Lieutenant General B.S. Raju, who heads the Army’s Srinagar-based Chinar Corps (XV Corps), has been successful in tackling the twin challenges of infiltration operations along the Line of Control (LoC) and counterterror operations in the hinterlands. In an exclusive interview with THE WEEK, the commander discussed the impact of Covid-19 on operations in the valley, the improvement in the security situation in south Kashmir and whether Pakistan is trying to take advantage of Sino-Indian tensions.
Q/ Do give us a sense of the current security situation against the backdrop of last August’s legislative action [revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s special status and turning it into a Union territory] and the threat of Covid-19?
A/ The internal situation in Kashmir is stable but sensitive. Maintaining peace has been the prime goal of all government agencies. The prevention of violence in the post legislative action (situation) has been the cornerstone of our security strategy. The adversary’s principal strategy is to instigate violence and cause the loss of Kashmiri life and property, which starts a cycle of violence. Our strategy is to carry out most operations based on specific intelligence and in a manner ensuring minimum use of force and taking all steps to avoid collateral damage. Precautionary and preemptive measures for the safety and security of the people have been instrumental in saving lives. The recent spurt in civilian killings is a repeat of the terror activities that happened last September, and is indicative of the desperation of terrorist controllers. They are resorting to hitting soft targets among the Kashmiri population. We are working towards neutralising this threat, too.
Covid-19 is a challenge for common citizens and soldiers alike. The Army has been involved in the dissemination of information about Covid precautions, distribution of sanitisation supplies and relief material. We have a detailed protocol of quarantine and testing of personnel coming after leave. During operations, all precautions are taken as per the recommended protocol. However, if things get active on the LoC, we are ready for all contingencies.
Q/ There has been a sharp decline in stone-pelting incidents during anti-militancy operations.
A/ The principal strategy of Pakistani handlers and their proxies has been to instigate violence and protests that can lead to the deaths of civilians. Pakistan has been using a variety of means to instigate violent protests including stone-pelting, using money and a network of radicalised over ground workers (OGW). Concerted police action to cut off hawala and drug channels has choked funding for such anti-national activities. Good intelligence and policing has ensured identification and booking of OGWs. The support of the awam (general public) has helped maintain peace. The civil society is actively contributing to control these violent activities. The recent success in kinetic operations to kill terrorists, with a focus on the terror leadership, has also played a role.
Q/ Is south Kashmir free of militancy now as claimed by the police? Will the focus now shift to the north, where a mix of local and foreign militants are mounting attacks?
A/ The success in eliminating terrorists operating in the hinterland and an effective counter-infiltration grid have virtually broken the backbone of terrorism in J&K. There are pockets of turbulence in south Kashmir and we are focusing on these pockets. The security forces and other agencies have been working in tandem to maintain a robust counter-terrorist grid in south Kashmir. The past one year has witnessed the elimination of all major terrorist leaders. The number of terrorists operating in the valley has gone down because of reduced recruitment and successes in counter-terror operations. We are conscious of the threat to soft targets, which normally are the civilians, and are working hard to defeat such efforts.
We expect terrorists to shift focus based on the pressure applied by security forces. The success in the south is complemented by similar operations in the north, which is affected more by Pakistani terrorists who infiltrate across the LoC. This year, a robust counter-infiltration grid and the domination of the LoC have curbed infiltration. There have been successful elimination of terrorists who were trying to infiltrate both in the Baramulla and the Kupwara sectors. The terror tanzeems (groups) are under pressure from their handlers for executing terror activities as we head towards the completion of one year of relative peace after the August 5 legislative action. We are working hard to deny any operational space to these terrorists and to provide an environment of peace and security to the people.
Q/ How would you describe the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Riyaz Naikoo after a Colonel and a Major were killed in an operation against militants in Handwara?
A/ Over the past year, the leadership of all terror tanzeems has been effectively targeted and eliminated. Riyaz Naikoo’s killing, which was part of this effort, was important because of his reign of terror, and helped dent the terror activities of Hizbul Mujahideen. We are committed to wiping out terrorism from the valley and efforts are being made by all stakeholders to this end.
In Handwara, late Col Ashutosh Sharma and his team acted immediately to neutralise the threat after receiving information on the movement of terrorists nearby. Our men take risks beyond the call of duty and we remain indebted to such brave men.
Q/ A new militant group the Resistance Front (TRF) has claimed most attacks on security forces since February. What do we know about this group?
A/ The Resistance Front is a social media organisation. Various reports exist on its origin, funding and backing by Pakistan. TRF is one of the several efforts of Pakistan-based controllers, to give terrorism an indigenous face, and it has claimed various terrorist acts as its own. Pakistani authorities have directed terror organisations not to claim any such acts in an attempt to hoodwink the FATF authorities as the country faces international scrutiny.
TRF has also been at the centre of the recent spate of inter tanzeem rivalries which have come to light.
We are surveilling and monitoring Hawala networks. Drug money is known to fund terror activities, and efforts by intelligence agencies have led to major recoveries and disruption of this channel of funding. In addition, we are committed to identifying and neutralising of the OGW network which sustains terrorists.
Q/ Could you share details of ‘Operation Rangdori Behak’ in which five militants were killed in one of the most daring operations amid thick snow and inhospitable terrain at Keran near the LoC in Kupwara?
A/ On April 1, footprints were noticed near the LoC at first light. The area has razor sharp ridge lines and all routes have high levels of snow. Terrorists attempted to exploit the inclement weather. Search parties were immediately launched and terrorists were given chase; however they broke contact after dumping their heavy loads and bags. Subsequently, additional troops were launched and the area was cordoned off.
A close quarter battle followed at virtually point blank range. The Army, with their superior training standards, were able to take out all five terrorists before the fall. However, we lost the entire squad.
Q/ How is the Army dealing with the threat of infiltration and militant infrastructure in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir?
A/ Since the legislative action on August 5, 2019, Pakistan has been belligerent across diplomatic forums. It has also been under domestic pressure to instigate violence in Jammu and Kashmir. We have an all-weather, effective, multi-layered counter-infiltration grid in place. We keep updating our drills and use technology to beat any fresh tactics used by the adversary. The surveillance grid has a mix of technological tools for all-weather day-and-night surveillance. The effective surveillance grid and top class weaponry ensure we respond hard and fast, in a punitive manner. The Pakistanis know it and the unlucky ones experience it.
Q/ It is said that local militant recruitment dipped in 2019.
A/ The recruitment of local boys in 2019 was less compared with 2018 and it shows the decline in terror influence. Local terror recruitment is one of our primary concerns. Our efforts are aimed at weaning the youth away from terror. Proactive steps are being taken to identify and counsel vulnerable youth. In this we seek help and support of the civil society. New recruits have very low survivability, with some getting killed within a couple of months. We are working to firstly prevent the local youth from joining terrorism and secondly to facilitate the surrender of those who have joined terror groups.
Q/ So you want to give the militants an opportunity to surrender.
A/ Promoting surrender is something that we are working on at multiple levels. In all operations, we extend every opportunity to local terrorists to give up arms and return to the mainstream. During most encounters, we halt operations and involve the parents or society elders to urge trapped local terrorists to surrender. Even before encounters, as part of our counterterror operations protocol, we reach out to friends and family of a known terrorist to facilitate surrender. The family and the misguided youth are assured of state help in surrender, security from terror retribution and help in rehabilitation. To make it more attractive, we have given suggestions to the government to update the existing surrender policy. We also look at the awam and Kashmiri society to constructively engage with the youth to remove the false notion of ‘jannat in martyrdom’ spread by Pakistani and separatist propaganda.
Q/ How many local and foreign militants are active in Jammu and Kashmir?
A/ Estimates regarding active militants vary, but the figures are down because of the relentless successful operations. This is largely a result of good control over infiltration, killing of existing cadres and reduced recruitment. The number of terrorists remaining does not matter much since lower numbers do not mandate a major change in our methods; a single terrorist with a pistol can prove lethal and terrorise the population. We are working towards addressing the complete ecosystem that nurtures terrorism so that we can once again focus on development, prosperity and the well-being of the population.
Q/ The recent killing of an old man in Sopore and the images of his grandson seated on his body evoked widespread condemnation. What is being done to prevent the recurrence of such acts?
A/ The unfortunate killing of the man in the crossfire was another example of terrorists choosing civil areas to attack security forces. In Sopore, we witnessed both the effect of violence initiated by terrorists from a religious place and the scale of vicious propaganda against the security forces.
The ground layout and the sequence of events clearly show that the grandfather of the child was killed in the firing by terrorists from the window of a mosque. Four CRPF soldiers were injured and one succumbed to injuries. The society forgot the trauma of the child and the effort by security forces to ensure his safety. Journalists and civil society need to hold themselves at higher levels of professionalism. We respect the role of the journalists as watchdogs.
The Army conducts its operations under a stringent code of conduct. Safety of the civilian population is our prime concern and we take every possible measure to avoid collateral damage.
Q/ How do you look at the recent resignation of Syed Ali Geelani, a vocal supporter of militancy, from the Hurriyat Conference?
A/ The resignation of a man who has already lost his relevance is an effort to regain space for the separatists. It reveals the corruption and the Pakistani roots in all actions of the separatists. The desperation of the Pakistani establishment and the separatist camp is visible in such acts. It is also interesting to note that Geelani found no one in Jammu and Kashmir fit and ready to carry his anti-India ideology forward. The proxies in PoK are his last hope. These are also indicators of a failing structure, with infighting, slandering and the blame game coming to the fore. The Pakistan–separatist–terrorist nexus is at its lowest ebb. The Pakistan-controlled proxies are focused on re-engineering violence and generating a state of fear. We as a nation need to identify this opportunity and work hard to strengthen the progressive elements in Jammu and Kashmir.
Q/ Ceasefire violations along the LoC have increased. Is Pakistan trying to take advantage of Sino-Indian tensions?
A/ There is only one reason for the near constant ceasefire violations—Pakistan is attempting to assist more and more terrorists to infiltrate into India. The Pakistan army facilitates these infiltration attempts. Also, in the summer months, an escalation in ceasefire violations and infiltration attempts is well anticipated. The Army is well poised and fully committed to not allow any misadventure by Pakistan.Å The situation on the Ladakh border is also well under control. There has not been any major escalation in the situation on the Pakistan front. We are aware of some defensive deployments done by the Pakistanis. The situation in Gilgit-Baltistan is also being watched. There has not been any major perceptible escalation in the situation on the Pakistan front owing to the situation on our borders with China.
Q/ What has been the impact of Covid-19 on the Army's public reachout programmes?
A/ The support and cooperation we have received from the awam in our outreach programmes has been overwhelming. Our programmes are running well within the revised safety protocols and we are helping the awam by spreading information about Covid, distribution of sanitisation kits/face masks and humanitarian aid to the needy, especially in far-flung areas. We have incorporated safety guidelines and have suitably modified the implementation of our outreach initiatives. The joint efforts of all stakeholders in the national fight against the pandemic will ensure that the people of Kashmir will remain safe and healthy. We are confident that with our combined efforts, we shall overcome this hurdle. The Army is constantly working alongside the civil administration to bring succour to the lives of the people. We have modified our combat drills as per Covid-19 advisories to ensure the safety of both the soldiers and the awam in all interactions. Force preservation in the times of the pandemic remains our concern even as we ensure the safety and security of the national borders and the hinterland.
Q/ What is your reaction to the demand for a political initiative to fill the vacuum created by the abrogation of Article 370 and the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir?
A/ Our role as security forces is to ensure a secure environment where the administration and the civil society can function without the fear of the gun. We are working on that singular aim. It is a work in progress. On the political front, the government has clearly enunciated the objectives and the roadmap for the political landscape and we are confident that we will soon see progress on that front. It will not be apt for me to comment on the political developments or scenarios.