By Ajit Kumar Singh*
In the worst ever attack in terms of fatalities of Army personnel since terrorism began in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) in 1988, at least 17 Army personnel were killed and another 19 were injured when terrorists stormed the administrative base of one of the units of the Indian Army near the Line of Control (LoC) in the Uri town of Baramulla District at around 5:30 am IST on September 18, 2016. Four terrorists involved in the attack were also killed.
Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) Lt. Gen. Ranbir Singh in an official statement on the Uri attack stated,
A group of heavily armed terrorists opened fire on an administrative base of one of the units of Indian Army at Uri in Kashmir at approximately 0530 hours this morning. The firefight between the terrorists and Army personnel continued till approximately 0830 hours, during which four terrorists have been killed. All four killed were foreign terrorists and had some items with them which had Pakistan makings. Initial reports indicate that the slain terrorists belong to Jaish-e-Mohammad [JeM] tanzeem… The terrorists fired incendiary ammunition along with automatic fire of small arms that led to army tents/ temporary shelters catching fire. The tents located in the complex were to house additional troops inducted due to routine turnover of units. There have been a total of 17 Army fatal casualties. Of these, 13-14 casualties have been due to these tents/shelters having caught fire…
On December 5, 2014, Uri had witnessed a similar attack, when a group of heavily armed terrorists had stormed into the Army’s 31 Field Regiment Ordinance Camp located at Mohra in the Uri Sector. During the intense operations, one Lieutenant Colonel and seven soldiers of the Army; one Assistant Sub Inspector and two constables of the Jammu and Kashmir Police; were killed. Six terrorists were also killed in the operation.
However, the previous worst attack, in terms of fatalities among Army personnel, had taken place on June 28, 2003, when two fidayeen (suicide squad) terrorists had attacked an Army installation at the Dogra Regiment camp in Sunjwan, on the outskirts of Jammu city, killing 12 soldiers and injuring seven others, including a Lieutenant, before being killed by the troops.
Almost a year earlier, on May 14, 2002, at least 31 persons, including three Army personnel, 18 family members of Army personnel, and 10 civilians, were killed and another 47 persons, including 12 Army personnel, 20 Army family members and 15 civilians were injured, in a terrorist attack targeting an Army Unit at Kaluchak in Jammu District. All the three Pakistani terrorists involved in the attack were also killed in this incident. This is so far the worst ever attack in terms of fatalities targeting an Army facility recorded in the State since 1988.
The worst ever attack involving deaths of Security Force (SF) personnel, was recorded on May 23, 2004, when at least 30 persons, including 19 Border Security Force (BSF) personnel, six women and five children, were killed in an Improvised Explosive Device (IED) explosion at Lower Munda, near Qazigund, on the Srinagar-Jammu highway. The worst ever attack targeting the J&K Police was recorded on March 2, 2001, when 15 police personnel and two civilians were killed in an ambush at Morha Chatru in Rajouri District.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), J&K has registered at least 6,250 deaths among SFs since 1988 [data till September 18, 2016]. 64 of these deaths [including September 18, 2016, fatalities] have been recorded in the current year, thus far. This is the highest number of fatalities among SFs recorded in the State during a year since 2010, when this number stood at 69.
Since 1988, J&K has recorded at least 36 attacks targeting the SFs which have resulted in five or more fatalities among SFs. Seven of these attacks (including the September 18, 2016, attack) have resulted in 10 or more fatalities among SFs.
Thus, despite being the worst attack in terms of Army personnel killed in a single attack, the September 18, 2016, attack is not unique and is, indeed, part of a continuous chain of such attacks over the past over two and a half decades. In recent years, these have included the September 26, 2013, attacks at Kathua (six fatalities) and Samba (seven fatalities); the November 27, 2014, Arnia Sector attack (12 fatalities); the December 5, 2014, Uri Sector attack (17 fatalities); the March 20, 2015, Kathua attack (seven fatalities); and the August 5, 2015, Udhampur attack (three fatalities). Further, the attacks at the Dinanagar Police Station on July 27, 2015 and the Pathankot Airbase on January 2, 2016, both in the neighbouring state of Punjab, were part of the same stream.
Unfortunately, the Indian security and political establishment continues to fail to learn from past mistakes, despite the long history of sustained Pakistani malfeasance in J&K and its efforts to take terrorism beyond this State.
The political responses to the latest outrage in Uri remain trapped in boastful absurdities and pat formulae referring to ‘dastardly deeds’, ‘cowardly attacks’ and promises of a ‘befitting reply’. Within this farcical paradigm the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated, perhaps appropriately, in a Tweet, underlining the frivolity of approach, “We strongly condemn the cowardly terror attack in Uri. I assure the nation that those behind this despicable attack will not go unpunished.” Similarly, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh in a series of tweets said, “Pakistan is a terrorist state and it should be identified and isolated as such… I am deeply disappointed with Pakistan’s continued and direct support to terrorism and terrorist groups.”
On the other hand, as in the wake of past major terrorist attacks by Pakistan backed terrorism, a virtual Tsunami of jingoism has been unleashed, with “experts”, including a battery of retired Generals, baying for ‘surgical strikes’, ‘overwhelming responses’ and, exacting, for a “single tooth, the whole jaw”. No effort is made to reconcile any of this with an assessment of capacities or capabilities; or with the dynamic of retaliatory responses that would then be triggered. Nor is there any appreciation of the fact that, in seventy years of hostility and over three decades of Pakistani support terrorism, India is yet to evolve any strategy or policy consensus on how it is to deal with Islamabad and its terrorist proxies. In the absence of a strategy of sustainable response, all talk of retaliatory strikes is mere posturing, a strutting and fretting that will produce little or nothing.
The Uri attack has exposed India’s vulnerabilities once again, as it has clear evidence of negligence and complacency. After the Pathankot Air Force Base attack, the Government at the highest level had promised that there would be a comprehensive review of security at military establishments across the country. The fact that obvious vulnerabilities in as sensitive a location as Uri, have remained unaddressed indicates that this is another of the Government’s broken promises.
The loss of life in the Uri attack is tragic and is a blow to the Army’s prestige and morale. But it is another opportunity for the system to address the endemic policy lacunae that have left us so completely susceptible to the machinations of Pakistan’s intelligence apparatus and its proxies. The more than two months of orchestrated street violence that have afflicted the Kashmir Valley, since the death of terrorist ‘commander’ Burhan Wani on July 8, 2016, demonstrate another dimension of the loss of control and the lack of policy direction, even as Pakistan uses every avenue of escalation available. Significantly, Union Minister of State in the Ministry Of Home Affairs Hansraj Gangaram Ahir informed the Rajya Sabha on July 27, 2016, that there had been 90 attempts of infiltration recorded from across the border in J&K (till June 30, 2016) in which 54 terrorists succeeded in infiltrating into Indian territory, adding to the 121 such attempts in 2015, with 33 terrorists succeeding in their objective to move into the State.
Tremendous gains in J&K, secured at great cost in lives by the SFs over decades, are being frittered away by a careless and short sighted political leaderships, both at the Centre and in the States. Instead of evolving a sustainable approach and policy to the challenge of Pakistan backed terrorism and the management of domestic dissent in J&K, these leaderships have chosen a fractious and polarizing politics, appealing to their own divided constituencies, for short term electoral gains. This has destabilized J&K, instead of consolidating the relative peace that has been recovered in the State.
Declining trends in terrorist violence also appear to have resulted in a measure of complacency within the security establishment, and there are several instances of a failure to act on actionable intelligence provided by intelligence agencies to the SFs, resulting in several successful terrorist attacks, including the latest incident at Uri.
India has established a long tradition of transforming SF successes into political failures, and this appears to be the ongoing trend in J&K. With the utter incoherence, confusion and jingoism presently afflicting the country’s Pakistan and Kashmir policy, there appears to be little hope of any radical shift in the present and disastrous trajectory of events. Unless a measure of political sagacity is restored, things can only get worse in the near term.
* Ajit Kumar Singh
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management