Army Today

A Time to Kill

 © Rediff.Com - 30 April 2003

Gruesomely colourful, huh? Neatly shot in the plasma on khaki leaves. Typical of this shock-jock to begin an article in this fashion, you think? Well, learn to live with realities - blood and gore is the unavoidable currency of all insurgency. This photograph hasn't been shot by Jewella; it's from the evidence files of the Indian Army's Counter Insurgency & Jungle Warfare School (CIJWS) in Mizoram. When the body was searched, they found an undeveloped roll of film in one pocket.

The following two photographs are from that roll and were probably shot by this dead terrorist. Young boys - not one seems to us to be over 19 years. The one on the rock is posing like he's modeling Dockers. In the other image, note the happy and carefree smile of the patka-ed lad gazing into the lens as two others share a laugh. They are so well-equipped that at first we thought they were jawans of the Naga Regiment. The other photographs from the roll - we couldn't steal them all - included interior shots of men, women and children gathered around these boys.

The kind of scene in any ordinary household when a brother or nephew comes visiting after years abroad. Pictures of domestic excitement. Youths fiddling with the television, eating cake, hugging friends... Who knows how many of them are alive today. We pray, not even one. Heartless, you say...? Also, between February 1 and 7, NLFT terrorists gang-raped at gunpoint 23 women and minor girls at Riabari village in south Tripura. The group had befriended the locals and was using the village as a safe hideout. The rapes were committed in front of the villagers, who dared not protest at their new, trigger-happy friends.

39 killed; 22 injured; 23 raped; 16 kidnapped; 35 houses torched - in 48 days. These are not comprehensive, official figures but what we've gleaned from newspapers - and we've surely missed quite a few items. Yet our heart should bleed for terrorists since they happen to be pasty-faced young boys...? Bullshit! And we'll tell you why. After Lieutenant Colonel Tiwari, we met another officer, Colonel Shankar of JAK LI, in-charge of the Battalion Training Wing of CIJWS, whom we'd have happily followed around like a lamb.

  Killed/Injured Method/Other Area/State
1 January 2000   ONGC pipeline blown Disangpani, Assam
5 January 2000 7/10 jawans IED blast Imphal, Manipur
6 January 2000 7/-- jawans IED, PLA women's wing Pungdongbam, Assam
8 January 2000 5/6 civilians ATTF firing on jeep Khowai, West Tripura.
8 January 2000 1/-- commando Shot dead by PLA Imphal East, Manipur
17 January 2000 1/1 civilians 5 kidnapped by ATTF Khowai, West Tripura
17 January 2000   15 houses torched Urbani, West Tripura
17 January 2000 1/-- civilians 3 civilians kidnapped Amarpur, Tripura
18 January 2000   5 civilians kidnapped Urbani, West Tripura
18 January 2000   20 houses torched Urbani, West Tripura
19 January 2000   Rail track blasted Golaghat, Assam
1 February 2000 1/-- JD-U man Shot dead Churchandpur, Manipur
6 February 2000 1/-- civilians Shot dead Bishenpur, Manipur
7 February 2000 3/5 civilians 3 kidnapped by NLFT Dalubari, Tripura
12 February 2000 5/-- incl 2 jawans Firing Saji Tampak, Manipur
12 February 2000 1/-- BSF jawan Shot dead Khopipung, Manipur
12 February 2000 2/-- civilians Indiscriminate firing, NLFT South Tripura
17 February 2000 2/-- policemen IED blast Nalbari , Assam
17 February 2000 2/-- policemen Firing Dhubri, Assam

Not because he's the spittin' image of our brother and the resulting warmth we felt for him, but because he candidly answered questions which had less to do with BTW and more about the profile of the terrorist. (It's a pity that we can't reproduce a photograph of the colonel; both of us were puffing away so much that the film got fogged). Colonel Shankar, who has served many years in J&K, portrayed the NE ultra by contrasting him with that of the Valley: While the NW's is a foreigner, mostly Afghan or Paki, the NE's is a local and knows the land and its people.

Kashmir's terrorists are, by and large, drugged; the NE's are alert and intelligent. There's an established women cadre of terrorists in the NE; there are few in the Valley. While there are hundreds of captured terrorists thronging Kashmir's jails (the deadliest of whom was kindly released by Mahatma Vajpayee), it's extremely difficult to nab the NE ultra - he's quick and prefers to fight to death. The ultras from here are well-trained; all the seniors have been disciplined by the Burmese army.

There are far more cases of IED blasts in the NE than in the Valley - the ultra is educated, uses the Internet for garnering information, disseminating propaganda, negotiating arms deals, and is familiar with hi-tech explosives. At the same time, he's replete with native skills and can devise deadly traps that can kill an elephant with nothing more than bamboos and vines.

But, most ominously, with a history of 54 years of insurgency, the ultra has "understood us" - he knows the pressures on the army and the limits imposed upon it by a democratic system. Thus, "we can't take him for granted." The inherent characteristic of insurgency in the NE is its small-scale, low profile activities, with the main insurgent bases located across the IB, in camps in Myanmar, Bangladesh, China and Bhutan. Terrorist units infiltrate into India through inhospitable terrain, strike fast, and flee. Their ambushes - 72% of which are directed against the security forces - are meticulously planned and ruthlessly executed.

Such hit-and-run tactics of small units force a large deployment of defence forces to counter them. But simply being on the killing ground pays no dividends: Learning to operate in small teams, studying the patterns of the militants, establishing an intelligence network, knowing their traditional sanctuaries, maintaining the element of surprise, selecting the site for the counter ambush, observing the discipline of when exactly to open fire, knowing field and jungle craft well enough to remain undetected, and improvising within a given situation, is the kind of stuff that breaks an ambush. And it's this that's taught at the CIJWS as part of the pre-induction training.

And so we went to witness a drill where a convoy of 3 trucks would be attacked by "militants" from two flanks and the counter ambush would be watched by instructors. To tell you the truth, it didn't do anything for us: The truck drove through the marked stretch of road, the "militants" threw a few blank grenades and fired some blank rounds, soldiers crawled here and there and did likewise, the convoy drove off, the observers observed, and that was that.

Of course, it would have been different if we'd been allowed to learn the theories behind the operation, or if our future depended upon knowing how to peer through bushes. Since it didn't, all we were interested in was the blank grenade: we thought it would make a splendid ornament for our dresser. But since the army must account for every bullet, we were refused. Perhaps because we were obviously morose and had lost interest in the proceedings, we were given the opportunity of witnessing an actual IED blast.

We perked up, entrusted our handbag to Farooq-Sahab, stuffed our fingers in our shell-like ears, and stood some 25 foot away from the spot. Next thing we knew, we were on the tar and a huge column of black smoke was rising in the air. Honestly, the sound of an IED blast cannot be prepared for: "loud," "ear-shattering," can't begin to describe it. Even after anticipation, it still made our heart flutter for minutes later. We do not understand how people survive an unexpected explosion! Anyway, it was a good thing, for our sorry state brought us some attention from the young instructors: Captain Rishi Khosla of Garhwal Rifles, a capped Punju with two commendation medals; Captain Luwangcha of our Maratha LI, a witty Mizo just in from J&K; and Major T.S. Hothi of Jat Regiment, a gorgeous, turbaned Sikh. We chatted awhile and left - had to prepare for rum time...

That evening was a particularly raucous one - the senior officers had stayed away from the mess. We were irritating the heck out of the oh-so-politically-correct students when this frail young man in a jazzy pullover, a thick chain around his neck, and a haircut we could die for, walked in and asked us for a cigarette. We had no clue who he was but obliged, and he left. "Looked like he just stepped out of Delhi's discos! What's a trendoid doing in a place like this?" we muttered.

Our bar-buddy replied, "Oh really! You should've seen him two months earlier. He lived in a filthy Pathani and had a beard up to here when he infiltrated the mujahideen. Got a commendation for it, too." Commendation...? Omigawd, it was Captain Rishi Khosla! We dragged out the story: "Information came in that Arifullah would be meeting his girlfriend in Srinagar's Nishat Garden one afternoon. Rishi and two others who were detailed to nab him sat with a hookah, keeping watch. The UG [army for "underground"] came and met the woman, but before the team could make a move, he saw and recognised the informant who was there to point him out. Arifullah got suspicious and ran for it. Rishi chased him over the slopes and bushes and caught up with him.

UG drew a grenade and pulled out the pin, but Rishi was too close to him for the grenade to be safely thrown. And in that split second, Rishi leapt on him and tightly held the fist with the grenade closed. A struggle ensued aur dono liptey. Arifullah was hatta-katta and 6 feet tall, and yet Rishi managed to hold him off, keep his fist closed, and hit him on the head with the butt of his gun. UG went down, the rest of the team arrived, and grenade mein maachis laga di...Don't go by appearances; changing them is part of CI Ops."

We were still marvelling about the power of mind over matter and what makes the Indian soldier such a force to reckon with, when in walked a gorgeous guy with another great haircut and said to us: "I'm trying to get Rishi to quit smoking and you're plying him with cigarettes..." Excuse me, do I know you?! "Hothi, ma'am." Rot! He's a Sardar! "Yes, ma'am, I'm still a Sardar. But I've cut my hair and am awaiting permission from the army to shed my turban and shave off my beard." Permission? "For the id card. Or it will confuse security." But how in heaven's name could you do it?! "After a while the turban hurts my ears, I get a headache, and when I'm in the field, that makes me very irritable. That's not good for my men. My comfort is their comfort. So I had no choice but to discard it."  Comrades before self... Nation before self...

When we got back and showed the photographs of the NE terrorists to a friend, he said, "It's pathetic; they're so young to kill and die! Soldiers are one face of the coin, terrorists are the other." And we recoiled in fury. Every person *has* a choice - the choice to attack, destroy and murder innocents, and the choice to kill in defence. Men like Khosla and Hothi and the scores of soldiers we've met can in no way be compared to rapists, arsonists, pillagers and murderers. We realise that we land up telling you less about the NE and the CIJWS and more about the people who fascinated us. Point is, none of it would have existed if not for the human factor - the individual who holds up and holds forth for us. He has always been and will always remain our primary refrain.