Surgical Strike Hysteria and Questions arising out of it | Mujahid Mughal

What is a Surgical Strike?

A surgical strike is a military hit with a remarkable precision which intends to damage or destroy a particular target without causing any collateral damage. A surgical strike, in other words, avoids targeting the physical infrastructure and life surrounding the prime target. Such attacks can be carried out via air, water and land using different methods as required. According to the Cambridge dictionary a surgical strike is “a type of military attack that is made in an exact way on a particular place”.

A surgical strike thus can be contrasted against a “carpet strike” or “carpet bombing” wherein chances of large scale collateral damage are high. Carpet strikes, therefore, result in massive destruction of life and property in and around the target under focus. Air Marshal Shahzad Choudhary, from Pakistan says “a surgical strike is one that comes as a surprise and is conducted with surgical efficiency. It happens when an entity does the job and comes out. It is not messy. There is no collateral damage” [The Dawn, 29 September].

In surgical strikes, the prime targets include the important government buildings, military camps, air strips and naval bases which are seen as a threat to the attacker. Bombing during the onset of Iraq war, drone attacks in Pakistan may be included in the category of “surgical strikes”. Bombing in Syria and Afghanistan, on the contrary can be included in the category of “carpet strikes”.

The Indian Viewpoint 

India forces and government claimed that “Surgical strikes” have been carried out along LoC, targeting “launch pads” for terrorists on September 28th 2016. At a press briefing, senior military and diplomatic sources [including MEA] confirmed about the incident [The Hindu, September 29, 2016].

The Indian Express reported about the same incident by quoting the defense ministry. “Significant casualties have been caused to [the] terrorists and those trying to shield them. The DGMO, Lt Gen Ranbir Singh, claimed that “during these counter terrorist operations significant casualties were caused to [the] terrorists and those providing support to them”. Talking about the objectives of the “surgical strikes” he added, “the operations aimed at neutralizing terrorists have since, ceased and “we do not have any plans for further continuation” [The Indian Express, September 29, 2016].

Almost all mainstream electronic media, most of the newspapers and a big chunk of people on social media have been celebrating enthusiastically the “strikes” since then. The surgical strike hysteria remained so dominant for a few days that Chandu Babulal Chauhan’s capture could hardly find space he deserved in media especially electronic media and social media.

Chandu Babulal Chauhan is a soldier of Indian army, serving in the 37 Rashtriya Rifles, who has been captured by Pakistani army after he crossed the border over to Pakistan. Indian Army confirmed that, “One soldier from 37 RR with weapon has inadvertently crossed over to the other side of the Line of Control. Pakistan has been informed by the DGMO on the hotline” [Pakistan Today, September 29th 2016]. According to an Indian Army official Babulal was captured after he “inadvertently crossed over to the other side of the Line of Control” [The Indian Express, September 30, 2016].

However, Islamabad-based diplomatic sources, said that Chauhan had been captured by Pakistani troops at Jhandroot, west of Mankote, and at present he is kept at the military headquarters in Nikayal region.

The Pakistani Standpoint

Pakistani military and media, on the contrary, have unanimously rejected the occurrence of any such surgical strikes on Pakistani soil. Referring to the incident which was called surgical strike in India retired Air Marshal, Shahzad Choudhary said, “What India has done is an LoC violation. Not a surgical strike.” “In a circumstance when there is so much of tension on the border between India and Pakistan, only a fool would believe that a terrorist would actually infiltrate. Both armies are on high alert, so this is absurd” he added further [The Dawn, September 29th 2016].

Security analyst of Pakistan, Askari claimed that “Indian military initiated cross-fire from their territory”. He maintained that the “development mimicked the pattern of earlier cross-border firing.”The LoC violations that occurred in the past happened on exactly this pattern.

Calling Indian claim of “surgical strikes” as an act of ‘face saving’, Express Tribune quoted Pakistani army saying that “rebranding cross-border fire as surgical strike is fabrication of truth’. [Express Tribune, September 29th 2016].

Lt Gen Bajwa, Director General of the Pakistani military’s media wing said that “the notion of the deaths being a result of a surgical strike is a false propagation by India” [The Dawn September 29th 2016].

Pakistani media on the other hand focussed mainly on the capture of one soldier and 8 deaths in the [same] cross firing along LoC [The frontier post, September 29th 2016]. Dawn, one of the most widely read newspapers of Pakistan reported that there was an escalation in tensions between India and Pakistan along LoC after two Pakistani soldiers were killed in cross border firing. Another report talked about the sceptics in both the countries who questioned the ‘details provided by officials’ [The Dawn, September 29th 2016]. According to another report published in Pakistan Today, “Pakistani forces [have] killed eight Indian soldiers, when they were trying to cross the Line of Control on 29th of September whose bodies have not been carried away so far [Pakistan Today, September 29th 2016].

As mentioned earlier that Indian army has already confirmed that, “One soldier from 37 RR with weapon has inadvertently crossed over to the other side of the Line of Control” regarding whom “Pakistan has been informed by the DGMO on the hotline”. However, “his crossing over was not related to the surgical strikes” maintained the Indian army [Pakistan Today, September 29, 2016].

Fears of Escalation

The above incident, no matter what nomenclature we assign to it, has already escalated the fears in J&K. The incident is expected to be countered in a similar fashion. Pakistan is thus supposed to be revitalizing up for a counter strike on Indian side of J&K, which has already asked people living within 10 kilometers of the LOC to migrate to the safer places. The cycle of strikes and counter-strikes between two nuclear powers if continued, have the potential to aggravate into a full-fledged war.

Over 20,000 residents of border villages in Jammu, Samba and Kathua districts migrated to safer places, after the incident, as the authorities declared areas close to the border ‘out of bounds for all civilian movement’. All civilian movement close to the border has also been disallowed till further orders. [Greater Kashmir, September 30th 2016].

Some Questions

The incident that took place on September 28th besides creating fears of  [nuclear] war also gives birth to a number of questions in my mind, the answers of which I intend to seek from my esteemed readers.

The first question that pops up in my mind is about the terminology used for the incident that took place on 28th of September. Should we call it a surgical strike or cross border firing or a carpet strike? Apart from the terminology used for the violent incident, I have also not been able to understand the reason of making public the covert army operations at the border.

Let us suppose that it was a “surgical strike [and not the usual cross border firing]” carried out on Pakistan administered J&K. I therefore ask my esteemed readers [if not the public living near LOC], was it the first ever strike Indian military has carried out on Pakistan Administered J&K?

I being a researcher, talked to about sixty people living near the LOC in four villages of Poonch (J&K) viz Chhambar, Kinari, Degwar Terwan and Gagrian in the summers of 2016. I met many people who have been witness to many such cross border violent incidents [call them surgical strike or carpet strike as you wish] on a routine basis. At Gagrian I met people who lost their dear ones in such across-the-border mortar shelling and firing. I also met a victim family who lost a woman during such a strike leaving one of the differently-able person widowed for a life time. There were many others, who witnessed across the border violence and were affected in similar fashion.

Mujahid Mughal (Right) with local resident in Gagrian

It was a “red alert” day in Gagrian, the day I visited the village. Red alert was described by a local as the day “when shelling and firing takes place” between the two sides of LOC. From the above it is clear that, incidents like these have been happening in the [recent] past too and they continue to happen in the present. This incident around which “surgical strike hysteria” was generated is not a first one of its kind.

Ajai Sahni, while talking to BBC, says operations like this have been carried out earlier too. He gives this incident a political dimension. He believes that to publicise it is primarily a political issue, to address the domestic constituency [Interview on BBC Hindi, September 30th 2016]. However, he didn’t elaborate much the term “domestic constituency”. Was he making a reference to the upcoming elections in Uttar Pradesh and Punjab?

I being a researcher also seek to know that whether the surgical strike hysteria has anything to do with the ‘tough guy’ image of PM Modi, which he had shown during the elections and which led him to the power? Was it a diversion from the economic failures of the NDA as promised during the elections in 2014? Because sceptics like Mayawati, ex Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, have already said that “ahead of Uttar Pradesh polls a desperate BJP may, in order to divert attention from its government’s failures, trigger a war with Pakistan” [Economic Times, August 29th 2016].

I further ask my esteemed readers to ponder, if any correlation exists between the surgical strike hysteria and the ongoing unrest in J&K wherein more than ninety people have been killed and around fifteen thousand injured leaving a few hundred maimed? Has this incident been a diversion from the core issue of confrontation between India and Pakistan i.e., J&K conflict?

Mujahid Mughal

Mujahid Mughal

Mujahid Mughal is BSR Fellow at Department of Geography, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh