‘Military protocol was overtaken by civilian hysteria’

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A decorated infantry commander who has served on the Line of Control, speaks to Open on the politics and hysteria over dead Indian soldiers

A decorated Army officer who has served on the Line of Control, speaks to Open on the politics over dead Indian soldiers in J&K.

A serving decorated infantry commander who has served on the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu & Kashmir, speaks to Vrinda Gopinath on the ongoing hysteria and uproar over the killing of five Indian soldiers by Pakistani soldiers in the Poonch sector, on the LoC, in Jammu & Kashmir.

“Let’s begin with the information that the Army has provided. In the early hours of Tuesday morning, (August 6, 2013), an Indian Army patrol close to the Sarla and Chajja posts, was ambushed by Pakistani troops along with a few heavily armed and highly trained militants. Five Indian soldiers were killed, four from the 21 Bihar Regiment and one from the Maratha Light Infantry. The unit they belonged to was in the process of handing over to a new unit and commander.

Defence Minister AK Antony rushed to give a statement in Parliament saying “20 heavily armed terrorists along with persons dressed in Pakistan army uniforms” had killed the Indian soldiers. The Opposition went on the offensive accusing Antony of trying to shield the Pakistani Army in the killings, and he was forced to make another statement later saying the Pakistani Army was involved in the killing and infiltration on the border.

How would I see it? First of all, I would call this a normal incident -- these killings happen all the time, more so after Kargil (the limited war between India and Pakistan in 2001). The last few months have seen several killings on this side of the border too, of infiltrators or militants, as we have responded head by head of people coming from across the border.

Now, imagine this LoC border that was created overnight (in the first Indo-Pak war in 1947, soon after Independence, when Kashmir was divided into two – the Valley and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir or PoK). Suddenly families were thrown on either side of a hostile border. It’s a populated region and the LoC is sometimes separated on the two sides barely 25 metres apart.

There are soldiers on either side, armed with weapons and ammunition, sitting face to face. The atmosphere is threatening, deadly, clenching, and high-strung.

Now, you may ask how come there are only militants and not Pakistani soldiers killed by us whereas we always lose Indian soldiers. This is because we do not have “guides” or “volunteers” who lead an ambush like this. This is a typical operation carried out by Pakistan’s Border Action Team (BAT), which first sends out these local, indoctrinated and trained volunteers, who check out for the target; the poor sods don’t even realize they are clearing the area for mines; once they have infiltrated the area, they signal for the Pakistani commandos, who are highly trained super snipers. Let me add here, that we have never got volunteers from our side, and often, we have used these guys from the other side to work for us too.

In this case, I would imagine there were about a dozen volunteers and about two Pakistani SSG commandos (Special Services Group), who brought the Indian patrol down. In such a situation, the company or unit commander (who controls a huge swathe of the border) would have normally been asked for an explanation by the high command, and been sacked forthwith. It’s the rule of the game in military operations, for there is no pretext or justification for sloppiness, negligence or sleeping on duty.

Of course, soldiers are over-worked and over-stressed. They live in 4x4 bunkers, are on patrol 24 hours, but every soldier knows that even that one moment of losing guard can lead to loss of life. The company commander, often a full colonel, who has at least four platoons under his command, with border posts and bunkers too, is the cracking force, checking and strategizing by telephone and verbal orders, and keeping the troops on their feet. In the event of an ambush, especially with loss of lives, the company commander would be the first to be sacked. The Army also follows up action with military retaliation and firepower, and we have matched head for head, often more than the count from the other side.

So, how did a routine ambush and attack come to become so sensational? I would believe it’s dictated by politics on both sides of the border. If the Indian Army had been provoked by this ambush, there is a protocol established, where the generals first speak to each other on the hotline, then it’s taken over by the political establishment and so forth. Instead, military protocol was overtaken by civilian hysteria and madness.

How in the world did these five unfortunate soldiers who were killed become war heroes? The media has played a disgusting and very objectionable role in the whole sordid incident. I must confess I switched off the television after a few hours as I could not bear the jingoism that was being prompted by them.

For starters, it was an ignorant and ill-informed media that ran to villages and towns of the slain soldiers to show wailing wives and families, and worse, demanding that the state pay lakhs in compensation. Does anyone know that not only does the Army get free rations, accommodation, schools and other benefits, a soldier on the front gets field area allowance apart from his salary too? In the case of death, a soldier’s widow gets full pay till his retirement age, and full pension too. How can the media provoke families to demand more? It’s against our ethics and moral code.

So, instead of keeping our troop morale high in loss and death, the civilian circus, aided by politicians, media and retired generals, have whipped up a tragic carnival of mourning and grief. I was shocked to see even our commandants forced to look forlorn in front of the news cameras. In circumstances of an ambush, as I’ve said, we normally shoot our guns, and take a few heads to show our troops that life goes on. We live by the gun, we die by the gun, or we simply hang up our boots. But by whipping up nationalist jingoism and phony patriotism, we are letting bitterness and malice creep in to the armed forces. Leave the Army alone.”