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Focus on role of commanding officers amid Anantnag gunfight | Latest News India

The gunbattle between security forces and a terror squad at Anantnag has brought into focus how young and combat-hardened commanding officers of specialist counterterrorism units of the Indian Army operating in Jammu and Kashmir are filling four crucial roles — leading from the front, conducting operations on the ground, providing motivation on the battlefield and keeping the men under their command out of harm’s way, senior officials said on Thursday.

Colonel Manpreet Singh was killed in an encounter with terrorists in Kokernag area of Anantnag district on Wednesday. (PTI)

As India mourns the three killed in action in a dense forest near Anantnag on Wednesday — including Colonel Manpreet Singh, the commanding officer of 19 Rashtriya Rifles (RR) — the ongoing encounter with terrorists offers a grim reminder of the everyday perils of a soldier’s life, unpredictable combat outcomes and the vulnerability of commanders supervising operations, the officials added, asking not to be named.

Singh joins a list of commanding officers of RR battalions who have died in the line of duty, leading their men in the pursuit of military-style trained terrorists in J&K, often sponsored by Pakistan, who have managed to inflict casualties on the security forces and evaded retribution on many occasions.

The ambush-style killings of Singh, his company commander Major Ashish Dhonchak and deputy superintendent of police Humayun Muzamil Bhat have shaken the relative calm in the Kashmir Valley where terror attacks had declined significantly and were at a five-year low (according to terrorism-related data tabled by the government in Parliament).

The data covering the last five years (2018-to July 2023) shows a marked decline in terror incidents, encounters and counter-terror operations, and the number of security personnel and civilians killed. For instance, J&K recorded only 30 “terrorist-initiated incidents” till July 31 this year, compared to 125 last year, 129 in 2021, 126 in 2020, 153 in 2019 and 228 in 2018, while encounters/counter-terror operations in the same period stood at 24, 117, 100, 118, 102 and 189.

Singh is the first commanding officer to be killed in action in Kashmir in the last three years.

The Anantnag encounter is reminiscent of a fierce gunfight between the security forces and a group of terrorists in Handwara in which Colonel Ashutosh Sharma, the commanding officer of 21 Rashtriya Rifles, his company commander Major Anuj Sood, two army jawans and a sub inspector were killed in May 2020, months after the Covid-19 outbreak in India.

Other commanding officers killed in action in Kashmir over the years include Colonel Santosh Mahadik, Colonel MN Rai, Colonel Vasanth Venugopal and Colonel Jojan Thomas — all of whom were decorated with top gallantry awards for uncommon courage and leadership in the combat zone.

To be sure, some in the army circles have questioned the presence of commanding officers during gunfights, arguing that junior leadership (captains and majors) should be allowed to conduct operations and battalion commanders should step in only if necessary as their loss is a huge setback.

There is sometimes a view expressed that commanding officers should not be leading from the front and putting themselves in the direct line of fire because their loss of is a huge setback to the unit, said former Northern Army commander Lieutenant General DS Hooda (retd). Some believe it would be preferable if they direct operations somewhat from the rear where they would have a more complete picture, he said. But it doesn’t always work that way, he added.

“I don’t think one can prescribe a formula that fits all situations and all personalities. The army has extremely fine commanding officers and it would be wise to let them make their decisions based on their assessment of the situation. Let us just salute the courage of officers who are willing to give their all in the line of duty.”

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