmir to prevent the state from slipping back into the war-zone it was in the 1990s.”

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