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Above: Indian Army soldiers search for suspected militants after a gunbattle in Mohra, Uri Sector, on December 5, 2014/Photo: UNI

The centre’s idea of sending home commanders in whose area terrorist attacks took place is retrograde, bad in law and will crush morale. It won’t stop a suicide bomber, only good intelligence will


By Maj Gen Ashok Mehta

There is a political spin on the story leaked to Hindustan Times about the government’s decision on “soft-sacking” of army commanders in whose area of responsibility terrorist attacks are successfully carried out. The offending officers would be advised to put in their papers, to go home. In other words, enforced voluntary retirement.

The Modi 2.0 government has made national security its crown jewel given how the path-breaking surgical ground and air strikes against Pakistan have restored India’s power and dignity in the eyes of the common man and enabled Narendra Modi to be returned as prime minister. During the last election campaign, the ruling establishment showcased its achievements of preventing terrorist attacks outside J&K in the rest of India bar two border districts of Punjab-Sunjwan and Pathankot. The attacks in Uri, Sunjwan, Nagrota and Pathankot were a huge embarrassment for the government because some of these happened after Modi’s impromptu visit to Lahore to felicitate Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. These attacks in J&K took the sheen off an otherwise unblemished record of “no terrorist attacks in the hinterland”.

Apportioning blame, that is, fixing responsibility and accountability is a serious moral issue of culpability. But where in the chain of command does the buck stop in military operational matters where a number of agencies and departments are involved? The 1965 war saw widespread dismissal of commanders from battalion to divisional level. They were removed from command, not asked to put in their papers for voluntary retirement, which is legally untenable. In the 1971 war which was a historic victory, no one was directly taken to task for lapses. Officers in the chain of command were penalised by adverse entries in their war reports. In the Hindustan Times report, defaulting officers involved in Uri, Sunjwan and Nagrota incidents are being asked to go home. This generation of officers will not take orders to go home easily.

The military tribunal and civilian courts are proactive, given the proclivity of aggrieved soldiers to approach courts, a completely new phenomenon. Further, even the Army Act, Section 18—withdrawal of the pleasure of the president—which is called the guillotine and regarded unassailable, was in 2005 made justiciable by a landmark judgment in the Delhi High Court by Justice Sunanda Bhandare. This weapon is unlikely to be employed as courts have become intrusive. Brig Surinder Singh, commander, 121 Independent Infantry Brigade, who was sacked for negligence and failure to detect Pakistani incursions in Kargil, went to court and fought epic battles there supported by the oppposition Congress party. The fact is, he challenged his dismissal for what he thought were valid reasons—lack of intelligence and resources.

The new Modi government wishes now to replicate its record of no terror strikes outside J&K to within J&K. This will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. The deterrent of offensive defence has the Doval Doctrine stamp (National Security Advisor Ajit Doval). This is to ensure that the political objective of zero tolerance for terrorism is achieved in J&K too. According to the Hindustan Times report, the decision to take punitive action against defaulting commanders was taken soon after the formation of the new government. Asking officers to go home after conducting inquiries into a mishap will not go down well with the Army rank and file and chain of command because courts of inquiry are never able to present the full picture of the terrorist attacks.

Recently, I was in Lucknow’s Headquarters Central Army Command to participate in a seminar where I discussed this issue with some officers. First, most officers had heard about the report about punitive action against commanders whose area of operational responsibility is violated by terrorists. Second, none seemed overly concerned about the new rule and order. They told me that officers are usually rewarded and penalised according to their units’/commands’ operational performance. The Annual Confidential Report (ACR) is seen as the final arbiter of justice. They also said that the new government orders, if implemented, will have an adverse impact on morale. As J&K is the main internal theatre of conflict, ACRs stamped there normally see careers break through or break down, so critical is the operational command performance there. Eight five percent of the officers likely to be affected are from the fighting arms, principally the infantry.

In 2016, soon after the Pathankot attack in which fidayeen breached the air force base perimeter and in the aftermath of other attacks, the government formed a committee headed by former Vice Chief of Army Staff Lt Gen Philip Campose to investigate why walled/fenced perimeter camps were being penetrated by terrorists. In his report, which has not been made public, Campose commented on the layout, defensibility, technology and other resources available to commanders to ward off terrorists from behind LoC defences. The Campose report, which is very comprehensive, made a slew of recommendations combining use of surveillance and protective devices with human resources while underlining the overriding importance of intelligence. His report noted the overreliance on improvisation due to insufficiency of resources. He had recommended a minimum allocation of Rs 10,000 crore to implement some of his recommendations. Not surprisingly, no provision was made in the last two defence budgets for enhancing the defensibility of existing army camps/bases in rear areas behind the LoC, some being decades old. Although infiltration has reduced, army installations that support troops on the LoC remain vulnerable. Former home secretary Rajiv Mehrishi had carried out a similar exercise on the Punjab border to alert troops. He had also made recommendations on the use of high technology gadgetry in the border areas for early detection and identification. His report is also under wraps.

On resources, our commanders ironically have made a fetish of celebrating inadequacy of vital military equipment and making a virtue of necessity. Two instances come to mind—former Army Chief Gen VP Malik’s famous quip during the Kargil conflict “we will fight

with what we have” and incumbent Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa making a similar comment after the Balakot air strikes. In response to a question about the crisis escalating into war, he said: “The IAF will fight with what it has.”

Instead of the authorised 42 fighter squadrons, the IAF has only 30 squadrons with which it is expected to fight a two-front war. BJP’s Maj Gen BC Khanduri, former chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, had noted with concern in 2017 that shortfalls in modernisation and critical deficiencies in ammunition undermined the capacity to fight a sustained war. Khanduri virtually declared the army “not fit for war” and lost his job. As a soldier politician, he made it eminently clear he was first a soldier. Former Army Chief Gen VK Singh, who was re-elected to Parliament, was expected to keep Modi informed about the ground reality and state of health of the armed forces. As army chief, he had done so in 2013 through his letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh about hollowness in critical inventories. This got leaked to the media and created a furore in Parliament.

If the Hindustan Times report is true (the government has not rebutted it), it will add to the anxieties of commanders, especially those with areas of responsibility on and/or behind the LoC where they are fighting 360 degrees and 24/7. I recall that two years before Pakistan launched Operation Gibraltar in J&K in August 1965, Pakistani infiltrators and regulars were keeping our troops on their toes by sniping, ambushing and using mines and explosives in rear areas. The army headquarters had told higher commanders that it wanted zero attacks in rear areas and on army posts and when these happened, it expected instant reprisals across the then Cease Fire Line (now LoC).

So surgical strikes were indeed carried out earlier too and sometimes at more than one target against Pakistan army posts. And as proof of strikes, body parts were brought back. A Pakistani attack on one’s own post was the ultimate ignominy and resulted in indirect sackings. Commanders were removed and replaced, but not asked to go home. To prevent attacks taking place, most post commanders would sleep at night with their boots on, leading to a fortress mentality.

In their zeal to prove commanders and troops were alert, fit and kicking, instances of staged Pakistani attacks being beaten back with casualties were not unknown. This earned rewards, but subsequently encouraged immoral practices like fake killings, fake encounters and fake attacks. The fear of being sacked engendered recourse to carefully choreographed fake operations, but these were rare. Higher commands’ template for measuring success and failure must not just be headcounts or preventing fidayeen attacks. The big picture that must be viewed is of the unit’s operational and hearts and minds record.

The government’s idea of sending home erring commanders is retrograde, bad in law and bad for morale. It will never stop a suicide bomber. Only good intelligence will. As a political order, it is infringement of the command prerogative of the chief of army staff. Gen Bipin Rawat must resist it, declare the decision unacceptable and add, the buck stops with him.

—The writer has fought in all the wars after 1947 and was Commander of the IPKF (South) in Sri Lanka

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