First Person | Small Men, Big Claims

The recent Pampore tragedy exposed much more than our ill-preparedness

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

Eight hapless Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) men had to die to expose the rot that has set in the Indian Army and the complete abdication of responsibility by the government of India.

On 25 June 2016, a CRPF convoy, comprising a three-ton truck, a troop-carrying bus and a couple of other vehicles, on its way to Srinagar was attacked by two fidayeens. Theoretically, all vehicles in a convoy must travel together at a pre-determined distance. In reality, the theory often succumbs to the pressures of traffic on the street. So, as the convoy lumbered into Pampore town, a little distance from Srinagar, civilian vehicles started to weave in and out of the convoy.

Once upon a time, security forces would not have allowed this. There would have been a pilot vehicle, screaming and shouting expletives at the locals pushing them out of the way. Now as friends of the local people, the security forces do not behave like this. Civilian traffic is not disrupted for the convoy movement. And so it was on that fateful day in Pampore. Among the vehicles that had separated the truck and the bus was the Alto car which was carrying the fidayeens.

Just as the traffic forced the vehicles to crawl, the fidayeens got off the car and started firing on the truck. But they could not immobilise the truck so the driver, following his survival instincts, pushed the pedal and sped onwards. Meanwhile, the bus fetched up at the same location and the attackers turned towards it, hitting the tyres first and the driver next.

In the ensuing gun-battle, which lasted a few minutes, the CRPF personnel recovered from the initial shock of the attack and started firing back. Apparently, a huge amount of gunfire was exchanged, in which eight brave men lost their lives, some taking the bullets head-on (and literally so). The two fidayeens were killed too.

Even as the firing was going on, the CRPF road opening party (ROP) fetched up and joined in the defence of their personnel. Whether they killed both the two terrorists or one was killed by the firing from inside the bus is a matter of detail. By the time soldiers from the local Rashtriya Rifle (Indian Army) unit reached in about 10 to 15 minutes everything was over. The two assailants were dead. Relief and rescue of the CRPF troops commenced.

What happened next was shameful to say the least, if not unprecedented. Within 50 minutes of the attack, Indian Army’s Northern Command took credit for killing the two terrorists in a tweet. When the CRPF protested, it revised the claim to a joint army-CRPF operation. On further protest, it finally accepted that the terrorists were killed by the CRPF. Subsequently, the CRPF claimed that the RR men took away the weapons and ration (dates) from the bodies of the terrorists and returned it only after the CRPF men went to the RR camp to claim them. According to the rules, these have to be deposited with the local police station, which must file a report (panchnama) on the incident.

The RR unit’s action should have set the alarm bells ringing in Delhi for several reasons. What motivated the RR to make a false claim? Why did it think it would get away with it? Once northern command realised that the RR unit’s claim may not be entirely correct, why did it persist with claiming some role in the operation, instead of shutting up and ordering an internal enquiry? Were senior officers complicit in this falsehood? Being a military force, why does it see no horror in comparing itself with a paramilitary? Is this a widespread malaise requiring executive action at the highest level? To what extent has this penchant for doing paramilitary’s role eroded its conventional capabilities? Is this army mentally and psychologically fit to defend the nation in war?

Small Men, Big Claims

Yet, the central government reacted in a completely nonchalant manner. First, the defence minister (who has no business to comment on the CRPF, which is under the ministry of home affairs) parked the blame at the feet of SOPs (standard operating procedures). He said the CRPF had clearly not followed them. This has been the standard ministerial line, heard after every attack, irrespective of who is in the chair. The incumbent’s predecessor and his counterpart in the home ministry also used to resort to this to explain all loss of life.

Next, he lamented the lack of coordination between the different security forces operating in the Valley; a line picked up by the media (across platforms), which covered army’s blatant lie in the garb of lack of coordination. Having made this point, the who’s who from army’s retired community proceeded to advise the CRPF, through print and television, as to how they should conduct their operations or why they should not conduct any operations at all, leaving them to the more efficient force, which is the army.

From a uniformed force, which deplores criticism because it affects the morale of its men, this behaviour was not just shocking but in absolute bad taste. Why wouldn’t the morale of the CRPF get affected by this unsolicited advice right after a tragedy in which eight of its men were martyred? Are they not human beings? Wouldn’t they already be questioning themselves about how this incident happened and what they could have done to avoid so many casualties? Aren’t they already assailed by whispers and sniggers in the corridors of power? And, didn’t the army suffer similar losses in a near identical attack three years back?

Yet, nobody has raised these questions, neither the government, nor the media. One very senior official in the home ministry explaining this lack of questioning said, “The Indian Army has become the holiest cow and the biggest trade union in India. Both of these foreclose the option of questioning and criticism.” Indeed, in the last 26 years of counter-insurgency (CI) operations, if there is one thing that the army has got absolutely correct – it is perception management within the country. By frequently raising the cry of an ungrateful nation, they have closed the doors for even constructive criticism.

However, if the blame-game must be played, then it must be played right. The tragedy of the CRPF in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) is not of its own making. Even after 77 years of existence, the largest Indian paramilitary force remains a mass of confusion. Raised and nurtured as the armed force of the Union, the lead CI force doesn’t even know what its primary and secondary jobs are.

They are like cattle in the Union government’s stable, herded wherever the numbers need to be beefed up. Ill-equipped, ill-trained and ill-provided for, they are shunted from theatre to theatre, switching roles and equipment at the drop of a hat. A large number of them spend their operational lives (Kashmir included) in temporary accommodation, sometimes no better than tents or sheds. Equal number has not seen the inside of a training centre because rapid raisings of numbers meant that they underwent perfunctory training in their Group Centres, before joining their battalions for pre-induction training for the theatre. Who should be blamed for this? Certainly not the force.

In Kashmir, the CRPF was inducted primarily for CI operations, along with the J&K Armed Police and the Special Operations Group (SOG). Additionally, it was supposed to beef up the number of the J&K police in static duties etc. However, after the fiasco of 2010 (largely the outcome of political mismanagement) in which over 100 young people died in police and CRPF firing over a period of three months, the central government in a knee-jerk reaction, decided to disarm the force. From rifles, they were handed down batons and anti-riot gear. Since then, the confusion has manifested itself in several ways.

The young officers of the force train at CRPF’s counter insurgency and anti-terrorism schools and are then reduced to guarding VIPs or escorting them. In Kashmir, they man various check-points. But when they are posted to Chhattisgarh, they are expected to carry out counter-Maoist operations. Is such switching of roles possible? Can any person deliver his best in both roles? Are few weeks of pre-induction training enough?

Coming back to Kashmir, as that is where this all began, the problem is political and screams for a political resolution. In the last few years, a large number of retired military officers, having spent a few years in the state, have assumed expertise on CI operations. Of course, experience is a big teacher; yet most of them have discounted their own experience in favour of western theories. Perhaps, they sound impressive.

One such theory is, ‘last mile’, which according to the experts spouting them implies ‘low terrorist strength and high security forces casualties.’ I am neither an expert, nor a student of CI theory, so I have no idea who the proponent of this is and in which context this was propounded. All I know is that Kashmiri insurgency does not fit any other existing template. Even without its violent manifestation, as happened in 1989, the non-violent resistance has always been there since Independence. This is the reason the Union government remained suspicious about even the mainstream Kashmiri politicians, including Sheikh Abdullah. What’s more after the 1971 war, which had nothing to do with Kashmir, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sought to resolve the Kashmir issue with Bhutto.

Moreover, resistance of the Kashmiri people aside, the ebb and tide of this insurgency is controlled by Pakistan. If ever we reached the stage of last mile, it was when the back-channel talks were in full swing between India and Pakistan. Forget the last mile, we are in for the longest mile because this government has eroded everything that was built for lasting peace in 2006-2008. And since we are in for tough times, it will help if we didn’t squabble amongst ourselves and focussed on doing what we are supposed to do to the best of our abilities; together.

Finally, can’t resist saying this. I doubt if any insurgent, militant or terrorist (take your pick) has read CI theories so as to operate in that fixed pattern. But they certainly would have read Islamic history, and understand the importance of tactical retreat to lull the enemy into complacency before annihilation. Lessons there?



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