Midnight, Manaspal Lake, North-West Kashmir. The powerful diesels of the 20 army lorries roar away, piercing the perfect silence of the night. Aboard, 400 men of the 22nd Jammu and Kashmir Rifles, one of India’s elite divisions, in full battle dress: helmets, an AK-47 rifle slung over the shoulder and two grenades tucked in the belt. Colonel Khanna, division commander, signals with his hand and the convoy starts ponderously into the night.
Earlier we had met Colonel Khanna’s officers, young, bright men, whose world centres around a field tent, the walls of which are adorned with pictures of wanted militants, and tallies of wounded and killed Hizbollah Mujahedins, a true soldier’s trophy. Over a glass of beer, Colonel Khanna had shown us a map of Kashmir and pointed to a village
near Wular Lake, called Banyar. “This village, he said, is known to be a safe haven for militants, as it is on the route from Kupwara at the Pak border, to Sopore. It has the uniqueness of being surrounded by water. So we will have to take two boats with us to cross the river. We shall walk the whole night and by morning we will have surrounded the entire village.”
Half an hour after, having started from the base, the lorries stopped suddenly, all lights out. Silently the 400 men of the regiment climbed down and melted into the night. Then the lorries started again. “They will serve as a decoy for the militants’ watchdogs, who seeing they are going in an opposite direction, will think that we are going to strike
another village,” whispered Khanna. It was a pitch-dark monsoon night.
No lights, no torches, one could barely discern the man in front and sometimes soldiers would hold each other’s shoulders not to get lost. The silence was total: not a murmur, not a sound of a rolling stone; only the hiss of the wind in the trees, carrying the smell of men to a faraway village, whose dogs started barking. But even their sounds slowly died away. Suddenly, a cantering horse, like a ghost appearing from nowhere, crossed us; and then it was gone, as in a dream.
At first, the going was smooth enough on a dirt road, but all of a sudden we had to slither down on all fours to reach the swamp, where one had now to walk on a high narrow causeway surrounded by water on both sides. It started raining and a frog, followed by another,
then another, then a hundred, a thousand, began tearing the silence of the night with their “croaaroaaak”. From time to time the man in front would suddenly stop and the others behind would bump into him: the soldiers carrying the heavy wooden boats were to be replaced by a new team. At 3.30 in the morning, the river had to be crossed to reach the
village. The boats were lowered into the water without a ripple; and while exhausted men slept on the embankment, the tedious task of carrying a whole company in two boats went on smoothly. And as the first hint of a grey, dreary day, pointed at the horizon, the village of Banyar was totally surrounded.
At 5.15, Lieutenant Tikku and a platoon of soldiers entered the village from its eastern side. “Militants are usually caught at daylight, he murmured, it is then that they start shooting. If we don’t catch them at that moment, they go into hiding either in the houses or in the fields;
and we have to flush them out.” Shoulders hunched in the expectation of a grenade thrown from the first floor of a house, or the bullet of an unseen sniper, eyes darting right and left, fingers on the triggers of their AK-47s, the soldiers advanced on the village.
It was a dreadful hamlet on the banks of the Jhelum River:
dirty, unkempt, whose wooden and cement houses had an air of never having been finished. By 6 AM, not a soul had stirred from the shuttered houses, and it became clear that if the militants were there, they were not going to come out with guns blazing. An officer went to the mosque and asked on its loudspeakers that all men between 16 and 60 assemble in the school compound just outside the village.
Already soldiers had encircled the meadow where a little windowless house which served as school stood. Machine guns were posted, even a mortar was set up. Slowly the villagers started filing out of the village. The older men were put on the right where they sat stoically on their haunches; and the younger ones grouped on the left. After some time two men, whose faces were hooded by black cloth and their hand tied to a soldier, came in and were made to sit in the school, facing the glassless window. They were “cats” – militants who had been caught and who had agreed to inform on their brothers, in exchange for some future leniency.
They were now at least 2,000 villagers in the meadow. On a signal from the Colonel,
young villagers were made to form a file. First they were searched by a soldier, then one by one they were presented by another soldier to the cats. One of the informers seemed unwilling or maybe indifferent; but the other had extraordinary eyes, which were constantly darting, from the face of the soldier, to the villager. The villagers, some humble, others proud, others looking spitefully towards the informerst, or a few eyes cast
down in fear, filed past the cats. When the second informer would nod negatively the soldier would tap the shoulder of the villager, who relieved,
would go back to sit on his haunches. But suddenly, as a mullah, well-dressed, apparently educated, looking boldly ahead, was brought forward, the cat raised his finger and whispered something in the ear of his watcher. The mullah was then led, protesting, to one corner and made to cover his face with his shawl. Four men were thus “recognised” by the second cat and kept apart.
Suddenly a shot was heard, followed by a burst of fire. Everybody rushed towards the place where the sound came from. There, in a field of mature maze, there was a path of crushed stalks, which led straight to two cowering militants, one of whom was wounded, surrounded by triumphant soldiers. Basir Ahmed Pare and Zakir Hussein had just crossed over, from Pakistan where they had gone for training and halted
overnight in the village thinking they were safe. But when they realised that the army had surrounded the village, they hid in the field with their two Kalashnikov and four grenades. The weapons were recovered from them, with coupons which they sell to the villagers to extort money and the photo of their area commander. The men were then handed over to the military intelligence for what would probably be a long spell of rough interrogation.
Exhausted, after a whole night walk, plus a full day in the heat. we wearily started for the base. On the trip back, a rider-less galloping horse (the same as in the night?) cast his
shadow on our convoy. Was it the shadow of Kashmir?