If our Army, earlier, had to soften its approach while dealing with terrorists in Kashmir, only to protect ‘innocent civilians’ and ‘prevent collateral damage’, we have only Sonia Gandhi and the UPA dispensation to blame.
The covert aim, it seems, was to give our adversaries the right to strike without compunction, while binding our Army’s hands.
According to preliminary reports, security forces received information about the presence of a few terrorists in the Rajwar forest adjoining Handwara town on Friday. Officers and men of the 21 Rashtriya Rifles (RR) and the J&K Police’s Special Operations Group (SOG) cordoned off the forest and launched a search operation.
Some of the Pakistani terrorists hiding inside the forest managed to slip out and took shelter in a house at Handwara on Saturday morning. They reportedly took the inmates of the house hostage. The 21 RR commanding officer, Colonel Ashutosh Sharma, started negotiating with the terrorists holed up in the house to secure the release of the hostages.
While detailed reports are awaited, it is learnt that Col Sharma, along with Major Anuj Sood, Naik Rajesh and Lance Naik Dinesh, along with SOG sub-inspector Shakeel Qazi, entered the house and were killed by the terrorists.
The civilians were safely extricated from the house and the terrorists also killed.
But these clinical details conceal a highly unfortunate aspect of the encounter: that the deaths of the army officers and JCOs were completely avoidable.
And that the deaths occurred primarily due to two reasons: the misplaced priority on completely ruling out all chances of ‘collateral damage’, and the otherwise honourable and valourous ethos of Indian Army officers leading from the front.
The injudicious emphasis on completely avoiding any collateral damage started sometime in the middle of the last decade when the UPA I regime instructed the army top brass to ensure no civilians were harmed in anti-terror operations.
“Earlier, in a situation like the one at Handwara, we would have asked all those holed up in a house to come out and surrender, and if they did not do so we would fire mortars and bring the house down,” said a senior army officer who commanded a battalion in J&K during those times.
But the UPA under its chairperson Sonia Gandhi forced the army top brass to change the rules of engagement.
“Suddenly, there was a lot of stress on avoiding collateral damage and ensuring that civilians or innocents were not harmed in any way during anti-terror operations. We were told that it would be acceptable for even a hundred terrorists to escape if there was danger of one innocent civilian being hurt in an operation,” said a Major General-ranked officer who had served extensively in J&K.
Another Colonel-ranked officer who had served in J&K recalled that after stone-pelting became rife from the summer of 2008, the army was strictly instructed against responding to stone-pelters.
“Our men did not have shields or other equipment to counter stone-pelters. Day after day and week after week our men got severely injured by stone pelters and there was nothing we could do since we were under strict instructions to not use any sort of force against the stone pelters,” he said.
The then political leadership’s (UPA’s) stress on treating stone-pelters with kid gloves and avoiding civilian casualties in anti-terror operations stemmed from the ostensible need to ‘win the hearts and minds’ of the people of Kashmir Valley.
But in the process, anti-terror operations by the security forces got severely compromised and the morale of the troops suffered.
“We were asked to fight with one hand tied behind our backs,” said the retired Colonel.
While the political objective of ‘winning hearts and minds’ of the people of Kashmir Valley remained elusive, the security forces suffered casualties and the terrorists as well as their handlers in Pakistan received morale and tactical boosters handed over to them on a platter by the UPA.
The 2010 Machil encounter case where five officers and men of the army and a Territorial Army rifleman were sentenced to life imprisonment (the sentence was in July 2017) was a huge setback to the morale of the Indian security forces and gave a leg-up to militants.
The National Conference, which was in power in the state then, had politicised what it termed was a fake encounter in which three young men (the army claimed they were infiltrators while Kashmiri politicians claimed they were innocent locals) were killed.
The NC had pressurised the UPA government at the Centre to get the army top brass to sanction prosecution of the officers and men — Colonel Dinesh Pathania, Captain Upendra, Havildar Devender Kumar, Lance Naik Lakhmi and Lance Naik Arun Kumar from 4 Rajput Regiment and Rifleman Abbas Hussain of the Territorial Army.
The trial and sentencing of the army officers and men were severely criticised as stage-managed and dubbed as “fake”.
But the case led to further demoralisation of the army.
“After Machhil, we all became extremely cautious and started following the rule book meticulously. That severely compromised our anti-terror operations. But terrorism cannot be tackled by following the rule book meticulously and a degree of collateral damage has to be accepted. In anti-terror operations all over the world, collateral damage is acceptable, though all armies strive their best to keep it to avoid it as far as possible,” said a Brigadier-ranked officer.
Another severely demoralising incident for the army was the death of two teenagers at a village at Budgam, 20 kilometers from Srinagar, on 3 November 2014.
Soldiers of the 53 Rashtriya Rifles opened fire on a car the youths were travelling in after they failed to stop at two checkposts and tried to drive through the third.
“These two — Machhil and Budgam — were the major incidents in which we were unfairly targeted due to pressure from politicians. There were many minor incidents as well when we were hauled up. The ignominy of the Northern Army commander Lt Gen B.S. Jaswal being to then CM Omar Abdullah still rankles us,” said the Brigadier.
Army officers say that the existing rule of engagement, or standard operating procedure (SOP) — of avoiding civilian casualties at any cost — still prevails and continues to take an “unacceptable toll” on the security forces.
This SOP needs to be revisited and changed now.
Another important ethos — though a proud, principled and valorous one — of army officers leading from the front also has to change.
“Officers, and definitely not commanding officers of a battalion, do not need to lead from the front. This is an outdated ethos that needs to change, at least in Handwara-like situations,” said the Brigadier.
“Once the CO gets directly involved in an operation like that at Handwara and puts himself in the line of fire, his primary task of directing and overseeing the conduct of the 900-odd men under him gets compromised,” said the Major General.
And what’s more is the huge morale booster that the terrorists and their handlers in Pakistan get from the killing of a CO and officers.
“The killing of a senior officer in an anti-terror operation is completely unacceptable, more so when its completely avoidable. It becomes a major cause for celebration among our adversaries and boosts their image as well while demoralising us,” added the Major General.
He is of the opinion that all officers should be issued necessary instructions in this regard immediately.