On the onset, I sheepishly admit, on getting the book ‘From HEEMAL to HILTON’ written by my very dear friend John Shilshi, I was a bit confused, as having served four tenures in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), starting in 1963 on commissioning in Darbuk (Ladakh), where 13 Kumaon, my Battalion after the famous 1962 Rezang La Battle was located, twice in Tut-Mari -Gali, a high altitude pass along the Line of Control in Naogam, Baramullah Sector where my Battalion was deployed and Ram Ban, I was not familiar with two words Heemal and Hilton! Being in the army, initially, one travelled in military convoys from one transit camp to another and later, as one grew in service, flew from Leh, Srinagar and Jammu airports missing visiting cities around. But Google searches and reading the Preface and subsequent chapters of the book cleared my ignorance of these two prestigious hotels in Srinagar where single officials of the state government and those on deputation were accommodated with centralised security arrangements as counter-terrorism measures.
I had the unique privilege to befriend John Shilshi, a hardcore Naga police officer from Manipur who was born, brought up and successfully served in counter-insurgency/low-intensity conflict operations (LICO) environment with distinction. After his long stint of combating insurgency in Manipur in 2000, he joined the Intelligence Bureau (IB) in the Industrial Security Branch, where I was serving after my superannuation from the army in September 1995. We instantly became friends as John was smart, handsome, respectful, professionally very good, a soft-spoken officer with experience in combating insurgency in Manipur. At the same time, I also served two tenures of 4 years each in insurgency prone Mizoram and Nagaland and varied stints in J&K and Punjab. Soon after, he volunteered for a challenging assignment as the Regional Pass Port Officer (RPO), Srinagar, but we kept in touch.
The book ‘From Heemal to Hilton’ interspersed in 14 chapters with a foreword, preface, appendices and epilogue, is his lucid, simple and absorbing Readers’ Digest style description of his stint and trials and tribulations as the ‘RPO’; the challenging assignment in the high insurgency environment prevailing in J&K!
In the first two chapters, the author describes his willingness to go to Srinagar under the grip of militancy as the RPO. He was to replace a local officer from the Kashmir Administrative Service (KAS) who had many contacts in administration, bureaucracy, police, and locals in his long six-year tenure. No officer was willing to undertake the assignment due to disturbed conditions in the Kashmir valley. Also, the locals were engulfed with fear psychosis of Pakistan sponsored terrorism and somewhat inclined towards Pakistan. The RPO office at Neelam Chowk was burnt earlier in 1990 by the militants. It was re-established at Bakshi Stadium in 1997, causing great inconvenience to locals in acquiring passports initially from Delhi and later from Jammu offices. The RPO was computerised was not fully utilised, functioning typically like Government of India (GOI) offices lacking discipline, efficiency and decorum with no time frame in issuing passports. The author also describes his initial loneliness and how he overcame his boredom and kept self-synergised.
In Chapter 3 author describes his eagerness to learn his new role as the RPO in the disturbed area, existing passport issuance system, understanding ‘The Passport Manual’, computerisation and holding staff meetings to improve their inter-personal behaviour and relationship. He set out to improve accountability, efficiency and work culture and weeding out the old dead wood from the passport office. John Shilshi, on many occasions, personally resolved problems faced by the passport applicants. These genuine visible efforts brought about efficiency and appreciation from the general public seeking passports who earlier perceived the passport office as inefficient, slow, manipulating and corrupt.
The following Chapter author highlights that if proper CID/police verification and transparency are not observed, there is every likelihood of a militant/anti-national element (ANE) getting a passport. It causes avoidable security hazards, embarrassment and tarnishing the image of the RPO and local police/CID in sensitive militancy prone states like J&K.
While in Chapter 5, John describes how painstakingly he organised the successful visit of the Parliamentary Standing Committee of the External Affairs and his tactfully handling of the over security fussy MP member of the Committee who was highly suspicious of the local police being hand-in-gloves with the militants. The team was briefed on the functioning of the RPO and streamlining delays caused in police/CID verifications in issuing the passports in time. The Committee visited Pahalgam, Leh and Khardung La, the highest motorable pass in the world famously known as the gateway to the Nubra and Shyok Valleys in the Ladakh region.
In the next chapter, the author laments the predicaments that while the poor and marginal citizens find difficulties in getting passports, the hardcore Hurriyat and the separatist leaders glorifying Pakistan get security protection and passports as the VIPs. He also describes instances of his help in arranging Tatkal passports in some emergent cases.
In Chapters 7 to 10, one reads John’s nightmare on 15 Jan 2005. That very morning he was happy to get his posting orders back to Delhi, but unfortunately, in the same evening, two militants trying to sneak and attack neighbouring CRPF Camp in the Bakshi Stadium were spotted. In the shoot-out, 3 CRPF constables were injured. Both terrorists ran and entered the RPO complex surrounded by the combined operations by the SOG, BSF and CRPF, sealing all possible escape routes and waiting for darkness for the punitive action. In the darkness, there were a series of explosions possibly caused in the crossfire due to some of the 14 LPG gas cylinder(s) stored for heating being hit by the bullet(s). It was the second incident of the decimation of the RPO. It caused a lot of pain and mental trauma to the author and his staff besides inconveniences to passport applicants as all records were reduced to ashes. It is to the credit of John Shilshi that rather than reverting to Delhi or being intimidated, his efforts and dedicated staff and support of the local administration, police, and MEA helped establish the makeshift RPO functional by retrieving backup data from the NIC System Administrator in record time.
Subsequently, the new RPO was located in the suitable erstwhile building of the Brown Palace Hotel and made operational in record three months’ time by sheer hard work of John, his team, the MEA and the local support and inaugurated by the then Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad on 19 May 2005 and Shilshi handing over charge to his successor left for Delhi on the next day.
For Shilshi, it was a historic occasion to be appointed as the Nodal Officer. He dwells on the nitty-gritty on the resumption of the bus service between Srinagar and Muzaffarabad along with Kaman and Chakothi posts on the Indian and Pakistani Occupied Kashmir (POK) sides respectively, and not Pakistani side as written by the author as both Chakothi and Muzaffarabad is located in the illegally occupied POK. He also describes the importance of the Kaman Post and the connecting bridge between India and POK over Khalian Da Khas Nalla, named as ‘Kaman Setu’, on the name of one of the bravest sons of India, Lt Col Kaman Singh, MVC.
After selecting the new standalone property on Boulevard Road, Shilshi was motivated and synergised to establish the new RPO in a record three months with the fast release of funds, purchase of LAN server and terminals, supply of hardware items and retrieving backup data from the NIC System Administrator in Delhi. The local police /administration and the MEA helped significantly, and the new RPO was inaugurated by the then Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Syed.
I want to dwell in detail on Chapter 11, where Shilshi has highlighted some instances of ‘Force Arrogance’ of the security forces (SFs) operating in Kashmir. The author, though he has first-hand experience of combating insurgency/militancy in his home state Manipur, surely is well aware that once state police/CPOs are unable to contain the insurgency, the Indian Army (IA) has to be called upon from time to time to fight the menace of insurgency at the cost of its primary task of defending the country from the external threats. Prolonged deployments in internal security duties affect soldiers and constabulary, causing at times aberrations in their behaviour as spelt out in a well laid ‘code of conduct while operating amid urban and rural insurgencies. The IA and CPOs must realise that they are not fighting an enemy but our misguided populace, and their code of conduct while operating against their population has to be above board with firm but fair actions to build confidence amongst the local people and neutralise the nefarious designs of the terrorists by way of extortions, intimidation, kidnappings, killings etc. with the cooperation of local administration, police and the general populace. The SFs must ensure that while all tactical manoeuvres like patrolling, ambush, cordon and search, raids, roadblocks/openings, and convoy protection and enforcement of curfews do not hurt the psyche of the people, avoid harassment and humiliation to population, use minimum force, respect local customs, women and religious sentiments, avoiding false encounters, reprisals and temptations of 3Ws (wine, woman and wealth) with zero error syndrome. The overall commander must use media interface to propagate well laid civic action programmes as part of the overall psychological warfare (psywar) themes to win the hearts and minds of the people, weaning them away from insurgents as no insurgency can survive without local’s support.
In the following three chapters, the author describes his trip to Kargil that gave him the insight to understand problems faced by the people living in the remote areas and bomb blasts carried by the terrorists in a famous school and unfortunate damage and deaths and its emotional impact. The final 14th chapter has some snippets. The following 20 pages have appendices, while a short epilogue sums up his entire experiences of living, operating and working in different insurgency environments.
I must compliment John Shilshi as someone has said,’ Great things are done by a series of small things brought together. If you cannot do great things, do small things in a great way. Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies. While it may seem small, the ripple effects of small things are extraordinary. HIS REMARKABLE ACHIEVEMENTS WERE recreating RPO from the ashes or being a nodal officer of Srinagar -Muzaffarabad Bus Service. In the end, let me focus on a few soft spots- we need to be discreet in the use of POK versus Pakistan while there are a few grammatical errors, appropriate usage abbreviations and sequencing of the chapters. Overall, I strongly recommend the book must be read by all those civilian and security forces personnel interested and involved in combating counter-insurgency operations.