Stay Behind Party – The Hunter And Hunted

Small teams operating as stay-behind parties in counter terrorism play a crucial role in maintaining pressure on terrorists. These are some of the most difficult operations, as to stay undetected among hostile populations itself is a major challenge..

Raj checked his watch, a battered black Casio, its dial facing his wrist. The seconds ticked away with a cold, mechanical precision that seemed to mock the tension in the air. It was 1600 hours, and he had already stayed an hour longer than planned. He decided to give it another thirty minutes before calling it off. The world around him had that eerie, expectant stillness that prickled the skin at the back of his neck.

The rustling of dry leaves seemed to echo in the stillness, a soft symphony of nature’s whispers. The air was crisp, carrying the faint scent of decaying foliage and the sharp tang of the marshes. Raj’s senses were heightened, and every sound and movement around him amplified as he crouched in the ditch. The cold metal of his rifle was a reassuring presence against the chill creeping up from the damp earth.

He carefully scanned the area between the irrigation pump house and the scraggly bushes marking the edge of the marshes. The bushes were sparse, their leaves already a mottled mix of yellow and brown, stubbornly clinging to the last vestiges of autumn in the Kashmir valley. His head was barely visible among the branches, his olive green cap blending seamlessly with the dried leaves. The landscape was a patchwork quilt of decay, the moist soil emitting a sweet, slightly rotten smell that mingled unpleasantly with the pungent stench of cow manure.

Sitting in the ditch of a vegetable patch, Raj ignored his hunger pangs and waited. The ditch was dug like a long trench, almost chest-deep, with fresh tool marks on the walls, indicating its very recent vintage. Three trenches were dug parallel to each other as he distributed his team tactically to surveil the surroundings. Overhead, the sky was light blue, interspersed with wispy light white clouds; the sun past noon cast a pale light that filtered through the trees devoid of leaves.

Man approaching,” Maqbool, the JAK LI boy from Gurez, alerted him, his voice a soft murmur as he gestured towards a figure moving carefully along the footpath from the village towards the pump house. Maqbool was a cheerful lad from the mountains in his early twenties, a Sunni Muslim. Maqbool’s pale grey eyes hinted at mixed ancestry inherited from the numerous armies that had marched over the mountains since time immemorial, drawn to the richest plains of Asia. He and Raj shared an excellent rapport, built on the past year of shared hardships.

As Maqbool alerted him, Raj’s heart rate quickened, the tension palpable. He watched the approaching figure with narrowed eyes, his mind a whirlwind of calculations and contingencies.

Our man,” Javed, the Ikhwan, whispered as he made a bird call to attract the approaching man’s attention.

Javed, slightly built and dark-skinned, was the oldest of the lot, a born rogue with dark eyes that easily crinkled into a smile. Javed, the Ikhwan, had seen much in his forty-odd years. His mind was a labyrinth of experiences, of alliances and betrayals. As he crouched in the ditch, he thought about the life he had chosen and the dangers that came with it. Javed’s thoughts were a mix of survival and calculations on augmenting his measly monthly income of INR 1500 that the state paid to the special police officers (SPO). This, the small orchard, and the rice field the family owned were barely enough for survival. The gun that the Rashtriya Rifles issued him gave him social status, which brought him some additional income through mediation in minor village disputes. This led to further tensions and brought him into conflict with the local police, as mediation was a modestly lucrative activity bordering on illegality. Most army officers were ignorant of the power dynamics that a gun gave in militancy-ravaged Kashmir, especially in the sectarian political dynamics. Javed admired and respected Raj’s sharp mind. He had worked with multiple officers in the last 15 years; every one was different in their own way, but Raj had a completely different style in how he operated. Other than operating in small teams at night, he took a keen interest in understanding Shia customs and the local political dynamics, making extensive notes. Javed had to be extra careful to ensure no complaints about his mediation earnings reached Raj.

The bird call caught the approaching man’s attention as he came closer. Ali’s eyes widened in surprise, not expecting to see them crouched among the vegetable path. He slid down into the trench and squatted next to Raj. Ali’s face was aquiline with a dark beard. Ali was Javed’s cousin, a clansman in his mid-40s whom Raj had interacted with multiple times in the last few months. Ali used to visit the COB always after dark with Javed. A small-time contractor and farmer with dark, intelligent eyes, Raj had built up a personal rapport with him, which was essential in these parts. They discussed the details of the reward payments and the percentage shares between the Ikhwans and the informer. This was a perilous endeavour, and any misstep would have been costly.

Ganasthan village lay across the canal, in the neighbouring battalion’s Area of Responsibility. The name Ganasthan was intriguing, the abode of Lord Ganesh, a Hindu deity. However, the villagers, a mixture of Sunni and Shia Muslims, seemed ignorant of this. Situated next to a marshy jungle, the place was a frequent haunt for foreign and local terrorists. The marshes were a labyrinth of dark water and thick reeds, the perfect hiding place for anyone who knew the terrain. Raj had carefully built an intelligence network exploiting the sectarian schisms between the two Muslim communities. Fascinated by the political and sectarian divides within Islam, he spent hours reading up on its history and rituals. Most books he acquired from Islamist cadres who were better educated and happy that an army officer was interested in their religious teachings. Raj often went out in small teams of 5-6, dressed in pherans and salwar kameez, with the Ikhwans employed as Special Police Officers. Raj observed how locals reacted to armed terrorists and how the religious and political divides influenced their behaviour. Raj’s team had narrowly escaped from other security forces several times when their presence was reported.

The brigade operations commenced with little notice. The signal to return to base was followed by the rapid arrival of two more company columns at the Alpha Company operating base (COB) by last night. The 2iC, Major Deepak, carried the operation plan on his map and briefed Raj and Garry. The plan was to cordon Ganasthan and adjoining villages with multiple columns. Once the cordon was established, other Quick Reaction Teams (QRTs) and the CO, Colonel Manu Joglekar, would arrive at 0800 hours to start the search operations. It was a four-hour walk to Ganasthan, leaving barely enough time to grab a few hours of shuteye. Raj silently groaned; such operations had limited chances of success, relying on luck that armed terrorists were present inside the cordon. Local terrorists would hide their weapons and merge into the crowd, while foreign terrorists could be hidden by sympathisers. Without prior intelligence, diligently searching each house was difficult. Moreover, these operations discouraged company commanders from taking their own initiatives, as they were in perpetual anticipation of these jungle and house-bashing operations. The higher formations rarely planned for operational fatigue of troops from previous operations or administrative duties.

The COB was a hive of activity as the company langar had to feed a much larger number of mouths and prepare shakkar para, the dry ration of crunchy, flaky, fried flour cookies coated with crystallised sugar. The army shakkar para had limited sugar, but it was what the cookhouses produced, and the troops stoically chewed on them. The induction of the columns and canal crossing was uneventful, and the cordon was rapidly laid just before first light.

Ganasthan’s eerie stillness was broken only by the distant call of birds and the occasional rustle of leaves. The village, with its mix of Sunni and Shia inhabitants, was a complex web of loyalties and tensions. The sprawling Ganasthan villagers opened their eyes to see the village under a cordon. Raj immediately dispatched his two Ikhwans, Javed and Shaffi, both Shias, to establish contact with their friends and relatives. The search parties deployed themselves tactically and followed the drill for the crackdown, the highly unpopular method of assembling the whole village in a central ground. In contrast, search parties combed houses, accompanied by menfolk from each mohalla. This tactic was borrowed from the British Army’s operations in the Malayan peninsula and the American experience in Vietnam.

Raj persuaded Deepak to slightly modify the crackdown to only collect the menfolk while allowing the women and children below 8 to stay in front of the house. Allowing women and children to stay in front of their homes made it easier for them to feed their young. It served as a valuable indicator of terrorist presence if one could read their body language. It also mitigated complaints of theft of valuables, as the enterprising thieves used the owners’ absence and unlocked houses during crackdowns to pilfer objects of value. The necessary announcements were made via the speakers on the four mosques at 0700 hours, and the menfolk streamed into the central ground.

At 0750 hours, the Commanding Officer’s convoy arrived with the Brigade Commander, Brigadier Shergil, accompanying him. Captain Atul Pandey, accompanying the CO, greeted Raj with a smile. Atul had been commissioned four years ago, and Raj had been his first company commander in the battalion. With the Brigade Commander present, the battalion paid extra attention to their drills, distributing themselves in the different mohallas to search the houses individually with practised ease.

Raj chose the mixed mohalla of Shias and Sunnis nearest the central ground where the menfolk had assembled. The houses ranged from large, two-story, walled bungalows to more modest shacks. He allowed his Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) to conduct the search while he and his QRT tactfully deployed themselves. He saw no gain in wasting his energy, and the crowd seemed relaxed. He sat in the verandah of a house, keeping the crowd under surveillance while toying with his captured Kenwood set, fiddling with the switches to pick up nearby terrorist chatter. Around 10 am, he instructed his QRT NCO, Havildar Bhajan, to pay the old matron of the house 200 Rupees to prepare tea. She beamed, as Rs 200 was a generous offer for a kettle of tea. The Ikhwans returned with the news that there was no sign of any terrorists.

This seemed a wasted day as he carelessly observed the Brigade Commander and the Commanding Officer chatting with the locals. He asked the Ikhwans to get back into the other mohallas. Whom the Ikhwans approached and interacted with was carefully observed, and establishing contact with ‘sources’ had to be carried out cautiously. Sources who feared exposure would clam up or give incorrect information if they feared discovery. Retribution for informers was brutal torture and death, the funerals swiftly carried out by fearful relatives and never covered by the press nor investigated by the human rights NGO industry.

The Ikhwans returned suddenly, animated with the information that three terrorists were inside the cordon, moving from mohalla to mohalla and the vegetable patches that interspersed the village. It was noon, and the search parties had started returning to the central ground one by one.

Are you sure? Who gave the information?” Raj asked Javed, his voice barely above a whisper.

Ali’s wife. It’s the same limping Afghan,” Javed whispered back.

Terrorist groups of two or three, sometimes larger, frequented Ganasthan. Ali had described seeing them while peering through the cracks in his window, alerted by barking dogs. He had often seen the limping Afghan, a stout man with a ruddy complexion, reddish-brown hair, and a long beard.

Raj decided to head toward Ali’s mohalla with his QRT, carefully observing the body language of the women and children. The air felt heavier here, laden with unspoken fears. The mohalla was a tight cluster of houses, their walls close enough to feel claustrophobic. Javed entered a house asking for water and came back with the update that the three terrorists were last seen heading toward the pump house near the marshes. Ali’s wife said her young son had been sent to observe them and returned with this information.

Sir, 2iC on the set,” Raman, the young signalman, murmured quietly, handing over the ANPRC handset.

How much more time, Raj?” Deepak’s tone conveyed the underlying impatience of the whole unit, which was now waiting for Raj to return and call off the crackdown.

Sir, there are three bandits in the cordon,” Raj replied, his mind racing about tackling the situation.

Come back to the ground,” Deepak instructed after a minute’s gap.

Raj and his QRT trudged back to the ground. The path was a thin ribbon of mud winding between the vegetable patches, each step squelching in the damp earth. All eyes of the assembled crowd and soldiers silently greeted the laggard holding up the operation from being called off. It was around 1:30 pm. Many in the crowd had no food except hurried morning tea. Most troops had not removed their bulletproof jackets (BPJs) and helmets in more than 24 hours and had walked 15 kilometres through muddy paths in the pitch dark to lay the cordon.

Raj reported to the 2iC, who grinned at him while explaining that both the Brigade Commander and the CO knew he had been relaxing in the nearby house except for the last 40 minutes. Deepak, an officer from the Armoured Corps, had an easy rapport with all officers and men. An excellent sportsman and Sword of Honour of his course, his eyes easily crinkled in humour as he escorted Raj to where the Commanding Officer and the Brigade Commander were seated.

Col Manu carefully debriefed Raj. Manu was a second-generation officer, slightly built with sharp eyes. An infantry officer who had served in the IPKF, he ran a tight ship and rapidly increased the tempo of operations from the time he took over. He had an excellent service record and was determined to make his command a sterling success.

Plan a stay-behind party (SBP),” Col Manu instructed. He guessed that if contact had not been established until now, the chances of doing so now were slim. However, an SBP was the proper thing to do in the circumstances.

Okay, sir, I need another officer,” Raj replied, knowing he had a fair chance. The officers standing nearby froze; no one wanted to get caught in the SBP.

Who?” Manu asked, looking at the rest of the officers looking for volunteers.

Atul,” Raj quietly replied, smiling at Atul’s wounded look.

Get them, guys, but be careful,” Shergill smiled at Raj and Atul while getting up to leave. He had enjoyed the outing with the troops and had to prepare for the evening report with the GoC.

Don’t worry; I’ll let you sleep,” Raj murmured beneath his breath softly. He took off his BPJ and handed it to the rest of the QRT, returning to the COB.

Atul silently shrugged. As the youngest officer in the unit, he usually got the fatigue tasks. Paltan camaraderie with Raj prevented him from protesting. He had very little rest in the past 48 hours and had been looking forward to a bath and some much-needed sleep.

Orders mandated that all movements outside the COB had to be with BPJs. Raj had realised early on that he could quickly turn over troops for rest but could not replace himself as the lone officer. He routinely cut corners on matters he felt he could defend in an operational environment that mandated officers in all critical operations. Raj was not planning a house entry, and mobility was more important than armour for outdoor combat. Plus, he guessed that chances of administrative or disciplinary action when one was wounded or dead were near zero, but that did not apply to troops under command, so he ensured compliance with orders in their case.

Raj selected Nk Kanshi Ram from the QRT, a stockily built Para Trooper from the Engineers, to augment his scouts and radio operator. Two officers, five ORs, and two Ikhwans for the stay-behind party.
The SBP quickly merged with the parties sent out to wind up the cordon and slipped unnoticed into the vegetable patches towards the pump house. They carefully walked through the orchards and lower ground, screening themselves from the village. They took position in one vegetable patch about 80 meters from the pump house. Raj could see the outline of the white building housing the motor pump that pumped water from the irrigation canal to feeder canals leading to the fields.

An SBP below section strength, next to the marshes, about a four-hour walk from the COB in the inter-battalion boundary, was slightly risky. Still, Raj and his troops, having operated in small teams over the months in these areas mainly after dark, felt at home. The company would take longer to mobilise and come to his aid as they had very little rest in the last 48 hours in case contact was established. That was a risk Raj factored in as he started the wait. Raj sat on a small step cut into one end of the trench, leaning back. The clay soil was moist, with little stones pressing into his back through his combat tunic.

Atul lay in the trench, his jacket under his head, part of it covering his face. Exhaustion weighed heavily on him, his body aching from the long hours without rest. He thought about his home in Bihar, village life’s simplicity, and family warmth. It felt like a different world, one far removed from the cold, harsh reality of the Kashmir valley. He respected Raj and admired his sharp mind and tactical brilliance, but he couldn’t fully understand him. Their backgrounds were so different, yet they were bound by a shared mission at this moment. In addition to operations, Atul had the added burden of regimental life in the Battalion Headquarters. He was grateful that Raj had permitted him to sleep; he quickly drifted into a tired, dreamless sleep despite the BPJ and the boots he wore.

Raj did not grudge the young officer his rest; his role could become vital if contact was established. The cold from the moist earth seeped through Raj’s cotton combat tunic and vest. He steeled his mind to ignore the discomfort. He chewed on the shakkar para while promising to investigate the company langar’s sugar consumption levels to make the dry rations more palatable.

Ali was surprised to see Raj and Javed with the soldiers in the vegetable patch. He had thought the soldiers had fully withdrawn after the crackdown. Ali had returned home to find his wife narrating the tale of the terrorists trapped within the cordon. After seeing the soldiers withdraw, he noticed that the news of terrorists near the pump house was preventing the villagers from venturing out. Ali decided to check this out as he left home to visit his vegetable patch near the pump house. As Ali slid into the trench, Raj noticed the subtle changes in his expression. Surprise, relief, and a hint of fear flickered across his face. Raj gave him a nod, acknowledging the man’s presence. Ali’s dark, intelligent eyes held a wealth of unspoken words.

Seeing Maj Raj with Javed and the soldiers was not anticipated, and he guardedly whispered, “They are still there. No villager is venturing out even after the crackdown.

Trust was a fragile thing in this land of shifting allegiances. Raj’s thoughts flickered to the countless conversations with Ali, the shared cups of tea, the careful conversations to build rapport. It all came down to this moment.

Raj now decided that he would have to take a slightly riskier approach. He woke up Atul and explained his plan to further divide the SBP into three groups: leave Nk Kanshi Ram with Sep Jagtar in the vegetable patch, send the two Ikhwans from the North, with guns concealed under pherans to a position overlooking the pump house and the marshes, while the rest—Raj and Atul with the scouts—took a slightly circuitous path from the South-East to the pump house. The plan was to give the terrorists a chance to get away towards the village where Kanshi and Jagtar or the Ikhwans could intercept them.

As the groups dispersed as planned and started approaching the pump house, Raj noticed that the small mohalla of half a dozen shacks next to the marshes had entire families huddled on the verandas with averted eyes; the tension and fear were palpable. The mohalla was a cluster of ramshackle houses, their walls leaning precariously, roofs patched with whatever material came to hand. A familiar tinge of danger made his pulse quicken as he whispered the command for the safety catch to be unlocked.

The pump house was still a good 80 meters away. Raj and his scouts slowly approached, with the radio operator and Atul bringing up the rear. He could see the Ikhwans emerge from the depression and take position behind a pillar about 20 meters from the one-room structure housing the irrigation water pump. They approached the pump house very slowly, taking care to stay near the depressions for the little cover they could afford in case firing commenced.

Thirty meters away, Raj signalled the scouts to stop, and the team went into a kneeling position. Javed waved his hand to indicate that everything was clear as he approached and entered the pump house. Raj felt a wave of disappointment wash over him; all his instincts told him the terrorists were very near. The body language of the mohalla closest to the pump house depicted fear. With a maximum of two hours left before the last light, he decided that under the circumstances, he would have to retrieve Kanshi Ram’s party and return to the COB.

Sorry, buddy, today it did not happen. Time to get back. I will request the CO to let me retain you for 24 hours rest and recoup,” he told Atul as he murmured orders to engage safety catches. They walked parallel to the canal towards the field, leading to the one-hour trudge to the National Highway. Raj planned to take a lift from any passing vehicle back to the COB.

Saheb, mujahid,” Shafi alerted Raj, who glanced right and saw three men in pherans suddenly standing up from a vegetable patch ditch 30 meters away.

Raj cursed silently as he lifted his binoculars and spotted the familiar sight of an AK-56 rifle barrel sticking out under the pheran of the terrorist closest to them, standing outside the ditch. His pulse rapidly picked up, and he felt the cold grip his stomach as he changed the safety catch to automatic. The team was on open ground with no place to take cover, while the terrorists had access to chest-deep trenches. Raj knew they were at a tremendous disadvantage. His mind raced, calculating the odds. Kanshi and Jagtar were approximately 30 meters away and might not be able to effectively suppress the terrorists’ fire. He realised that any firefight now would result in their eventual deaths. They were hopelessly trapped in open ground.

From the corner of his eye, Raj noticed Atul lifting his AK-47 to his shoulder, and he shouted, “Stop, ignore them. Continue walking.

Raj gambled on the instinct of the hunted not to initiate combat. He saw a broad smile on the terrorist’s face in the dark pathan suit through the corner of his eyes. The terrorists knew this group of soldiers had chickened out. The other two terrorists climbed out of the trench to run back towards the village, approximately 500 meters away.

Come,” Raj shouted as he ran parallel to the feeder canal. The tension broke as they started running, a wave of relief washing over him. This was far from over. Raj’s training took over as he sprinted, his mind and body working in unison. The narrow escape fueled his determination.

Raj and the Ikhwans immediately outpaced the rest of the SBP, weighed down by BPJs and helmets. He knew he had used up a couple of lives by taking the gamble not to fire and presenting a clear target to the terrorists.

Stay with me,” he shouted at the Ikhwans. He remembered that controlling his breathing was crucial as he controlled his running. Memories of inter-battalion competitive shooting tournaments in his younger days came to his mind. Javed was running parallel with him, while Shaffi, the more cautious of the two, was a couple of steps behind. It was approximately 150 meters to the crossing point of the canal and another 20 meters to the bund.

Raj slowed down a few meters before the bund to control his breath and shouted at Javed to stay behind. Javed, intent on the chase, ignored or didn’t hear as he drew ahead and jumped over the bund into the open field. Raj took the kneeling position, only his head and shoulder visible over the bund, his left elbow resting with practised ease on his left knee as he saw the three terrorists 60 meters away running towards the village.

Stop,” he shouted to Javed, who was a few feet ahead in the open field. Raj tried to get his foresight aligned on the target. His ragged breath and the sloping ground of the bund made it more difficult than usual to get into the kneeling position and get a lock on the target.

Javed opened fire with a long, unaimed burst, a classic mistake of the untrained. Raj noticed the terrorist in the dark pathan suit swivel and fire from his hip. The terrorist seemed well-trained; his first controlled burst hit the dirt a couple of feet from Javed, who now dived to hug the ground. Javed’s white salwar kameez stood out in stark contrast to the black soil, making him an easy target to spot. Part of the dirt sprinkled over Raj, who steeled himself as he concentrated on getting his first single shot on target. Every nerve in his body screamed at him to duck as two more quick bursts hit the ground bare inches from Javed, who was now totally prone, hugging the earth as the dirt from the shots sprayed over him.
The terrorist in the black suit was almost invisible against the black earth viewed through the AK’s mechanical sights. In contrast, the other two terrorists wore lighter clothes that were easier to lock on. Raj finally got off his first shot and noticed one terrorist go down instantaneously. He immediately ducked behind the bund. From the initial long burst from Javed to his ducking behind the bund, it must have been a mere 3-4 seconds, but it felt like an eternity. He automatically rolled a few feet to his right while shouting at Javed to get back.

Are you hit?” he queried Javed while again kneeling as the firing stopped momentarily.

No, Saheb.” Javed replied, hugging the earth desperately. This was the first time he had come under effective and accurate fire. It was a miracle that he was unscathed.

Raj again took the kneeling position with his head and shoulders above the bund. He couldn’t believe his luck; he had hit the leader with his first shot, the limping one. The other two were supporting the wounded terrorist as they tried to desperately cross back over the bund 20 meters away. He took careful aim and shot the next terrorist, who immediately collapsed. Raj’s second shot might have caught the wounded leader one more time as he was already falling to his right when the supporting terrorist fell. The third one in the dark suit had hit the ground and was now firing at Javed, who was easily visible against the dark field, while Raj, wearing the disruptive pattern, was not spotted. Raj’s carefully aimed shots were either kicking dust ahead of the terrorist or behind him.

The third terrorist realised he was under effective and accurate fire and now decided to side-roll towards the safety of the bund. To Raj’s relief, his two scouts had fetched up. Sepoy Kharak Singh had jumped over the bund to his left and run ahead, while Sepoy Maqbool, after kneeling beside him to take a look, immediately ran parallel to the bund, seeking to cut off the terrorist from reaching it. Raj concentrated on hitting the target. Through the mechanical sight of the AK, spotting a man in dark clothes against the dark soil was difficult. Although Raj had now managed to pin him down, a clear hit still eluded him. He had already exhausted his first magazine and was on his second, firing in quick single shots, when suddenly a deafening noise made him duck and his ears ring.

Atul had reached and taken position unobserved on his blind side. His first shot with the barrel just a couple of centimetres away from Raj’s ear had deafened him. Raj sharply called out to Atul to move ahead so that his barrel was safely ahead. The terrorist had again started crawling, which was suddenly interrupted when Maqbool, who had reached parallel to him, emptied his magazine into him from 20 meters. Definitely hit, but not dead, as Raj noticed the terrorist shift his rifle to take on the new threat.

Raj, for the first time, had breathing space to take stock. He noticed Kharak had fallen, maybe hit by a stray bullet from Maqbool’s burst. Raj shouted out to Kharak, and he confirmed he was hit. He sent Shaffi, who had been kneeling next to Raman, the radio operator, who was busy conveying the update and summoning reinforcements from the COB. Javed finally jumped back, greeted Raj with a smile, and immediately sprinted from behind the bund towards where Maqbool had earlier gone.

Atul, keep this guy pinned down and give me an update on Kharak,” Raj tersely ordered, while grabbing two fresh magazines from Raman before running behind Javed. He knew he had been fortunate, from an impossible situation, to turn it around by pure instinct, realising that Pakistani terrorists are fed on a diet of cowardly Indian soldiers and the instinct of the hunted to avoid combat until they initiate it.

The operation was far from over. He had at least an hour before the first reinforcements arrived, low on ammunition and one wounded soldier who needed to be evacuated. The first was to fully neutralise the terrorist in black who had stopped firing. He cautiously jumped over the bund to take position behind a vegetable patch of raised ground that was an almost circular island. Now, a mere 15 meters away, he shot the terrorist just once, and he saw the chest cave in. This one was finally dead. Raj waved both his hands at Atul to stop firing.

Javed and Maqbool were frantically calling him to get back behind the bund with big smiles on their faces. Javed had finally learned the vital lesson of cover. Raj immediately sent Maqbool to fetch Kanshi Ram’s team and redistributed the ammunition while taking stock of the situation. Sep Kharak had suffered a flesh wound on his stomach, missing any vital organ, and the bleeding had stemmed.
Raj now dispatched Javed to fetch some people from the village and ropes. He had to secure the weapons of the terrorists and also find out if there were any civilian casualties due to stray bullets. Javed soon returned with a group of nine men, which included Ali and some pieces of ropes. The faces of the men in the group were revelatory; the Shias were exultant, while the Sunnis had sullen faces, although both tried to hide their emotions. The wounded, the dead, and the living all held a story. The relief was palpable, but the reality of their precarious situation remained. As he redistributed ammunition and planned the next steps, Raj’s mind was already working on the next move, the next challenge. The villagers’ arrival, their mixed expressions of relief and resentment, added another layer to the mission’s complexity.

How many minutes for the QRT to fetch up?” Raj tersely asked Raman.

Around 20 minutes,” Raman murmured.

Raj then decided to get the ropes tied end to end for dragging the terrorist bodies and was supervising the civilians when he suddenly heard Maqbool shout at Javed, alarm in his voice.

Raj turned to see Javed, along with Ali and another civilian, had approached the bodies without his knowledge. He savagely shouted at Javed and Ali to get back. Too late, the Afghan had released the grenade he had hidden in his hand. Raj desperately dived to the ground, his head facing away, shouting at the rest to get away. The grenade burst with a thud. Raj slowly raised his head and looked at Javed and Ali, who had also followed Raj’s example, but the civilian had collapsed, hit by shrapnel.

Javed staggered to his feet, firing long bursts at both the Afghan and the other terrorist; both bodies were hit. Raj shouted and glared at Javed, who gave him a bewildered look; he had one more wounded in this operation. Too many things to supervise, with too few hands. Raj now decided to wait for further reinforcements. His biggest worry was a crowd control situation if the villagers started arriving in crowds. He was too low on personnel and ammunition. The minutes ticked slowly.

The sound of trucks and continuous whistles heralded the arrival of his QRT with reinforcements. The whistles alerted Raj that the trucks were coming through crowds blocking the narrow streets. Hav Bhajan, the QRT NCO sitting in the front two-tonner, was a welcome sight. Raj felt a wave of relief; the situation was now under control. He now calmly dictated a series of orders to the JCO, Sub Sardar Singh, and Hav Bhajan on the evacuation of the casualties and securing the area while waiting for further reinforcements from the Battalion Headquarters.

Raman told him that the CO was en route and was expected in another 30-40 minutes. Raj mentally reviewed the situation and then asked Raman to get the unit adjutant online; he needed to ensure the police fetched up and took over the bodies. Hav Bhajan came up now, confirming all terrorist bodies were lined up and giving details of Arms ammunition and warlike stores recovered. Raj gave detailed directions on what to officially declare as stores like radio sets, grenades, etc., were too useful to be declared and surrendered to the police. There were better uses for these for an under-equipped force.

Atul now fetched up, giving him updates on ammunition expended and evacuation of casualties. He seemed visibly tired but spotted a grin on his face.

Adjutant,” Raman interrupted, handing over the ANPRC handset.

Hi Raj, congrats. I have tied up the ‘CasEvac’ and police formalities. Brief me on the details once you reach back the COB,” Jassi’s familiar voice was a welcome relief.

Wilco sir,” Raj smiled, thankful that a seasoned professional like Jassi was in the chair.

The shrill blow of whistles and the sound of vehicle engines steering on 4*4 through mud paths announced the arrival of the CO. Col Manu greeted Raj with a smile, his sharp eyes glinting through his glasses. Raj greeted him with a salute and a quick update, requesting that the battalion headquarters take on the responsibilities of the CasEvac and the bureaucratic intricacies of filing the FIR. The next request was to retain Capt Atul for 72 hours at the COB for rest and recoup break and to have a rapid exit from the village back to COB for the SBP. Nothing works like operational success, as all requests were promptly granted.

Raj ensured that Atul was seated with him in the driver’s cabin as his company troops rapidly exited the area, handing it over to others to tie up the administrative tasks. It was a well-earned break.

The euphoria that accompanies defying death and coming through unscathed is a distinct high. Especially when all your troops are safe; word had come that Kharak and the civilians, though still in ICU, were out of danger. Raj told the QRT they would visit the Base Hospital in Srinagar after the 72-hour R&R. The euphoria is at its highest in the first 24 hours and wanes slowly over the next two days; no drug can replicate the feeling. It must be hardcoded into our DNA through millions of years of evolution, Raj solemnly explained to Atul while sipping his 6th whisky after breakfast. It was almost lunch, and he planned to sleep again. Atul had finished his first glass of beer while nursing his second. Very rarely could a man enjoy his drink in the COB, and with Atul remaining sober, Raj wanted to make use of the rare chance to indulge himself.

Raj recounted all the details to Jassi on the telephone, who spent his last day in the unit before attending Staff College. Jassi had gained a lot of experience in the previous two years. Still, he knew he had been lucky on multiple occasions. Jassi now cautioned Raj, pointing out that all the surrounding COBs to Alpha company COB had suffered officer casualties, either wounded and a couple of PMF COs dead, in the past eighteen months. Raj had a couple more months to go, and Jassi felt he needed to keep track of the statistics. Militancy was at an all-time high after the Kargil War, and he was concerned that Raj was taking too many risks. Raj grinned, acknowledging Jassi’s caution and promised to be careful.

The evening report to the battalion headquarters was routine except for a warning from the Brigade Commander conveyed by the CO to keep a low profile. The brigade had lost two company commanders in the neighbouring unit last month, both blown up by targeted IED attacks.

Why is everyone cautioning us, sir?” Atul, overhearing all the conversations in the adjoining bed, was puzzled.

Success breeds confidence, and some of us start losing fear, it is the fear that keeps us alive,” Raj smiled at him.

They are all older men, seen more life than us. Don’t worry, I remain fearful, the trick is not to show fear, but to embrace it and still keep functioning,” Raj explained as he carefully dissected the operation and explained that the SBP succeeded only because of the existence of the intel network that existed prior and the comfort and training of the troops in operating in small teams.

The GS pamphlet only talks of SBP as one of the tactics that can be used in such conditions and does not mention other factors that need to make it a success,” Raj smiled, half drunk. As Atul smiled back quizzically, wondering what he meant.

Have you heard of the Pandora’s box?” Raj was in an expansive mood. Atul shook his head.

“It’s a box. Once opened, whatever is inside escapes and will cause trouble. This time, the SBP has escaped,” Raj slurred, grinning wickedly.

Atul nodded, the exhaustion still evident in his eyes. “Pandora’s box, huh? So we’re in for more of these operations?

Raj’s grin widened. “Oh, absolutely. You can bet your last rupee on it. The brass will see the success of today and think it’s a magic bullet. They’ll want to replicate it. Mark my words, the chances of another success in a SBP are going to be slim.

Atul took a slow sip of his beer, nursing it as he knew that Raj would open another one if he finished it. The beer was warm, as there were no fridges. This was his first operation, and he felt exhilarated to have participated in it. He also knew that Raj’s predictions were accurate and that most of the SBPs would be on his head as the junior most officer.

It was a sunny afternoon, and the pleasures of a siesta were a rare luxury for a COB Commander. Today was a great day, and Raj snuggled into his sleeping bag, which rested on a hard wooden bed. In the Kashmir valley, small treats like a full stomach and drink, hot water baths, and uninterrupted sleep were prized luxuries. All that mattered was that they were alive.

The bright sun bathed the COB in a warm, golden light, casting long shadows that danced across the compound. Raj stretched out on his hard wooden bed, feeling the tension seep from his muscles as he sank into his sleeping bag. It had been a hell of a couple of days, a hell of a mission, and now, for a few precious hours, he could allow himself the luxury of rest.

His eyes fluttered shut, the sounds of the COB fading into the background. The distant hum of conversations, the clatter of boots on gravel, and the occasional shout of orders became a soothing lullaby.

The sleep that claimed him was deep and dreamless, a blackout that his body desperately needed. In this world of constant vigilance and endless threat, such rest was rare and precious.

Atul, too, found himself succumbing to the exhaustion. The past day’s events replayed in his mind, each moment sharp and clear. The tension, the fear, and the exhilaration swirled together in a confusing, heady mix.

He looked over at Raj, already deep in sleep, and felt a pang of gratitude. Raj had guided him through his first real taste of combat, and though Atul still had much to learn, he knew he was in good hands. The older officer’s words echoed in his mind: “Success breeds confidence, and some of us start losing fear. It is the fear that keeps us alive.”

Atul didn’t think he’d lose his fear anytime soon. Fear, he realised, was not just a survival mechanism. It was a teacher, a reminder of the stakes they faced every day.

Outside, the COB continued its steady rhythm. Men moved with purpose, routines carried out with military precision. They were soldiers, after all, and the work never stopped. Even as Raj and Atul slept, plans were being made, preparations underway for whatever tomorrow might bring.

7 thoughts on “Stay Behind Party – The Hunter And Hunted

  1. A soldiers biography ! Very well narrated ! A narrative by someone who has had bullets flying over his head and spent a long time in trenches! 🫡

  2. Well written, very well written indeed. The story well describes the situation in Kashmir. It is crucial we get such stories out into public discourse. The Nation should know how the K. Insurgency was handled and the price we’ve (all of us have) paid.

    The story talks about the Ikhwan. After we lost Kukka Parrey, I believe they were disbanded which I think was a sad thing as the Ikhwan had rendered yeoman service in helping contain Kashmiri terrorism. I know we have the VDCs pick up the slack but the time period between the two was a lost opportunity.

    #LetsLearnFromTheseAsANation #NeverAgain

  3. Engaging narration that can only come from someone who has gone through the grind himself. Been part of similar operations in when Ikhwani militia jointly operated with Security Forces in mid 90s.

  4. A vivid and captivating story of the operation, environment around and exemplary leadership. Every thing came alive with succinct narration. It brings out much lessons too to be followed. My kudos to Pavithran Rajan. And best wishes for more power to your pen.

  5. All good things take time to mature….be it wine, preparation of sumptuous “wazwan” (multi course Kashmiri meal) or Int Network of Maj Raj!
    I was fortunate to have done numerous operations with Raj. His uncanny gift of observing the unobservable & synthesising a unique course of action was what made him outwit the terrorists not only in this SBP operation but in many other dangerous situations. Zooming in & out came naturally to Raj which facilitated his near accurate prognosis of situations.
    Weeks before SBP operation, Raj had excitedly shared that his sources had been tracking a group of foreign terrorists (which included the limping Afghani).
    Before bidding adieu to RR I had moved to Battalion HQ and was made adjutant. I got the news of the contact with terrorists as also of the injuries. It was only after the safe cas evac that Raj disclosed that three FTs had been killed. Later on asking he grinned and said “sir pahle success Bata dete to bhangda hota, cas evac se focus uth jata…”

    …. by the way I am Jassi ..he’s referred to in the SBP Operation.

  6. It is always interesting to read or listen to operations conducted by Raj. I have had the privilege of serving with him in the same battalion. This operation in particular brings out the importance of intelligence based operations, combat fatigue, tactical acumen and self confidence in an officer. For some of the readers not familiar with these operations, I just want to say that it is an extremely difficult operation, even for the Commandos. In CI, one does not know, as to how many enemy are present, where and hence, numbers are required to cover multiple directions. One has to be careful in employing small teams. More over, troops can not fire unless they establish the terrorist identity positively owing to legal repercussions. These uncertainties make it very much possible for small teams to take huge casualties.
    Most important takeaway from this operation would be the skill that an infantry officer has to develop in reading the psyche of the people, body language, and the improvisations in conducting operations like the cordon and search, like letting the women and children to wait outside their house etc. We don’t lay enough emphasis in these skills.
    A very well written, operation. It is worth being included in schools of instruction for young, mid level and senior officers to draw appropriate lessons. It is a very educative and gripping write-up as usual from Raj as usual.

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