Daylight was yet a few hours away when a group of four heavily armed terrorists sneaked into the Indian Army’s Brigade HQ at Uri and opened fire, catching the troops by surprise. In the sneak predawn attack on 18 September, 19 soldiers lost their lives and another 29 were injured, before the four terrorists were gunned down. A lot has been said in the print and audio visual media about what happened in those fateful hours, where the Indian Army suffered perhaps its greatest number of casualties in the decades long proxy war being waged by Pakistan in J&K. The Uri attack marked an inflexion point in the relations between the two countries and the national mood was rightly filled with rage against continued Pakistani provocation. That angst was doused on 29 September, when India’s Director General of Military Operations (DGMO), broke the news to an incredulous world of the Indian Army’s surgical strike across the Line of Control (LOC), where a large number of terrorists were killed and their camps destroyed. This marked the second inflexion point. While the Indian Army scrupulously respected the LOC, Pakistan had no qualms in sending in armed terrorists across the line to create mayhem in India. With the 29 September strike against terrorists across the LOC, that situation stands radically altered. The Rubicon has been crossed and a ‘new normal’ has come into being. Three issues however merit consideration, which need to form part of the national discourse.
The first of these is an understanding of what constitutes provocation and how the Indian state should respond to such acts. Let us take a step back in history and recall what happened in a series of provocative attacks since the turn of the century. In November 2008, a group of 10 Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) terrorists infiltrated by sea and caused mayhem in Mumbai. The attacks, which continued for three days before the terrorists were eliminated, drew worldwide condemnation and caused serious injury to the Indian state, both in its standing as a potential power in the world stage as well as in its ability to handle incidents of such nature. This, off course was an act of provocation, as were earlier such incidents such as the 2001 attack by the LeT on the Indian Parliament and the Akshardham Temple attack of September 2002. But were these the only ones?
Let us focus our attention on another incident which continues to reverberate in India. In June 2004, four LeT terrorists were gunned down near Ahmedabad by the crime branch of the Ahmedabad police. One of these was a young woman named Ishrat Jahan. The police had specific intelligence that these four people were LeT operatives, tasked to assassinate the Gujarat Chief Minister, Shri Narendra Modi. By the proactive and timely detection of this module, a ghastly incident was prevented in India, which could well have polarised society and led to a communal flare up claiming thousands of lives. Post the elimination of this module, its sponsor, the Jamat-ul-Dawa ( JuD), the political arm of the LeT, accepted the fact that Ishrat Jahan and her three accomplices were LeT operatives and published their names in their web site as “martyrs”. Yet, In India, vested interests treated Ishrat Jahan as a victim of police brutality and the concerned police officers were subjected to criminal proceedings and charged with murder!
A comparison of these two cases is instructive to highlight how incidents of terror are handled in India. The attack on India’s parliament, the Akshardham Temple and on Mumbai were treated as terror attacks because the terrorists were able to breach Indian security and create mayhem. The elimination of the Ishrat Jahan module was not treated in a similar manner because the terrorists were neutralised before they could execute their plan. It goes without saying that the Ishrat Jahan module was planning a very serious terror attack, but the fact that it was neutralised before it could accomplish its task, enabled vested interests to give a different spin to this case, and in an ironic turn of events, the police were made out to be villains and the terrorists as decent law abiding citizens! Let us for a moment assume that the Ishrat Jahan module was successful in achieving its aim, but the attack in Mumbai was neutralised, with the terrorists being gunned down in a car in Mumbai. The optics in both cases would then have been very different, with the media and the public asking uncomfortable questions as to why a Chief Minister’s security was compromised. Simultaneously, a whole range of activists would be out in the streets claiming that the ten people killed by the police in Mumbai were not
terrorists but innocent citizens and that they were targeted because of their religion!
This mindset needs to change. India was rightly enraged over the Uri attack, with the Prime Minister stating that those killed in action would not be forgotten. Vengeance came eleven days later with multiple surgical strikes on terrorist camps all across the line of control. But a similar incident, just a week prior to the Uri attack, drew little rage from the Indian masses, simply because the module was eliminated before it could cause havoc. Both incidents had similar backing from Pakistan, but India chose to react only when she was hit. Simply because an attack has been nipped in the bud does not reduce its level of gravity. There must be outrage at every attempt made by Pakistan to destabilise the country. Each incident must be treated as an act of war and responded to accordingly, regardless of whether the attack was a partial or complete success or whether it was detected in time and defeated, without causing any damage to men and materials. While great political and military resolve has been shown in executing the flawless surgical strikes of 29 September, Pakistan needs to be punished each time it attempts to push in terrorists into India. That must become the ‘new normal’.
The second issue pertains to the possible factors that enabled the terrorists to enter a high security post of the Indian Army in Uri. While the tactical aspect will be dealt with by the local formation commanders concerned and remedial measures will be taken, there is an underlying psychological aspect which needs consideration both by the Army and by the nation too. Firm handling by the Army had brought the state to near normalcy, with a dramatic decrease in fatalities related to incidents of terrorism. And with peace came a host of economic and other benefits. Unfortunately, there was a downside to.
The Army was asked to exercise restraint, to obviate the occurrence of untoward incidents. On the face of it, such an approach seems logical, so long as the effectiveness of the security forces is not compromised. Unfortunately, in its application, both the political authority and the Army have erred, not by design but perhaps in the understanding of the psychological repercussions of such an approach. An incident which took place on 3 November 2014 in Chattergam, in Kashmir’s Badgam area highlights this aspect.
On that fateful day, a car with five occupants did not stop at two mobile OPINION 15-17-Opinion_14_19_ BEING A FLY GIRL.qxd 10/7/2016 11:03 AM Page 2 vehicle check points established by the Army and was fired upon when it tried to break the third barrier. Two of the occupants were killed in the incident while two suffered gunshot injuries. The occupants of the car were all teenaged kids, which led to widespread outrage in the Valley over their killings. The Army expressed regret over the shooting and to assuage popular sentiment, ordered an inquiry and also replaced the concerned unit with another Rashtriya Rifles (RR) unit. Omar Abdullah, the former Chief Minister of J&K tweeted, “Such killings have no place in an otherwise improving security environment where militancy incidents are at record low levels”. While it is appreciated that public hurt had to be assuaged, the potential psychological impact of such actions on the Army personnel deployed in disturbed areas required a broader understanding.
It goes without saying that if the instructions issued by the Army in a disturbed area are flouted with impunity, it is the peace process and the people who will suffer its long term consequences. While public hurt needs to be assuaged, it has to be done without weakening the ultimate pillar of the state – The Indian Armed Forces. The military cannot be compromised on the altar of political convenience, and hence the need for a sophisticated perception management campaign and of sensitive handling by the press of incidents which have the potential to whip up public emotions. Even in mature democracies such as the US, the police open fire if a vehicle tries to breach a security barrier. That is a standard drill, even when no threat of terrorism exists. In Badgam, the Army simply did its duty, yet the personnel involved had to suffer the consequences of political expediency. A vibrant perception management programme could have obviated the negative fall out of the killing of a couple of hyper active underaged youths taking a joy ride in a car. In any case, the action of the troops, who were simply doing their duty as taught to them should not have come up for questioning. The debate should have hinged on whether mobile check points serve a useful security function or otherwise.
The ultimate fallout of such actions debilitates the Army. Commanders and troops tend to ‘play safe’, and avoid activities which could lead to a possible incident of the type described above. This has dangerous portents for national security. If troops avoid situations where their conduct is open to question, not just by the media and the political authority, but by their own leadership too, then the ‘why get involved’ attitude, becomes predominant, which is bad for morale and compromises security. There is no perfect answer to the above. Perhaps an effective perception management campaign, along with sensitive handling of such issues in the media is the answer. Let us remember that India executed a flawless perception management campaign prior to the launch of its surgical strike of 29 September. World opinion was shaped in less than a fortnight to meet India’s security objectives and even Pakistan was lulled into a false sense of complacency. That ability to shape opinion and perceptions must now manifest in the internal discourse too.
The third issue which merits consideration is the issue of intelligence. The Army has to depend on its own intelligence collection mechanisms from unit levels upwards for progressing operations. Inputs received from other sources is a bonus and is not a substitute. At the unit level, the policy of ‘restraint’ has diluted the intelligence gathering effort, both overt and covert, as intelligence collection cannot be carried out through an insular approach. Even at higher levels of command, there seems to be hesitation in seeking intelligence which is vital to forestall terror attacks. The Army had an excellent set up called the Technical Support Division (TSD) for gathering intelligence.
It was not a snooping unit, as falsely stated by many in the media for motives unknown, but simply an organisation that relied on human intelligence gathering effort. The TSD gave very valuable inputs which contributed significantly to the return of normalcy in the Valley. The reasons for disbanding the same are still not clear, but it had more to do with personal vendetta rather than on any assumption of its misuse. In any case, if misuse was the reason, the remedy lay in appropriate checks and balances rather than in disbanding an effective tool for fighting terrorism.
It is apparent that a review of the operating philosophy in J&K is called for. At the national level, any attack by terrorists, backed and supported by Pakistan, must be responded to as an act of war, regardless of the success or otherwise achieved by them. The surgical strike carried out by the Army across the LOC has shown both political will and military muscle. This must now become the ‘new normal’, and punishment must be inflicted on the Pakistan military for each and every act of overt or covert support they extend to terrorist groups.
Second, both at the national and field army level, a vigorous perception management campaign must be put in place. This must create public awareness of the role of the Armed Forces in maintaining peace and in ensuring that a policy of restraint is not reduced to a policy of inaction. The consequences are too severe to imagine and the nation may have to pay an exceptionally high price for this some day. Third, intelligence remains the cornerstone of anti terrorist operations and must be revitalised at all levels. As a start, it will send the right signals if the TSD is recreated. This will also be a slap on the face of those who played around with national security by disbanding a potent tool of the anti terrorism effort. We have a potent government in place. And we have an outstanding Army. Let us change the rules of the game to secure India’s National Interests.