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Now, a salvage operation

Print edition : Aug 15, 2003 T+T-

The Army top brass is engaged in a ham-handed operation to cover up the faux pas of Operation Sarp Vinash.

in New Delhi

EIGHT weeks after Frontline's expose of Operation Sarp Vinash, there is almost nothing the Indian Army establishment and its apologists have not tried in their defence. One retired General charged journalists who covered the expose with being "ill-informed"; another, in the context of the suicide squad attack on a military station in Tanda, insinuated that the Sarp Vinash expose was responsible for the declining morale and efficiency of the Army.

The Jammu and Kashmir Police, the Intelligence Bureau and the paramilitary forces, all of which the Military Intelligence Directorate thinks may have leaked damaging data to Frontline, have been subject to poorly concealed smear campaigns. The fake war on Hil Kaka, it seems fair to say, has been followed by a second, even larger campaign, `Operation Sach Vinash', or truth destruction. Sadly for the Army establishment, this second war is not doing any better than the first.

The latest salvo in this ongoing campaign has been the release of an official fact sheet for journalists on Operation Sarp Vinash, purporting to show that Frontline got its facts wrong. Issued by the Military Intelligence Directorate, the fact sheet in fact illustrates that the heavily funded, super-secret organisation has an urgent need of an arithmetic tutor. The first page of the document asserts that after "comprehensive planning and preparation, Operation Sarp Vinash was launched on 21 Apr 2003, by a force level of two brigades, covering an area of 150 square kilometres". It does not specifically state when the Operation ended, but notes that it "resulted in the elimination of 65 terrorists". Major-General Hardev Lidder, the head of the Rajouri-based counter-terrorist Romeo Force, had affirmed exactly this figure at the press conference on May 24. Attached to the fact sheet is a list of 20 first information reports (FIRs), registered with police stations after each encounter. At a first, very casual glance, it would seem that the Army has a case.

It does not. Many of the FIRs that the Military Intelligence Directorate has listed do not belong to the period when it claims Operation Sarp Vinash took place. Five of the FIRs, all filed with the Surankote police station, are dated April 2, April 2-3, April 3, April 17 and April 19, and refer to encounters that took place before the Military Intelligence Directorate itself claims Operation Sarp Vinash started. Remove these from the list in the fact sheet, and the Sarp Vinash tally of terrorists immediately drops to 50. Five other FIRs refer to encounters in Banota, Kallar, Niayon ka Khet and Hari Safeda, again in the Surankote area, which took place after Gen. Lidder's claim. Indeed, the Hari Safeda encounter took place on June 14, after the Frontline expose on the Operation had become public. Cut the number of terrorists killed in these encounters from the fact sheet claim, and the figure falls by another 20, to just 30.

Even this pitiful figure - less than half of the total that is now claimed by the Army - is open to dispute. The fact sheet, for example, claims that three terrorists were killed in Gagriyal, near Chrar-e-Sharif, on the night of May 6-7. Informed sources told Frontline that all three were ethnic-Kashmiri terrorists and not foreign nationals who were claimed to have been holed up in Hil Kaka. The source for the encounter, Frontline was told, was a local intelligence informer who had nothing to do with Hil Kaka. But even leaving aside this information, which by its very nature is hard to establish conclusively, the claim that terrorists traverse the route between Hil Kaka and Chrar-e-Sharif is profoundly odd. They would have had to head first towards Rajouri, climb again on to the Tosha Maidan pastures above Chrar-e-Sharif, and come down yet again into Gagriyal. Roughly speaking, the scale of the Army's claim in this case is similar to asserting that the killing of a group of terrorists in Baramulla was the outcome of operations conducted in Anantnag.

One is then left with a figure of 27 or so terrorists killed, the same number suggested by Frontline's investigation, which was carried out on the basis of the same documents the Army has now corralled to its defence. Indeed, the Army has ended up affirming other key elements of the investigation. Only five machine guns and a single mortar were recovered during Operation Sarp Vinash, hardly of a scale with the "war-like" fortifications everyone from Gen. Lidder to Chief of the Army Staff General Nirmal C. Vij claimed had existed on Hil Kaka. By the admission of the fact sheet itself, troops did not recover even a single rocket-propelled grenade launcher, a basic weapon widely used in the Jammu and Kashmir militancy. Worst of all, the number of Kalashnikov rifles the Army claims to have found, 40, sits very poorly with the 65 terrorists it claims to have killed. Frontline's investigation had suggested that many of those killed on Hil Kaka may have been children forcibly recruited as slave labour by terrorist groups. Now, the Army's own figures add weight to the proposition.

NOT content with the incredulous reactions to the fact sheet - which provoked one newspaper to write that the Army was "sexing up Sarp Vinash" in the style of the government of the United Kingdom - the Army is now proceeding with a disinformation campaign directed against a wide spectrum of potential sources. On July 20, Hindustan Times reported that the Union Home Ministry had held police and paramilitary personnel responsible for selling ammunition to the Lashkar-e-Toiba. The terrorist organisation, the newspaper reported, which was "responsible for the June 28 massacre of 12 sleeping jawans at the Sunjwan [sic., Sujwan] Cantonment in Jammu, had apparently bought AK-47 bullets at Rs.20,000 a box". The report continued to say that "the latest information has not yet reached Military Intelligence, perhaps because the report is too recent to have figured in the weekly meetings that the head of the Defence Intelligence Agency has with other intelligence outfits". In essence, thus, the report suggested that the efforts of the Army were being subverted by corrupt elements in other organisations.

Frontline's ongoing investigation has gained access to the note prepared by the Intelligence Bureau. It indeed reports that a source, whose credibility it does not comment upon, has reported that ammunition is being sold by "some force" to the Lashkar-e-Toiba, but continues to mention that these forces may be "Army, police, or paramilitary". The omission of the Army from this dubious roll-call in the Hindustan Times report is of obvious significance; no prizes are on offer for identifying its source. Interestingly, the Intelligence Bureau document makes no reference to the Sujwan killings in the context of the arms sale. It only notes, among several points, that the Lashkar-e-Toiba has claimed responsibility for the Sujwan killings. Most important, the Army was aware of the existence of the document, prepared for the routine Wednesday meeting of intelligence agencies called in New Delhi by the Defence Intelligence Agency, headed by Lieutenant-General Kamal Dawar. The document was presented on July 16 and the Hindustan Times report appeared on the subsequent Sunday.

All of these could be put down as the usual inter-departmental cheap-shot if it was not for the enormously serious consequences the Army's behaviour has had for India's case on Jammu and Kashmir. It has, by elevating an unsubstantiated source report to a quasi-official claim, ended up making Hizbul Mujahideen chief Mohammad Yusuf Shah's claims on the sources of his organisation seem credible. In several interviews, Shah has claimed that the Hizbul Mujahideen receives no arms and ammunition from Pakistan, and relies instead on discontented Indian troops. Indeed, the Army's tall claims on Operation Sarp Vinash have had precisely the same effect. Its claims that terrorist training camps existed on Hil Kaka bore out similar assertions by Shah, who insisted that his cadre were all trained in the Kashmir Valley itself. The search for a few public relations points, sadly essential to many senior officers' career prospects, has actually been taken to the point where key elements of the official Indian position on Jammu and Kashmir were undermined in the process.

Where do things go from here? Probably nowhere. It is worth recalling that Defence Minister George Fernandes, despite his closest aides being caught on camera in the tehelka.com episode, sits at the top of the defence establishment. The officers indicted in the course of that scandal are being subjected to a remarkably gentle court-martial in Chandigarh's Chandi Mandir Army cantonment.

In an organisation where non-accountability is rapidly becoming the norm, the Operation Sarp Vinash hoax is widely seen as a harmless enterprise in self-promotion. Sadly, few are willing to deal with the long-term consequences of pretending that all is well with the Indian Army's counter-terrorist operations in Jammu and Kashmir, or its overall posture against Pakistan. Although many officers within the Army privately express their dissatisfaction with this state of affairs, few are willing to put their careers on the line by speaking out even in-house.

If you do not like the message, the Army establishment's instructions seems to go, simply shoot the messenger.

In a country where credible institutions are hard to come by, the Army has become something of a holy cow, above accountability and above criticism. Retired Major-General Ashok Mehta's recent attack on the Sarp Vinash expose, in The Pioneer, is illustrative of the block-out-the-bad-news mentality that shrouds the Defence Ministry. He said that for political reasons ill-informed journalists, thin on fact, were attempting to undermine the confidence of the armed forces. Operation Sarp Vinash was a success, he continued confidently, and the Army had 75 FIRs to prove it. Seventy-five? It would seem the Generals and their apologists need an education more urgently than the media.