Published : Jul 04, 2003 00:00 IST

The truth about Operation Sarp Vinash, projected by the Indian Army as a successful counter-terrorist operation - if you can't do it, just fake it.

in Poonch

FOR the past month, newspapers and television channels have been saturated with news of Operation Sarp Vinash, indisputably the most high-profile counter-terrorist operation in the history of the Indian Army, and, if the Army is to be believed, the most successful one as well. Newspapers have spoken of the elimination of massive fortified positions held by terrorists, unchecked for four years. One newspaper, whose correspondent had yet to visit the area, spoke of terrorists occupying a "Karnal-sized area" (presumably referring to the Haryana town); others spoke of Kargil-style intrusions, concrete bunkers, training camps and prepared killing fields. Now, we have been told, a major terrorist threat, which could have crippled Indian lines of communication in the event of a war, has been interdicted. Barring the usual muttering about intelligence failure, the media have let it be known that a great victory has been won in the face of overwhelming odds. Indeed, Defence Minister George Fernandes has announced that he would ensure that more operations of the Sarp Vinash type would take place in the near future.

Now here is the unhappy truth: Operation Sarp Vinash is a hoax that is unprecedented in the annals of the Indian Army. It is a hoax that has brought its perpetrators one step closer to medals and promotions, but has undermined India's claims on cross-border terrorism, dishonoured the sacrifices made by military and police personnel fighting in Jammu and Kashmir, and committed troops to a sapping and counter-productive mountain ground-holding commitment.

The truth, goes the maxim, will prevail. India's new media-savvy Generals have realised that a good part of the time, you can just make it up as you go along.

It is hard to know just what the Army's authorised version of Operation Sarp Vinash actually is, because officials have put out irreconcilable figures and accounts, much of it from behind a veil of anonymity. The Times of India first reported on a major offensive in the Surankote area. On May 17, its defence correspondent wrote that the Army had killed "60 hard-core militants in the Surankote area proximate to the Line of Control in Jammu and Kashmir." The Army, he quoted an unnamed Army officer as saying, had "also seized a huge quantity of assault rifles, mortars, grenades, rocket-propelled grenades and under-barrel grenade launchers, among other `war-like stores.'" The next day, The Asian Age said that the operation had involved the use of Russian-built MI-17 helicopters, mainly to evacuate casualties. On May 19, The Tribune went one step further, asserting that the Army had killed "180 Pakistani terrorists and foreign mercenaries in the past 45 days when for the first time it launched an operation to free the high mountainous positions in Jammu and Kashmir which had so far been a haven for ultras."

All these early reports had two common features: they cited no on-record sources, and the term Sarp Vinash was nowhere used. It first appeared in the Jammu-based The Excelsior on May 21. The operation, the newspaper reported, citing anonymous defence sources, had been carried out "from April 21 to May 18 to clear a bulge at Hill [Hil] Kaka where hardcore Pakistani groups like Jaish-e-Mohammad, Lashkar, Al Badr and Hizbul Mujahideen had set up fortifications in a large area of strategic importance to interdict Indian Army supply lines." In the meanwhile, reports of helicopter strikes and terrorist-held fortifications had provoked hysteria among New Delhi-based journalists. Finally, on May 20, General Nirmal Vij tried to calm things down. The next morning The Tribune quoted him as denying that "helicopter gunships had been used to flush out the terrorists" but accepting that "helicopters had been used for logistical purposes", a routine event.

On May 23, the General Officer-Commanding of the Rajouri-based Romeo Force, Major-General Hardev Lidder, spoke to journalists flown in from New Delhi and Jammu. Gen. Lidder proceeded to rubbish Gen. Vij's claims before the press - the consequences of which he could not but have realised. Gen. Lidder asserted that helicopters "were used to destroy a bunker used by the ultras in the Hill [Hil] Kaka area. The Excelsior quoted him as saying that the "hideouts busted were almost like military fortifications, where militants had stored large cache of arms, war-like stores and 7,000 tonnes of rations." "The fortifications," the newspaper reported, "were designed on the pattern of Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda hideouts in mountains near Jalalabad and some of them located as high as 3989 metres had to be targeted by helicopter-fired air-to-ground `frog' high fragmetnation [sic., fragmentation] missiles." At the press conference, Gen. Lidder said that 65 terrorists had been killed in the operation, 10 of them across the Pir Panjal by troops of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps.

Two days later, Gen. Lidder provided more details on the actual operation. In January, he said, helipads and roads were built and mule tracks formed in order to facilitate access to Hil Kaka. Army aviation helicopters, he said, provided the crucial breakthrough, locating footprints in the snow leading to hideouts. Operations in Hil Kaka, he said, began on April 21. "The occupation of Hil Kaka area commenced on that night," The Indian Express reported him as saying. "Our first contact with the terrorists began in the morning of April 22 when our jawans, using the shock-and-awe tactic, killed 13 terrorists around Pt [Point] 3689 [metres]", Gen. Lidder said. A former military attach in Washington, he clearly understood the value of a little United States-inspired rhetoric. He also claimed that the troops had found an Inmarsat set (which is a briefcase-size satellite telephone system) from which terrorists had called "Aligarh Muslim University, Malappuram in Kerala, Chinapalli in Tamil Nadu, Ahmedabad and even to Kuwait, among other places."

Broadly, then, the Army made three major claims for Operation Sarp Vinash. It had killed between 40 and 60 terrorists in and around Hil Kaka (the figure depending on who one believed). Many more had perished elsewhere, It had found war-like stores and weaponry. And, finally, it had destroyed some 90 major fortified hideouts, using air power and massive infantry resources.

Here is the oddest part of Sarp Vinash: it has actually killed fewer terrorists in and around Hil Kaka during the course of the operation than in past years. And the operation did not lead to the discovery of war-like stores, fortifications or training camps.

In 2002, by the end of May, 36 terrorists had been eliminated in fighting around Hil Kaka. This year, by the Army's own claims made in documents that Frontline has, the number of those killed is 27. In 2001, 103 terrorists were killed around Hil Kaka, which number fell to 47 in 2002, because counter-insurgency formations had been withdrawn for India's war-that-wasn't with Pakistan. It is unlikely that the figure of the killings will match that of 2001 despite all the bluff and bluster. And that is not all. In the summer of 2001 and 2002, when terrorists were supposedly roaming around Poonch with impunity, the Jammu and Kashmir Police's records show that considerably larger numbers of them were eliminated across the district than has happened this time around.

What, then, of the supposed success of Operation Sarp Vinash? The truth emerges from the Army's own documents, filed in the wake of the seven major encounters that took place on Hil Kaka between April 22 and May 27. After each encounter, the Army files documents with the local police, stating how many terrorists it has killed and what weapons it has recovered. On the basis of these documents, the police register a first information report (FIR). If no fire contact with terrorists takes place, but weapons or stores are recovered, the police make what is known as a `daily diary' entry. These recoveries are simply recorded under a broad, catch-all FIR, which states that Pakistan-backed terrorists have gathered to wage war against India. The seven documents filed by the Army in the course of the Hil Kaka operations collectively claim the elimination of 27 terrorists by four separate units.

Even this figure is open to dispute. Photographic evidence of all the 27 who were killed, a necessity for an FIR to accept the claim made, is not available. More important, the claims with regard to terrorists killed and weapons recovered are wildly inconsistent. The seven Army documents declare the recovery of four Pika-type machine guns, nine assault rifles, a sniper rifle and one 60-mm mortar. Even assuming that those who manned the Pika guns did not also have Kalashnikovs for their own proximate defence, an improbable situation, that only adds up to 14 major weapons. Thirteen terrorists, the documents would have us believe, were armed only with five pistols and a 12-bore hunting shotgun. Troops of the 9 Para-Commando Regiment killed 14 terrorists, and identified five of them - Lashkar-e-Toiba district commander Jannat Gul, Abu Farz, Abu Usman, Abu Bakr, and Abu Hamza. They recovered only five automatic weapons; the rest of those killed seem to have been unarmed.

In some cases the Army's claims border on the farcical. The 15 Garhwal Rifles' report of May 12, for example, insists that the "weapon of the second militant washed away in the flow of water in the Nallah [mountain stream] and could not be recovered." How the unit's officers knew that the missing weapon was washed away in the stream is not clear, since Kalashnikovs, which are heavy, are not known to bob up and down in running water.

The Jammu and Kashmir Police Headquarters, based on the FIRs filed in the Surankote police station, has therefore been conservative in its assessment of the numbers of terrorists killed in Sarp Vinash - public declarations to the contrary notwithstanding. At the end of the first week of June, its figure for bodies actually found stood at 25. How, then, did the Army top brass claim to have killed upwards of 60 terrorists? With creative jugglery - and a little bit of imagination. In Poonch, for example, the Army claimed that five terrorists killed in the jurisdiction of the Mandi and Mendhar police stations were trophies for Sarp Vinash. A minute with the map shows that this could not be the case, since the escape routes from Hil Kala lie northeast into the Pir Panjal, not back across the mountains towards the Line of Control. The Army also added terrorists killed in ambushes across the Pir Panjal towards Shopian. Official records in Frontline's possession show that seven terrorists were killed on the Chor Gali [pass] above Shopian on May 13, one each on May 23 and May 27, and another group of eight was killed near Zainpora on June 7. Yet, even if one accepts the 27-dead figure claimed by the Army in Hil Kaka, along with the five claimed killed in Mendhar and Mandi, this still adds up to 46 - well below the Army's claimed numbers. It should also be noted that the Zainpora encounter took place several days after claims made by Gen. Vij and Gen. Lidder - which would bring that total at that time to 36.

Worst of all, the public relations apparatus of 16 Corps and the Army Headquarters has demeaned the sacrifices made by men who served under the predecessors of the current order. Bigger numbers of terrorists have been killed in individual encounters in the past, unaided by the high-tech gadgetry that the Army claims was key to its latest successes. An operation at Khari Dhok, part of the Hil Kaka bowl, claimed the lives of 20 terrorists on July 15, 2001. Another 21 terrorists were eliminated at Mukhri on November 1 that year. These two encounters alone claimed the lives of more terrorists than the entire tally of Sarp Vinash. It is just that television was not around to manufacture triumph at that time.

Thirteen-year-old Mushtaq Ahmad uses the clipped code of the police wireless operator with fluent ease. He refers to the Lashkar-e-Toiba, his Tanzeem, as `Tango', and to his location on Hil Kaka as `Lima.' He calls full blown terrorists "Koran', and apprentices like himself `Copies.' He has no idea what language these words belong to: he is, after all, just a kid from Dogrian Poshana, near Surankote, who did not spend a lot of time in a schoolroom.

Evidence from arrested members of the groups on Hil Kaka give you a fair idea of just what was happening on the mountains - and none of it bears out the Army's steroid-fuelled stories. Mohammad Younis, from Harmain village in Shopian, was arrested by the Army in the course of its operations in Hil Kaka. According to the military's account of his activities, which have led to his incarceration, Younis was taken from his village by a Lashkar-e-Toiba unit in November last year. There were, he said, five major hideouts around Hil Kaka that housed some 75 Lashkar cadre. Forty of these, he said, were armed terrorists, and the rest were mainly children press-ganged from villages in Poonch and southern Kashmir.

At a press conference in Jammu, 12-year-old Altaf Husain gave an idea of life as a Lashkar recruit. "We trainees were given food only once in a day while the commanders, who hailed from Pakistan, used to take food three times. And we were served only rice and dhal while the `commanders' used to enjoy chicken and mutton." Most of the children never saw a gun, and were used mainly to clean dishes, haul firewood, and cook food. When fighting broke out on Hil Kaka, the children were left to cope as best they could.

None of this bears out the Army's claims, which are enormously damaging to India's case that terrorists are being trained in Pakistan, and that `mobile training camps' exist in the valley. Indeed, around the same time the Army's public relations apparatus was putting out the story in the Delhi press, Hizbul Mujahideen chief Mohammad Yusuf Shah was making the same case to journalists in Islamabad. What is just as tragic is that the use of children by terrorists is not new. An investigation by Frontline in 2001 had found that most of the 20 terrorists who were claimed to have been killed in the Khari Dhoke encounter in Hil Kaka were in fact children taken to the Surankote area as slave labour. The children were on that occasion stopped from escaping when the Army approached their Afghan and Pakistani bosses. Survivors of that encounter who were interviewed by Frontline said that the bulk of the fatalities occurred when the attacking forces used rocket-launchers to fire at a dhoke in which the terrorists had taken shelter, along with their child recruits (Frontline, December 7, 2001).

While the Army has not gone on record about any training camps, it is fairly obvious where the story came from. The satellite television news team that first broke the non-story was flown into Poonch along with General Vij, and its assertions were denied neither by the Army chief, 16 Corps Commander T.P.S. Brar, or Gen. Lidder himself. To his credit, 15 Corps Commander Lieutenant-General V.G. Patankar took the bull by the horns. "Our troops are present in the entire valley, but have never seen these camps," Gen. Patankar told journalists in Srinagar. Tragically, given the discrepancy between the number of claimed killings and instances of weapons recovery on Hil Kaka during Operation Sarp Vinash, it is possible that at least some of the children who were kidnapped and forced into service by terrorists have been killed.

Army records themselves demolish the claims that war-like stores and fortifications were found on Hil Kaka. Army recoveries from the area amounted to only a single mortar, a weapon that has been recovered in dozens from across Jammu and Kashmir over the past several years. The total food ration shown as recovered is not 7,000 tonnes, as Gen. Lidder had asserted, but a paltry 355 kg, besides 30-odd cooking utensils, 27 boxes and 57 mat-sheets. From the figure of 355 kg, one can hazard a guess of just how many terrorists were actually on Hil Kaka. Assuming that stores were maintained at static levels each month, a reasonable assumption, given the weather, and the fact that 500 grams of grain was needed to sustain one terrorist for a day, their high table would have catered for 22.

Little evidence has emerged of major built-up fortifications in the area. The first encounter, on April 22, found an eight-bed hospital facility built into a Gujjar dhoke, the summer stone-and-wood shelters built by migrant pastoralists in winter. Many of the larger dhokes have semi-underground facilities, to shelter cattle and sheep in case the weather turns bad. These seemed to have been used by terrorists for similar purposes. Since any built-up fortification would be defended at least by a machine gun, the numbers recovered probably give an idea of how many defended positions actually existed. The Army's claims to have destroyed upwards of 90 terrorist hideouts are particularly mystifying in this context. The Poonch administration is paying relief to 120 Gujjar families who have been denied their traditional right to use the high pastures of Hil Kaka each summer. Assuming that each family had one dhoke, it would appear that the Army is counting almost every built-up structure as a terrorist hideout. Moreover, given the numbers of blankets and mats recovered, the Army's claim would suggest that each terrorist had two entire dhokes to himself.

In May last year, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee took the unprecedented step of chairing a meeting of the Unified Headquarters in Srinagar. Midway through the meeting, its minutes record, Research and Analysis Wing Commissioner C.K. Sinha pointed to the heavy presence of terrorists on the Poonch heights, and said that some areas were being described as "liberated zones". Gen. Patankar, the 15 Corps Commander, responded angrily. He argued that the Army was operating in these areas with considerable success. Describing the RAW officer's statement as a slur, he asserted that no liberated zones existed anywhere in Jammu and Kashmir.

Less than a year on, you have the Army - although not, to his credit, Gen. Patankar - claiming that it has no information about the terrorist build-up. In fact, information about the activities of terrorists in and around Hil Kaka poured into the headquarters of the Romeo Force in Rajouri, Gen. Lidder's current office, on an almost daily basis. Frontline has obtained copies of 12 key warnings from the State police's intelligence operatives and from the Intelligence Bureau's field station. As early as November 2000, for example, the Poonch Police issued warnings to all organisations in the area that "militants have intensified their activities in Chak Maloti and Sangla areas". It noted that "huge quantities of arms/ammunition has been stored at Machipar adjacent to the houses of ... [five local residents]." Another report, in November 2002, recorded that "militants are regularly dumping the [sic.] ration at Hil Kaka top." The next month, a warning was issued about the construction of "four underground concealed hide-out[s]."

Now, our investigation reveals many of these warnings were coming from a shadowy covert operations unit called Special Group III, made up of Gujjar residents of the high mountains. This fact invalidates claims that photo-reconnaissance by newly-acquired Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), backed by aviation corps helicopters and equipment such as thermal imagers, were the key to whatever success Operation Sarp Vinash has achieved. All seven of the Army's reports on the Hil Kaka operation either credit Special Group III, managed by the Jammu and Kashmir Police, or its smaller sister organisation, Special Group II. The information, the investigation has found, was at first ignored; it was taken seriously only after the organisation's leader spoke to several top political and military figures in Rajouri, Jammu and New Delhi. Based on their inputs, the 9 Para-Commando Regiment, a crack unit which earned a formidable reputation for counter-terrorist operations when it operated in Kupwara, made a first attempt on Hil Kaka in early January. That attempt, and another timed for January 26, were foiled by heavy snow.

Through the winter, Romeo Force worked on putting together helipads that would enable the troops to establish a permanent presence on Hil Kaka. This went against conventional wisdom, which held that committing troops there would only encourage terrorists to move base, and that swift, in-and-out operations would be more productive. Contrary to the Army's claims, no road was built. Work has only now begun on an 18-km route from Bufliaz to Hil Kaka, and this has incensed village residents who believe that a different, though slightly longer, route would have saved several hundred acres of agricultural land. Gen. Lidder also ordered that 155 mm artillery be moved into positions below Hil Kaka, along with Cheetah helicopters fitted with under-slung machine guns. In the first week of April, Gujjar families in Bufliaz were told that they would not be allowed up the mountain. Two weeks later, Operation Sarp Vinash started with artillery pounding the forests around the Hil Kaka bowl, and helicopters attacking terrorist positions. It was a pointless move: the assault killed none, and a substantial section of the terrorists on Hil Kala simply left for safer pastures.

On April 22, the 9 Para-Commando Group and Special Group III made their way up Hil Kaka, and began the first assault. One group used shoulder-fired rockets to eliminate a stone post on Chham Dera, which had been turned into a machine-gun bunker dominating the entire Hil Kaka ridge. Simultaneously, the group interdicted the main terrorist base at Ban Jabran, halfway down the ridge. The terrorists had stashed their supplies a little further down, at Banota. No subsequent operation had anywhere near similar success, for most terrorists had simply fled. Notably, none of the seven Army reports speaks of fragmentation missiles being used against any of the positions. As operations continued, however, helicopters were used to fly in supplies, including a truck and a bulldozer to build a road between the new Army positions in the Hil Kaka bowl.

Even as the fighting came to an end, the tactical errors of April were compounded by intelligence errors. The 9 Para-Commandos had recovered photographs that showed one terrorist posing before Parliament House in New Delhi and the Gateway of India in Mumbai. There were records of calls made to Gujarat, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh and to New Delhi on satellite phone. One call to Ahmedabad had been made just days before the attack on the Akshardham Temple. Gen. Lidder chose to go public with the information even before the Intelligence Bureau was notified of it and could place the lines under surveillance. The satellite phone set was, sources told Frontline, flown from Poonch to Srinagar by the I.B. three days after Gen. Lidder's press conference, by which time the terrorists' aides across the country would have had ample time to shut down their operations. "So far," says a senior I.B. officer in New Delhi, "we've found nothing at all. The trail has run cold."

Some of the wages of Operation Sarp Vinash are evident. Local popular resistance to terrorism, illustrated by the experience of Special Group III, has been demoralised because of the lack of credit given for its role in what happened on Hil Kaka. There will be no medals or honours for its members. Those who fought on the mountains in the past, and those who died in the process, would seem to have done so in vain. All this pales into insignificance, however, before the military consequences of the operation.

As things stand, the Army intends to occupy Hil Kaka until winter sets in. That will ensure that no terrorists will come to the area, but will not make it possible to plug the other heights on the Pir Panjal. As the Army has long known, there are simply not enough troop numbers to be deployed everywhere all the time. If the Army moves troops east to try Sarp Vinash-style operations in Doda or Udhampur, it will have to thin out deployment elsewhere. Posting troops on Hil Kaka will serve no useful offensive purpose, because terrorists will simply stop using the area. That is why Lieutenant-General J.B.S. Yadava, who commanded the 16 Corps during its highly successful Hil Kaka operations in 2001, chose not to commit troops to a permanent presence there. As things stand, Operation Sarp Vinash has sucked in four entire divisions into the high mountains - and yet, killings of terrorists in both Rajouri and Poonch are at lower levels than in 2001 and 2002.

It is not too difficult to find out what has gone wrong. In this case, large groups of terrorists have simply moved down the mountains into the lower reaches of Thana Mandi, and built up a significant presence in the Kandi area of Rajouri. Killings of civilians, particularly Muslims suspected to be anti-Islamic, have grown. On May 24, while the Generals were gloating over Sarp Vinash, terrorists killed five members of a Gujjar family at Keri Khwas in Rajouri. Members of a Lashkar unit barged into the house of Kesar Din, a member of a local village defence committee. After eating a meal, they tortured members of the family and later shot them dead. The dead included Kesar Din, his wife Rakiya Begum and their children, Mohammad Khan, 13, Raj Hussain, 8 and Mohammad Shakeel, 5. Troops had been pushed into the mountains above Kheri Khwas two months earlier.

A week earlier, terrorists entered the home of Mehboob Hussain, near Kot Dhara in Rajouri. They beheaded all four women present, as well as two children, four and two years old. Again, troops in the Kheri Khwas area had been moved into the higher reaches.

None of this should come as a surprise: they are predictable consequences of the application of military tactics that have been discredited over the years. Helicopter-borne operations were attempted in Wadwan, another area "liberated" on the Doda-Anantnag border, during the winter of 2000. The massive and expensive exercise, undertaken without the support of field intelligence, succeeded in finding precisely one empty Kalashnikov magazine.

By contrast, operations by the Rashtriya Rifles and the Jammu and Kashmir Police Special Operations Group the following year, which relied on the elements of speed, surprise and silence, killed record numbers of terrorists. In 1999, the entire 8 Mountain Division was pumped into Kupwara's Rajwar forests. Again without intelligence support and planning, the grandiose operation, code-named Operation Kaziranga, showed a grand total of one body recovered at the end of its first week. Nor has setting up company-strength posts in remote mountain areas been productive.

In the summer of 2000, conversely, pickets were put up in Wadwan, and on the Margan Pass into Kishtwar. The mainly defensive positions did not help kill even a single terrorist, and these were burned down when troops withdrew at the onset of winter - sending a clear message to local residents about who was boss.

Sadly, no one is listening: not the Generals, not the politicians, and least of all an increasingly pliant media, or at least sections of it. Operation Sarp Vinash was intended to kill the serpents that threaten India's integrity. But so far, its principal victim has been the truth.

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