Increasing clashes between Pakistani and Indian mountain troops along the disputed border in Kashmir have prompted concern among Pakistani officials that election-year posturing by Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi could evolve into new troop incursions into Pakistani-held territory.
Such a situation, they believe, could heighten the potential for wider conflict.
While border skirmishes long have been commonplace along the 750-mile cease-fire line drawn in 1949 and revised by the 1972 Simla Accord, tension has become particularly acute in the last two months in the inhospitable Siachin Glacier region in northeast Kashmir. There, thousands of Indian and Pakistani troops are lined almost muzzle-to-muzzle in permanently frozen mountain peaks more than 20,000 feet high alongside the Chinese border.
Pakistani officials have charged that Indian troops have already penetrated 40 miles across an unofficial extension of the Line of Control that runs northeastward through the glacier region to the Chinese border and appear to be digging in for a long standoff.
For its part, the Indian government claims that Pakistani troops have stepped up their cross-border attacks further south along the formal demarcation line and are provoking armed clashes with increasing frequency.
The skirmishes, while not resulting in large casualties, have exacerbated tension between the two countries, which have fought three wars in the past 36 years.
Relations between India and Pakistan -- already strained over the issues of Afghanistan and Indian allegations of Pakistani-assisted subversion in the Punjab -- have deteriorated further, Pakistani and Indian officials and western diplomats here and in New Delhi agree. The strains have dashed, at least for the present, chances for reopening the dialogue that began when Gandhi and Pakistani President Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq met in New Delhi in November 1982.
"Potentially, this could lead to open conflict, and we want to avoid that by negotiation. But in the current atmosphere, negotiations seem difficult," Abdul Sattar, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry's chief of Indian affairs, said in an interview.
Rajiv Gandhi, the Indian prime minister's son and general secretary of the ruling Congress (I) Party, recently said that a war with Pakistan by the end of the year was a possibility, and he has specifically cited border violations as a threat to India's security.
While the Indian press has reported numerous clashes in western Kashmir, Pakistani officials say that most of them never occurred.
Sattar acknowledged one incident in August near Uri in which he said Indian troops crossed the line and attacked a routine Pakistani patrol, killing two soldiers. The Indian government claimed that the Pakistanis crossed the line and that three of them were killed.
"There have been reports in India of many, many other recent clashes, but to our knowledge, Uri was the only incident along that part of the line," said Sattar, who formerly was ambassador in New Delhi.
However, he said, there has been an escalation of clashes in the glacier region near where there is no agreed cease-fire line.
While the cease-fire line was negotiated for most of Kashmir, it was not marked beyond the foot of the glacier, mainly because the area is uninhabitable and neither side felt it necessary. The glacier rises to 26,000 feet, and there had been no military action in the area.
Pakistan, however, contends that the line should run northeastward to the Karakoram Pass, while the Indians assert that it should go directly north, skirting the area ceded to the Chinese. The disputed area covers about 1,500 square miles.
"We also have troops on the western ridge of the glacier because we have a legitimate right to be there," he said.
Tensions worsened, he said, in July when Indian troops tried to advance westward, resulting in a clash in which one Pakistani soldier was killed and three wounded.
The Indian version of the incident is that the Pakistanis launched an expedition across the glacier and that a battalion of Indian troops was flown to an airfield close to the Chinese border to intercept it.
Indian officials say that despite Pakistani reinforcements, they believe the Army can hold the heights.
Pakistani officials said that two meetings have been held between the two sides on the glacier, but that India still holds territory as far as 40 miles into the area claimed by Pakistan, near Indiri Koli.
Sattar said that Pakistan has been at a disadvantage because it did not have a mountain division, but that it is training one now "to prevent an Indian fait accompli in the area." Asked why he thought the Indian Army was on the move in the area, Sattar said, "It makes no sense in strategic terms. If these heights are so strategic, why didn't either side do anything before 1981?" He noted that the Indian troops are deployed 90 miles from the Karakoram highway that links Pakistan and China.
"I think one has to look for an explanation not limited to the current circumstances. The conclusion that I draw is that somehow the prime minister has decided that a posture of hostility better serves India's enduring interests," Sattar said.
He said that he believes Gandhi is attempting to "externalize her internal problems" and divert attention from such crises as sectarian violence in Punjab and elsewhere, while at the same time trying to appeal to "Hindi chauvinism" in vote-heavy northern Indian states.
He also suggested that the Soviet Union could have prevailed upon India to pressure Pakistan because of Pakistan's support of Afghan refugees and its alliance with the United States. He added, "We don't think India is a satellite of the Soviet Union, but there is a perception in New Delhi of a confluence of Indian and Soviet interests in the region."
But in a broader perspective, Sattar said, the border tension reflects Gandhi's "hegemonic attitude that India has a right to a sphere of influence throughout South Asia."
"At least the present government is leaning on its neighbors to accept the policies preferred by India, not only on Pakistan but all its neighbors. She desires to call the shots in South Asia," Sattar said.
The Indian view, however, is that Pakistan is instigating border clashes to probe Indian preparedness around the Kashmir valley, which would be a prime target of any Pakistani invasion and also to stake claims to disputed territory with an eye to future negotiations.
Noting that the Soviet-equipped Indian Army and Air Force far overshadow the Pakistani military, despite the $3.2 billion U.S. military and economic aid package, Sattar scoffed at the notion of a Pakistani invasion of India.
"For our own strategic interests, we cannot follow any policy of interference or aggression against India," he said.