Sunday, January 27, 2013

India tests under sea N-capable missile; China tests interceptor missile

Video Courtesy: DRDO

 Moving a step closer to completing its nuclear triad, India today successfully test fired a ballistic missile, with a strike range of around 1500 kilometres, from an underwater platform in Bay of Bengal.

India's Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) developed under Water launched Missile B05 was successfully flight tested  off the coast of Visakhapatnam, an official press note said. 

The Missile launched from a pontoon, was tested for the full range and met all the mission objectives.  All the parameters of the vehicle were monitored by the Radar all through the trajectory and terminal events have taken place exactly as expected.

Nuclear triad is the ability to fire nuclear-tipped missiles from land, air and sea. Saraswat said that the development phase of themissile, which is a submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM), was over and it was now ready for deployment on various platforms including the indigenous nuclear submarine INS Arihant which is under development.
Meanwhile even as I write this, PTI reports from Beijing that China today successfully carried out its second missile interceptor test, the Defence Ministry announced. 

China carried out a land-based mid-course missile interception test within its territory today, state-run Xinhua news agency reported attributing the news to the Information Bureau of China's Defence Ministry.

"The test has reached the preset goal," an official with the Bureau said without providing details. "The test is defensive in nature and targets no other country," he said. The last such reported test was in January, 2010

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Proximity to China won’t hurt relations with India: Lankan Foreign Minister

India, Sri Lanka relations should not be seen through the prism of Sri Lanka-China relationship, Prof GL Peiris, Sri Lanka's foreign minister tells me in an exclusive interview.
He also talks in detail about the 13th amendment and how only a Parliament Select Committee can change the provisions!
Speaks about fishermen's issue, the range and depth of Indo-Sri Lankan relationship and invites political leaders from Tamil Nadu to visit Sri Lanka's North to see for themselves the progress made in those areas.
Watch if you have 23 minutes to spare.
Its not scintillating but a conversation that brings out different facets

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The LoC incident: The back story

The recent incidents on the Line of Control between Indian and Pakistani army troops has predictably generated a lot of heat and has taken up oodles of air and print space in the media on both sides of the border. 

It is a familiar pattern. An incident takes place, it gets reported. The other side reacts. There is a counter-reaction. Allegations are made. Counter-allegations are flung. TV News Studios get busy with retired diplomats and generals on either side getting their 15 seconds of fame. So what's new?

As someone who was involved from Day I in not only reporting the incident but also monitoring the subsequent developments, it is important for me to recall the facts, the chain of events and the reaction of all stake-holders (a term I recently came across at a South Asia 2020 Conference) during the entire episode lest fiction as conceived by different players gets accepted as the absolute truth.

To begin at the beginning.

Sunday 6 January, 9.39 am:

My colleague Zaffar Iqbal sends an email to me and the NDTV Newsdesk which reads: "Ceasefire violation in Uri sector of Kashmir. Pakistan army resorted to unprovoked firing on Indian posts near village CHURUNDA close to LoC. Pak fired mortar shells and illumination shots. Many shells landed close to the village. Panic has gripped the villagers who fear casualties and damage to property. Firing started at 3.30 am and possibly to help infiltration. Alert troops retaliated and forced Pakistani troops to stop firing."

The newsdesk asks me for more details which are difficult to come by in the initial hours. But Army's Public Information setup in Delhi confirm Zaffar's inputs around 11.30. 

In the overall news rundown, the incident finds a routine mention.

Monday 7 January: 

Zaffar sends photographs of damage to villagers' houses in Churunda village because of the cross-border firing.

Tuesday 8 January, 1.15 pm or thereabouts:

On my facebook page and twitter timeline, queries start appearing: Have you heard of beheading of one of the two soldiers killed?

By 2 pm I am bombarded by faujis, fauji wives and others with information that one soldier is indeed beheaded. They were incredulous why I and other mainstream media guys were fighting shy of mentioning the barbaric act.

3 pm: Northern Command PRO, Lt. Col Rajesh Kalia continues to maintain that 2 soldiers have been killed and he has no more information at that point.

4 pm: Zaffar calls up and sends a mail saying he is pretty sure of the beheading but no one in the Army was reachable.

I again call up the usual contacts in Northern Command, the Army HQ and whoever I can reach in the fauj but no confirmation yet.

I and Zaffar in any case go on air saying two soldiers have indeed been killed after a suspected cross-border raid, their weapons snatched.

6.30 pm:

Finally, a senior officer at the  Army HQ reluctantly admits that one body is muitilated
without confirming if it was beheaded. So we stick to 'muitilation,' in absence of official admission.

6.30 to 8 pm:

Classic reporter's dilemma continues to dog us: Despite being aware of what had happened, lack of official confirmation means I am only circling around the fact by saying we have heard of this but no confirmation officially!

8.05: A senior officer in Northern Command finally confirms beheading. That's the time we go on air confirming beheading as fact!

9 January, Wednesday 

The Hindu's Praveen Swami reports of a grandmother's crossing the LoC and an aggressive commander on the LoC having sparked off the latest confrontation.

8 am: I call up the commander in question and ask him, half in jest: "So you have riled the Pakistanis so much." He laughs and says: "I wish I had that kind of power. In any case, I was on leave till yesterday (8th January)." We exchange further notes.

Zaffar in the meantime has reached Rajouri and is outside the Military Hospital there. The autopsy of the two killed soldiers is being carried out there.

At 11.45 am, Brig JK Tiwari, the No. 2 man in the 25 Infantry Division (which guards the LoC at Mendhar and Poonch among other places) goes on record, on camera to confirm the beheading.

1.58 pm: Zaffar says bodies flown out to Delhi.

2.20: We are told in the Defence Ministry the bodies are going to Agra since easier to send one to Mathura (Hemraj's).

5 pm: Defence Ministry issues clarification on a couple of stories, including The Hindu's.

Prime Time: Most TV Channels discuss the incident. Some project this as an act of war.

10 January, Thursday

5 pm: Zaffar says from Poonch cross-LoC trade halted. But trade is normal at Uri!

7.30 pm: Zaffar reprts fresh firing in Poonch, Mendhar etc.

post-8.30 pm: Lance Naik Hemraj's cremation takes place.

11 January, Friday 

Occasional exchange of firing from both sides.  Zaffar hangs on around the Poonch area. India asks for a flag meeting. Pakistan hasn't responded.

12 January, Saturday

Air Chief, ACM, NAK 'Charlie" Browne is visiting the NCC Cadets' camp in New Delhi. Reporters confront him there. As Chairman Chiefs of Staff Committee, he is forceful and candid, without sounding like a war monger.

"We have a Line of Control, we have a ceasefire agreement, we have certain structures and mechanisms which are sacrosanct and any violation of these with impunity especially what has been happening in the last few months is totally unacceptable.

"We are monitoring the situation carefully because if these things continue to be the way they are and these violations continue to take place, then perhaps we may have to look at some other options for compliance," he says.

7 pm: Zaffar says an infiltration attempt foiled at Mendhar.

The Air Chief's statement sets off another round of heated and in many cases hysterical discussions on TV programmes.

13 January, Sunday

Relatively quiet day.

14 January, Monday: 

Army Chief Gen Bikram Singh in the course of his annual Press Conference gives out the details and warns Pakistan. Says I expect my commanders on LoC to be aggressive and offensive.

He also admits that in July 2011 a similar incident of beheading of 2 soldiers from 20 Kumaon battalion had taken place but denies Army had tried to suppress it.

(Technically  Gen Bikram Singh was right since our own reporter in Uttarakhand, Dinesh Mansera had reported about the matter but only in an oblique manner since apparently at that time the family did not want this to come out. Whether the Army prevailed over the family not to speak about it or they did not want to let this fact come out because of some other reason is not yet clear).

At that time, some of us who came to know of the incident almost 10 days after it had happened could not pursue it since neither the Army nor the family would confirm it.

Later, there were unconfirmed and unsubstantiated reports about the Pakistani government having lodged a protest against beheading of three of their soldiers. But in my limited capacity of research, I have not come across any official report about this in 2011 in either Indian or Pakistani media. 

The gossip is however persistent and continues to this day. 

Last Saturday (19th January, 2013) however wife of one of the Kumaoni soldiers has told my colleague Dinesh Mansera: "hemraj ke sath jo hua wo hamare sath bhi hua per hamen sarkar ne sammaan nahi diya(what happened with Hemraj also happened with us)"

 At the moment it is not clear how this seemingly new development is being tackled by the Army. 

But to get back to the recent LoC incident.

The Army Chief's tough language was expected after the Air Chief had set the ball rolling.

The MEA in the meantime was trying to downplay the incident through "safe" and conciliatory statements.

15 January, Tuesday

Forenoon: Northern Army Commander Lt. Gen KT Parnaik holds his traditional press conference at Akhnoor after taking salute at the Army Day parade and reiterates the tough message that India reserved the right to retaliate at the place and time of its own choosing.

Later in the evening, he gives a lengthy interview to Times Now's Arnab Goswami and recounts in some details the entire incident.

Post-lunch: Annual Reception at Army House, 3 pm

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his senior Cabinet colleagues arrive 10 minutes before President Pranab Mukherjee is to arrive.

My colleague Barkha Dutt is among a handful of journalists and Editors at the reception.

Seeing the Prime Minister, she walks towards him and tosses a question: How do you read the situation at the LoC?

After a pause, he replies: "It can't be business  as usual."

Barkha rushes out of the Army House, starts reporting. Other reporters too gherao the PM and get the same response.

External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid holds a hurriedly convened press conference a couple of hours later and says: "It should not be felt that the brazen denial and a lack of proper response from the government of Pakistan to our repeated demarches on this incident will be ignored and that bilateral relations could be unaffected or that there will be 'business as usual'.

Indian political leadership has finally in sync with the military's stand!

That night fresh exchange of firing happens, one Pakistani soldier is apparently killed.

16 January, Wednesday 

10 am:Pakistan Army Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) calls up his Indian counterpart and protests over the killing but more importantly the Pakistani officer says orders have been passed to the troops on their side of the LoC to exercise restraint and observe the ceasefire strictly. Both reached an understanding that situation should not be allowed to escalate!

So ended the latest flashpoint between India and Pakistan, at least temporarily.

Over the weekend, many write up have appeared questioning how and why the story acquired the salience it did.

My simple take is: In today's world of easy communications, nothing remains hidden. 

There are no conspiracies in the way the story unfolded. Even from two years ago, situation has changed.

Soldiers posses mobile phones. Officers and their wives are on twitter timelines and facebook pages. They talk, they gossip and they bristle in anger at the "soft" line taken by sections of the government. Details of incidents get out in flash, as they did on 6th and 8th January. No one is able to control the information flow. Mainstream Media waits for official confirmation, the social media has no such compulsion. So the mainstream media gets abused and reviled. It comes under pressure.

The responses are conditioned by this pressure. 

So decisions oscillate between one extreme and the other both in the MSM and the government.

It is this challenge that governments and media outlets will have to confront NOW.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Kashmir: The endless war. From my archives

In July-August 2011, I spent a week in Kashmir valley, living with the troops on the Line of Control, observing and recording their daily routine, the endless tension and drudgery. The thankless job they our soldiers do come sun, rain or snow. 

Recent incidents on the LoC reminded me once again how little we ordinary Indians know how risky the task is toi guard the LoC and how brave our soldiers are. Take a look at the documentary which admittedly captures only a fraction of the selfless service our Army renders.


Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Rendezvous with a rebel: From the archives

Early today, photographer friend Nilayan Dutta posted on Facebook a long forgotten picture(from November 200) of us in the jungles along the India-Myanmar border to meet a reclusive insurgent leader. That photograph kindled a lot of old memories. Here’s the description of sojourn where the journey itself was an adventure.

Then, looking for some old photographs came across memories of some more unusual journeys in India's north-east. So sharing them with friends.

Have a GREAT 2013.


 Circa 2000:
From the moment it was planned, I knew the risks involved.
Reaching the United National Liberation Front guerrillas in Manipur was tough for two reasons.
One, the sheer physical labour involved. Braving intense cold, we had to walk, climb and wade through jungles for two days.
Then, the security forces. Our visit coincided with the UNLF's 36th foundation day, when government troops were on extra alert to prevent any celebration.
Fortunately, we survived our adventure.
A decade ago in the jungles on the Indo-Myanmar border with UNLF chief Sanayaima, his colleagues and friends Rupachandra and Khelen. Memorable visit. Photographer Nilayan is sitting 
And when we reached the hideout somewhere deep in the forests bordering Burma, we had a pleasant surprise -- UNLF chairman R K Meghen.
Better known as Sana Yaima, this is the first time the elusive insurgent leader is coming out in the open.
Make your own way!
The planning was done well in advance, after a lot of homework.
The first approach, through a friend and newsman, was followed up by email.
The mid- and late 1990s: Various exciting assignment:
Clockwise from top left: Travelling a goods train in North Cachar Hills with fellow journalists; On the fast-flowing Lohit river in Eastern Arunachal Pradesh; Trekking in the jungles of North-east and Myanmar to meet a rebel leader RK Meghen alias Sanayaima, now in jail.
Nearly a fortnight went for logistics. But by the time I landed in Imphal, Manipur's capital, everything had been arranged.
Our haversacks full of essentials for the next few days, Photographer Nilayan Dutta and I waited for the morrow with apprehension...

Day 1
YUMNAM Rupachandra, correspondent of The Statesman, arrives with four others -- Khelen Thokchom, editor of Sangai Express, a local English daily, two photographers, and an ANI correspondent -- at 0600 hours IST. We set off in a Tata Sumo.
An hour reaches us to a small town. After a bit of breakfast, we turn off the highway, onto a dirt track. We arrive at a village and are told to unload our rucksacks and wait.
Ten minutes later, a man in a heavy jacket rides up on a bicycle. He could have been one of the several onlookers gathered around us but for one thing: a small Kenwood two-way radio around his neck.
He is Inga, and chats animatedly with our local friends in Manipuri. Rupachandra translates for our benefit: "An armed posse will escort us from this point."
Half an hour later, guerrillas arrive. In jungle fatigues, armed with AK-56s, the band of 11 boys, all of them in their early 20s, march into the village in a single file.
The leader, also carrying a radio, is a lance corporal in the UNLF hierarchy. He instructs his boys to pick up our luggage. I gather we are VIPs to them, so we are exempted from carrying our own bags.
With two 'scouts' in front, the procession begins. We march in single file. The pace, as it happens in the beginning of any journey on foot, is brisk. Soon we begin to sweat -- and off come our sweaters and heavy jackets.
After an hour or so, the water bottles come out. So do biscuits and chocolates. We city-types are beginning to tire and wonder what we have got ourselves into.
On the way, villagers stare at us, as if watching an exotic species. They are used to armed men walking through, but not 'civilians' like us.
After two-and-a-half hours, we reach the village where we are to have lunch. All of us lie down on the cool grass. Lunch is rice and dal. It has never tasted so great anywhere before!
CHAIREN is checking the route ahead for enemy movement.
"I am not so much worried about the security forces. What I am concerned about is our rivals attacking unexpectedly," he says.
Apparently, other groups such as the Issac-Muivah faction of the National Socialist Council of Nagaland -- bitter enemies of the UNLF -- control some areas en route.
We begin walking again, this time silently. As dusk dissolves into darkness, the fear in my mind accentuates. Everyone is quiet. What if there is an attack? Are these guys capable of warding it off?
The walk continues for the next four hours with little or no banter among us. Around 2000 hours, we reach a riverbank.
Chairen is constantly in touch with his base on radio. We wait. A vehicle is supposed to pick us up here.
After 30 minutes a Shaktiman truck wades through the waist-deep water and comes to our side. We clamber on to the open truck, grateful that we don't have to walk anymore.
The exciting 1990s and 2000s that took me and fellow photographers to mountains, rivers and jungles of the north-east. Clockwise from top left:
With then Outlook colleague Swapan Nayak at an NSCN camp; in the jungles of Manipur; On a ferry on the River Brahmaputra; at Walong with Swapan and at the Sela Pass with another Outlook photographer Jitendra Gupta
But 10 minutes on, we are all wishing that we had continued walking. The Shaktiman is lurching violently as it cuts through the jungle. Branches hit us from both sides.
My thoughts go back to the Tata Safari ad that says, 'Make your own way.' If the makers of Shaktiman could see us now, I think they would just film our journey and use it as promo!
An hour later we reach a village, gorge the simple fare of rice, tinned fish and dal and crash out on the wooden floor of a safe house.
Chairen's men, showing no signs of exhaustion despite the long day, stand guard. It is cold, but I drop off immediately into an exhausted slumber.


And tonight the password is 'Topi'

UP at 0530 hours IST. We brush our teeth. After a quick change of clothes, we are off to another house to avoid the prying eyes of the villagers.
A meal is being prepared. All of us go down to the river for our morning ablutions, shivering in the cold. The water is ice-cold but refreshing.
At 0830 hours we have our breakfast of rice and board our "luxury coach". The Shaktiman is now stacked with hay to make us comfortable!
Within 20 minutes, the semblance of road that existed vanishes. We are now going through a river -- through a river, mind you, not by its side.
The driver is least bothered about the pebbles and rocks on the riverbed or the steep inclines that he has to climb at times. All we can do is marvel at his skill and the Shaktiman's power. The manufacturers have not correctly gauged its capacity, I tell myself.
We halt after six torturous hours. Chairen hands us over to another platoon, led by a tough but smiling corporal, Sajong.
How much longer, we ask.
"Oh, just another hour," he replies.
He could not have been more wrong in gauging our strength -- or the lack of it. It took us three-and-a-half hours to reach our destination.
But I am jumping the gun. Before we begin the steepest climb in our journey, we walk/wade through 22 streams! Our shoes in our hands, the trousers rolled up above the knee, we cross these, wincing every time we put our feet in the bitingly cold water.
At a place called Rest Point, Sajong says it is only a 30-minute climb now. It takes us another two hours.
As we puff our way up the mountain, darkness descends. The track is too narrow. Our legs keep buckling under. My old knee injury starts aching.
Halfway up, Chinglen, staff officer of UNLF headquarters, meets us with steaming coffee and biscuits. The break is welcome.
The guerrillas, for their part, are amused at our plight. For them, climbing is as easy is as falling off to sleep.
AFTER a prolonged break, we arrive on the top. There is a fire burning. The warmth is welcome and so are the moulded plastic chairs. This is a transit camp, explains Chinglen.
Another round of coffee and we start talking. We are shown the hut where we would be sleeping for the next two nights. I look around, trying to soak in the ambience.
A diesel generator is on. Boys, young men and women in jungle fatigues, all armed, are bustling about the hillock. There are several huts scattered around. And guards at all strategic points.
As we apply Iodex to our aching feet, a senior man, flanked by tough-looking guards, walks across to us. He introduces himself as acting chief of staff, UNLF, and welcomes us formally. Then he gives us the biggest news we could have hoped for.
"Our chairman will meet you tomorrow," he announces without preamble.
Those of us who know how media-shy R K Meghen alias Sana Yaima is are elated. The tough journey suddenly seems worth all the trouble. A legend, who has avoided meeting the media so far, is ready to talk to us. It would be scoop!
A quick dinner and we are all ready for bed. We sleep like logs. Before we drop off, Chinglen gives us the password for the night, just in case any of us ventures out of the hut. It is 'Topi'.
"Topi, topi," I mutter as sleep overpowers me.

Day 3

The man they call Sana Yaima

COLD and stiff, we wake up to mugs of hot tea. No sooner is breakfast dispensed with, the man we are all waiting for walks across.
Tall and erect, his gait confident, Sana Yaima, dressed in jungle fatigues and surrounded by armed men, stops in front of us.
"Hello. Welcome to our makeshift camp," are his first words.
We introduce ourselves and sit around the fire. But for his olive green fatigues, Meghen could easily be mistaken for an academician.
Soft-spoken, erudite and impeccably mannered, he assumed the ancient Meitei name Sana Yaima in his avatar as an insurgent leader. He is far removed from the image of a gun-totting, fiery revolutionary.
Sana Yaima is extremely articulate, his reasoning convincing, his facts solid. A post-graduate in international relations from Calcutta's Jadavpur University, he had graduated from the Scottish Church College in the same city.
He brings a scholar's approach to insurgency. Also sophistication. His cadres have the best of weapons and equipment, which include laptop computers.
For a quarter of century, he had shunned the media. Now, after over 36 years of its existence (of which he has been associated for 31 years), the UNLF is ready to let the world know what it is all about.
Sana Yaima's upbringing and education in the late 1960s in Calcutta, during the run-up to the Naxalite uprising, have had a lasting affect on his outlook. I know that he is liberal, given to respect other ethnic groups and their distinct identities.
No wonder, I say to myself, that he has been leading the UNLF for the past 16 years, first in the capacity of general secretary between 1984 and 1998 and now as chairman. I try to recollect what I know of him.
IF I am not mistaken, he returned to Manipur in the early 1970s and got married.
In 1975, having become an important member of the outfit's think tank, he went underground. Since then, he has remained in the jungles, away from family, meeting them occasionally in hiding.
Sana Yaima's wife and two children have taken his absence in their stride. His wife, he is to tell us later, "keeps busy by teaching in a school while both my sons are pursuing higher studies".
The elder is doing his doctorate in remote sensing application in Manipur University and the younger is in Pune, studying computer science.
Twenty-five years in the jungles have kept the 55-year-old leader fighting fit. For him, this has become a way of life.
Except for making brief forays to Geneva to make a representation on the UNLF's behalf to the UN Sub-Commission on Indigenous People, and an occasional trip to South-East Asian countries, Sana Yaima has stayed with his 1,000-strong army, which comprises 100-odd women.
And now, after preliminary pleasantries are over, Sana Yaima is saying, "Let's have the interviews one by one."

And so it begins.