My first posting was in some remote corner of Assam, not far from Guwahati. Till a few years back, the area was hotbed of numerous insurgent groups due to it’s proximity with Bangladesh border. But by the time I was posted there, the terrorist movement had lost most of it’s steam. There were still a few irritants mainly funded by China and Islamists but our good intelligence network and improved relations with Bangladesh ensued that the area was enjoying a period of peace. But we never let our guard down.
Life in an army cantonment where I knew no one except my colleagues wasn’t easy for me at first. I had thought that the time of those soul crushing drills, long marches etc was over with the completion of training. But I was wrong. Drills, albeit of a different variety were still a part and parcel of our daily routine. What was known as long march during our training period was replaced by even longer patrols. We had to wake up early at the crack of dawn and get ready to leave for patrol. Almost every other day the route changed . Maybe it was an attempt by our higher ups to prevent monotony, but I never knew. We were told to keep an eye open for suspicious characters, anything out of ordinary and all that. Nothing ever came up. It was always just a long walk carrying our rifles and a small bag of supplies.
Locals were not exactly hostile but they were not very friendly either. The insurgency which had lasted for decades had left them wary of both the militants as well as security forces. But I thought that confidence building measures initiated by army like the free medical camps and schools had a good effect. At least the kids loved us. Older generation was a little hostile to change but they were gradually coming over their mistrust of the uniform. In any case, army provided them with free medical care, education, relief operations and sometimes even transport without asking for anything in return. It was a better deal for them than militants who had scant regard for the same people for whom they claimed to be fighting for.
Due to peace and lack of any violence we had a fair amount of free time, but the remote place had little to offer in terms of entertainment. We had to endure a 90 minute long bumpy ride in an army truck if we wanted to watch a movie in the nearest town. Even the food was strange and mostly tasteless to my taste buds. Enduring such long ride for these meager rewards wasn’t exactly an appealing idea. I could drink my free time away on the cheap army liquor but I never liked alcohol that much. Only saving grace was the comparatively well stocked library. It wasn’t much but certainly was better than nothing. During my 6 months long stay there I read more books than I had read during my entire student life . I don’t know if it was my performance on field or in library which helped getting my name in list of a few men from my unit shortlisted for special counter insurgency training in Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School (CIJW) in Vairengte, Mizoram.
The six week long training that I got there was unlike anything that I had ever experienced. It was much harder, very unconventional and there were many occasions when I thought that I’d flunk it. We were taught to survive on just what jungle had to offer. We ate things and animals which we never even thought could be eaten. Instructors taught us to think, act and attack like guerrilla.
After successfully completing the grueling course, I came back to my unit. A few weeks later, I was posted to J&K as my first posting in an actual active combat zone . The place is a sensitive area due to it’s proximity with Line of Control and Pakistani attempts to push in terrorists. I volunteered and was accepted in to Ghatak Platoon which is tasked with some of the most difficult missions. I had my first taste of combat there and on 3rd week of my posting there. My platoon was credited with killing 4 Paki terrorists in two different operations. It”s usually during summers when the Pakis are most active due to favourable weather and lack of snow blocking their routes. During summer months when snow melts, usually in May till September, the LoC is a virtual war zone due to Pakistani firing in order to provide cover to their terrorists. Most of their attempts are thwarted due to the fence and our vigilance. A small fraction which manage to sneak in are usually hunted down like mad dogs within a few days. But this never stopped Pakis from….well, being Pakis. Over the last few years, number of infiltration attempts had came down as terrorists lost their support even amongst the most rabidly Islamist people in J&K, but apparently Pakis refused to learn. They still manage to get a steady supply of delusional, horny fools who think killing non-muslims or dying in process will get them 72 whores for eternity after death. At first it was surprising to see such people and hear of their ideology but then I realised that it’s the only expected behaviour from a country founded on principles of hatred and exclusivity.
Over the last few years, Pakis have grown more brazen and they think nothing of firing on our posts even when they aren’t providing cover fire to anyone. Their terrorists too have become more desperate as they try sneaking in through more difficult paths as we keep on closing the gaps. It’s an ongoing cat and mouse game with no end in sight till that scourge of violent Islamism is rooted out. Fat chance of that happening though.
Two weeks back, we got reports that Pakis were trying to push in a large group of terrorists numbering up to 10 from infiltration points near our area of operations. We had some intelligence about where they were staying before their infiltration attempt and support by Paki army being extended to them. They even had a SSG major deputed to command and get them safely across LOC. This Major Butt was involved in training as well as helping terrorists sneak in to Indian territory for a number of years. But the terrorist we were most interested in was Zahid Hussain, a highly wanted commander of Pakistani terrorist group, Lashkar-E-Taiba. Earlier he operated as self proclaimed ‘Area Commander’ recruiting young men as terrorists in terrorism affected areas of J&K. He did this by brain washing and often kidnapping vulnerable youth to force them in to joining LeT. He was infamous for his brutality, even for his own cadre who ever crossed his path. He was forced to flee after Indian Army tightened the noose and support for terrorism amongst local population waned. He resumed his ‘work’ in Pak Occupied J&K and Pakistani Punjab and had quickly risen in hierarchy of LeT . He was believed to be one of the strong contenders for the title of chief of the terrorist group once the current one died or removed. He had also made a lot of contacts in Paki polity, Islamic clergy as well as ISI over the last few years. Quite a few of the terrorists in the group were recruited by him during the last 2-3 years. In Pakistan, he operated openly under the patronage of Paki authorities, safely out of our reach.
If we managed to catch or kill Zahid, it’d have been a big victory for us and a major setback to LeT and Pakistan. But it was easier said than done. According to our intelligence, he was part of group only for the ‘moral support’. He himself was supposed to come up only till the LoC to ensure that as many as possible of his trainees could cross the border while he’d go back to indoctrinate some more fools back in his camps. We had no idea about their likely route of infiltration. With most of snow melting away during the last 2-3 weeks, they had a lot of places to sneak in as our fence had been damaged in heavy snowfall and landslides. Repair work was under progress but it was clear that Pakis will try pushing them in to our territory before we could plug all gaps. They had already stepped up their artillery as well as small arms fire to hamper the repair work as well as to create even more gaps in the fence. Our response was limited due to political pressure.
Even if their attempt to cross over didn’t succeed, it was quite likely that the terrorists might retreat and try to sneak in some other day. We had the chance to eliminate the bugger after such a long time and we were not going to let it slip away so easily.
Everything we had on our disposal was dedicated to this task. Frequency and duration of patrols were extended, work on repair of fence was stepped up and all of our intelligence sources put on overdrive. We had access to imagery by a few Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) but the numbers we had were not enough for kind of surveillance we wanted. Tracking a small group of men in heavily forested mountains is no easy task. But we had a stroke of luck in morning when one of our UAVs noticed a group of 5 men walking on a narrow trail leading from a small settlement towards LoC. Just a few hours later another group of 7 Paki terrorists was observed on an adjacent route 3 kms away from first one. According to reports sent in by our HUMINT (Human Intelligence) sources, Zahid was with the second group. Going by our guess, considering the terrain and their speed, they were less than a days walk away from the border.
The likely area for infiltration attempt by both groups happened to be under the grid of our battalion, so it was up to us to prevent it and to eliminate or capture Zahid if possible. One easy option was to wait for them to reach the LoC and then capture or kill them in as they tried to cross over. The problem with this approach was that they could have chosen any of the numerous breaches to cross over and we didn’t have enough manpower to set up ambushes on every breach. But the most important flaw was that we had no way to eliminate or ca[ture Zahid. The closest he’d come was some Paki post out of our sight, perhaps give a small pep talk and then slink away after sending his recruits in to jaws of death. Even if all of them died, it was no skin off his back. There are always more where they come from, each one thirsting to get in to that imaginary whorehouse they call jannat by killing non-muslims.
Second option was suggested by The Major who I suspected had a death wish. His plan was to take some men across the LoC on foot and setup an ambush on a location the terrorist group led by Zahid was sure to cross on their way. That meant we had to watch out for Paki army manning the border as well as their rear echelons which could come to aid of the terrorists. His solution was to keep them pinned down by fire from our side if necessary, as we ambushed the terrorist group. Our CO had to make a choice between the comparatively safer (for us) 1st option and riskier but more rewarding 2nd. He chose 2nd and this is how we found ourselves on a god forsaken mountain in middle of a very rainy night a few km inside enemy territory.