Tackling terror

Published : May 09, 1998 00:00 IST

Special Operations Group (SOG) pickets in the border districts and combat groups of the Jammu and Kashmir Police are now at the cutting edge of counter-terrorist operations across the State.

Pictures: S. Subramanium

THE Dhargaloon picket is perched on a hill and stares out at the Balakot range and the Mendhar river to its right. The Pakistan border cuts across the top of the Balakot heights, and the picket lies in the middle of what is something of a highway for the mercenaries who cross the border into Poonch and Rajouri, the gateway to the Kashmir Valley and Doda.

When constable Nasir Hussain joined the Jammu and Kashmir Police, the one job he did not anticipate doing was taking on terrorists at the border. Nearby pickets have faced regular fire. These include Bhata Dhulliyan and Behramgala, next to the Noori Cham lake where Empress Noor Jehan used to bathe on her way to Srinagar. "Nobody wants to sit here all day and spend all night freezing in the forests," says Hussain stoically, "but if you don't want animals to eat your maize crop, you have to guard your fields."

Special Operations Group (SOG) pickets and combat groups of the Jammu and Kashmir Police are now at the cutting edge of counter-terrorist operations across the State. With the battle for the control of the State having reached a decisive phase, the SOG's success this summer will be critical. Intelligence reports indicate that at least 150 recruits of the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, the Lashkar-e-Toiba and the Harkat-ul-Ansar have crossed the border since January, numbers unprecedented in recent years. Officials say that many of them are believed to be veterans of the Pakistan Army with combat experience in Afghanistan.

Although 147 insurgents were killed while crossing the border in Rajouri alone in the 12-month period from March 1997, successes for India have been relatively few this year. However, if the SOG's performance over the last year is any indication, it appears to have the ability to take on this new challenge.

Through 1997, the Jammu and Kashmir Police have seen a spectacular expansion in operational capability. Part of its growing role in counter-terrorist work has been the outcome of the expansion of its numbers. Since Gurbachan Jagat took charge as the State's Director-General of Police, the process of hiring around 12,000 Special Police Officers (SPOs) has been put in place. The SPOs are hired on fixed-term contracts to work in and around the areas they belong to. As such, they not only act as conventional troopers, but liaise between the community and the police force. The flow of information, in particular, has improved dramatically. The high-altitude pickets at Rajouri and Poonch, for example, have become "post-boxes" for nearby villagers to report information on the movement of terrorist groups. Equally important, Jagat's term has seen major improvements in the police infrastructure, which include the upgrading of weapons and wireless communication and the induction of vehicles for police station-level operations.

In key senses, Jagat was building on the resources the Jammu and Kashmir Police had shown it had but remained unacknowledged. During the first phase of terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir, successive Governors saw the local police as hopelessly compromised. "There was some truth in the charge that some people in the police were mixed up with terrorists," recalls a senior police officer, "but this was inevitable, given that the police force is part of society and is vulnerable to pressure." He said that instead of working to equip the police to engage terrorists, they were marginalised as the result of certain communal thinking within the establishment.

Rejection bred apathy. If in 1989 individual officials had taken on terrorists, within two years the police force withdrew into a shell. By the early 1990s, Army and Border Security Force (BSF) officers made no secret of their belief that the Jammu and Kashmir Police were an undifferentiated collection of traitors. Even though the Punjab Police's successes began to become apparent in 1991-92, the lessons of that experience were not applied to Kashmir.

The first signs of change became evident in June 1994 when Farooq Khan, who is now the Senior Superintendent of Police at Doda, initiated an experiment with a small operations group in Srinagar, the first such police formation in Jammu and Kashmir. The idea, sources told Frontline, was approved by the then Director-General of Police, M.N. Sabharwal, and the present Additional Director-General of Police, Rajinder Tickoo, after some persuasion. The results that the dozen-strong Srinagar SOG generated were remarkable.

The Jehad Force's supreme commander, Bashir Ahmad, was arrested, and in October 1994 the SOG scored its first success in an encounter, killing three Al-Fateh terrorists in a joint operation with the 26 Punjab Regiment at Koil Muqam and Malangam. The Srinagar group was also responsible for ending the 1996 occupation of the Hazratbal shrine by terrorists; it killed those who had occupied it, taking care not to damage the shrine. Among its more innovative tactics was the recruitment of key members of terrorist groups to act along with police formations in counter-terrorist operations.

However, SOG activity remained constrained because of limited resources and the small number of personnel. When Jagat took charge, things began to look up. The most spectacular successes in the Valley often came from officers who had been part of the first SOG unit set up by Khan. The SOG saw the near-decimation of groups such as the Tehreek ul-Mujahideen in 1997. The rout of the organisation was so complete that it was forced to recruit a young news photographer, Mehrajuddin Hafiz, to ferry explosives and handle its finances for want of experienced personnel; Hafiz was arrested early this year. Two successive heads of the Harkat-ul-Ansar, Haji Arif and Riyaz Ahmad 'Karimullah', were also eliminated. In its most recent operational success, the Srinagar SOG, led by Superintendent of Police Manohar Singh, eliminated the Shoura-e-Jehad's S. Hameed, who was one of the nine leaders of terrorist groups prioritised for location in 1998. The SOG has also been at the cutting edge of weapons recoveries, discovering in Kupwara in April the first anti-aircraft automatic weapons brought into Jammu and Kashmir.

IF the SOG's work in the Kashmir Valley has been high-profile, its recent initiatives in Rajouri, Poonch and Doda have received little attention. The three regions of Jammu pose operational challenges that are considerably more difficult compared to the Kashmir Valley. Dense forests and mountains ranging from 1,000 metres to 3,500 metres provide insurgents easy cover. All three regions are crucial, as Rajouri and Poonch offer easier access to the Kashmir Valley than the border district of Kupwara, and Doda commands the heights along the sole all-weather road to Kashmir, National Highway 1.

Predictably, policing the region is difficult. In Doda, BSF troopers, deployed until recently, generally avoided high-altitude pursuit operations, and a series of mass killings of villagers fuelled the communalisation of some operational units in the area. In Rajouri and Poonch, desperate poverty and a growing feeling of economic and political neglect among communities such as the Gujjars provided terrorist groups guides and shelterers.

However, the SOG's recent performance in the region illustrates the ability of the Jammu and Kashmir Police to deal with these challenges. Poonch's 23 SOG units killed 55 terrorists in 1997 - some of the killings were in joint operations with the Army and the BSF. The corresponding figures were 10 in 1996 and five in 1995. The number of terrorists killed by Rajouri's border pickets and 12 SOG units increased from 10 in 1996 to 48 last year.

Interestingly, both areas have no regular personnel for the SOGs. Troopers from the general pool of police personnel join them by rotation so all members of the force are involved in counter-terrorist operations. This strategy builds on the experience of the Kashmir Valley, where one criticism of the SOGs was that a small group of personnel was continuously deployed in counter-terrorist work, providing little motivation to the rest of the force to engage in similar operations. Some officials are sceptical about this strategy; they argue that an elite core of highly skilled personnel would operate better than a less focussed group. But the debate has no simple answer.

WHAT is clear is that the establishment of new pickets at Rajouri and Poonch has incensed terrorist groups. On March 19, a large group of terrorists initiated the first of a series of attacks on police personnel by surrounding a thinly manned police station in the Surankote area. Three police personnel were killed, but, to the surprise of observers, others in the station chose to hold their ground and return fire. The attackers were forced to move out of the area as reinforcements moved in. Since then pickets established at high altitudes have again faced fire but have shown little sign of collapsing under assault.

"Most of the men in the pickets have never been in this situation, particularly the SPOs," says Rajouri Superintendent of Police Hemant Lohia. "But once they have overcome their fear, they understand that they can take on the terrorists, despite the latter's superior firepower." Efforts are now under way to re-equip the pickets with weapons that will allow them to respond more aggressively. SPOs who perform well have been promised regularisation of service.

If Rajouri and Poonch are now on the firing line, the experience of Doda suggests how effective the SOG can be. The region was a major casualty of violence in the Kashmir Valley, with several of its young people joining terrorist groups. By 1992, when security forces were moved into the area in large numbers, terrorist groups withdrew to unpoliced rural areas. Communal killings, along with widespread extortion, rape and kidnapping, followed. Given the abysmal state of the district's roads and its spectacularly rugged terrain, effective counter-terrorist work seemed near impossible.

But the setting up of five SOG units in 1996 marked a turning point. Although the number of terrorists killed in 1997 was only 54 as against 75 in 1996, the incidence of crime came down dramatically, from 139 cases to 68. A key component of the SOG's success here was the setting up of armed village defence committees, whose members fought off terrorists in their areas until security forces could be deployed. The committees, for the first time, killed three terrorists in 1997 and rescued one woman kidnap victim. On April 18, as Frontline photographed an SOG unit in the Gandoh area, the troopers were suddenly moved up as an encounter broke out at a high-altitude area between a defence committee and terrorists.

IS the Jammu and Kashmir Police's revival sustainable? One sign of its potential is that a staggering one-third of all arms recoveries in Jammu and Kashmir were made by the police, although their operational strength is less than a tenth of all Central security forces operating in the region. If the Punjab Police proved that its knowledge of terrain and society made it a formidable counter-terrorist agency, the Jammu and Kashmir Police could well do the same once it was provided adequate resources. This would free the troops to do their job of guarding the borders against external threats. Yet, problems lie in the way, not the least the reluctance of some local politicians, notably Minister of State Ali Mohammad Sagar, to give the Jammu and Kashmir police the kind of support it needs to transform itself into a true fighting force.

As the State gears up for what could be its harshest summer since 1992, the Jammu and Kashmir Police's ability to be at the cutting edge of counter-terrorist work could well be decisive.

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment