A fence of 'an absolutely new design' is being built along the Line of Control (LoC) at the edge of the Kashmir Valley. Fifty kilometres of this new fence has been built this year. The Army is confident that it will be more effective than the fences that have been built since 2003-04 according to Lt Gen DS Hooda, the Commander-in-Chief of the Northern Command. It has been redesigned to withstand the pressures of weather as well as the wiles of infiltrators and other enemy tactics.
So far, the fence has been a white elephant with barbs. One, it collapses under the weight of tons of snow every year. Two, it costs the earth to build, rebuild and maintain. Three, it doesn’t seem to have made very much difference to stemming infiltration. Since it came down every winter and was rebuilt every summer, the construction of the fence has been something of a continuing process — a very costly one. That should have been predictable when the idea was conceived. For most parts of the LoC get up to ten metres (30 feet) of snow every winter — more than enough to push those fences into the ground. Since they could only be rebuilt when the snow melted after April, reconstruction generally continued until September every year.
The current fences consist of barbed wire strands and coils. The strands are strung along high iron girders. A few of those strands are electrified. The coils are lower but far more forbidding, since there are barbs all over their bunched strands. At most places along the LoC, the fence is actually a series of two or three fences, placed some distance apart. The calculation is that invaders who get past one fence might get caught or held up at the next one. Even the first fence is well within the Indian side of the LoC. Construction and repair right at the LoC would be fraught with danger, since Pakistani bunkers and machans could open fire at any point. Work on the new fence has gone well this year in both Baramulla and Kupwara districts, despite the army’s preoccupation with external and internal strife. The army brass are confident that the entire length of about 300 kilometres would be covered over the next two summers.
The new fence has stronger supports and includes cement grouting to help hold firm. The engineering challenge is huge, in light of heavy snowfall every winter. The sheer weight of the snow brings down the wire strands and girders. To be sure, even the old fences do look forbidding. But it has become obvious over the past couple of years that their effectiveness is limited. Large numbers of militants are reported to have crossed over during the past couple of years. The army estimates that a hundred militants got through during the first ten months of this year, three times more than the entire year 2015.
First real test
This is the first time the fences have faced a real test since they were built — from 2003-04. The mobilization of troops right along the international borders in Punjab and Rajasthan, by India and then by Pakistan too, throughout 2002 had forced Pakistan to severely curtail infiltration. The two armies had been in eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation following the attack on Parliament House in December 2001. After the armies were pulled back, Prime Minister AB Vajpayee reached out to make peace with Pakistan in April 2003. Pakistan responded at the end of that year and a potentially historic breakthrough was agreed at Saarc’s Islamabad summit in January 2004. As peace talks made tremendous headway over the next couple of years, the militancy which had begun in 1988 petered out around 2006. Already, fighting in those last years had been limited largely to those who had already been in the field by the end of the 1990s; not much infiltration was attempted after the end of 2001.
Ineffective, and too late
When there was massive infiltration, throughout the 1990s, there was no fence. Thousands of Kashmiris crossed both ways in peak months such as April 1990. The proportion of Pakistani and other foreign militants expanded from December 1992 on, until it was more or less a proxy war during the decade from 1996 to 2006, with Kashmiri militants playing largely supportive roles. The current militancy began around 2009, when police atrocities, administrative unresponsiveness, religious radicalization, and a well-orchestrated `narrative’ caused a few Kashmiri boys of the generation born during the earlier round of militancy to go underground.
These generally 'snatched' a weapon from a police or paramilitary soldier, but did not cross the LoC for training. For example, the internet-based star, Hizb-ul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani, never apparently crossed the LoC. Nor did he or his young Kashmiri comrades do much as militants, compared with those who have infiltrated from Pakistan to join them. Even three years ago, the army brass and New Delhi’s high profile 'strategic thinkers' were oblivious to new infiltration. They insisted there was none. Meanwhile, the ineffective fence kept coming down annually, and getting rebuilt; large amounts were happily spent. Now that infiltration has become far too obvious to miss, let’s hope the new design is effective — and thus worth the huge cost and effort.