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The Rediff Interview/Lt Gen Vinayak G Patankar

April 07, 2003

It wouldn't be incorrect to call Lieutenant General Vinayak Gopal Patankar an enthusiastic -- and romantic -- modernist among military officers.

Proof of that is visible in the changes he has made since he took command of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps on April 18, 2002. Like: his standing orders to troops engaged in counter-terrorist operations to minimise collateral damage even if a terrorist escapes; his emphasis on upholding human rights; and, above all, Operation Ujala, an ambitious project to use investment from India's private sector to leverage an anti-insurgency attitude among Kashmiris.

Associate Editor Chindu Sreedharan met the general inside his fortress of a headquarter in Srinagar. Tall and lean, the senior-most security officer in the Kashmir Valley packs a 9mm pistol, besides an Uttam Yudh Seva Medal earned during Operation Vijay. Owner of an understated sense of humour, he is clear in thought and precise in articulation.

He was commissioned into the Regiment of Artillery in June 1965, and qualified as a paratrooper and helicopter pilot. The 1971 India-Pakistan war saw him as an Air Observation Post pilot, assigned with guiding artillery fire on enemy positions.

He has served as the director of military operations and additional director general perspective planning at the Army Headquarters in New Delhi.

By virtue of his office, the general is the security adviser to the Jammu and Kashmir chief minister. His assignment includes securing the Line of Control with Pakistan.

He answered our queries -- duly vetted, and edited, by the Army Headquarters -- first in February and then on April 5, after the killing of Pandits in Nadimarg.

The general expects increased infiltration and more violence this summer. Excerpts:

What is your assessment of the killing of Pandits in south Kashmir?

Right through the winter, the terrorists have been in a wait-and-watch mode, avoiding contact with us, not launching any activity anywhere. This was a resumption of their activities, a signal they were still around.

The killings were aimed at achieving the twin objectives of intimidation of the society and discrediting the state government. They want to set back the initiatives taken by the government to bring back peace. And what better targets than soft targets? Particularly since the chief minister has been talking about their return?

What impact has it had on the peace process?

It has certainly been a temporary setback to the Kashmiri Pandits. Some of them may have been thinking of coming back. But I should credit the state government with assuaging the feelings of those Pandits who wanted to leave [the valley]. The government did everything in its power to dissuade them. That has gone down well with the people.

The government is determined to go ahead with the peace process. So are the security forces. We will not let one incident create such consternation. The people would like to see us continue our efforts. Then only will they accept we are serious about peace.

What can you tell us about the terrorists involved? The home minister has spoken of Pakistan being behind the killings.

I tend to go along with that assessment. Time and again, the Pakistan government tend to make noises [about curbing terrorism], but equally we hear about rallies being held by terrorists.

I believe this was the work of Laskhar-e-Tayiba with covert support of the Pak government. Eight-nine terrorists were spotted. From my own experience of these matters, I would think they would have posted one or two lookouts at least. So the number would have been around 11 or 12.

[While the majority were foreign militants], there was some local collaboration. We have found indications of that. Though local support to militancy is waning, I would say in this case two or three of the terrorists were Kashmiris.

What evidence is there on the ground to show Pakistan's support?

I am afraid I cannot share more with you at this time. With some luck, we should be able to tell you more shortly.

I wouldn't like to put a timeframe to it. But we are on to something big.

Despite the large number of security forces in Kashmir, minority communities continue to be killed at irregular intervals. Why?

The security forces are engaged in operations against the terrorists, not so much in protecting the people. We do provide protection when we get specific intelligence -- for instance, in the 90s when terrorists were burning down schools, we provided cover to school buildings.

Yes, we know the minority communities are targets, but if we try to group them and put them together in some protected place, we would be reducing it to a ghetto. That would be easy for protection, but then what happens to their houses, their property? And soon, they will say, we might as well leave this place.

Is there any assurance of safety you can give the minority communities?

We would like to do that, of course. We have taken whatever precautions need to be taken. But let's say the police run away saying we are outnumbered... there is no end to it. There are anything up to 300 [minority] pockets. If we were to provide foolproof security, then this would become a police state.

If such incidents cannot be completely prevented, what can you do to limit them?

What we are trying to do is to raise Home and Hearth battalions. We mentioned this to the chief minister, who has taken it up with the Centre. We also sent messages to the Centre through our own channels and I think the proposal has been okayed.

The Home and Hearth battalions will be modelled on the Territorial Army. It has two benefits. First, it would provide immediate employment to the young people. Second, since they would be working near their homes, it would raise their self-confidence. They would understand, we don't need to be sitting ducks anymore.

The modalities are still being worked out. [like in the TA] it will have a core of regular army officers, around whom the force will be built.

Could you give us an overview of the security scenario in Kashmir? What are the most visible trends?

Let me break that up into two parts -- the situation on the Line of Control and the situation in the hinterland [the Kashmir valley].

The LoC continues to be active. There is activity on both sides. Pakistanis are abiding and abetting infiltration. As a prelude to it or as an aftermath of it, there is exchange of fire.

The hinterland also continues to be active. In the sense, the terrorists are still doing what they have been doing for the last so many years. I don't want to focus too much on the number of terrorist attacks etc, because this number game does not really give you the true picture.

What is better to see is the type of activity, the method in which it is being carried out. For instance, what sort of violence it is -- whether it is proactive action in which terrorists engage security forces, whether it is a standoff attack. To that extent I would say, yes, the numbers have gone down because the terrorists are not coming forward in the proactive sense.

But the attacks against civilian forces continue unabated, mostly detonator type attacks. The excuse always is there was a CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force], BSF [Border Security Force] or army along the target [area]. But they don't really care who gets hurt. If some security forces get hurt they feel very jubilant. But if the civilians get hurt, there is no remorse.

[From] the level of brutality, violence, [the terrorists] are trying to kill a fly with a sledgehammer. In the bargain what kind of collateral damage, how many more people get hurt is of no consequence to them. That's the disturbing part.

Past years show summer as the season of increased infiltration and, consequently, terrorist attacks. What are your expectations for this summer?

It is going to be active. There is a sense of desperation among terrorists. They want to somehow keep the pot boiling. But I am sure there is a finite limit to how far they can go in terms of pushing people in from across the LoC, and what kind of success rate for us and failure rate for them is tenable.

Your biggest challenge seems to be infiltration. Is there a way you can stop it completely?

All the mines, all the barbed wire, all the sentry posts across the Berlin wall could not stop people from crossing over. To bring it down to a level where it is no longer low-cost option for the enemy is what we should aim at. And given the improvement in our success rate in the previous years, especially last year, we are very optimistic.

Whether it is improved tactics, whether it is the dynamism in deployment pattern, or certainly technology, we will definitely go to a point where infiltration is no longer a cost-effective effort.

In winter normally infiltration reduces. How would you compare the number of infiltrators this year to that in last winter? And incidents of violence?

Numbers are difficult to quote. Normally, because of snowfall and the passes being all blocked because of snow, infiltration does go down during this period.

This year we had very less snowfall, and not very heavy. So in most of December and January there wasn't enough snow on the ground. So infiltration did continue, albeit in less number [compared to summers].

Let me add snow alone does not stop them. They come so well equipped, with crampons and so on. The harder we make it for them to infiltrate, the more ingenious the methods they use.

The sheer number of infiltration, as I said, initially it went down. In anticipation of snow, they shifted the launching pads to the south [Jammu region]. They came back later, and the infiltration went up, when they found the snowfall was not heavy...  We know it is going to carry on unabated.

Last year the terrorists were a little more proactive. They were taking on the security forces. With an obvious result -- we were able to eliminate a large number of them.

Part 2: 'The army can kill terrorists, but we cannot kill terrorism'

Photograph: Abdul Qayoom; Design: Dominic Xavier


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