By Ajit Kumar Singh*
On September 13, 2023, Colonel Manpreet Singh, Battalion Commander of 19 Rashtriya Rifles, his company commander Major Aashish Dhonchak and Deputy Superintendent of Police (DSP) Humayun Bhat, were killed in a counter-terrorist operation in the Kokernag area of Anantnag District in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). The intelligence-based Operation Garol, to flush out terrorists who had taken shelter in the thick jungles of Kokernag, was still going on at the time of writing, with reports indicating that at least 2 to 3 terrorists were in hiding. Meanwhile, another soldier, who was reported missing on September 14, was reported dead on September 15.
Inputs indicate that this was the same group of terrorists who had carried out the attack on army personnel on August 4, 2023, killing three troopers in the Halan Forest area of Kulgam District.
The Resistance Front, a proxy of the Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT), has claimed responsibility for the September 13 killings.
The last terrorist incident in J&K in which an officer of the Indian Army at the rank of Colonel was killed, was reported on May 2, 2020. Colonel Ashutosh Sharma and Major Anuj Sood were among five Security Force (SF) personnel killed in a counter-terrorist operation at a village in the Rajwar Forest in the Chanjmulla area of Kupwara District. Two holed-up terrorists, including LeT ‘commander’ Haider, a Pakistani national, were later killed.
Since the August 5, 2019, rescinding of the special status of J&K under Article 370, as well as the division of the State and its reduction to two Union Territories, J&K has recorded killings of two Colonel rank officers and two Majors in two incidents (above). The highest ranked Police officer killed during this period was DSP Humayun Bhat (September 13, 2023).
In the corresponding period preceding (June 23, 2015 – August 4, 2019), 11 senior SF personnel had been killed in clashes with the terrorists, including five Majors, four Captains and two DSPs of the J&K Police.
Prior to August 5, 2019, the last incident in which a Colonel rank officers was killed was reported on November 17, 2015, when Colonel Santosh Mahadik was killed and another two SF personnel were injured, in an encounter with a group of three terrorists in the Manigah Forest Area of Kupwara District.
The highest ranked officer killed in a terrorist attack in Kashmir, till date, was Brigadier V.K. Govil, who was killed when a three-member fidayeen(suicide squad) stormed an Army camp at village Bangti on the Tanda Road in Akhnoor, Jammu. Eight SF personnel, including the Brigadier, were killed and 12 others, including four Generals, a Brigadier and two Colonels, were injured in the attack.
It is important to mention here that the SFs have established clear dominance over terrorists in J&K over the past several years. In 2023 (till September 17), the number of SF personnel killed stands at 21, as against 28 in the corresponding period of 2022. There was a total of 30 fatalities in this category in 2022. A recent high of 95 SF personnel killed was recorded in 2018, which dropped to 78 in 2019, 56 in 2020 and 45 in 2021. Between 1990 and 2007, the peak years of the terrorist movement, deaths in this category in each year remained continuously in the three digits, with a high of 638 killed in 2000. In between, a low of 18 SF fatalities was recorded in 2012.
At the same time, the number of active terrorists in J&K has fallen considerably, from the thousands in the 1990s and early 2000s, to less than 150 at present, with almost the entire ground level leadership in the Union Territory eliminated. Government sources claim that the number of Foreign Terrorists (Pakistani nationals) stands at less than 20, at present.
The success has been slow, but steady and seems more or less irreversible. However, there have been several incidents during this period which force the conclusion that SFs, after having achieved tremendous success on the ground in their fight against Pakistan-backed terrorists with their valor, grit and sacrifices, have failed to sustain the highest degree of operational alertness to meet the element of surprise. In addition to the September 13 incident, some other recent cases include:
May 5, 2023: At least five soldiers were killed when a group of terrorists ambushed them inside a jungle in Rajouri district. Jammu-based defence spokesperson Lt. Col. Devender Anand, subsequently disclosed,
On specific information about [the] presence of terrorists in the Kandi Forest in Rajouri Sector, a joint operation was launched on Wednesday [May 3]. At about 0730 hours on Friday [May 5], a search team established contact with a group of terrorists well entrenched in a cave. The area is thickly vegetated with rocky and steep cliffs. The terrorists triggered an explosive device in retaliation. The Army team has suffered two fatal casualties with injuries to four more soldiers, including an officer.
It was believed that the terrorists involved in the attack were the same group of terrorists who were behind the attack on an army truck on April 20, 2023, in Poonch, which left five soldiers dead.
October 11, 2021: Five Army personnel, including a Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO), were killed during an anti-insurgency operation in a village close to Dera Ki Gali at Surankote in Poonch District. The operation had been launched in the early hours, following intelligence inputs about the presence of militants.
June 17, 2019: An Army Major and a militant were killed, while another officer and two troopers were injured in a counter-terrorist operation in the Achabal area of Anantnag District.
After each such incident arguments emerge that a new method or tactic has been adopted by the terrorists and that is why the Forces were caught unawares and suffered losses. Investigations into past incidents have, however, exposed a measure of complacency and failure to follow standard operating procedures (SOPs) in several cases.
At a time when militancy is at a low ebb, the terrorists are on the run, and their masters in Islamabad fighting for their own survival, each terrorist ‘success’ on the ground, particularly the killing of senior SF officers, is likely to boost morale in the terrorist rank and file. At a time when the SFs have established overwhelming dominance across J&K, the objective must be to dictate the terms of engagement and minimize SF casualties.
- Ajit Kumar Singh
Senior Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management