by Prakash Katoch

India has witnessed the dirtiest of politicking in the current elections. Accusations of thievery and corruption are being hurled at opponents without concern for the dignity of the office one is holding, whether in a political party or government, right up to the highest level. Worst of all is the diabolical skulduggery over military operations, which is disturbing and damaging the country’s military institutions.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has been projecting that raids against insurgent camps in Myanmar in 2015, raiding terrorist launch pads in Pakistan-administered Kashmir in 2016, and the Indian Air Force (IAF) conducting air strikes in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir this year were the first ever cross-border actions undertaken by India. The government is using these actions to make political mileage through media, speeches, books, documentaries, even feature films.

The army was measured in issuing official statements, which is the norm with respect to Special Forces operations globally. But despite the lack of authoritative, precise information, some journalists and film producers reconstructed such actions, at the behest of politicians whose aim was self-aggrandise to influence the public, at the cost of sacrificing secrecy. Such politicised depictions may be at variance to what actually happened. Incidentally, those who took part in the raids are not happy with this over-politicisation that jeopardises future operations in the same areas.

According to the Indian Army’s director general of military operations (DGMO), Lieutenant-General Ranbir Singh, in September 2016, there were surgical strikes on launch pads situated along the Pakistani side of the Line of Control (LoC) in Kashmir. The question that then arises is, why doubt former army chiefs who clarified that such limited invasive strikes had taken place earlier?

The Special Forces were very much playing their part before this government as well. In the 1971 war with Pakistan, Indian commandos destroyed a gun position across the LoC. In the same war, Indian commandos borrowed a leaf from the British Special Air Service (SAS) during World War II and undertook successful vehicle-borne raids 80 kilometres inside Pakistan. While these raids were carried out during war, other cross-border raids have been undertaken periodically, by Indian Special Forces and even infantry battalions. However, none of them were ever publicised.

Hitting terror launch pads is easy compared with striking Pakistan Army posts. In 2011, the Indian Army struck three such posts, killing at least 13 Pakistani soldiers and bringing back three enemy soldiers. This was to avenge a Pakistani action in Kupwara, Jammu and Kashmir, that killed six soldiers and beheaded two. The process of selecting the targets, preparation, training, monitoring and execution by the army were the same as in 2016 for the “surgical strikes.” In the case of the latter, portraying the “surgical strikes” as having been planned by the prime minister and national security adviser was needless, especially with all the glib talk of the “free hand” given to the army. The Indian Army has “avenged” every Pakistani action similarly in the past.

Those who talk of the “unprecedented scale” of the 2016 surgical strikes need to read the book India’s Most Fearless: True Stories of Modern Military Heroes by Shiv Aroor and Rahul Singh. It is quite likely that the authors were given access by the current government. They relate that the targets in the 2016 raids were four launch pads, two in close proximity to each other.

The notable point is that such actions have always been reactive. No Indian government has shown the will for proactive sub-conventional actions on a prolonged basis in a country like Pakistan that has been repeatedly called out by the international community for harbouring terrorists. Conversely, the present federal government in India has allowed the situation in Jammu and Kashmir to deteriorate for reasons of political expediency rather than achieving national strategic goals.

As for the 2015 raid on terrorist camps by Indian Special Forces in Myanmar, the army’s statement read, “Early this morning, the Indian Army engaged two separate groups of insurgents along the Indo-Myanmar border at two locations along the Nagaland and Manipur borders. Significant casualties have been inflicted on them.” But Indian politicians bragged of a “hot pursuit” inside Myanmar, unmindful that Myanmar was facing elections. The Myanmar President’s Office had to respond by saying, “We will not allow any foreign military operations in Myanmar territory. Every country must respect the other country’s sovereignty.” This was not the first raid in Myanmar, and it was with the concurrence of the Myanmar government, as on earlier occasions.

Because of the massive political propaganda over the 2016 raids on terror-pads in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, similar raids to avenge the February 14 car-bombing in Pulwama by Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) that killed 40 Central Reserve Police Force personnel would have resulted in heavy casualties with the enemy anticipating ground action. India, therefore, went in for air strikes against JeM training facilities at Balakot in Khyber Pakthunkhwa province. But besides the Indo-Pakistani wars of 1965 and 1971, Balakot was not the first time the IAF crossed into Pakistani territory.

In May 1997, an IAF Foxbat MiG-25 entered Pakistani airspace undetected at 26,000 meters, photographed strategic installations near Islamabad (432 km inside Pakistan) and deliberately created a large sonic boom by breaking the sound barrier. This was interpreted as a blast by the Pakistani media. In August 2002, the IAF conducted air attacks on multiple Pakistan Army posts along the LoC, which was followed by ground action by Indian Special Forces. These actions were never publicised.

These are just two examples, and are not the only ones. Between May 1998 and November 2002, several deep raids were carried out by an Indian Special Forces unit that was raised to operate exclusively in the mountains. These raids were carried out as reprisals for terror attacks and had the sanction and backing of the government at the highest level. However, the government of that time chose not to publicise those military actions.

Without going into the needless controversy of what was hit and what was not, the air strike on Balakot was a good action, given the fact that standoff weapons were able to hit the coordinates of the target that were given to the IAF. It sure gave a message to Pakistan, with the latter’s air defence caught off guard. Yet there should be a limit to the endless propaganda to draw political mileage. After all, India did exterminate East Pakistan in the face of a US aircraft carrier threatening it in the Bay of Bengal, a British armada headed for Arabian Sea, and Pakistan expecting Chinese intervention.

Bragging about covert operations implies that Pakistan will deny they happened and the opposition parties will be forced to raise questions about the claims. The cycle of allegations and counter-allegations is endless. Instead of doubting operational results and disregarding the secrecy needed for such operations, the need is to build military muscle, both overt and covert.

The fact is, the present government has not found the right balance between economy and security. Moreover, the military remains neglected, being equipped with meagre defence allocations year after year. Instead of substantial reforms and budgets, the military is forced to subsist on political rhetoric.

The author retired as lieutenant general from the Indian Army's Special Forces