With Options Thinning, Retribution at LoC is the Only Choice, Writes Lt Gen DS Hooda

Nitya Thirumalai
Lt General Devraj Anbu, GOC, Northern Command, said that the Army has soldiers of all religions but their religious identity does not matter. We don't communalise the soldiers.

The last three days have been dominated by news and discussions on the martyrdom of Captain Kapil Kundu and his comrades in Pakistani firing along the Line of Control (LoC).

Images of grieving families and the journey of the coffin of a 22-year-old to the funeral pyre have raised the inevitable anguished questions: What is going on at the LoC? Are we achieving anything by this bloodshed?

Politics invariably kicks in. Accusations are made that the situation along the border has worsened because of all the unnecessarily aggressive rhetoric being mouthed by current leaders in government, and the media hype that is created each time there is some incident on the border.

This is countered by government spokespersons claiming that a free hand is being given to the Indian Army for the first time to respond to Pakistani violations. Obviously, the Army does not function in a political vacuum, but these kind of statements reflect an incomplete understanding of the dynamics of the LoC and how the Army operates.

With thousands of soldiers facing each other across an extremely hostile border, the LoC has a life of its own. In times of peace, soldiers move relatively freely, porters and mule bring supplies to forward posts in full view of the other side, civilians living near the LoC carry on with the planting of crops, and children can be seen attending schools.

When tension grips the LoC and bombs commence falling, all activity ceases. Actions like resupply, move of soldiers back to bases, even evacuation of casualties in some cases, is all carried out in darkness. Villages appear deserted and schools are shut down.

However, even in the worst of times, there had always been a degree of professional and honourable conduct by the soldiers. Civilian population was never deliberately targeted. Of course, with villages and Pakistani posts located very close to each other, some collateral damage was unavoidable, but there was a very conscious attempt to prevent civilian casualties. Ambulances were never fired upon and even during the heaviest of exchanges, firing was often suspended to permit the Pakistan army to pick up and evacuate their injured soldiers. Soldiers who inadvertently crossed the LoC were promptly returned.

In my view, all this changed after an Army patrol was ambushed on January 8, 2013 at the LoC and the body of Lance Naik Hemraj was mutilated.

For many years, such acts of bestiality had not been seen on the border. This was followed in August of the same year by the killing of five soldiers in an ambush in Pooch sector. The situation deteriorated rapidly and very heavy exchanges of fire commenced across the LoC. The situation was serious enough for the Director General of Military Operations of the two countries to have a face-to-face meeting in December 2013, after a gap of 14 years.

Temporarily there was some calm, but the brutality of the acts could not be easily forgotten. Any incident on the LoC invited a progressively stronger response.

The reason for putting the situation in a historical context is to point out that the increase in violence along the LoC had actually started during the previous UPA government and has little to do with any political rhetoric.

There is also talk about greater freedom to troops to respond to Pakistan army. Anybody who talks about a free hand being given for the first time is diminishing the role of the many soldiers who have manned the LoC since Independence.

Here, officers and their men constantly face life and death situations and they have to take instant decisions. If bombs are raining down on you and your men are at risk, the commander on the spot better not pick up his phone to ask for any kind of permission. This has always been the consistent position and practice of the Army irrespective of who is in authority or power.

Is the current retributive cycle of violence along the LoC the new normal? Unfortunately it is. Diplomacy and statesmanship with Pakistan has not helped. American pressure has its limits. As reported by Yashwant Raj in the Hindustan Times in November 2017, on the insistence of the Pentagon, the US Congress had dropped a provision which linked financial aid to Pakistan with its taking demonstrable action against Lashkar-e-Taiba.

The US defence department had argued that America must remain focused on the Haqqani Network fighting in Afghanistan and not get distracted by other terrorist groups.

With few options left to pressurise Pakistan army from taking action to reduce support to terror groups operating against India, retribution at the LoC is the only choice. I had written a piece for News18.com in early January this year saying that it will be a long and somewhat bloody haul at the LoC.

Despite the pain to itself, I think the Army is convinced that this is the only way forward in the current environment. The military leadership has decades of experience on how exactly to handle the situation on the LoC. Trust them and let it, therefore, play out without politics and media advice.

And if this is going to be the reality, the government must move quickly to ameliorate the impact on our civil population. Again, there are no painless solutions but we need to do all we can for people caught in violence not of their own making.

I know that at the end of this piece many will say that I am endorsing an approach which leads to greater violence, and reliance only on the use of force, which is a poor option. However, not using force in the false hope of peace also comes with a cost.

After returning from the Munich Agreement in September 1938, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain said, “For the second time in our history, a British Prime Minister has returned from Germany bringing peace with honour. I believe it is peace for our time... Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.” Less than a year later, Britain was at war. In international relations, it is better to be a realist than an idealist.

(The author is former Northern Commander, Indian Army, under whose leadership India carried out surgical strikes against Pakistan in 2016. Views are personal.)