A Surgical Strike on Reason
Like all things with this government, an Army operation has also become a tool for promotion of Modi. Media is exaggerating the strike disproportionately and making some outlandish claims, hurting Indian Army’s past valour & credibility in the process.
Curiosity killed the Patriot
Since the attack on Indian Army camp in Uri on 18th Sep 2016, PM Narendra Modi had been under extreme weight of expectations, largely built due to his own jingoistic statements as an opposition leader prior to 2014. His past taunts of “Doob Maro Manmohan Singh” and bravado of “56 inch chest”, “Talking to Pakistan in its own language” had come back to haunt him badly. Even the fiercest of his supporters started posting messages of disillusionment on social media. When PM Modi talked of a youth called Harshvardhan who had promised to study more after these attacks, or talked of fighting the war on poverty together, it did not go down well amongst his most ardent fans.
Things were slipping out of hand for Mr Modi. With crucial elections looming in key states such as UP, Punjab and Gujarat, something needed to be done to address the disillusion and lift the morale within his supporter ranks. A war with a nuclear state is always an extremely tricky and risky proposition. Once you take a really significant offensive action, there is no way to guarantee that escalation could be limited and controlled.
How do you placate the charged-up domestic audience asking for retribution, without provoking the nuclear powered enemy sufficiently?
The DGMO Statement
On the morning of 29th Sep 2016, At a news briefing in New Delhi, Lieutenant General Ranbir Singh, the Director General of Military Operations (DGMO) issued a brief statement  to the press.
Based on very credible and specific information which we received yesterday that some terrorist teams had positioned themselves at launch pads along the Line of Control with an aim to carry out infiltration and terrorist strikes in Jammu & Kashmir and in various other metros in our country, the Indian army conducted surgical strikes last night at these launch pads.
The operations were basically focused to ensure that these terrorists do not succeed in their design of infiltration and carrying out destruction and endangering the lives of citizens of our country.
During these counter terrorist operations, significant casualties have been caused to the terrorists and those who are trying to support them.
The operations aimed at neutralizing the terrorists have since ceased. We do not have any plans for continuation of further operations
The DGMO statement had specified nothing further on the strikes. Although the DGMO had taken the step of announcing the operation, he took no questions after his briefing. There was massive gap between the appetite for the details, and the details officially provided. Curiously, and unusually, the Pakistan Army had totally denied any such surgical strike had happened, and immensely played it down as a regular cross border shelling.
Indians were hungry for details of the operations, but blinded like King Dhritrashtra by the lack of official announcements on the mechanics of the operation. Helpfully, the Sanjay of modern era, the social media, soon filled them in.
My WhatsApp and Facebook timeline was abuzz with sensational “details” of how MI-17 Helicopters had carried 25-150 para commandos 1-3 km deep inside the Line of Control (LoC), and killed at least 38-50 (even 119, as per one message) terrorists. These messages typically claimed to be “confirmed details from a friend who is in Indian Army” or “BBC News Flash” and contained some specific details (“HAHO Parachutes”, “Carl Gustaf” guns). Either the person writing them was indeed with the Army and describing the operation, or it was some clever propagandist, who was fooling the gullible masses with some buzzwords in this propaganda.
This first round of propaganda on WhatsApp is what many people in India continue to believe in.
On WhatsApp, I even received a picture of these terrorists lined up neatly. A few questions immediately came to my sceptical mind.
- Why would there be such a bright sunlight, when we are also being told the operation happened between midnight and 4 am?
- Why would our commandos bother to line up the terrorists, and their weapons, and take a picture, when their aim would be to kill, and immediately return to the base?
I searched for the photo on google image search, and noticed that is was indeed a fake one.
Besides the obvious hoax picture, I had more questions
- Why would our army take the risk of sending Helicopters across the LoC, when the targets are only 1-3 km deep? Why not walk on foot? Better still, why not simply pulverise the building with our 155 mm Howitzer guns, which have a range of 40 kms.
- Note that large parts of the Neelum valley and towns such as Teetwal, Dudhnial and Leepa, reportedly attacked, are in valleys where India controls some of the surrounding hills, and are within visible range of Indian guns.
- If we had such a credible and specific intelligence about these terrorists planning to cross, and were tracking them so precisely, why even take so much risk, and bother to eliminate a few of them across the LoC. Why not just wait, lay a trap, let them attempt to cross the LoC, and capture or kill all of them in our territory instead?
Has the Army been forced to take a less beneficial and illogical action purely for the sake of publicity and headlines management?
I also remembered something an Army officer friend who had served along LoC in Kashmir around 15 years ago, once told me. The Gurkhas serving under him had crossed the LoC, killed a few Pakistani soldiers and even carried back a rather big machine gun from their post. Many articles suggest this was routine, and my friend wasn’t exaggerating it too much. 
I posted my friend’s account of this cross border raid on social media. The post was largely praising the valour and bravery of the Gurkhas. I did, however, point out that the previous operation had not received any similar hype.
It was immediately met with very emotional and angry response – “You are insulting our Army”.
An irrational exuberance of jingoism seemed to have engulfed the middle class Indians. Finally, we had our Rambo! In their eyes, by claiming we already had a Rambo in the past too, I had committed a blasphemy, I had somehow dared to question today’s Rambo.
The rest of the exchange can be summarised thus:
Me: “Err.. but doesn’t this mean that it is YOU, who is actually insulting the Army, by downplaying its past valour?”
Bhakt: “This is the first time, we have replied to Pakistan”
Me: “Not true, Indira Gandhi split Pakistan into two in 1971. Also check our Chief of Army staff statement from Jan 2014, we had killed 10 Pakistani soldiers then, in fact it was the Pakistanis themselves admitting to the killing, and complaining about it”
Bhakt: “OK, we may have replied, but by firing. We never crossed the LoC before, this is the first time.”
Me: “Check examples of beheadings of the past, clearly we have ventured across LoC before.“
Bhakt: “But those were not Surgical Strikes, these were mere ambushes”
For the few Bhakts, who had the misfortune of having an inquisitive relative or a friend like me, the position changed drastically within the next day. It had emerged that the key difference about the operation on September 28, from those done in the past, was the Indian government’s unusual eagerness to talk about it.
In these discussions on social media, it appeared to me that most middle class Indians had suddenly become very well versed with nuances of Military terms. Everyone seemed to know their Carl Gustafs, MI-17, Ghatak Commandos and what precisely these strikes were, how they were different from the past ones. Modi’s propaganda had especially latched on to the two words – “Surgical Strikes” from the DGMO statement.
Now, as per Wikipedia,
“A surgical strike is a military attack which results in, was intended to result in, or is claimed to have resulted in only damage to the intended legitimate military target, and no or minimal collateral damage to surrounding structures, vehicles, buildings, or the general public infrastructure and utilities.”
So, it is a strike where we are conscious of the collateral damage to nearby civilians, we attack a particular building (the launchpad of the terrorists, where they have assembled before crossing over the LoC, in this case), and just that building, careful so as to not hurt any Pakistani Army personnel, or any Pakistani civilians.
A very noble pursuit indeed. I salute the Indian Army for showing this sudden humanism towards our Pakistani brethren.
But why a surgical strike? What is the point of it?
Don’t both Indian and Pakistani forces keep shelling each other’s towns along the LoC, causing civilian causalities anyway? Wasn’t a covering fire provided to the commandos on this night as well, (which killed 2 Pakistani Army soldiers)? Our forces have caused collateral damage in operations within India, why would they be so bothered about killing a few Pakistani civilians accidentally?
I was also still not sure why would we risk sending our elite troops across to kill some unknown, faceless, nameless terrorists? Was there a high value target amongst them? If yes, would this chest thumping government have been quiet about killing such a high value target? Why not capture or kill a high value target when he enters India?
Further, if we have such a great ability to get a precise intelligence of the terrorists planning to cross the LoC, and track them, what have we been doing all this time? How come we let them cross in Pathankot, Pampore and Uri earlier?
I searched in Indian media for any answers to my questions. I did not find any probity anywhere, just a repetition of the jingoism from the social media.
The “sources” based “leaks” in mainstream media
Even in mainstream media, additional “facts” about the operation only emerged in “anonymously sourced” reports. “Sources” told NDTV that the entire operation was a combination of ground forces and helicopter-borne para-commandos. News18, on the other hand, claimed that there was no violation of Pakistan’s air space as troops were dropped off in a chopper on the Indian side of the LoC. India Today reported that para commandos were flown 2-3 km into PoK in MI-17 choppers and they destroyed six terror camps.
The much repeated account emerged a few days later, it was labelled “Exclusive” by several media houses, quoted some reliable inside “sources”, and claimed that: 
On the night of September 23, Prime Minister Modi visited the army’s top-secret war room at Raisina Hill’s South Block.
On September 26, NSA Doval held a key meeting with the three service chiefs and intelligence heads. Operational details are finalised for eight synchronised raids along a 250 km arc.
The plan was drawn for Indian forces to infiltrate terrain held by three divisions of the Pakistani army, with commandos penetrating a depth of 500 metres to three kilometres across the Line of Control.
THE EXECUTION: September 28-29
Around the same time, one team of 30 para commandos was air dropped from special High Altitude High Opening (HAHO) parachutes. The HAHO technique for paratroopers to jump down from up to 35,000 feet above the surface aimed at evading Pakistani radars and listening devices.
The commandos, equipped with GPS gadgets, landed with pin-point precision, close to a terror launch pad deep inside PoK. Heightened alert in Pakistani aside, the other seven commando teams also reached their targets without detection.
In the loud noise and confusion along the LoC, Indian commandos started slipping back, unchallenged.
Enemy troops scurried to their bunkers, leaving the terrain clear for the Special Forces teams to return to the Indian side. The enemy was deceived. Pakistan’s army had no clue what hit them.
So, clearly, this “source” is privy to the top secret meetings of the PMO and the NSA, and has divulged them to the media, in addition to the location of the “top secret war room”!
The strikes 500m deep inside LoC are plausible. Such raids have happened regularly in the past. Many experts claim that Pakistan’s Forward Defended Localities (FDLs) are situated inside the PoK at an average distance of 1 to 2 km from the LoC.
Logically, the claimed air drop must have been for the deeper 3 km deep raid. Now, clearly, if the whole idea of using the paratroopers is to evade enemy radars, it follows that the aircraft must have remained within the Indian side of the LoC. Further, as per the “peace time no-fly zone” along the Line of Control (LoC),  Indian aircraft/helicopters would have stayed at least 1 km away from the LoC. A parachute opening in a high altitude (35,000 feet is around 10 km) has to be manoeuvred with some extra-ordinary precision to “glide” a horizontal distance of at least 4 km, during a vertical descent of 10 km. Such a glide is definitely doable. In this case, this source is claiming that 30 paratroopers managed to glide and land in a precise spot (remember the definition of Surgical Strikes?) in the darkness of the night.
Although many initial reports claimed helicopter borne paratroopers were used, and mentioned MI-17 specifically, I doubt it. In my view, MI-17, would most likely NOT have been used. Each MI-17 has a capacity to carry 24 troops, so possibly 2 of them would be required. Bigger problem is, this quoted altitude of 35,000 feet is too high for an MI-17.
A drop from an aircraft, which is most likely for this altitude, would require some exit separation between each jump to prevent a canopy collision between the paratroopers. If these paratroopers have to maintain stealth, they would have no lights at all, increasing the risk of canopy collisions in the dark, hence I suspect, the exit separation needs to be high in this case. 1 Most likely, such an aircraft will have to fly at a distance more than 1 km from the LoC. All of these will make a precision night landing, on some small ground near a village, by 30 commandos even more difficult.
Let us understand the diagram above. The very reason we would be sending our paratroopers for such an operation inside enemy held territory is that the target must be difficult to attack by ground forces. For example, in this case, it could be hidden behind some hill or such physical obstruction, with the hilltop under enemy control, so it was difficult to hit it simply by artillery firing. In all likelihood, Pakistanis would have some well positioned and well defended army posts on the way, most probably on the hilltops, that we do not want to engage with in a ground offensive, and want to circumvent via the paratroopers.
Also, If the target was an isolated hut outside a village, of which we had such precise GPS co-ordinates, we could have chosen some guided ammunition fired from a distance – either aerially or from the ground, without the risk of any collateral damage. Hence, if we did not exercise that option, and decided to send paratroopers for close combat instead, it implies that this launchpad must be located inside some village or town.
At the Altitude of 35,000 feet, the air temperature falls to -55 degrees Centigrade. Oxygen levels are less than one third of normal room conditions. So, in addition to the parachutes, guns and ammunition, these paratroopers would have to put on special clothing to survive this low temperature, and also oxygen tank and masks.
The report claims the paratroopers landed close to the target, so they must have assembled at some ground, free of trees, near or within the village. Did they carry their parachutes back with them, or did they leave them back? (the latter is most likely, and the logical option) If the Pakistanis did not know “what hit them”, how come no villagers noticed these parachutes and oxygen tanks and winter clothing the next morning?
The descent would typically take around 25 minutes. Pakistanis were in a state of red-alert, and their radars would typically notice a aircraft flying close to the LoC. Just one pair of Pakistani eyes, looking at the skies with some night vision equipment, can detect, alert and foil the whole plan. Paratroopers would become sitting ducks in such a case.
Clearly, this was a very dangerous and risky operation.
Was it prudent to do such an operation unless there was a foolproof intelligence of the presence of a high value target? How many terrorists were in this particular launchpad that it justified sending 30 commandos? Was this still carried out merely for propaganda value, and not for a justifiable military aim? Why was this para-drop carried out at all? Was it?
Yet, not many people in mainstream media were actually asking such questions. Media had turned into the spokesperson for the government. Instead of asking tough questions, it was vociferously preventing even the few in opposition or civil society from asking questions. Stories in the media had merely repeated the contents of WhatsApp messages with utmost chest-thumping and jingoism.
There can only be 2 possibilities about these stories circulating in the media. Either the stories are true, and someone is leaking the official secrets, OR the stories are false, and just being fed by Doval and Modi for propaganda aimed at domestic politics.
I am not aware of any action against any NSA/PMO staff for leaking the details of Doval meeting to the media, or any Army officer for leaking details of the strike.
I also found people making 2 statements, without detecting any contradictions.
Statement 1: Look at this, XYZ has published the full inside details of the operation. How and where NSA Doval did the meeting, how paratroopers were dropped using HAHO parachutes. Vow!
Statement 2: Why should we counter Pakistani claims in international media? That would necessarily reveal details of the operations! Future operations might get affected! Why should we care if BBC or CNN are toeing the Pakistani line?
Just like in Pakistan all these years, we Indians were now no longer allowed to question the Army, or even media on their reports about the Army. Forget questioning the army, we had turned into a nation where even commenting on the pointlessness and stupidity of sending a few Pakistani Artists back was now considered a treacherous act. Any voices raising queries about this outlandish version of events claimed by media were angrily shouted down by TV anchors who had perfected McCarthysm as a live performing art, and labelled as traitors – to be guillotined further by the waiting lynch mob of trolls on social media.
Our democracy had quickly turned into an idiocracy. I had suddenly become an “anti-national”. Welcome to the Dystopia of Nineteen Eighty Four.
How did so many Indians become “traitors”?
As a newly declared Deshdrohi, my mind became nostalgic about the old days – the “Bure Din”.
I started imagining how the situation had been during any terrorist attack on India just a few years ago, for example, the one on Mumbai in 2008.
I fondly remembered how we Indians had always stood together.
There was a reasonable amount of transparency, authorities conveyed the situation directly to us, instead of “sources” leaking and planting stories to pliant media channels. Questions were asked about intelligence and operational failures with security forces – the delay in deploying the NSG in Mumbai. There were politicians who travelled to Mumbai, while the attack was still on, and tried to score political points over it. There was even anger at politicians who behaved irresponsibly, but there was no widespread labelling of fellow Indians as a Traitors.
The questioning and the post-mortem on failures, helped improve our preparedness for the next attack – we decentralised the NSG battalions, for instance. On the other hand, the attitude of “You cannot question the Army” is precisely how Pakistan became what it is today.
There have been instances of Defence Ministry babus, senior Officers and some corrupt officers of Army Supply Corps buying sub-standard yet overpriced clothing, rations, equipment and even overpriced coffins for the soldiers. Are we anti-national if we question such corruption? Are those who are shielding such officers in the name of “You Cannot question Army”, really helping the Indian Army and its soldiers?
When people questioned or opposed actions of Dr Manmohan Singh, it was not equated with opposing or questioning India.
A young Atal Bihari Vajpayee, demanded a parliament session in the middle of an ongoing war, and asked questions on the Indian Army’s lack of preparedness in the NEFA sector in Nov 1962. He said:
“Victory demanded, as its first challenge, that we introspect. In a democracy, it is not by brushing sensitive matters under the carpet, but by openly accepting where we had gone gravely wrong and the great sin we were guilty of.”
Vajpayee’s speech was not seen as attack on the Indian Army. A new defence minister YB Chavan was appointed, who addressed the shortcomings, and ensured our Army was much better prepared to deal with 1965 war.
What had changed now?
Can 70% of Indians just become traitors overnight – as the increasingly bitter discourse on social media and even mainstream media would suggest?
Or, is it simply the result of having a polarising, divisive leadership at top, which has not only failed miserably to bring all Indians together, but instead, it has actually been thriving by constantly creating more divisions amongst us over petty issues – Bans, Beef, Bharat Mata Ki Jai, Tricolour Flag, Vande Mataram, Pakistani Artists, Triple Talaq and what not.
Why are our own leadership, and its stooge media houses deliberately dividing us further? Is the objective purely driven by TRPs, a tactic to divert attention from probing questions, or is it a more sinister Goebellian politics at play? Would such a scenario exist under a less divisive figure?
Who has gained the most, from employing all these classic Nazi propaganda techniques of “Name calling”, “Bandwagon”, “Transfer” and “Card Stacking”?
These questions finally led me to more clarity – the pieces of the jigsaw finally started fitting together.
What really happened?
- NDA ruled the country during 1998-2004. Modi and his BJP friends must have known very well how Indian Army operates. Specifically, how it routinely takes retaliatory action to avenge attacks from Pakistani side, which have the principal aim of keeping the morale of its troops high and make it costly for our enemies to indulge in any misadventure. These are kept covert, as the primary aim is to deliver a message to the enemies, not to our own people.
- Yet they never missed an opportunity to take cheap potshots at Dr Singh over his perceived “lack of action”.
- I actually applaud Dr Singh for still keeping quiet, despite all the provocative slander being hurled at him. Imagine, you are the PM. You know that Army has already avenged some ghastly attack, your opponents are still making cheap provocative remarks, and yet you keep quiet about them – in national interest. THAT is courage!
- These unwarranted statements of bravado in the past, had once impressed his bhakts tremendously, but were precisely the reason Modi was pushed into a corner when Uri episode happened. His bhakts were utterly disillusioned.
- The reason the Government has talked about the Army operation this time, is purely political, and aimed at his domestic audience, as Mr Modi feared a significant number of his bhakts would desert him.
- The BJP propaganda machinery first tried by leaking a story to media outlets a week earlier, but that was only published by a very few. (The Quint). This failed to convince most. BJP realised they needed some real action, and an official statement from the Army, and then try the media propaganda show.
- I know & respect Indian Army very well. That they did carry out “some operation” as they claimed, is not being disputed by me. Even some of the reasonable journalists of Pakistan have conceded some action on the ground. However, a distinction needs to be made between what the Army claimed, and what the is being claimed in our Media.
- The measured and laconic DGMO statement has two sentences about the operation. That is the official stand of Indian Army. All the rest of it is an unverified, and most likely a vastly exaggerated, account of the operation. It is being fed to the media by Modi’s propaganda machinery. It is precisely these subsequent speculative claims being repeated by our jingoistic media that are stretching credibility.
- We also need to make a clear separation between Modi & The Army. While he is trying his best to steal the credit, and deflect any question/criticism on him as a question on Army, Mr Modi is not Indian Army.
- Worse, Modi’s chamchas in media have also used this as an opportunity to further drive his divisive agenda, by choosing random needless topics (Pakistani artists in Bollywood) to simply shout down any liberal/intellectual voice of reason which speaks up against such misdirected display of patriotism. This is straight out of Goebbel’s book!
- If you have seen the CNN/BBC reports, from the other side of LoC, it is clear India is losing the “war of perception” internationally in this case. The world does not watch Times Now. The world media is not lapping up the “leaks” and showing jingoistic claims, as many in Indian media are doing. Internationally, the credibility of Indian government & media has gone down.
- The Economist, a very respected magazine read by the opinion makers across the world, says:
“Instead of the resolute act of vengeance deep behind enemy lines described by Indian jingoists, it appears that small teams of Indian commandos had slipped across the line to strike at safe houses believed to be used by Islamist guerrillas.
The number killed was estimated at a dozen or fewer, rather than the 38-50 initially claimed by India. None of those killed were Pakistani army personnel. And since the Pakistani government has no wish to inflame domestic opinion and so be forced to escalate matters, it preferred to pretend that nothing had happened.
Following the revelation that its “surgical strike” was perhaps less devastating than first advertised, India has also preferred to remain silent.”
The Atlantic says:
The energy of this communication suggested that the strikes were, in large part, conducted with a domestic audience in mind. In recent months, Modi has faced increasing pressure to uphold his reputation for toughness, as well as his Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) credibility for giving Pakistan no quarter. India rattled its sabres less for the sake of deterrence—similar strikes in the past had no impact on Pakistan’s fondness for nurturing militants and implicitly sanctioning their violence—and more as a public-relations exercise.
- However, it is clear that Modi government is least bothered with this international coverage, and any loss of face for the Indian Army. They only care about voters in UP, who are watching Zee News and TimesNow.
- We have already lost the deniability, and the “powerful country that shows restraint” image too. Being an aggressor will now create a problem of forced escalation on each future provocation.
- We have now opened a Pandora’s box about past strikes by talking about this one. Gruesome details of previous covert operations are coming out (e.g. Operation Ginger ) which were best left hidden. All this was a result of chest thumping by Modi’s govt.
So, in summary, what exactly was different this time?
Two weeks after the much hyped surgical strikes, I was watching a few “news” stories on the most popular Hindi TV news channel of India. It first showed a parody of a super hit Bollywood film song with the cartoons of PM Narendra Modi and other senior defence ministry figures, still celebrating the Surgical Strikes. These highly jingoistic graphics painted a very rosy picture.
The next story showed the funeral and emotionally charged reactions in the village of a para military soldier killed by the terrorists in Kashmir. Clearly, the surgical strikes had not been a very effective deterrent, and despite our great intelligence capabilities to locate and track groups of terrorists based in Pakistan, planning to cross into India, we had still somehow failed to track the movement of such terrorists within India.
The final story was about Mushtaq Ahmad Zargar. It reported how he had become active again, and was causing a headache to our security forces. He was amongst the three terrorists including Maulana Masood Azhar released by the Indian government during the IC 814 hijacking, as a part of the deal negotiated by our current NSA Ajit Doval.
In that order, these three stories, almost felt like being rudely awakened from a lovely dream to the reality – of the inadequacies of the Indian state and the challenges faced by our forces and our NSA in dealing with the menace of terrorism in real life, as opposed to the reel life.
I wondered if it was a bigger crime to sell a false dream to a billion people, or to try to awaken them from their slumber, and tell them they had just been dreaming. In such times, when our government is indulging in a mass deception of its own people for its selfish political goals, a quote by Mark Twain can help us remain a true patriot.
“Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.”