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Posted at: Mar 16, 2017, 12:34 AM; last updated: Mar 16, 2017, 12:34 AM (IST)

Why Tral matters so much

Lt Gen (retd) Syed Ata Hasnain
Tral, the hub of the terrorist outfit Hizbul Mujahideen, is difficult to protect. Undue attention towards the LoC is responsible for Tral being neglected. It needs a fresh approach and there are various hard and soft measures which can be combined together to create the right concept to tackle a problem area such as this.
Why Tral matters so much
Tral, a problem area, offers a security challenge because of its geographical location.
Avid television watchers in the country may be familiar with the name Tral. Every few weeks a ticker at the bottom of the television screens announces "terrorists trapped in Tral". There are reports of "terrorist or Army action in Pulwama," the district in which Tral tehsil falls. In recent times Tral has become notorious as the home town of Burhan Wani, the young terrorist leader whose death sparked the 2016 virtual Kashmir "Intifida." His was one of the largest funeral gatherings seen in Kashmir in recent times.

Almost 20 years ago, I was the overall coordinator of all anti-terror operations in South Kashmir at the newly set up garrison at Avantipura, just above the National Highway, 25 kilometres from Srinagar towards Anantnag. Victor Force was (and still is) the formation of the Rashtriya Rifles (RR), which oversees the security of South Kashmir. Yet much more in the news for the last 27 years has been the wide open bowl with the high Wasterwan hills on one flank. Tral bowl, a tehsil of Pulwama has been a pain for many of us who have had the pleasure of serving at Avantipura, the headquarters of Victor Force (RR). 

For two years, Tral held me mentally captive. A virtual citadel east of the Highway, then there were insufficient troops to hold it and conduct operations from within the bowl. Whenever the situation heated up with terrorist criminal acts or incidents involving ambushes and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on the Highway, we would conduct operations in Tral's  various villages by moving troops from elsewhere. The troops approach through the wide open mouth of the bowl would be observed by the terrorists, giving them sufficient time to get away to the higher reaches leaving a few hideouts to be busted. 

Tral is the Hizbul Mujahideen's centre of gravity in terms of resident terrorism. The Hizbul Mujahideen has not permitted any other major group to settle and operate here. Why does Tral occupy that special importance for the terror group? It is the ground which dictates the discourse, a typical tough infantryman's territory. If you are driving from the Jawahar tunnel to Srinagar past Anantnag, Tral falls ahead of Bijbehara, closer to Avantipura but 10 kilometres to the east of the Highway. The bowl is shaped like a dog's leg, with a large opening converging with the curvatures of the hills, north and south, towards the town itself. Thereafter, it takes a northerly turn for some kilometres and ends up after narrowing at the Wagad ridge, which on the other side leads to the Khreuh bowl. Further behind Tral town loom the heights of the ridgeline emanating from Aru, close to Pahalgam. This mountainous area has beautiful meadows, occupied by nomadic Bakarwals during summer. 

Because of the problem of logistics, there is no deployment of the Army here. There is no communication artery in this virgin country. In this area, the Al Firan had initially kidnapped five foreign tourists in 1995 and kept them in captivity. The book The Meadow, by Adrian Levy Scot and Cathy Scott-Clark, based upon the incident and the subsequent events, describes the meadows and the ground between Tral and Aru in detail. It is suspected that the hideouts of the Tral terrorists exist in these meadows and kothas of the shepherds. In Army's language, just conducting operations on a hunch and without solid intelligence is called “jungle bashing”. It is exhausting to send out a large body of troops into no-man's land, hoping there will be contact with errorists. Even if you score a couple of successes, taking it beyond that is never possible unless you occupy the area with troops in the form of a grid of posts and picquets. Sooner than later, terrorists will reoccupy the area. 

Tral is supported by geography. From the bowl the alignment to Pahalgam, Amarnath shrine and down to the Mahadeo Ridge, a swathe of mountainous territory which remains unoccupied offers the finest potential for hideouts, training camps and rest bases for terrorists in summer. Just around Wagad (see map), for many years the infamous Hizbul Mujahideen tactical radio control station "Muslim", functioned with impunity. Its voice carried far and wide, coordinating the terrorist activities all over the Valley, including infiltration, emplacement of IEDs and even criminal acts. The advent of mobile technology ended Muslim's rule of the air waves. From Victor Force, we planned and executed many a foray into the mountains around Wagad and even dropped troops by helicopter to get hold of Muslim. Apart from disturbing Muslim's comfort, we could not get him. Once we did manage to destroy some equipment but it was back on air with vengeance, cocking a snook at us.

Some of the most daring operations of the RR and the Special Forces have been conducted in the Tral bowl. In the mid 1990s, the Army was deployed in the Tral tehsil but subsequent priorities saw change and a few companies of the BSF moved in and out a few times. In 2002, the newly raised 42 RR took over responsibility of the tehsil with six operating bases hugging the lower heights from where the climb to the higher reaches commenced. The unit has been involved in some very high-intensity encounters. On January 27, 2015 the then Commanding Officer of 42 RR, Colonel Munindra Nath Rai, was killed in an operation in which he was leading from the front with his quick-reaction team. Recently, Major Rishi was seriously injured while tackling terrorists holed up in a house.

I knew Tral extremely well but regret today that somehow in my own tenure in command of the Valley I failed to tackle the tehsil due to undue attention towards the LoC. Tral needs a fresh approach and there are various hard and soft measures which can be combined to create the right concept to tackle a problem area such as this.  

Lastly, the tehsil should not be treated as a basket case because of its notorious past and link with Burhan Wani. Tral may have given quite a few terrorists to the Hizbul, but it has given many more steadfast and patriotic soldiers to the JAK Light Infantry regiment of the Indian Army — this is what must be kept in mind while approaching it. This challenge should have been taken up a long time ago. 

The writer, a former GOC of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps, is now associated with the Vivekanand International  Foundation & the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

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