Two decades after nuclear-armed neighbours fought in the hills of Kashmir, the disputed region continues to be on edge.
Kargil, India-administered Kashmir – Visitors to Drass, a town situated at an altitude of 10,760 feet in India-administered Kashmir, are greeted with a signboard that says at -60 degrees Celsius on January 9, 1995, it was the second coldest inhabited place on the planet.
Drass, located in Kargil district, has an additional claim to fame. In the summers of 1999, it was among the rocky and barren Himalayan peaks on its western edge that India and Pakistan fought their last war.
That year, Pakistan’s military and Kashmiri rebels occupied strategic positions on the Indian side of the de facto border between them (known as the Line of Control or LoC), prompting a counter-offensive by India.
Kargil war, as it came to be known as, lasted for nearly three months, killed more than 500 Indian and nearly 400 Pakistani soldiers, and ended with India successfully pushing back Pakistani fighters to the other side of the LoC.
While Pakistan had named its daring intrusion to take over the control of Indian posts along the LoC as Operation Badr, India called its offensive Operation Vijay.
It was a war fought in the era of satellite news channels. The battles were telecast directly to homes in both the countries, making Drass a symbol of India’s nationalism and inspired a series of jingoist Bollywood movies.
Every year since 1999, the Indian army celebrates July 26 – the day war ended – as “Vijay Diwas” (Victory Day), this week being its 20th anniversary.
India’s warning to Pakistan
With a Hindu nationalist government at the centre, celebrations by the Indian army were elaborate and included commemorative treks to the mountain tops where the fiercest of the fighting had taken place.
On Thursday, Indian army chief General Bipin Rawat was in Kargil, where he warned Pakistan not to repeat a Kargil-like incursion “anytime, anywhere”.
“They [Pakistan] did not appreciate the will and the intent of the Indian political establishment and the Indian armed forces that they will never allow them to succeed,” he said.
“My warning to Pakistan [is]: do not ever repeat such misadventure anytime in the future anywhere. Do not think of it,” he said.
Until 1999, Indian and Pakistani soldiers manning the mountain top posts had an unwritten winter armistice on the rugged and inhospitable Kargil frontier. Both sides abandoned frontline posts during the harsh winters when temperatures fell to fatal levels.
The Himalayan territory of Kashmir is divided between Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan since the two countries gained independence from British rule in 1947.
Both India and Pakistan claim Kashmir in full, resulting in a 70-year standoff and turning the region into one of the world’s most militarised zones.
20 years later
Drass, nearly 150km east of Kashmir’s main city, Srinagar, is separated from the Kashmir valley by the mighty Himalayas. The people here are of Central Asian ancestry, speak Balti and Dardi, and live a life that has seen few changes in hundreds of years.
Mohammad Hussain had to flee with his family during the war and returned to find his house badly damaged by the shelling. He said a lot has changed since the war as the town now attracts tourists from across India and abroad.
“Earlier, very few people would come to this desolate place. Now, they come and some even stay for a night,” he said.
Hussain said the harsh living conditions in the region helped in healing the scars of the war quickly. “We are cut off from the world for six months every year when we live and die on our own. So, it’s not difficult to forget a war,” he said.
While Hussain may claim to have “forgotten” the Kargil war, the dispute continues to cast the longest shadow on the tenuous relations between the two nuclear-armed neighbours, making the future of Kashmir uncertain.
The hostilities between the two nations touched a new low in February this year, when a Pakistan-based armed group, Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) carried out a suicide attack on an Indian military convoy in a southern town of India-administered Kashmir.
The Pulwama attack killed at least 40 Indian troops, triggered dogfights and air attacks inside each other’s territory, and brought India and Pakistan to the brink of another full-scale war.
Even as the threat of a war appears to have subsided since, tension between the two countries continues, freezing any dialogue.
‘From bad to worse’
Meanwhile, India-administered Kashmir remains in turmoil for the last three decades after an armed rebellion against the Indian rule erupted in the early 1990s.
In recent years, the almost daily confrontations between stone-throwing protesters and armed rebels on the one side, and the Indian security forces on the other has only worsened.
Security experts say not much has changed in Kashmir even after two decades of the Kargil war.
New Delhi-based security analyst Rahul Bedi told Al Jazeera the Kashmir issue is “responsible for India’s huge military expenditure”.
“Nothing really seems to be changing because the political situation in Kashmir has gone from bad to worse and nobody knows when the state elections are going to be held,” he said, referring to the federal rule imposed in the disputed region earlier this year.
The Kashmir unrest has been further compounded by New Delhi’s insistence on revoking the laws which protect the demographic structure of the only Muslim-majority region in the country.
Bedi says such actions may create further trouble in Kashmir. India accuses Pakistan of backing the armed rebels in Kashmir, an allegation Pakistan denies.
“The chances of Kargil happening again are very remote, but the fact is that Kashmir continues to remain the fierce bone of contention between the two states and military action cannot be ruled out entirely,” Bedi said.
However, Islamabad-based analyst Zahid Hussain thinks a breakthrough between India and Pakistan is possible if they engage directly and not through a third-party intervention as offered by US President Donald Trump this week.
“I don’t see progress immediately. It won’t happen soon,” he said, adding that “backchannel diplomacy” could help. He also said it’s not Kargil, but the 2008 Mumbai attacks that worsened India-Pakistan relations.
“Kashmir used to be open. I went to India-administered Kashmir myself. In 2008, Mumbai happened… [It was] the turning point,” he said.
Ajai Sahni, another New delhi-based defence and security analyst, told Al Jazeera while the intensity of military confrontation between the two countries has come down, “political mismanagement” may escalate the tensions.
“At the moment, it seems [Pakistani Prime Minister] Imran Khan feels calling for dialogue with India serves his constituency, but [Indian Prime Minister Narendra] Modi doesn’t think talking with Pakistan will serve his domestic agenda,” he said.
“I am afraid we have not changed much between then [Kargil war] and now.”
– Additional reporting by Asad Hashim from Islamabad, Pakistan