A soldier runs during the encounter with militants in Samba. (PTI)
New Delhi, Sept. 26: The raid on an armoured regiment of the Indian Army since this morning has hurt the security establishment so much that it has to take stock of itself at multiple levels.
The first of these is the geopolitics of the place — Samba — and not the least of it is the way the army copes with tensions within, among its officers and subordinates.
Samba in Jammu is sandwiched between Pakistan to the west and the hills of Himachal Pradesh to the east. This is where the rivers that flow out from the Pir Panjal and other ranges break out into the plains. The rivers criss-cross the plains like veins mark a human hand.
The Indian and the Pakistani armies have deployed armoured — tank — regiments in the region, because they can attack or defend with the massive mobile firepower that the tracked vehicles carry.
The 16 Cavalry — the unit that was attacked — is deployed in Samba for precisely that reason: to withstand a potential Pakistani armoured raid. But it has now had to contend with militants who attacked to kill and appeared to be not looking to escape — rather than an armoured thrust by the Pakistan Army.
Strategically, Samba and National Highway 1A are a jugular that Pakistan would target in every scenario of conventional warfare because this is where Jammu and Kashmir is linked to India.
It is a “chicken’s neck”, not as narrow as the one in north Bengal but vulnerable because of the topography — a narrow strip of the plains to the west of the Himalayan ranges.
The 16 Cavalry’s main weapon is the T-72 (Russian-origin) tank. Within the Indian Army, the Armoured Corps is among the highbrow, its officers speaking good English. Its personnel below officer rank, for most of its years since its founding under the British, have been trained to serve the sahibs.
Last year, there was an anomaly, however. A soldier of the unit, Arun V. from Thiruvananthapuram, shot himself with his service firearm. Apparently, he had asked for leave to address family issues back home in Kerala. The request was denied. Frustrated, Sepoy Arun V. committed suicide.
The death angered his comrades, some of whom surrounded the officers in a form of what is known in Bengal as “gherao”. The officer-jawan tension in the unit followed reports of other such incidents in the army, most notably at Nyoma, where soldiers of an artillery regiment chased officers through the night with flaming torches after they complained of misbehaviour by a superior.
The officers of the 16 Cavalry unit were punished or posted out, as were a number of jawans and JCOs (junior commissioned officers), after the report of a court of inquiry nailed them in May this year.
The current leadership of the unit is part of a reformation process: and that is where today’s attack has hurt the Indian Army.
The unit’s second-in-command, Lt Col Bikramjeet Singh, who was staying in the officers’ mess with his wife and daughter, was among those killed. Singh had apparently just returned after dropping his daughter to school. His wife is safe.
The unit’s commanding officer. Col. A. Uthaiah, was shot through the chest and the neck in the firefight 45 minutes later. Till last reports, he was in the intensive care unit of the military hospital in Pathankot after emergency surgeries.
The first of the unit to be killed was Sepoy Kiran Kumar. He was the sentry at the gate of the officers’ mess this morning. Two other soldiers of the QRT (quick reaction team), Sepoy M.S. Rao and Havildar Inder Singh, were also reported to be grievously injured.
A late report said one injured soldier had died in hospital.
The firefight lasted more than nine hours. The militants climbed up to the bachelor officers’ quarters on the top floor of the mess and then onto the roof, picking and choosing their targets. Since the army knew the location of the enemy but was aware that the militants were on high ground, it decided to cordon off the area, making escape impossible, and wait till the last bullet had been fired. In addition, they sent in a team of special forces.