A message loud and clear

Published : Aug 15, 2003 00:00 IST

ON the morning of July 22, terrorists almost succeeded in annihilating the entire top officer corps of the country's most important military formation, the Northern Command.

Claimed to have been executed by an obscure organisation called the al-Shuhda Brigade, that fidayeen attack inflicted injuries on Northern Command chief Lieutenant-General Hari Prasad, making him the senior-most officer to have sustained combat injuries during the 15-year, low-intensity war in Jammu and Kashmir. The attack was almost fatal for Lieutenant-General T.P.S. Brar, who commands the 1.75 lakh-strong 16 Corps, the largest formation of its kind in the world, and Major-General T.K. Sapru, the General Officer-Commanding of the Akhnoor-based 10 Division, Major-General D. Khanna and Brigadier Baldev Singh. Brigadier V.K. Govil, in charge of the 16 Corps Headquarters' Electrical and Mechanical Engineering battalion, was killed in the attack, as were seven soldiers.

Defence Minister George Fernandes promptly assured the country that the near-calamity meant nothing. The officers, he said, were not seriously hurt, and there had been "no security lapse". No one is quite sure just why Fernandes made the assertion - and what his definition of a security lapse might be. If nothing, the Defence Minister's casual remark illustrates the culture of impunity he has presided over since the Kargil War. But the issues raised by the Tanda camp attack far transcend the limited question of security management in the Army, and have serious implications for the ongoing India-Pakistan detente process.

THE three-member fidayeen unit arrived outside the camp of the Electrical and Mechanical Engineers at Tanda, near the border town of Akhnoor, on a hijacked truck. One terrorist, Army officials say, was interdicted at the outset of the attack and eliminated. A second terrorist succeeded in entering the barracks where soldiers were preparing for the day's work. Seven soldiers died before this terrorist was killed. For reasons that were yet to become clear, searches failed to detect a third terrorist, who was believed to have hidden himself in the tall elephant grass growing around the camp. General Prasad, along with a large team of subordinates, arrived on the scene on being informed that the Tanda camp had been sanitised. At this point, the third terrorist emerged from the elephant grass, and threw a grenade at the senior officers, who were huddled a short distance away

No official explanation has been offered as to why this unusually large contingent of senior officers felt the need to go to the Tanda camp. It is possible that the third terrorist had hidden himself anticipating the arrival of senior officers at the scene.

The practice of senior officers visiting scenes of major terrorist attacks has had near-calamitous consequences several times in the past. Former Jammu and Kashmir Director-General of Police Ashok Suri was trapped in an annexe of the Jammu and Kashmir Assembly after the October 2001 suicide squad attack there, and was fortunate to escape unhurt. A group of top officers arrived on the scene of another suicide squad attack on the Police Housing Colony in Bemina, Srinagar, the following year. The confusion led to Deputy Inspector-General of Police Farooq Ahmad sustaining injuries.

In June, a suicide squad attack on a military camp at Sujwan near Jammu, claimed the lives of a dozen soldiers. Perimeter security - the central issue in all these attacks - paradoxically seems a more acute problem in relatively safe areas such as urban Jammu or Akhnoor than in the worst-hit parts of the State. Since January, 10 attempted fidayeen attacks have been reported in Jammu and Kashmir. Only in one incident - bar those of Sujwan and Tanda - was the number of security personnel killed greater than the number of terrorists eliminated. This success - which gives the lie to General Prasad's reported assertion that little can be done about fidayeen attacks - had led terrorist groups to gradually reduce the scale of such suicide attacks. While 2001 saw 28 such attacks, there were only 10 in 2002.

This year, however, such attacks have been on the rise again. The escalation seems closely linked to the ongoing India-Pakistan detente process, since eight of the 10 attacks this year have come after Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced his new peace initiative in May.

The attack in Tanda was preceded by a bomb attack on pilgrims near the shrine of Vaishno Devi at Katra. This, in turn, is part of a two-year long increase in the terrorist presence in areas around Jammu, traditionally considered safe. Just days before the Tanda attack, villagers near Akhnoor had protested the kidnapping of three local residents by terrorists who infiltrated into the area. The al-Shuhda Brigade, which Indian intelligence groups claim is a front organisation for the Lashkar-e-Toiba, claims that it carried out the attacks to protest what it says are "provocative comments" made by Pakistani politician Fazl-ur-Rahman during his recent visit to India. The Lashkar-e-Toiba has repeatedly opposed dialogue, and had called for an escalation of the jehad against India. Mohammad Yusuf Shah, the chief of the Hizbul Mujahideen, also recently warned of an escalation of suicide squad attacks on India.

FERNANDES' refusal to blame Pakistan for the attack, and his schematic distinction between the Pakistani military establishment and terrorist groups, simply beg the question. If, as seems likely, terrorist attacks escalate as the detente process gathers momentum, the Union government will have to find credible means to face the threat. Simply pretending that there is no problem, as Fernandes has done, might lead to disaster.

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