Was India's largest peacetime deployment initiative—at immense human and monetary cost—really worth it?
MURALI KRISHNAN, CHANDER SUTA DOGRA
|We did not fight a war. We only threatened to. Yet our men died. Why?|
|Environmental/ psychological strain||104||49|
from December 19,2001 to April 2003
These do not include the 285 Indian soldiers who died and 788 who were injured in terrorist attacks during this period
They sacrificed their lives for the country but they are no martyrs. The truth is, the nation did not even pause to salute them. Like the hundreds who die every year fighting insurgency in Kashmir or in the Northeast, the unsung heroes of Operation Parakram—the 10-month-long
build-up along the Indo-Pak border after the December 13, 2001 attack on Parliament—have been reduced to mere statistics.
True, the 387 men who died and the 1,051 who sustained serious injuries had not fought a war. But many who were part of the deployment say it was an arduous, nerve-wracking and frustrating 10 months. Recalls an infantry officer posted in Rajasthan: "To be waiting on high alert for such a protracted period told on everyone's nerves. We literally fought a war that was not actually fought. There were rumours that war would break out in a week or month's time. And then nothing happened..."
Six months after the operation was called off in October, strategists at army headquarters are still tabulating the cost of the build-up and what it actually achieved.The bill: an esimated Rs 8,000 crore. As far as their political masters are concerned, it served the diplomatic objective. But within the army, senior officers are questioning the wisdom of that deployment. "Our strengths and weaknesses, equipment and formations were exposed. Luckily, there was no war towards the end of the deployment or we'd have found the going tough," says a serving general.
But more than anything else, the human cost of that build-up is what's bothering many serving officers. Many heart-rending stories of jawans and officers losing their lives—either by stepping on landmines or committing suicide—forms the sub-text of the country's largest peace-time military mobilisation. It was an exercise which saw close to half-a-million troops lined up along the Punjab, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Jammu and Kashmir border. Kept in combat readiness for 10 months, in harsh conditions, the troops finally returned to their barracks once the political establishment realised that the deployment was taking its toll on men and machinery. Defence minister George Fernandes admitted in Parliament last week that 1,874 men were killed or injured between December 19, 2001 when the operation was launched and October 16, 2002, when the pullback was ordered.
Even so, it took months for the troops to pull back and even today de-mining operations continue in the western sector. It will be a while before a realistic assessment in terms of the loss of lives and injuries during the deployment and re-deployment of Indian soldiers is arrived at. Here are some shocking facts Outlook sourced on non-combat casualties during the operation:
- De-mining operations accounted for 75 deaths and 291 injuries.
- Estimates put the civilian toll in mine-related incidents at 300.
- Accidents during the deployment and re-deployment left 109 dead and 327 injured.
- Psychological stress and weather conditions led to 104 deaths and 49 injuries.
Many of the casualties were incurred due to the hectic urgency with which the troops were amassed on the Indo-Pak border. An army official in South Block told Outlook, "When troop density was increased from a factor of 1 to 4, casualties were bound to happen." For a war that was never fought, this huge logistical exercise in terms of men and money has been an eye-opener for top strategists in the politico-military war-gaming apparatus. In the rush to reach their operational locations, dig in defences and clue in to their specific tasks, troops worked against time. Routine precautions built into the military system were given a go-by. "It was a time when few bothered about their 'admin support' (army parlance for basic comforts) and made do with whatever was there," says an infantry officer in Punjab.
When troops and equipment were transported from the eastern front and southern bases hastily to the operational areas of Gujarat, Punjab and Rajasthan in 2,500 trucks and 500 special trains, accidents were bound to, and did occur. Road accidents on rushing convoys became common in Punjab and Rajasthan during the winter months, when thick fog obscured visibility.
In many incidents along the western frontier, fatigued drivers drove down steep ravines or crashed into other vehicles in a desperate bid to reach supplies to the forward areas. "In an atmosphere of rising tension, these were the first kind of casualties the deployment threw up," says an infantry officer in Rajasthan. So, contact any ex-serviceman's association and you'll hear tearful stories of those who lost their lives in the operation. Here are two:
- Havaldar Manjit Singh, deployed in J&K, was all set to go home to his wife and children in Hoshiarpur. But he was requisitioned for Operation Parakram and moved to the Indo-Pak border near Bhatinda. Life was hard. With no leave in sight, he could not take it any more and suffered a mental breakdown.
In September last year, when his colleagues were out on duty, Manjit hung himself from the roof of his barrack. "He wanted to leave the army but was not allowed. He had even found a job as a security staffer in a private hospital. Now all I have is a compensation of Rs, 75,000 and a meagre pension," laments his wife, Avtar Kaur.
- Jaswant Singh of the 4 Sikh Light Infantry, trying to dislodge an army truck involved in an accident, died when an icy overhang in one of the passes in J&K gave way. Says his wife Kulwant Kaur, "He had plans to build a house and wanted to send our son Daljeet to the army. Such was his commitment, and now he is no more."
Deaths and serious injuries as a consequence of the laying of mines along the International Border (IB) from Rajasthan to Jammu is another tragic tale. Thousands of anti-personnel and anti-tank mines were laid in the border districts as hundreds of farmers were forced to evacuate their fields. The spurt in mine casualties among troops and civilians was high in the initial phase of Operation Parakram because of the poor quality of mines and defective fuses. Mines exploding as a result of searing temperatures was also another factor, point out army sources. Says an army engineering corps officer stationed in Punjab, "Arming mines is a tricky business. While working in poor light or on inferior systems, accidents are bound to happen." They did.
If mining huge tracts of land along the IB led to casualties, demining, which is still under way, is equally fraught with danger. Though records and maps are carefully outlined on the location of each mine laid, many are not found in their original locations. "This could be because the grid reference was inaccurate in the first place, having been done in poor light, or because it was laid in a tearing hurry," says an army colonel. For a variety of other reasons, mines have been misplaced or have exploded accidentally because of shifting dunes in the Rajasthan desert, falling into rat holes, or as a result of flooding in the marshlands. "Some of these mines have drifted away and this poses problems," explains an army official in South Block.
Senior officers point out that apart from the strain due to long hours in the field, hostile terrain and scorching temperatures—sometimes as high as 50°C—have also caused casualties. In Rajasthan, where a bulk of the troops stayed in tents before moving into 'dhanis' (mud huts), jawans were vulnerable to snake and scorpion bites. For instance, a weary Squadron Leader S. Dalal slept out in the open. He died after a desert krait bit him in his sleep. "We took to spraying kerosene oil around our tents at night to prevent snakes and scorpions from getting in but realised it was a fire hazard," says an army officer.
Though corrective action was taken by the army top brass to up allowances mid-way through the operation, especially for men of the three strike corps in the operational areas, it did not always work. The curtailing of leave and the disruption of the field deployment-peace posting cycle more than offset the monetary incentives. At times, as in Joseph Heller's Catch-22—soldiers inflicted wounds on themselves, preferring hospitalisation to the hostile desert during summer. Other times, jawans in Rajasthan reportedly scalded themselves on the hot metal of tanks.
The questions now being asked are: was it all worth it? Did it compel General Pervez Musharraf to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure inside Pakistan? Or did it help achieve India's pre-condition on military withdrawal linked to ending cross-border terrorism? To all of the above, the answer is an emphatic 'No'.
In any future war, strategists will realise that to optimise troop efficiency, the lessons from Operation Parakram, the biggest mobilisation programme in Indian history, could prove handy. Mere flexing of muscle and high-pitched rhetoric are not enough. It'll warrant a fresh look on how to enhance operational preparedness and strike capability. Most crucially, it will prevent life of the Indian jawan and officer to be put at stake so casually.