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Surgical strike: What was it really

| ANAND K. SAHAY
Published : Oct 24, 2016, 12:12 am IST
Updated : Oct 24, 2016, 12:12 am IST

It is hard not to recall the great relief the country felt when news came around September 29 midday that the Indian Army had sent its commandos across the Line of Control (LoC) to take out “launchpad

It is hard not to recall the great relief the country felt when news came around September 29 midday that the Indian Army had sent its commandos across the Line of Control (LoC) to take out “launchpads” where terrorists had been assembled for crossing over into Kashmir. This relief was mingled with some pride in our Army.

But a month down the line, troubling questions arise. It is hard to shrug off the feeling that from the start the main reason for conducting the operation — and putting our soldiers in harm’s way — was to be able to make a song and dance about it, and extract political mileage to impact the coming Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections.

Therefore, the question is: if there were no election, and one as crucial as UP, would there have been a “surgical strike”

The Army, the disciplined, brave and loyal body that it is, went in as commanded. Besides, our soldiers, like the rest of us, were probably hoping for orders that will offer them a chance to get back at the terrorists based in PoK.

Now, however, even the Army, like many in civilian life, may be left wondering if the important work they did that night is being sought to be exploited for narrow gains.

Just about everything that has happened since the cross-LoC raid points that way. Ram and Ravan hoardings were put up by the BJP all across UP, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi portrayed as Ram and Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif as Ravan.

The PM took care to make the politically correct statement — he usually does these things — that his party shouldn’t engage in “chest-thumping”, but he proceeded to do just that himself, and, significantly, did not order that the politically cunning posters be taken down.

Breaking from tradition, Mr Modi, as PM, made his Ramlila address not from the nation’s capital but in Lucknow, the capital of UP, where the crucial polls are due. He didn’t say a word about the September 29 strike in his speech, but took up from the stage the slogan “Jai Shri Ram; Jai, Jai Shri Ram!”, a Hindu battle cry and the RSS’ and BJP’s mobilising motif before the destruction of the Babri Masjid in December 1992. (In Hindi, the chant of the devotee — unlike the strident cry — is: “Siyawar Ramchandra ki Jai”.)

The meaning was not lost on anyone. It seemed clear that Mr Modi was going for broke, leaving nothing to chance, and the military action was to be handily exploited.

Defence minister Manohar Parrikar made his own egregious — and false and communal — contribution. He first said it was the BJP government that had made the Army realise its strength. This was an insult to the Army. At another forum he noted it was the RSS training that Mr Modi and he both had made the “surgical strike” happen. This gave the Army’s action a communal colour.

Not a word from the defence minister about the Army’s quietly stellar role that night, other than to say in loose terms that our Army must always be believed as it was the finest in the world. Hear the words carefully — the BJP government and the RSS are being praised for the operation, not the soldiers.

And to rub the point in, the defence minister falsely averred that cross-LoC action had not been done before by the Army, as if “Operation Ginger” — larger in scale than the September 29 action — of the Manmohan Singh years didn’t exist. He should try saying this in Parliament, or under oath in a court.

How refreshingly different things were after the Kargil conflict. With an unerring eye for low-grade publicity, the BJP put up hoardings with the images of our armed forces chiefs. Gen. V.P. Malik, the then Army Chief, informs us that he told Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee that this amounted to politicising the military. The propaganda material was promptly withdrawn.

And, after the massive military victory over Pakistan in 1971, which led to the creation of Bangladesh, the Indira Gandhi government did not put up any credit-grabbing posters. In fact, it was the Jan Sangh (BJP’s precursor) leader in Parliament then, none other than Mr.Vajpayee, who hailed Indira as “Durga”. Can there be any meaningful comparison between 1971 and September 29, 2016

We must ask Lt. Gen. Ranbir Singh, director-general of military operations, a question that he must ponder before answering: Where did the expression “surgical strike”, that he used while breaking the news of September 29 to the country, come from

Was it a suggestion from political or bureaucratic quarters Or did the Army really think that what had been achieved was indeed a surgical strike, an evocative and seductive term that bespeaks spectacular military prowess and lends itself to political misuse.

The question is pertinent as this expression has never been used by our armed forces before. Also, the operation carried out in the small hours of September 29 was not a surgical strike by any accepted military definition. At the very least, a surgical strike stuns and incapacitates the adversary for a while. But nothing of the sort happened. A string of Army camps was attacked by terrorists in J&K within days of September 29. Lt. Gen. Satish Dua, head of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps, had observed last week that terrorists were massed in strength on the LoC “in spite of the surgical strike”, preparing to infiltrate.

The field manual of the US Special Forces derives the meaning of “surgical strike” from the Army Doctrine Publication ADP3-05 (Special Operations), and this is the prevalent internationally followed definition, including in India.

According to it, a surgical strike is a “primarily unilateral application of force” (while ours came in response to a succession of terrorist attacks, culminating in Uri) employed in counter-terrorism... against designated targets, and other specialised tasks of strategic importance”. “High payoff targets” are to be hit. A surgical strike “shapes” the environment, and is used to “degrade effectiveness of adversaries”.

Which of these objectives was achieved on September 29 The “launchpads” destroyed were little more than cowsheds. If a “surgical strike” is devalued to mean any successful commando strike, then what the Pakistani terrorists attained at Uri might also qualify. Is that the equivalence we are looking for