India's lonely sentries in an urban outpost

Karan Chand Jaiswal sleeps with his AK-47 rifle in a cramped room with 10 other soldiers. In happier days, this heavily fortified barracks, overlooking a strategic downtown intersection in Srinagar, was a holiday guest house. A sign left posted above the stairs reminds, "Check out time, 12 p.m."

But Constable Jaiswal can't check out anytime soon. He is a foot soldier, a grunt, in the 127th Border Security Force Battalion, and when he isn't catching needed winks, Jaiswal spends all his time fighting one of the strangest battles on the planet. Like soldiers in Belfast, he is neck deep in an urban guerrilla insurgency - a 24-hour-a-day war of patrols and car bomb searches that offers little rest, and shows no sign of letting up.

But unlike Belfast, which has its safe neighborhoods, there is no real front line in Srinagar, no safe place. Jaiswal and his buddies move from fortified checkpoint to fortified checkpoint - both as hunters, and the hunted.

A BSF soldier's only job is to seek and stop local foreign militants who are conducting a 10-year uprising against what they call "Indian-held Kashmir." Srinagar is a 98 percent Muslim city, and residents passionately hate the BSF. Jaiswal wakes up in a hostile neighborhood, goes on a dangerous patrol, comes back to bed exhausted, then goes out again. He does this seven days a week - with a 60-day vacation he takes with his wife and two infants in his village in Bihar, 800 miles away.

"A soldier in any army is on 24 hours a day," he says. "In our case we either remain alert, or we get shot."

Ever since India and Pakistan both tested nuclear weapons in the spring of 1998, the 53-year Kashmir dispute has been given more priority by world leaders. President Clinton and British Foreign Minister Robin Cook have both said during recent visits to India that Kashmir is a crisis that needs solving.

Indian diplomats do not want other states meddling in the Kashmir dispute. They feel any attempt to negotiate Kashmir would explode into an avalanche of demands and new expectations from local Kashmiris and from the government of Pakistan, which has been tacitly supporting the uprising. Indian officials believe that if Kashmir separates, India would undergo a horrific Balkanization. They see long-burning successionist movements in the northeast and in Tamil Nadu in the south suddenly gaining momentum.

Yet the diplomacy of India is a long way from the dusty world of the BSF foot soldiers, who live each day in protective body armor and helmets. Even in interviews conducted with BSF officials present, the soldiers are fairly straightforward about their woes. When a photographer finds men playing cards in the bunker, he tells them, "just act natural." Yet there's little natural about this world. Jaiswal, wearing a T-shirt and sitting up in a cot underneath posters of Hindu gods and fetching Indian movie stars, says the worst part is the tension of not knowing what he's looking for. The enemy doesn't wear a uniform. Militants blend with crowds, hide pistols in loose-fitting local garb, escape through back alleys, launch grenade rockets from the back of motor scooters, and lately have taken to sending unnerving suicide bombers to hit high-profile targets.

"I was in Lal Chowk [the main square] when five guys were shot in February," he remembers. The militants walked up to police with silencer pistols, one of their latest effective weapons, shot, and disappeared. "I never heard anything except when the crowd began to scream," Jaiswal says, and he saw two uniformed bodies crumpled across the square.

The militants were never apprehended. But Jaiswal, his commanders, and his buddies know they are still out there.

With some 300,000 men in uniform, Kashmir has one of the densest civilian-to-army ratios in the world. There are multiple security forces and intelligence units on patrol. The BSF deploys seven battalions in Srinagar. If they run into trouble, BSF can call on the Army, the Jammu and Kashmir state police, a special guard unit, or a special-operations group. In this capital, a former holiday mecca for what used to be nicknamed "the happy valley," streets are crawling with troops. Bunkers are positioned every other block. New prefabricated barricades known as "drop walls" are now three deep in some places. Soldiers finger their weapons nervously. After dark, civilian drivers keep the internal car lights on for transparency - since no one wants an incident.

When President Clinton earlier this year called Kashmir's border with Pakistan the "most dangerous place on earth," the men in the 127th just laughed. They would much rather patrol the open border, than the lanes and byways of the old city.

"This is a dicey assignment," says a BSF company commander, posted downtown. "The lanes are narrow, we can get ambushed any time. The situation leads to stress. My guys have bunker fatigue." Many battalion living quarters are simply dugout sandbag posts with barbed wire, located, for example, near a sensitive mosque or bus station. There is no exercise room or place to play cricket.

"The soldiers and the population - its like we are both prisoners," says Jaiswal.

M.L. Narayan, a smiling dark-skinned young man from Andra Pradesh, has plans to get married on his next vacation. He misses the ability to go out and meet friends. Like most of the BSF troops, he has been stationed in several other parts of India. "But on my other postings I could move around and go out normally."

Though militants favor acting with the cover of a crowd, they can strike at all hours. During a 6 a.m. tour of the 63rd BSF battalion around a famous mosque, Jamia Masjid, several troops jump when an auto-rickshaw backfires. Moments later, word comes that a grenade has hit near a bunker several blocks away - but it turns out the projectile got caught in a tree and did no damage.

Riding with the BSF through the city is quite unlike traveling in a normal unmarked car. Stares of hatred by residents are palpable, and BSF officers, choice targets, get off the street as soon as possible.

"We used to spot militants, but we can't see them any more," says Ajit Kumar, the 63rd commander, drinking tea behind a four-foot thick sandbag wall in a downtown bunker. "They don't have shaggy beards. They wear jeans and look like everyone else. Plus, with the militancy coming back, we aren't getting the same information from the people. Today, the father doesn't know the son is a militant."

Experts and health officials report rising cases of psychological woes among troops in Kashmir, leading to clashes among troops, between soldiers and officers, and between security forces and the locals. The most cited case took place last August 6 at a camp in Chaack Natnusa, a village in Kupwara district on the Pakistan border. Militants had stormed the base, killing six men plus a popular major. The troops were spoiling to take revenge in the village the next morning, when Colonel Balbir Singh ordered that no reprisals (which would lead to atrocities) be allowed. Shortly after giving the order, Col. Singh was shot dead. An Army court of inquiry last fall cited four soldiers were "involved," plus the trigger man, one "Ramesh."

"The forces, almost every battalion, have asked for more doctors," says a Srinagar expert. " 'Doctors' is a code word for counselors or psychologists. These troops need someone to talk to about stress."

Official Army statistics show a narrowing of the number of soldiers to militants killed. The figure used to be roughly 8 militants to 1 soldier. Lately the margin is 4 to 1 - though experts say the actual figure is closer to 2 to 1.

TROOPS have much negative recent history to overcome. Civilians can cite many abuses of Section Four of the Indian Disturbed Areas Act, which allows soldiers to shoot civilians on sight - if done for the "maintenance of the public order." In a case of extreme daily stress, Section Four has been often used in the past 10 years.

By all accounts, BSF and Army officers realize their conduct must improve. BSF soldiers have started projects adopting schools, where they ensure that furniture and heating equipment is made available, and have bought books and started giving academic prizes. BSF battalions in Srinagar regularly assist when medical emergencies take place among residents. The special training BSF troops get when they arrive in Kashmir includes stern lectures about not reacting violently in a crisis.

For the troops, these new dynamics can be infuriating. They are getting shot more but asked by senior officers to be nicer - and getting no credit from the locals.

Still, "We know we need to make friends with the Kashmiris," says Gen. B.N. Kapu, second in command of BSF in Kashmir. "We've let them down in the past, we know that. A lot more is needed, and now is the time to do it."

Jaiswal, meanwhile, is always thinking of his next posting when he is on patrol. He hopes it is New Delhi.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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