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From Our Correspondent: Return to Srinagar
Does anyone care for the Indian soldier?

November 9, 2000
Web posted at 11:15 a.m. Hong Kong time, 11:15 p.m. EDT

On a cold October morning in 1993, I was moving at speed in an army Jeep through the narrow lanes of Srinagar. The previous night's curfew had spilled over to the morning and there was little sign of life except for bleary-eyed soldiers peering out of their pillboxes. Militants had seized Kashmir's holiest shrine Hazratbal — believed to hold a strand of the hair of the Prophet Muhammad — and were threatening to blow it up. The Indian army suspected a Pakistani hand in the incident and the situation seemed fraught with dangerous possibilities.

My driver — his regulation pistol within easy reach on the dashboard — was a tough-talking, witty army major whose name I remember now only as Salatia. As the vehicle bounced on pot-holes and speed-breakers and swung maniacally from one side of the road to the other, Salatia seemed to sense my nervousness about the way he was driving. "You don't know how many militants are in these houses," he explained. "I don't want to catch a sniper bullet."

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Salatia survived Srinagar. Later, transferred to Jammu — a peacetime army base — he perhaps missed the tension of threats lurking around every corner and driving his vehicle at reckless speed. He was used to conflict; peace seemed to disturb him. On a sunny morning, Salatia shot himself dead with the same pistol that I had seen on the dashboard of his Jeep.

His death was on my mind when I recently made a return trip to Srinagar. There I found Indian troops under great stress from an increasingly difficult military situation. The insurgents are a far more formidable force now than they were in 1993. They are no longer amateurish, ill trained, the kind that used to give up at the first sign of resistance. With fedayeen suicide fighters in their midst, these Islamic militants are attacking army bases and installations. The most brazen attack, perhaps, was against army headquarters at Badamibagh, Srinagar, in November 1999, when gunmen breached the defenses and killed one person.

Trapped between new geo-strategic realities and a violent colonial legacy, Indian army personnel are reacting to the standoff in different ways. Some internalize their problems and end up seeking psychiatric help. A few have shot their comrades or officers simply in order to be removed from the frontline. Many are demoralized. Despite the emotionally and physically sapping environment in which the army works — some men have not had any leave for more than two years — there is little sympathy for them in India or elsewhere.

In a world of changing paradigms, notions such as army and nationalism have sometimes been made to sound like an abuse. Governments — especially poor democracies like India — are embarrassed about looking after their men in uniform even when they faithfully apply warped national policies. For years, Indian soldiers with inadequate clothing and equipment have been guarding country's geographically diverse border, often with no recognition or thanks.

Immediately after the violent face-off at Kargil in the summer of 1999, the government paid lip service to the welfare of the soldier. Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee gave a nice twist to an old Gandhian expression and declared, that his government's policies would depend on how they impact on the "last soldier"(Gandhi talked of the poor). And, in a way, the government has given primacy to the army in recent times. When I was in Kashmir six years ago, there were only 40 battalions in the valley. Now, there are 117 — a ratio of one security person for six Kashmiris.

On my most recent trip back, I drove in a civilian vehicle to a forward army base, 5 km from the Pakistani border. The camp where I was staying was at an altitude of about 3,700 meters (12,000 ft), in inhospitable terrain and buffeted by strong sub-zero winds that cut through my clothing. The camps is one of many dotting the Line of Control between the two countries. There was a time when the main concern of these border posts was to keep a watch on the movements of the Pakistani army. Now, the army's fulltime occupation is to prevent militants from sneaking into the valley. " We have the militants by the b---s," claimed the army commander. What about the attacks on army camps, I asked? "They are trying to put us on the defensive as they are losing ground," he replied.

It seemed a fair argument until nightfall. Thedn the atmosphere changed. The guards were so paranoid about security that I began to feel insecure in a place, which superficially at least, was so well guarded. "If you forget the password, they will shoot you," my host said seriously. The commander explained: "It gets so dark out here, we can't see beyond a couple of feet on a moonless night. We just can't make out who is around us." All night long the hotline crackled with commanders of different camps sharing information about the movement of insurgents. The camp seemed to bristle with nervousness.

The army, according to the commander, was sick and tired of fighting the insurgents. His "Johnnies" want peace and want to go home, he said. "The government has to find a political solution to the problem or allow us to cross the border and fight Pakistan. We cannot fight this proxy war endlessly." That the army wants to go back to the barracks was evidenced in July when the Hezbul Mujahiddeen guerrillas declared a cease-fire. Besides the harassed civilians who came out in the streets to celebrate, the soldiers were jubilant. Alas, it didn't last.

The Indian government is not concerned about how the ordinary soldier perceives the situation in Kashmir. Victory in Kargil last year has reinforced the belief in the minds of decision-makers in Delhi that it is possible to win this war or wear out the insurgents by sheer numbers. In a country of one billion people, where human life comes cheap and where the army has stayed out of politics, this strategy is rarely challenged.

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