Search and destroy missions are always laced with risk, especially so in Counter Insurgency and Counter-Terrorism (CICT) operations where one has to gun terrorists. The challenge lies in identifying a terrorist, for, in both physique and matters of dress, they are indistinguishable from the local population. Invariably, the troops only get to identify a terrorist when the fire is opened on them, or when certain indications point towards that direction.
It was the summer of 1996 and July was coming to an end. The weather for the most part was bracing and clement. Maj Tiwari was commanding B company and his unit, 1/5 Gorkha Rifles (FF), was deployed in Panchgam in the Trehgam sector.
Things appeared a bit quiet but all that was set to change shortly, for sometime in the evening, the unit intercepted a radio conversation of the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) between two of their leaders—one a self-styled battalion commander and the other a self-styled company commander. It transpired that a foreign terrorist group had infiltrated across the border and the ‘Mehman Muzahids’(foreign terrorists) had to be guided to their destination. The change of responsibility for the guidance was to be at “Zero Point”.
Looking for terrorists
“B” Company was tasked to carry out a search and destroy mission of this infiltrating group. Where Zero Point was on the ground was known only to the two terrorist leaders. It appeared that one of the leaders was already with the terrorist group and he was to further hand them over to his colleague for taking then to their destination.
Maj Tiwari briefed his troops on the task at hand and just after midnight on the night of 30-31 July, he set off for “Zero Point” with one JCO and 24 men. The assessment of where this “Zero Point” would be on the ground was a challenging one. After plenty of deliberations, based on the terrain features and the lie of the ground, and what the troops knew to be the area of operations of the two terrorists whose conversation had been intercepted, this point was assessed to be the highest point on a mountain ridge line, from where a spur descended to a nullah and movement of foot columns was possible.
When dawn broke, an hour was spent in observing the area, and when no movement was observed.
But there was no certainty whether this was the “Zero Point” referred to by the terrorists. The area was vast and the changeover could take place anywhere. That notwithstanding, after, a gruelling four-hour climb in dense jungle, they reached the target area at 4.30 AM on 31 July. In the darkness, Maj Tiwari deployed his small group to keep the area under observation.
When dawn broke, an hour was spent in observing the area, and when no movement was observed, Maj Tiwari, split his force into three groups to carry out a general search of the area. Another hour passed without any sign of the terrorists so the company commander decided to move downhill and cautiously continue the search with his three columns. It was then that the central column suddenly found itself face to face with some people in Pathan dress.
Reflexively, the troops opened fire. This was the initial engagement and two of the people in Pathan dress dropped to the ground, the others moving swiftly out and hiding in the dense foliage. The company commander was immediately on the scene. For a moment he thought that fire had been opened on civilians, but then the Gurkha troops spotted a row of 12-14 combat coloured ruck sacks lined up in the bushes. This was the infiltrating group and contact had now been established. What was required now was to prevent the rest of the group from slipping away in the jungles.
The foliage was thick providing excellent cover to the terrorists and Maj Tiwari realised that searching for them was a very risky proposition. But contact had been established and it was imperative to exploit the situation. The three columns of the search team were fortuitously so positioned that they could keep the area under their iron grip. An eerie stillness prevailed as the terrorists were lying doggo, hiding in the thick bushes, hoping to escape at an opportune moment.
The outer column had confirmed that no terrorist had run away, so the terrorists had to be flushed out. This was high-risk close combat, where the terrorists would have the advantage as they were concealed and static, while their own troops were on the move, making them vulnerable. The leader and his team had to be faster than the fastest computer in analysing the situation and deciding the next course of action.
Reacting to the changed situation, Maj Tiwari moved two rocket launcher teams on the spur side and laid a loose cordon by the rest of his men around the bushy patch area, where the terrorists were probably hiding. That left him with just five men to manoeuvre and carry out the search. A heavy volume of fire was now brought to bear on the bushy patch area, but that elicited no response from the hiding terrorists. This lack of response from the terrorists was troubling and led to just two possibilities.
Reacting to the changed situation, Maj Tiwari moved two rocket launcher teams on the spur side and laid a loose cordon by the rest of his men around the bushy patch area, where the terrorists were probably hiding.
One, that the terrorists had already escaped. Two, they were lying in wait, ready to take on the Gurkhas from concealed fire positions. It was time for the company commander to make a decision. Should he carry out a detailed search of the area, or simply seize the rucksacks and other material and terminate the mission? After all, two terrorists had been killed, so the operation had already achieved a certain measure of success. The company commander boldly decided to continue with the search, and with his small team of five men, including a radio operator and dog handler with tracker dog, the search began.
The stumbling blocks
The search was tedious as the group had to move stealthily in haunching position from bush to bush, covering each other by fire and movement. At this moment some terrorists tried to flee but were spotted by the rocket launcher team which fired a few rounds on them. The explosions sent smoke, dust and debris flying in the air, and then the area became quiet and still again and the search recommenced.
One of the terrorists now tried to get in position and take a shot at the company commander, but fortunately, he was spotted just in time by a soldier who was to the left of the company commander who opened fire and dropped the terrorist dead. Maj Tiwari now wanted to use the tracker dog to ferret out the terrorists, but the dog handler said that it would be fatal to let the tracker dog operate in such a restricted terrain and so the search continued as hitherto fore, bush by bush, at a very slow pace.
With the search party closing in, the terrorists now opened fire. They had the silencer version of the AK series of rifles, and one of the bullets hit a Gorkha soldier on the thigh. The company commander was on slightly higher ground and he shouted aloud the direction from where the fire had come. This drew a heavy burst of fire on Maj Tiwari, from very close range.
He swerved to the side and took shelter behind a tree, and started engaging the terrorists from there. The company commander had been hit but he did not realise it at that time. He fired towards the direction where the fire had come, and this ding dong battle continued for about two or three minutes.
When his magazine finished, he tried changing the same and that was when he realised that the terrorists bullets had hit the replacement magazine in his pouch, and the left side of his chest was bleeding from the wounds. When the magazine was hit inside the pouch, splinters also flew up and embedded themselves on the company commanders, left arm.
In the thick of action
He asked the soldier behind him to throw him a filled magazine and the soldier crawled forward, despite the firing, and delivered the filled magazine. Maj Tiwari now crawled forward and the engagement continued with the terrorists firing periodic bursts of rifle fire and also lobbing grenades. But soon thereafter, Maj Tiwari, despite his wounds, got the better of the two terrorists engaging him and killed both of them.
This was a brilliant small scale tactical operation, where courage, grit and initiative were on display at all times. The risks were high and anything could have happened.
There was now a lull in the battle and a search of the area revealed five dead bodies of the terrorists. Later, from radio intercepts it was learnt that this was a group of 12 terrorists and nine of them had been killed in the encounter. The dead included both the local commanders who were to escort the terrorist group. It also included the head of the terrorist group, a self-styled district commander of the Harkat-ul-Ansar group, who had fired on the company commander at close range. In all, the company commander’s search team had four rounds of short, quick and precise engagements. By 7.30 AM the action was over, with the mission successfully accomplished.
This was a brilliant small scale tactical operation, where courage, grit and initiative were on display at all times. The risks were high and anything could have happened. As it is, the local dailies had declared the company commander Killed in Action (KIA), which was reflective of the serious injuries he received, but despite that continued with the operation till its successful culmination. Truly, this was a saga of leadership and bravery of the highest order for which Maj (Now Brig) Tiwari was awarded the Shaurya Chakra.