THE URI TERROR ATTACK & THE VIP CABIN QUESTION

The Uri terror attack that resulted in the death of 18 jawans has caused predictable outrage and frustration across the country. Television was visibly shrill and the ‘jawfor- a-tooth’ sentiment ricocheted from forum to forum with greater intensity in the first few days. The deep-state in Pakistan is seen as the unrelenting sponsor of terror and Uri, it is repeatedly pointed out was preceded by Pathankot in January… and the list goes all the way back to Mumbai in November 2008.

The Prime Minister has assured the country that the perpetrators will not go unpunished and one presumes that an appropriately calibrated response is a work in progress. However many Indians have pointed out that for all the impassioned rhetoric about declaring the neighbour a terrorist state and the demand for swift retribution, the only tangible action on the ground to ‘punish Pakistan’ has been in the diplomatic realm – to boycott the SAARC Summit. Expert opinion avers that the Indian military – collectively – does not yet have an effective matrix response in place, both doctrinally and by way of capability. This is a major institutional lapse and it would be valid to ask if any lessons have been learnt and internalised for policy correction since Kargil of 1999.

However, I wish to focus on a different kind of institutional deviation and I write this in the spirit of constructive candour. My trigger for this column is a TV discussion that I was part of on September 21 and the anchor, a wellknown media face wanted to dwell on the ‘lapses’ that had led to the Uri setback, where the Indian Army had lost the highest number of soldiers in one incident since the deployment in J&K. Two experienced Lieutenant Generals who had served in that area provided the tactical detail about Uri and the ‘surprise’ element that was exploited by the adversary in the early hours of the morning that resulted in the death of 18 soldiers. Reference was also made to the fact that the soldiers were sleeping in tents that caught fire due to the incendiary ordnance that was used – perhaps a first in the J&K context. My observation that having to billet soldiers in tents in close proximity to the LoC, due to lack of appropriate permanent accommodation was also an institutional inadequacy was brushed aside. It was rationalised as an exigency that occurred only when there was a change of battalion (in this case a Dogra unit was handing over to Bihar), when there is a temporary surge in the total number of troops in situ and tents had to be resorted to.

This discussion continued for many evenings in different settings and I found myself in a watering-hole with young faujis. A recently retired Colonel drew my attention to a fairly large number of post Uri articles by veteran Generals with a central theme. The infrastructure for the troops in the most demanding operational deployment – for instance along the LoC and the LoAC (with China) is woefully inadequate and this was the assertion by those who were Brigade Commanders in the 1970’s and 1980’s. The plaint was that the government did not provide enough resources. Clearly little has changed in the intervening decades.

This point was illuminated with characteristic candour by Lt. Gen. Ata Hasnain who wrote: “The system of permanent assets in terms of habitat and fighting infrastructure, to include hardened bunkers, weapon emplacements, trenches with measures to prevent collapse, living structures, toilets and cooking facilities, all come under the generic head of operational works… (yet) the budget for operational works is so limited that it will take another fifty years before our defences at the LoC are sufficiently hardened. …the state of toilets, cooking facilities and accommodation in general, at the LoC, remains at best pathetic. However, we have got so used to limited allocations that no one thinks of demanding more.”

The young officers in the group then asked me a pertinent question. ‘We heard you on TV and noted your point about the larger institutional lapse and the apathy in relation to the living conditions for our jawans. Have you been to any major establishment and seen the VVIP cabins?’ I confessed enjoying this hospitality on many occasions when I was invited as a guest speaker, and yes, the VIP suite décor was superb. My young interlocutors pointed out that if the same fauji system with all its constraints can create VVIP cabins, they should be able to improve the basic infrastructure for the troops in operational areas! Institutional lapses need much greater introspection in a holistic manner by the serving topbrass of the ‘fauj’ and I earnestly hope Uri will be that trigger pulse.

Commodore C Uday Bhaskar, is currently Director, Society for Policy Studies (SPS), New Delhi. He was previously Director, National Maritime Foundation (NMF) and prior to that he headed the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA).

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