J&K: Kokernag Encounter Highlights Need For Fact Based Media Reporting – OpEd


The ongoing encounter between security forces and Pakistan backed terrorists in the thickly forested and mountainous Gadole area in Kokernag region of South Kashmir’s Anantnag district has once again exposed Indian media’s abject unfamiliarity with basic nuances of anti-terrorist operations. It has also uncovered attention seekers making claims and voicing opinions that definitely border on the absurd, and this includes both certain TV channels and some self-professed analysts.

Encounters between security forces and terrorists are commonplace in J&K. However, the Gadole encounter is in limelight as the casualties suffered by security forces include a commanding officer and company commander of Rashtriya Rifles as well as a deputy superintendent [Dy SP] of J&K police. Though not unprecedented, such an inordinately high casualties in officer-rank during an operation is nevertheless uncommon-and perhaps this is what has rattled alarmists and made the imagination of some fertile minds run wild.

An example is a piece titled ‘Terror as family business? Why Kokernag ambush may have roots in India’s war against Lashkar’ [https://theprint.in/india/terror-as-family-business-why-kokernag-ambush-may-have-roots-in-indias-war-against-lashkar/1763835/] written by a fairly well known Indian defence analyst that appeared in The Print on September 16. If this author is to be believed, then the Kokenag incident wasn’t an operation based on specific intelligence that culminated in an encounter, but a terrorist ambush [surprise attack by armed men lying in wait in a concealed position].

This analyst has based his inference on a statement issued by The Resistance Front [TRF], a front organisation of Pakistan based terrorist outfit Lashkar-e-Taiba [LeT], which [in his own words] reads, “Today’s glorious attack in Kokernag is a glorious tribute to shaheed [martyr] Muhammad Riyaz, who was martyred in the Rawlakote area.”  Belonging to the Surankote area of Poonch district of J&K, Riyaz was a key LeT operative based in Pakistan occupied Kashmir [PoK] actively involved in coordinating terrorist activities in J&K. He was gunned down by an unidentified assailant in Rawlakote [PoK] on September 8.

It’s a well known fact that Islamabad jumps at every conceivable opportunity to accuse New Delhi for any violent act inside Pakistan or in PoK. A recent example is its Interior Minister’s claim made last year that Islamabad had “strong evidence” of India’s involvement in the 2021 suicide car bombing outside Mumbai attack mastermind and LeT co-founder Hafiz Saed’s residence in Lahore. The fact that Islamabad hasn’t yet furnished the so called “strong evidence” that it claims to possess is a classic example of Islamabad’s incurable habit of crying “Wolf”! 

Interestingly, the Pakistan police have classified the Rawlakote killing of LeT operative Riyaz as a “blind murder,” and not a targeted killing, while TRF has hailed the casualties inflicted on Indian security forces during the Kokernag action as a “glorious tribute” to this deceased LeT commander. With the Pakistan police not levelling any allegations of Indian involvement in the killing of Riyaz, and TRF not terming the Kokernag encounter as planned retribution for this killing, the ambush theory propounded by many expectedly falls flat on its face.

Similarly, a popular Hindi TV news channel has come out with another incredible account that would put novelist Frederick Forsyth to shame. Titled ‘Anantnag Encounter’s BIG revelation; Plot planned in Pakistan’s Army Headquarter’ [https://news.abplive.com/videos/news/india-anantnag-encounter-s-big-revelation-plot-planned-in-pakistan-s-army-headquarter-abp-news-1629774] this TV channel in a 7.50 minutes video released on September 15, makes some rather ludicrous claims. According to it, the Kokernag incident was a well planned attack on Indian security forces with links spreading across Rawalpindi, PoK as well as Türkiye.

As per this news channel, in an effort to divert public attention away from the havoc being wrecked by Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan terrorist group, the Pakistan army was anxious to orchestrate a big terrorist strike in J&K, and it conveniently did so by ordering LeT to use its front group TRF for the Kokernag ‘attack’ in order to avenge the killing of LeT “top commander” Riyaz.

However, the news channel gave no information to substantiate its claim of Ankara’s involvement in the Kokernag attack other than  mentioning that this incident occurred took place when Pakistan army chief Gen Syed Asim Munir was on a visit to Türkiye! This apology of an investigative report aired on prime time exposes how some desperate TRP hungry TV channels peddle nonsense by using catchy buzz words like “BIG revelation”! 

While the import of the “If a dog bites a man it’s not news, but if a man bites a dog it is” maxim cannot be overemphasised , overzealous analysts and media houses need to curb the temptation to grab attention by expounding wacky theories on terrorism related issues and incidents for two basic reasons.

One, replacing hard facts with unrealistic assumptions just to ‘spice up’ the narrative trivialises the daring actions of security force personnel and culminates in unwarranted glorification of terrorists. The second reason for avoiding factual inaccuracies and hearsay is that these cause immense anguish to both those participating in anti-terrorism operations as well as the near and dear ones of those who made the supreme sacrifice.

For example, manufacturing an ‘ambush tale’ conveys a completely incorrect impression that those participating in the Kokernag operation had disregarded basic tactical tenets that ensure physical security of columns while on the move. Since the officers and soldiers participating in this operation were well trained and had sufficient experience in anti-terrorist operations, it is inconceivable that they would have thrown caution to the winds while moving in an area in which there was a suspected terrorist hideout site.  

 The ambush theory also suggests that it was casualness that caused the rank and file to walk straight into an ambush- lock, stock and barrel. Such untrue depiction based on a mere assumption or hearsay brazenly mocks the professionalism of the security forces. This untruth really hurts those in uniform and such a casually derived inference  indirectly implies that those who lost their lives or were injured due to firing by terrorists had ‘asked for it’

Covering terrorism related issues and incidents demands fact-based reporting and innuendoes that create space for negative inferences or provide ready material to inimical forces for propaganda purposes are unpardonable acts that need to be univocally condemned. So, while it’s obvious that something must have gone seriously wrong during the Kokernag operation which resulted in high casualty figures, and the Indian army will definitely incorporate remedial measures to avoid recurrence. So, there is no need for alarmists and apologists to paint a doomsday scenario.

Similarly, those who see the Kokernag encounter as an indicator of J&K returning to the nineties, or consider outfits like TRF as a “major challenge” to the Indian security forces need to loosen up and stop making mountains out of molehills. The Indian army has the professional acumen and determination to decisively defeat terrorist groups-it has done so in the past, is doing so now, and will continue to do so in future. Alarmists should not forget that unlike the Pakistan army which bends backwards to broker peace deals with terrorist groups, the India army strictly believes in disciplining terrorists and not humouring them like Rawalpindi.      

Officers of the Indian army live by the ‘Chetwode motto’ which states that “The safety, honour and welfare of your country come first, always and every time. The honour, welfare and comfort of the men you command come next. Your own ease, comfort and safety come last, always and every time.” [Emphasis added] and by choosing to lead from the front in an extremely dangerous situation,  19 Rashtriya Rifles Commanding Officer Colonel Manpreet Singh and his Company Commander Major Aashish Dhonchak implicitly lived up to this motto both in letter and spirit and  Late Dy SP Himayun Muzamil Bhat of J&K police too did the same.

While their loss is irreplaceable, the valour and sacrifice of those who made the supreme sacrifice makes those in uniform as well as the veteran fraternity extremely proud and they will remain an everlasting source of inspiration for future generations.

Nilesh Kunwar

Nilesh Kunwar is a retired Indian Army Officer who has served in Jammu & Kashmir, Assam, Nagaland and Manipur. He is a ‘Kashmir-Watcher,’ and now after retirement is pursuing his favorite hobby of writing for newspapers, journals and think tanks.

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