The separatist elements seem to have invented a new strategy to fight Indian security forces in Kashmir, and as a result, the casualty figures for the Indian Army have increases recently.
Can the Army come up with a comprehensive plan to counter them?
The one thing that the Indian Army always prides itself on is the ratio of terrorists neutralized to its own fatal casualties. There were times when it went as high as 8:1 in fatalities but at most times it hovered around 5:1. Statistics are not always a reflection of efficiency but a means of discerning indicators which tell us if things are right or wrong as far as drills are concerned.
However, drills may be perfect but yet there could be imponderables which apply and factors well outside the army’s control which add to enhanced casualty rates and increasing frustration. Improvement of drills and training may recapture the essence of the past statistics but there are factors beyond, that need a more nuanced application of mind.
In two days of February 2017 we have had eight terrorists neutralized in three encounters at the cost of six brave hearts of the Army. The injured, are many more. A brave CRPF Commanding Officer has been seriously wounded. Available videography only shows the vengeful attempt on part of stone throwing mobs and immense patience of the Security Forces (SF). The SF have the lethal weapons with them and with mortal remains of their comrades in sight it is sufficient emotion to trigger negative passions which could lead to a bloodbath. Yet, as always discipline, patience and forbearance have prevailed. It may not go on forever.
It's important to know in general why casualty ratios have got skewed in recent months.
2016 saw one of the worst phases of terrorism and militancy in the Valley. Fedayeen (or suicide attack squads) re-emerged after 2003-4. Terror groups started seeking contact by targeting the Army's main vulnerability, the convoys. They were emboldened by the resistance in the streets and stone throwing. Casualty figures of the security forces increased due to deliberate acts by the terror groups. The phenomenon most responsible for this is the adoption of a methodology by locals to generate collection of flash mobs at encounter sites the moment an encounter between terrorists and the security forces is imminent. This does three things to the situation: prevents the Army from closing on the target hideout, obviates CRPF from being effective in the cordon, and diverts attention from focus of operations. It makes an already difficult situation far more challenging. Momentary loss of focus leads to casualties as exposure from cover is liable to make troops easier targets. There is more on this phenomenon a little later in this essay.
There are other possible reasons for high casualties but they do not all apply to every situation.
First is the 'two minute' syndrome. Most casualties take place in the first two minutes of the actual encounter which primarily means from the moment the troops start closing in. The initiative being with terrorists; they being under cover and troops under movement, renders soldiers vulnerable. Every single soldier involved in these operations is equipped with a bullet proof jacket (BPJ) and a bullet proof patka much unlike what is perceived by some in public circles. BPJs do not provide hundred percent protection; sides, neck and below waist areas on a soldier’s body remain vulnerable. There is no restriction also on the employment of the 84 mm Rocket Launcher (RL) and the Automatic Grenade Launcher (AGL). There is disinformation that restrictions have been placed on these weapons. They help in destroying a hideout and the terrorists holed up within, and make it easier for the troops to close in and eliminate the final resistance.
It needs to be clarified that the master of the situation is usually the Commanding Officer (CO) who decides what weapons he wishes to employ and what tactics are to be followed. In recent years the emphasis was on minimal collateral damage and more precision in neutralizing terrorists. One could bludgeon resistance at such places by employment of all kinds of lethal wherewithal such as air power but the collateral would be immense. This dilemma is the challenge of COs and their superior commanders. How to employ the right mix of weapons and tactics for maximum effect, least casualties to troops and minimal collateral damage? Not an easy situation to be in, especially when mobs are attempting to cow you down.
The one equipment the Rashtriya Rifles (RR) would demand in greater numbers is the Mine Protected Vehicle (MPV) which has floor and side protection. It helps immensely in approaching the target area and can even break boundary walls and mow down wire fences. It should be available in greater numbers to the troops. The employment of snipers also needs much more emphasis. Problems of sniper ammunition restrict this and it should be another priority area for higher security managers.
It is necessary now to return to the challenging issue of mobs at encounter sites.
This came to the fore in 2015. Separatist networks are well established. Their intelligence travels faster on these networks, what with them being unstructured. There are paid rabble rousers in different villages who will exploit the mosque's public address system and social media messaging to generate a flash mob in minutes. What our officers and troops find disquieting is that community members who pose as friends and supporters in everyday meetings suddenly turn out to be members of a mob. There is no black and no white in these situations.
When the CRPF used slightly harsher methods there were pellet injuries galore. While there was sympathy for the victims, THOSE WHO FORM part of terrorist supporting activity by participating in mob actions are not held responsible for their own fate. Their actions are now leading to casualties among troops tackling terrorists. For the members of the mobs, that is akin to making themselves open for action by the SFs who need to facilitate their own (SF) security and ensure neutralization of the holed up terrorists. That is the message which needs to be conveyed clearly and unambiguously. The SFs cannot be expected to remain vulnerable without ensuring retaliatory security measures. If this aspect is not taken effectively and soon enough the already demotivating effect on junior ranks and pressure on field commanders will mount to unacceptable levels. The Army Chief has correctly said that those supporting such terrorists should be treated as over ground workers (OGWs).
To make them legally secure and beat back the information game which the separatists will invariably play when some casualties do occur among mobs, the Army, CRPF and JK Police must be smart in their own information handling.
This needs coordination at the Unified Command level. Enough video footage of previous encounters and those taking place in the future must be available for public relations managers to convert to media campaigns so that all those who target the SFs for their handling of rights are pre-empted and explained what the challenges are. While following the principle of ‘minimum force’, it needs to be ensured that soldiers and policemen are sensitized even more than ever before. The license to be proactively stronger against interfering mobs cannot be taken as a sanction for undisciplined handling of situations and imposition of random casualties. This also needs some deft advice from competent legal luminaries because many in the public will tend to be misled by separatist propaganda.
Clearly, the separatists think they have the upper hand in these encounters and with more casualties to the security forces they will encourage the further employment of these tactics. They lose nothing and gain everything by having a couple of young people injured or even killed in such violence, which is their aim. The State, SFs and all who care for the future of J&K must not give them this leeway and yet prevent the presence of mobs at encounter sites.
For public consumption, it is important to know that such negative situations of poor ratios in terrorists killed versus own fatal losses have occurred temporarily in the past too. The Indian Army and its associate forces have the will, the military intellect and the competence to turn the tide once again; it is just a matter of time.