Scholar Warrior: CounterTerror (Ct) Operations In J&K: The Challenges Get Deeper
While writing this column on a single topic is always tempting, covering a couple of issues together sometimes becomes important. Here I am going to be discussing the issues concerning CT operations, with special reference to J&K. Over the last few weeks, many issues of security interest have come to the fore. What really concerned me the most and the issue least covered by the media was the much-circulated video which showed the dragging of a terrorist body with a short rope by soldiers while at hand-shaking distance media persons photographed the display.
I have no love lost for a terrorist body and how it is treated but I have much concern for my Army's carefully nurtured worldwide image as an honourable and professional force. Little is it known that the Army has a very well-considered standard operating procedure (SOP) for conduct of operations leading right up to the post operation handling of events and including the media coverage. Bodies of terrorists recovered after the operation are to be put through a disturbance drill which ensures that booby traps, unexploded grenades or improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are activated when the body is moved by the tug of a rope from a distance. Only a part of a limb is to be tied to a 30 feet rope, sand bags placed in front of the pulling party and the body then disturbed. All the items required for every drill at the point of contact are always pre-placed in a vehicle which is ever ready to move once a response team goes for an operation.
What got my goat was the sermonising by some social media warriors who found nothing wrong with the Army's way of dealing with the post event situation recorded in the short clip after the successful operation at Reasi which was against all norms of its SOPs. Those who were critical of the method used by the Army were trolled to high heavens and the trolls included well known personalities who have never witnessed leave alone experienced such an operation or anything near a life-threatening situation. The issue of the Army's own ethics and values arises here. Is it not willing to correct a wrong and more importantly admit a mistake?Its stature would rise manifold over its already outstanding public perception and it would take the wind out of the sails of all the criticism, much of it deliberately manipulated, which it faces from sponsored elements.By being upfront in admitting mistakes one can fully dilute unfair criticism and prepare positive grounds for the future.
I remember some years ago in Kashmir a young man was mistakenly shot as he did not stop when he ran into an ambush and was challenged. We had a choice; declare him a terrorist or admit the mistake. We decided we would not deceive ourselves, the public or anyone so we made an admission that it was a genuine mistake while following the rules of engagement. We compensated and did everything for a family with an unfortunate tragedy. People were magnanimous and the case received little attention thereafter. The case of an accidental killing of a young man and the killing of a terrorist with a weapon cannot be compared except in one field and that is the righteousness of what are rules and regulations which set good armies apart; which if not followed must be frowned upon.
The necessity of ensuring the Army's public image through acts which are honourable remains one of the singular duties of an officer.
How should media be handled even as operations are ongoing. This is a problem many officers face. No operation in J&K is ever small. The move of a CO's quick reaction team (QRT) is inevitable after contact. So unless it's a quick counter ambush (rare as that is) where the operation finishes in a few minutes under the command of a young major or captain, the CO's QRT will inevitably be involved. Alongside will be the JKP personnel and CRPF who these days perform a very difficult task of handling mobs at the encounter site. Confusion usually arises about media presence because there is no clear-cut command and control of the operation. No single person is designated to decide where the media should go and how far.
This is where the Unified Command comes in. It must deliberate over this issue and if it cannot delineate a clear line of command and control for all the reasons which are well known then it must lay out a common code of ethics and most importantly a joint SOP for conduct of media. This was a mistake during Pathankot too and continues to be unaddressed. Media persons in J&K are gutsy, adventurous and full of beans but they cannot put themselves and possibly through their actions others in harm's way for the sake of a camera shot or two.A media centre with a spokesman is the immediate need. It can be as crude as the very ground where the ops are going on; the important thing being that it gets the media there under protection at a safe distance. Required information must be available there through an authorised officer. The latter is the usual problem as there is little trust that anyone has in younger or junior officers being able to give media statements. Yet we have to rise above this no mistake syndrome. There will always be a rush for credit and it's not unusual that senior officers of any given force arrive there to hog the limelight. Off late there has much less of this perhaps due to better understanding at the higher echelons but the system needs refinement and institutionalisation so that there are no departures from it with change of command.
What the Army needs to remember is that it is a standout force. Others must copy its ethical standards and norms and not the other way around. Unfortunately, social media in the hands of everyone has much influence. Units and higher formations have to realise that opinion expressed on social media is mostly by people not even remotely connected with operations at the LoC or in CT operations. The ADGPI has been doing a creditable job but when jingoistic support to a wrong action is marring the effect it must step in, not with its own handle or ID but with some creditable people who can correct perception. Social media sentiment must never be allowed to remain in drift if obviously wrong actions are receiving emotional support. That may give the Army's image a temporary boost among less informed people but will not stand it in good stead in the long run.
The Deep State across the border is hell bent on establishing ascendancy and keeping our security forces under pressure. This has been a phenomenon through the last 28 years each time we have gained an upper hand. The recent call by the Hizbul Mujahideen to locals in uniform to resign, upload their resignation decision through recordings or face the consequences for themselves or their families is a ploy to divide the forces and prevent the force multiplication effect of having locals fighting for the national cause. It has now assumed proportions of a virtual campaign and poses a major threat to the conduct of any democratic activity in Kashmir. Suggestions to house all police and local army personnel in secure accommodation away from their homes is impractical and does not satisfy the short-term necessity. What is required is strong messaging through much greater domination of the hinterland of South Kashmir through 24x7 patrolling by smaller parties of the Army and police. If a few additional units have to be inducted to do this, so be it. However, care must be taken to prevent any dilution of the counter infiltration grid which is proving very effective and is hurting the Deep State.
The JKP needs to be kept motivated through frequent visits by senior officers to police stations and armed units, more compensation and better terms of service. Anything done in this area will always be too small when an existential threat faces the state and the force.
As the state of J&K moves towards the local bodies' polls the challenges are going to multiply. We need to be prepared for a few more surprises to upset the balance we have achieved. However, it needs to be dwelt upon minds of the leadership at different levels that we have invariably bettered the Deep State through effective counters. The JKP has been more than just a major asset. It needs full support to see this challenge through.