Rifleman Aurangzeb's killing must show soldiers why SOPs matter, but Rashtriya Rifles can't be labelled 'unprofessional'

Rifleman Aurangzeb of the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry (JAKLI) posted with 44 Rashtriya Rifles (RR) was killed by terrorists on 14 Jun 2018 after he was abducted at gunpoint near Shopian in south Kashmir. The 25-year-old Gujjar Muslim from Poonch was part of the operation which neutralised Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) leader Sameer Tiger and was on the terrorist outfit's hit list along with his company commander Major Shukla who was then convalescing in a hospital due to a bullet wound.

Aurangzeb was abducted soon after he stepped out of his 44 Rashtriya Rifle company post near Shadimarg in Shopian and hailed a private car to Shopian town in order to take another cab to Poonch, his hometown, to reach home for Eid-ul-Fitr, the festival depicting the end of the 30-day period of fasting (Ramzan). Many other JAKLI soldiers from the Valley would have done the same to reach their homes.

File image of Indian Army Rifleman Aurangzeb. News18.

File image of Indian Army Rifleman Aurangzeb. News18.

Now, fresh versions of the killing have revealed that a local woman who Aurangzeb had befriended could have been forced by the terrorists to part with information about his travel plans. Since mobile communication is now freely available in Rashtriya Rifles camps, Aurangzeb did not need to physically meet her often, as would have been the case in earlier years; information exchange would have taken place through the airwaves.

The involvement of a local woman adds to the many questions that people less aware of the ways of soldiers in the Valley are already asking, such as: what was a JAKLI soldier doing with an RR unit affiliated to the Rajput Regiment; why was he sporting a beard and long hair against normal army practice of proper grooming; why was he allowed to proceed alone on leave against the established practice of catching an organised convoy from Srinagar and traveling under escort; isn’t the security of individual soldiers the responsibility of the Indian Army? These need answers and some additional explanations to restore the full professional confidence which Indians have in the Indian Army.

From a generic point of view, it must be known that there is no consistent pattern of terror activity in the Valley. The 44 Rashtriya Rifles has long been deployed in Shopian, one of the hotbeds of terrorism in Kashmir. The RR units have a personnel relief system wherein almost half the manpower turnover every year but most units stay where they are adding to the continuity in intelligence gathering and familiarisation with the operating environment. So, every soldier does two years and a little more as a tour of duty.

Operations are like adrenaline to soldiers and they can take tremendous stress and strain. Many a time small team operations are launched to set up larger operations; the formers are much more stressful. An inherent system of adherence to SOPs exists at all times but is contingent upon the environment and certain freedoms and leeways are always permitted. That is because these are not conventional operations and need much more individual and team guile, local knowledge of history, culture, personalities, ability to cultivate sources and to merge with the environment when necessary. Aurangzeb’s work was just that — the enhancement of local contact and liaison; a dangerous work at any time.

A successful high profile operation against Sameer Tiger had exposed him somewhat. It was a practice by higher commanders in earlier years wherein they preferred to ease out those officers and men who were exposed or had a personal threat focused against them. Yet, that is not always necessary if the unit is confident of adhering to the time-tested basic SOPs with everything else being flexible.

So, Aurangzeb was with the 44 Rashtriya Rifles like many other local soldiers for the purpose of liaison, language and for a better understanding of local conditions. Growing hair and beard in an operational environment is no big deal as this helps hide the 'fauji' in the soldier. It is a risky business, thus it's necessary to ensure that full precautions are taken at all times.

In the heat of operations, as successful as those of 44 Rashtriya Rifles (I still consider it as one of the best units under my command), it's easy to get carried away with the over-confidence, the nonchalance and the romance of small team operations. That is where the senior hierarchy comes in. An experienced senior commander especially one who has experienced similar environment will, on the one hand, encourage innovation, guile, and fearlessness, he will also quietly ensure that the basics are never forgotten.

Many a commander I have known at brigade and division level institute a system of their staff resorting to taking turns to ensure that limited micromanagement for security is always in place through reminders to appropriate appointments in units. A system many soldiers have followed adheres to nightly calls to high-risk units on the Line of Control (LOC) and the counter-terror grid to speak to officers, men motivating them and appreciating their achievements but also equally rendering advice on precautions and drills which in moments of elation must not be forgotten; adding own experience to this is always good as many senior officers these days are those who have been actively involved in such operations at junior levels. This system adds to written advisories which sometimes take time to permeate lower down.

A lapse must not be allowed to label the Rashtriya Rifles units as unprofessional and insensitive; they hardly function in a zero-error environment. Yet, such lapses are highly avoidable as the risk for operational effectiveness may still be taken but not for individual safety. The security of soldiers is very much a collective responsibility. Gladiatorial type-casting is the other phenomenon to avoid as it gives a false sense of bravado in this unpredictable environment.

Lastly, the Rashtriya Rifles has been the best thing which happened to the Indian Army, it's the boldest experiment in years. For the Indian Army, it is worth debating whether some additional turnover of units, from high risk to lower intensity environment and vice versa, will be in order. No doubt the continuity of the units despite a 50 percent turnover of personnel has held out well, but some units continue to remain in risk-prone areas far too long hogging all the glory while others receive little such chance.

A befitting tribute to late Rifleman Aurangzeb will be the absence of any further isolated killing of a soldier through the best adherence to drills and orders without losing full operational control.

The author is a retired lieutenant general and former general officer commanding 15 and 21 Corps

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Updated Date: Jul 05, 2018 11:00:09 IST

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