There are conflicting versions of the timing and circumstances of the encounter at Chanjimullah village, Handwara. In my view, this is not important. The Army will carry out an in-depth analysis to learn the relevant lessons because Commanding Officers are not killed in action everyday. The last time a Commanding Officer — Colonel Santosh Mahadik, 41 Rashtriya Rifles — was killed in action was in November 2015.
In the Handwara encounter, Colonel Ashutosh Sharma, Major Anuj Sood, Naik Rajesh Kumar, Lance Naik Dinesh Singh and J&K Police Sub-Inspector Shakeel Qazi had been killed in action while eliminating two terrorists who had held some civilians hostage in a house. My salute to the bravest of braves killed in action and to their families.
The Commanding Officers are the backbone of our Army. Their primary responsibility is to train and administer their units, issue orders/directions and exercise command and control in battle. It speaks volumes of their leadership that when required by the dynamics of battle, our Commanding Officers have led from the front to join combat in order to accomplish the mission at the cost of their lives.
But what is more important is for the government and the Army to review the political and military strategy to deal with the situation in J&K. This encounter and the killing of three CRPF personnel that followed on 4 May, is part of a disturbing trend that has been noticeable for the last few months.
Pakistan steps up insurgency
Buoyed by the success in Afghanistan — where the only issue left is the avatar in which Taliban will come back to power — Pakistan, true to its long-term strategy, has ended the tactical pause that followed Balakot airstrikes and the dilution of Article 370, and has resumed terrorist activity with renewed vigour. It has taken advantage of absolute alienation of the people of the Valley, lack of any kind of political initiative or dynamic economic activity and perceived continuity of draconian restriction to recruit and train more youth to join the terrorist ranks. Simultaneously it is inducting better-trained Pakistani cadres of terrorist organisations into the Valley.
A new outfit— The Resistance Front — has been created to deceive the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which was focussed on the activities of Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Hizbul Mujahideen. The aim is to give the proxy war an indigenous flavour. This organisation is likely to be used to claim responsibility for all terrorist activity while the cadres will continue to be trained and controlled by the parent organisations that will remain incognito.
Our intelligence agencies have been highlighting that the traditional launch pads have been activated and large number of terrorists have either infiltrated the Valley or are in the process of doing so.
While the long-term aim of Pakistan is to wear down the will of the Indian state — using its time-proven formula of Afghanistan — its immediate aim is to take advantage of the fact that India and the world are fighting Covid-19. Pakistan wants to burst the bubble of India’s ‘hard’ strategy and enhance its own prestige in the minds of the people of Jammu and Kashmir.
Terrorists targeting forces
The terrorists are better trained and equipped. For the first time since 2012, terrorists are seeking direct engagements with the security forces. The deteriorating ratio of security forces vis-a-vis terrorists killed is a cause of concern.
From 1 April to 4 May, 32 terrorist have been killed. In April, 10 security forces personnel were killed while in the first four days of May, eight personnel have been killed in action taking the total to 18. For the first time, the ratio has been reduced to an alarming 1: 1.8. Even more disturbing is that the ratio in the encounter in Keran on 4 April was 1:1 with five Special Forces personnel and five terrorists killed. The ratio in the encounter on night of 2 May has been 2:5 in favour of terrorists. And in the encounter with the CRPF on 4 May, we lost three personnel while the terrorists got away clean.
Increase in terrorist violence also indicates increase in infiltration. The number of encounters close to the Line of Control (LoC) and in the ‘terrorist catchment’ areas of North Kashmir proves the point.
By all indications we are likely to see a violent summer in 2020.
India’s strategic limitations
India’s strategic response to Pakistan’s proxy war is high on rhetoric and low in substance. The limitations of Bharatiya Janata Party’s ‘hard’ strategy lie exposed. Nuclear weapons foreclose the option of a decisive war where our quantitative superiority will prevail. Below this threshold, we lack the overwhelming technological military superiority to impose our will as has been proven by the ineffectiveness of surgical strikes and periodic fire assaults along the LoC. If at all we are pursuing a covert strategy, it has been effectively dealt with by Pakistan.
US dependence on Pakistan in Afghanistan, the latter’s alliance with China and religious affiliation with Islamic countries, aided by our domestic communal rhetoric, has also exposed the limits of our diplomacy.
Internally political activity is at a standstill and we have made no headway in winning the hearts and minds of the alienated masses. At this juncture, one can conclude that the government has resigned to let the Army to continue keeping the situation under control as it has done for the last three decades.
It would be prudent for the government to shed the ideological fantasies and face the strategic reality. It must put the ‘hard’ strategy on the back burner until we have created overwhelming technological military superiority.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi must use his political acumen to reach out to the alienated people of Kashmir to win their hearts and minds. Elections should be held in Kashmir and the Central government must assist any party that comes to power to focus on the agenda of development. If this is done, Pakistan will become irrelevant.
I urge the military hierarchy to forcefully apprise the government of the strategic limitations to carry out a review instead of behaving like the children of Hamelin — getting seduced by the music of political pipes to organise military spectacles — showering health workers with flower petals, flypasts and band displays. Ironically, this spectacle was happening at exactly the same time when the news of the bravest of braves being killed in action was being officially confirmed.
Views are personal