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‘Surgical Strike’ A Misnomer, Trans-LoC Raids Took Place Under UPA

A retired Brigadier of the Indian Army says that before 2016, surgical strikes were known as trans-LoC raids. 

Updated
Opinion
6 min read
Image of former PM Dr Manmohan Singh used for representational purposes.
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With the BJP leadership tom-tomming their hawkish national security credentials by repeatedly invoking the 28/29 September 2016 ‘surgical strike’, former Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, in an interview on 2 May to Hindustan Times, asserted that “multiple surgical strikes took place during our tenure too. For us, military operations were meant for strategic deterrence, and giving a befitting reply to anti-India forces, than to be used for vote garnering exercises.”

Congress spokesperson Rajeev Shukla details six instances of the ‘surgical strikes’:

  • 19 June 2008: Bhattal Sector in J&K’s Poonch;
  • 30 August - 1 September 2011: Sharda Sector across Neelam River Valley in Kel
  • 6 January 2013: Sawan Patra Checkpost
  • 27 July and 28 July 2013: Nazapir Sector
  • 6 August 2013: Neelam Valley
  • 14 January 2014

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No, UPA-Era ‘Surgical Strikes’ Weren’t ‘Video Games’

BJP MP, Colonel Rajyavardhan Rathore (retd), countered, “We were in Army, we know what happened”. Minister General VK Singh (retd) added, “Will you please let me know which ‘so-called surgical strike’ are you attributing to my tenure as COAS?” (Army Chief from March 2010 to May 2012).

On 3 May, PM Modi countered that the UPA-era ‘surgical strikes’ were carried out in ‘video games’.

The following day, i.e., 4 May, Lt General DS Hooda (retd), who was the former Army Commander Northern Command (1 June 2014 - 30 November 2016), the main architect of the September 2016 ‘surgical strikes’, told the media that “Cross-border armed operations against terrorists were carried out even before the current dispensation led by PM Narendra Modi ... by the Indian Army across the Line of Control (LoC).”

Semantics of ‘Surgical Strike’

With a war of words erupting over ‘surgical strikes’, and the latter emerging as a major election narrative, there is perhaps a need to examine what really has been happening – and that examination begins with understanding the semantics around the term ‘surgical strike’.

What really happened on the night of 28/29 September 2016? The Indian Army had, on that night, carried out trans-LoC raids in four sectors (Bhimber, Hotspring, Kel & Lipa) in PoK. The raids were aimed at destroying terrorist camps located between 500 – 2000 metres on the Pak side LoC.

Was this the first trans-LoC raid by the Indian Army? The clear answer is NO.

Since the 1949 ceasefire, fire-fights, cross-border raids and artillery duels across the LoC have been the norm, as the LoC is not akin to an international border. This activity has seen spikes (after the 1971 war; 1984 occupation of heights at Siachen by India; 1988, commencement of terrorism in Kashmir; and after the 1999 Kargil conflict), as well as pauses (after the November 2003 ceasefire).

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What’s In A Name?

Given the need to prevent loss of territory, the close proximity of opposing forces and the troop densities on both sides, local duels have been a normal feature, with every action creating a ‘revenge cycle’. The trans-LoC actions of 1998, 2000, 2011, 2013, and many more, stand documented. Such fighting is the reason that a posting on the LoC is deemed as an operational deployment.

In sum: brutal, ruthless trans-LoC raids by both armies, have been routine stuff.

Former 15 Corps GOC Lieutenant-General Syed Ata Hasnain, is on record stating that such raids were ‘routine’. So is former chief, General Bikram Singh (retd) – commenting on the 2013 beheading of L/Nk Hemraj, he said that “India has avenged the murders of its soldiers along the Line of Control (LoC) by the Pakistani army last year”. As is Lt General HS Panag, former Northern Army commander: "We have done such operations on the Line of Control earlier also. And these are all local and tactical-level operations. It happens quite regularly. But this time we declared it."

So, are the BJP’s General VK Singh (retd) and Colonel Rathore (retd) lying?

The answer is both yes and no. They aren’t lying – but they also aren’t telling the truth – and are in fact, indulging in semantics and wordplay for political expediency.

Trans-LoC Raids & ‘Surgical Strikes’ Are Two Names for the Same Thing

The problem lies in the terminology. Prior to September 2016, trans-LoC raids were known as just that – trans-LoC or cross-border raids.

The incumbent government however – eager to burnish its hawkish image – labelled the September 2016 trans-LoC raids as ‘surgical strikes’, in order to showcase that it is doing something really, really different from past governments.

This is the first time a trans-LoC raid was called by a different name – and it needs to be noted that a fancy name does not change the purpose – a faucet is still a tap. So, General VK Singh and Colonel Rathore are quite right in claiming that there were no ‘surgical strikes’ prior to September 2016.

And in a country where knowledge of military matters in the civil domain is extremely limited, few are able to deduce that in reality, trans-LoC raids and ‘surgical strikes’ are one and the same thing.

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Why Previous Govts Didn’t Publicise ‘Surgical Strikes’

Importantly, there were operational and geopolitical reasons as to why the previous governments did not publicise trans-LoC raids:

  • Publicity gives away operating information, which means that the adversary now knows what exactly you did – and one cannot surprise an adversary multiple times using the same tools and methodology. Former Director General of Military Operations, Lt General Vinod Bhatia, had tweeted (September 2018): “Over-hyped commemoration of surgical strikes for political mileage (is) counterproductive as it foreclosed future options for such strikes.”
  • There is a need to leave enough ‘space’ for the adversary to absorb the robust Indian ‘message’, and quietly incorporate suitable change in its behavior. In contrast, publicity forces domestic imperatives on a humiliated adversary to seek revenge, and respond in ‘befitting’ ways – and this was apparent in the wake of the IAF’s 26 Feb air-strike on Balakot – Pakistan responded in kind on 27 February.
  • A politically publicised strike sets precedence – it makes the Indian public expect the same – in fact, more of the same – after every incident. This renders crisis management difficult – it would be recalled that after the 26 and 27 February strikes/counter-strikes, both sides had stared at an abyss of rapid escalation, and then stepped back from the brink after international diplomatic intervention.
  • Lastly and most importantly – it’s also to do with the perception of the international community of the LoC.

How Indian Army & Govt Had Earlier Maintained High Moral Ground

Post-Independence, the fighting in the state of J&K had ended after both India and Pakistan agreed (in 1949) to withdraw all troops, behind a mutually agreed Ceasefire Line (CFL). The 1965 Indo-Pak War was unable to cause a change in this status on account of the dynamics of the Cold War and prevalent geopolitical circumstances.

After the 1971 Indo-Pak War, with East Pakistan being hived off from Pakistan, former Pakistani PM Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, desperate to get back the 90,000 POWs, agreed (July 1972, Shimla Agreement) to change the nomenclature of the CFL to LoC, implying that it was no longer created by war – but was a boundary that existed through mapped and recorded acquiescence of both sides.

During the 1999 Kargil Conflict, the stance of the international community was based around this precise understanding – Pakistan has illegally occupied what is deemed as Indian territory, and hence, must vacate its aggression. Left unsaid was its premise that the same logic applied equally to India.

Thus, not publicising previous ‘surgicals’ had allowed successive governments and the Indian Army to maintain a higher moral ground internationally, while severely punishing Pakistan and its associated culprits locally, through cross-border raids.
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BJP Has Demeaned Contribution of Army Veterans to Past ‘Surgical Strikes’

Thus, for the BJP to say that there were no ‘surgical strikes’ in the past, deeply demeans the stellar contribution of thousands of veterans who participated in previous trans-LoC raids, intense firefights and artillery duels.

Some peers, comrades and subordinates died; many were injured; the others risked everything going across. When a soldier dies, he is reduced to a file in the Ministry of Defence, and his family is bereft of a husband, father, brother. And yet, we continue to see politically expedient statements that impinge on the legacy of laudable operational deeds in the annals of the Indian Army’s history – and the past contribution of our soldiers.

(Kuldip Singh is a retired Brigadier from the Indian Army. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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