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September 26 Attacks in J&K: Assessing the Response

Col Vivek Chadha (Retd) is a Senior Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • October 04, 2013

    The early hours of 26 September 2013, witnessed an audacious attack by three terrorists at Hiranagar and Samba. Interviews of senior police officials in the area indicate infiltration from the border in the wee hours of the same day. While the first target of the attack was a police station in close vicinity of the international border, the second, in quick succession, was an even bolder attempt at taking on the Indian security establishment. The terrorists dressed in army fatigues fought their way into 16 Light Cavalry, an illustrious and the oldest armoured regiment of the Indian army. The twin incidents left 10 fatal casualties in its wake, including the Second-in-Command, a Lieutenant Colonel, of the Cavalry Regiment. The incident has raised a number of questions regarding the response mechanism. It comes as a reminder of the 26/11 attack and highlights repetition of past mistakes.

    The first issue relates to the flow of intelligence. The ease with which terrorists breached the fence or made use of a seemingly unobserved rivulet across the international border, three days prior to the meeting of Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan, indicates their ability to plan and execute their operations. This is a disturbing sign since it indicates that very influential and organised sections of Pakistani system are involved in sabotaging any peace initiative that the political leadership takes to improve bilateral relationship. Since the ability to limit infiltration relates to precise and continuous intelligence both across the border and in its close vicinity, this incident highlights either serious limitations on India’s capability or complacency or both.

    Second, the ability of terrorists to successively strike two security establishments within a space of a little more than an hour reinforces the failure of joint mechanisms in the state. While the first incident can be attributed to the police personnel being taken by surprise, a specific alert in its immediate aftermath could have avoided or at least limited the damage by the second attack on the army camp by sharing the information widely. It indicates at worst the absence or at best the inefficiency of grass root response mechanisms, even for as basic a task as sharing of information. As a result of this failure, if the terrorists had chosen to attack a softer target instead of the army camp, the number of casualties would have almost certainly been much higher. The reports that the gate of the Officers’ Mess opening on the National Highway was manned by a single soldier in a station which had seen such audacious attempts in the past also indicates a high degree of complacency.

    Third, the planned meeting between the two Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan should have led to a heightened level of security in view of the past experience. The absence of such security measures is reinforced by repeated and generic intelligence inputs in sensitive areas, which are rarely backed by occurrence of incidents thereafter. This leads to such inputs often being disregarded and at times at a heavy cost to men and material. The propensity to feed generic information becomes a tool to shift responsibility. It is, therefore, important to press for more reliable and specific inputs which can help preclude such attacks.

    Fourth, and possibly the most visible example of the failure to learn from 26/11 was the manner in which the media covered the incident. The immediate aftermath of the attack witnessed the sites swarming with reporters, especially representatives of the electronic media. There was no cordon of the areas, which had been the site of bloody action. The close examination of the scene of attack by the media could well have resulted in tampering of evidence making the site unsuitable for subsequent forensic examination. A procedure as basic as taping the area for investigation was not attempted to keep reporters outside the perimeter of attack. The tearing hurry to not only report but also give definitive analysis and judgement on actions undertaken by specialists was commented upon by generalists, often questioning the professionalism of teams in action. Even prior to the completion of operation, a series of questions had been lined up, which needed answers from the army and the government. Quite obviously the focus of the coverage was on being first to report, show footage of the operation, photographs of the terrorists killed, rather than wait for authentic and corroborated feedback. The shallow, ill-informed and at times false picture that was repeated highlighted by channels achieved little towards the endeavour to inform the country. Questions like what was the need for the Commanding Officer and Second in Command to become involved in operations were an example of tripping over one’s own logic, after circumstances of their coming under fire became clearer.

    Fifth, the unfortunate incident was pushed into the background when the debate amongst the political elite shifted to making statements, which did little to indicate to the adversary that the country stands united against terrorism. The complete absence of a unified response to external threats seems to have become a rule rather than an exception. The tradition of a single voice of reason and resolve is often conspicuous by its absence. There is little doubt that this adversely impacts decision making and pursuit of laid down policies on matters of national security.

    The incident of 26 September and the near simultaneous infiltration by a large group of terrorists in the Karen Sector, is a harsh reminder for the police, army and security planners in the country that the ongoing proxy war from Pakistan will continue to challenge the Indian state. Even as individual agencies strengthen their capabilities, it is equally important for deeper introspection of joint mechanisms, which stand exposed in this case. Difficult conditions will continue to demand a unified voice that instills confidence and steers purposeful action.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.