Poonch Ambush Fallout – Rebooting India’s Security Apparatus After Shocking Losses

Wake-up call: Army veteran exposes systemic flaws after deadly attacks.

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Col NN Bhatia (Retd)
Col NN Bhatia (Retd)
Col NN Bhatia (Retd), besides being a combat military veteran is perhaps the only freelance consultant in Industrial Security. He has audited large numbers of core strategic industries in both private and public sectors such as Aeronautics, Airports, Banks, Defence, DRDOs, Mints, Nuclear Energy, Oil, Power, Ports, Prasar Bharti (AIR & Doordarshan Kendras) Railways, Refineries, Space, Ship Building, Telecom & various vital Research Centres & Laboratories and conducted numerous Industrial Security & Disaster Management Training Programs, Seminars, Workshops & Exhibitions & interacted with numerous Ministries, Departments & NGOs and undertaken Industrial Security Audits, Reviews, Training & Advice in Disaster Management & handling of IEDs & Explosives. He has vast experience in the management of the Human Resources, Training & Development, Liaison, Fire Fighting, Logistics, Equipment & Material Management, Strategic Decision-Making Process, clearance of Maps & Aerial Photography (GIS), Explosives handling, Industrial Security & Disaster Management. He is physically, mentally and attitudinally sound having good communication skills to undertake Industrial Security Consultancy, IED handling, Coordination & Liaison Assignments to add to the productivity of the Organisation. He can also organise discreet customised intelligence gathering & surveillance operations on a turnkey basis for his clients. He is a prolific writer written numerous articles on industrial security, national and geostrategic security issues and 5 books- KUMAONI Nostalgia, Industrial and Infrastructure Security in 2 volumes, Soldier Mountaineer (biography of international mountaineer Col Narender Kumar 'Bull' and Reminiscing Battle of Rezang La. *Views are personal.

Two Black Days-Thursday 21 December & Friday 22 December 2023

On 21 December 23, two Army vehicles were ambushed by Pakistan-sponsored terrorists, killing 4 Indian Army soldiers and injuring three others in the Poonch district on the Indian side of J&K (Jammu and Kashmir). As per media reports, three civilians out of the eight picked up by the Army for interrogation were found dead the very next day. While the Indian Army has ordered a Court of Inquiry (COI) to investigate the matter, amidst much of the local population’s uproar against the alleged torture and custodial deaths, assuring full support and cooperation in the conduct of the investigations, it is believed that four senior military officers were removed from their command following the demands by the pro-India locals and political parties to ensure a fair investigation into the matter. In a separate incident, militants on 24 December 2023 killed the former SSP, Mohammad Shafi, in Baramulla in the valley while offering morning prayers at a local mosque. As reported in media, about 100 Iranians were killed and scores wounded in twin terrorist blasts in Iran during the commemoration ceremony of Commander Qassem Soleimani killed in 2020 in a US drone attack. Such seismic terrorist attacks are quite common in this volatile world. At least 75 constables, including an assistant and deputy commandant, were killed in the deadly Maoist ambush decamping with as many weapons and a large amount of ammunition and equipment of the 62 Battalion CRPF on the morning of 6 April 2010 in the Mukrana forest in the Dantewada district of Chhattisgarh. Incidentally, this attack came two days after Maoists had triggered a landmine blast, killing ten security personnel and injuring several others in Orissa’s Koraput district. On 15 February 2010, 24 constables of the Eastern Frontier Rifles were killed in a Maoist attack on their camp in West Bengal’s Midnapore district. In earlier major attacks, Maoists killed 16 policemen in the jungles of Gadchiroli in Maharashtra in June 2009, while 38 Greyhound Commandos of the Andhra Pradesh police lost their lives in a reservoir in June 2008 in Orissa, but 6 April 2010 was the worst attack since the Maoist rebellion erupted 55 years ago. Killing the security forces (SF) personnel in such dastardly terrorist actions deplete trained manpower. It is demoralising; losing innocent civilians is equally worse, diluting civil-military relations, violating human rights and falling into our enemy Pakistan’s well-orchestrated proxy war plans. All such debacles occur due to complacency of SFs, lack of actionable intelligence and ignoring the basic battle craft of fire and moving or one leg on the ground, besides numerous issues discussed in the succeeding paragraphs.

 Such incidents cannot be taken as isolated unfortunate ones. For some time, Poonch, Rajouri and Jammu have been in the news for the wrong reasons, more often, as the Pak-supported militancy and the terrorist activities in the valley have shifted south of Pir Panjal ranges for various obvious and less obvious civil-military reasons. The Indian Army’s relentless offensive operations against the terrorists in the valley, larger deployment, optimisation of collection of real time actionable intelligence, effective civic actions and psychological warfare popularly called ‘psywar themes’ led to winning hearts and minds of the local population, so very essential in weaning away terrorists from the local population and their support to terrorists forcing them and other anti-national elements (ANEs) to shift their activities in the softer areas of Poonch, Rajouri and Jammu where troops deployment density of the Indian Army has diluted as some Rashtriya Rifles units may have been shifted elsewhere, complacency and the neglect of the Gujjar Muslim population, so well suited to Pakistani supported terrorists operations in difficult mountainous jungle terrain, more advantageous to well hidden and camouflaged small bands of terrorists operating from hill tops dominating fewer and limited roads and tracks on which larger conventional military vehicles and troops moving are the ideal vulnerable targets for opportunity ambushes while the smaller lesser protected static and logistical military support units like supply depots, workshops, military police posts are vulnerable to raids, weapons and ammunition snatchings and kidnapping military personnel and their families. Such sporadic violent actions of terrorists would ensure the exodus of Hindus from these border towns of the Jammu region and the shift of troops from the valley to the south of Pir Panjal per se terrorists’ overall plans. As per news reports, the People’s Anti-Fascist Front (PAFF), linked to Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM), has claimed responsibility for the Poonch ambush on soldiers as the terrorists shared pictures from the attack site on social media.

Re-grouping of the Border villages

One of the major reasons for eradicating insurgency from Mizoram was shifting and re-grouping all villages close to the Burma and East Pakistan border 10-15 km away from the border so that insurgents infiltrating during the night would be day-lighted. No isolated huts were permitted in ‘jhooms’ (fields) that provided hiding places for terrorists to rest and recoup. The re-grouped villages had strong SF deployment, boundary fences with sharp punji and regulated access control, so essential for the locals’ security, safety and civic actions and operational and logistic needs of SFs, reinforcements and evacuation of serious casualties by helicopters from these posts. These SF posts also helped run local primary schools, and civil-military relations were part of the appropriate psywar themes that weaned away insurgents whose survival without local support was impossible. With respect for local customs, religion, and women and knowing local dialects, SF personnel tremendously helped contain insurgency in Mizoram and develop faster with 100% literacy in the Northeastern region, with lots of credit going to the SFs deployed in relentless CI operations. 

Inadequacy in Jungle Warfare & Counter Insurgency Training

The Government of India sources had confirmed that the 62 Bn CRPF deployed in Chhattisgarh in March 2009 to assist the state government in fighting Maoists had missed the specialised jungle warfare training. While fighting insurgents in thick jungle terrain, where the insurgents would always cover limited roads and track networks, security forces, as an operational necessity and maintenance of surprise, will have to move cross country. The noise of the anti-tank vehicle on the only dirt road used by the CRPF column gave away the surprise, and the Maoists so effectively used its position and direction of movement to ambush them. The roads and tracks can only be used once security forces have sanitised the area and tactically occupied and secured surrounding heights, which is a tiresome, time-consuming job that is sadly not done in the instant case. In the Poonch ambush, well-camouflaged terrorists hiding in thick forested hilltop could easily spot military vehicles from a distance and target them, killing four soldiers. For conventional SFs, for faster movement of men and materials, vehicular movement on a single road is highly vulnerable to small bands of terrorists’ hit-and-run and meltaway tactics. Day and night cross-country movement in stealth is painfully slow as troops need exceptional navigational abilities along with the highest standards of physical and mental toughness to operate self-contained over a period with field rations, water, arms and ammunition and close-quarter battle (CQB) shooting abilities to kill insurgents in any encounter. Both offensive and defensive battle drills and procedures, field craft, signals communication and drills in CI operations must be perfected to become part of soldier’s second nature. Battle space awareness, i.e. knowing the terrain, opponent’s forces and equipment, and own strength and weaknesses, creates abilities to pre-empt, prevent and prevail over impending threats. While most infantry battalions are well trained in counterinsurgency operations, the other arms and services, isolated small units, CAPF personnel, or vehicles plying without proper road opening drills are most vulnerable to terror attacks.

Reorganisation of the PMFs and Police

Unlike the Army, which is organised in combat arms and services maintaining optimised teeth-to-tail ratio, PMFs are simply organised, trained and equipped for maintenance of law and order problems where adversaries are mostly unarmed and untrained. Such an establishment cannot cohesively operate in a counterinsurgency environment. Therefore, police reforms should address this problem in each Para Military Force earmarked for counterinsurgency operations. Some of the major lacunae in CAPF have been highlighted in the article ‘Don’t neglect the force’ by Prakash Singh, former DG BSF, in the Indian Express, dated 4 January 2024.


In the armed forces, soldiers are enrolled for a particular regiment or service and remain in it till superannuation. Similarly, officers are commissioned into a regiment /service till superannuation. Contrarily, in the PMFs, while constables, junior leaders and some cadre officers recruited directly may be part of the same establishment, the bulk of senior officers are posted from the Indian Police Service from various state cadres. There are instances when DIG /IG/DG level officers who have never served, say, in the CRPF /BSF and have combat experience in counterinsurgency operations are posted there. Meanwhile, due to long tenures in 24×7 on-duty syndrome routine and complacency leads to such mishaps. One Brigadier and three officers of the 13 Rashtriya Rifles Battalion were relieved from command of their units following 21 December 2023, which left four soldiers killed and three custodial deaths of the civilians. Pakistan keeps changing its tactics. Jammu region was inactive for quite some time due to terror attacks that terrorists have activated now. The Army Chief Gen Manoj Pande, visiting the operational area to review operational preparedness, rightly exhorted officers to conduct operations more professionally.

Logistics & Infrastructural Support

While the terrorists live off the land and get local villagers to support them, the armed forces are self-contained, having their supply depots, ordnance depots and factories, signal and communication centres, transport, field and base workshops, firing ranges, transit camps, various training institutes and hospitals and have big teeth to tail ratio while the CAPF lack such support and depend mostly on outsourcing these services. Lots of combat power is used to protect these and maintain communication lines. A balance needs to be drawn to operate in a CI environment.

I happened to attend the Regimental Reunion at our Regimental Centre and Diamond Jubilee in my Paltan recently located in Damana (Jammu), where all big functions like Officers Mess, JCOs Mess and Barakhanas are outsourced to caterers whose unverified fleet of vehicles and their drivers, helpers, scores of cooks and waiters have free access in unit lines that could be catastrophic. Previously, all resources like crockery, cooks and waiters were pooled from the other units for such events.


The Austrian author Karl Kraus stated that corruption was worse than prostitution as the latter might endanger the morals of the individuals, but the former endangered the morals of the entire nation. It is sad but true that corruption has become a way of life in our democratic set-up. This cancer is widespread among police, bureaucracy, and businesses. The dishonesty of one bureaucrat in the MHA responsible for the purchase of bulletproof jackets for the police and PMFs was perhaps responsible for the killing of CRPF personnel in Dantewada. Besides the shortages of life-saving bulletproof jackets with the CRPF personnel involved in the Dantewada ambush, this bureaucrat in police custody, for money, was responsible for ordering substandard life-saving jackets. It was shocking to read the Times of India dated 1 May 2010, revealing front page bold news regarding the police-CRPF nexus selling arms and ammunition to Maoists. If true, even God cannot save us from our malice.

Management of Violence

Managing violence in an insurgency scenario is complex, time-consuming, and strenuous for SFs as it differs from comparatively easier law and order problems. The terrorists, being sons of the soil, easily mingle with the local tribal population, and any collateral damage or loss of innocent lives attracts the adverse attention of human rights groups and the media. All this needs specialised training, perseverance, and the ability to operate in small groups with deceit and communication skills of very high orders.

Lack of Intelligence & its Sharing

It appears that the CRPF in Dantewada and the Army in Poonch were just doing routine patrolling instead of deliberately planning the operation. Maintenance of law and order is basically a state police subject, but the terrorists have no such boundaries to respect. Besides the police forces of various states, CAPF and the armed forces need to collect, collate and disseminate actionable real-time intelligence on a priority and need basis, which perhaps is utterly lacking. The Subramanian Committee highlighted this aspect after the Kargil War, as did the Henderson Brooke Committee after the 1962 Sino-Indian debacle. However, after initial euphoria, nothing tangible was achieved till we faced another disaster to react again as in the past. The National Intelligence Agency, the Intelligence Bureau, the Research & Analysis Wing, and other central and state intelligence agencies must be trained, equipped, and coordinated for this important but neglected aspect to avoid being reactive. Besides traditional human intelligence, radio/signal/CCTV intelligence, field surveillance radars, technological intelligence, drones, cyber security, electronic devices, artificial intelligence (AI), satellite intelligence, etc., must be optimised for integration and dove-tailing. Our adversaries are most effectively misusing drones and cybercrimes for real-time intelligence, dropping arms, ammunition, drugs, fake Indian currency notes (FICN) and directions/orders, thus vitiating our security environment.

Resolve Local and Regional Issues

The problems of the local farmers, Dalits, Gujjars, Hindus, Pandits and other minorities or tribals anywhere in India cannot be resolved by the use of force alone. The centuries-old politico, socio-economic exploitation by the ‘haves’ of the ‘have nots’ in our country is not merely ‘law and order’ police problems but complex issues needing sympathetic, logical and integrated both short and long-term remedial approach by the governments in the centre and respective states, police and SFs, financial and educational institutes, psychologists, media, NGOs, social scientists and others holding stakes in the national security.

VIP Security Syndrome

Too little policing effort is spent on the common man and maintenance of law and order, while the VIPs with red and blue lights fitted on their cars and sentries in their residences are in four tiers: Z+ (highest level), Z, Y and X categories and Special Protection Group provides security more for false status maintenance than actual need as under:-

The Z+ category involves security cover with 36 personnel,

The Z category involves a security cover with 22 personnel,

The y category involves a security cover with 11 personnel,

The X category involves security cover with 2 personnel.

Because of the deployment of the police in protecting VVIPs /VIPs, at night, when common citizens feel insecure, the country’s roads are thin of police cover. That is the reason for increasing lawlessness resulting in increasing thefts, robberies, kidnappings, over-speeding traffic accidents and crimes against helpless senior citizens, children and women moving about alone, making Delhi shamefully the rape capital in Asia. In the smaller towns and remote highways, matters must be worse. VVIP’s security versus the common man’s security needs to be streamlined and rationalised as per threat perception, not as a matter of pomp and show. Observing that an indiscriminate exercise in providing security to VIPs resulted in an abuse of power, the Supreme Court has directed the Centre and all States and Union Territories to furnish details of expenses they incurred under this head.

Human Rights Violation

Alleged deaths of 3 locals after the killing of 4 army jawans in a terrorist ambush have led to widespread protests against the SFs and the repeal of the Armed Forces Special Power Act (AFSPA) enacted in 1958 by the Central Government authorising SFs to shoot any suspected individual without formal orders from any superior civilian authority in good faith. Human rights activists are opposed to AFSPA, and they frequently exaggerate the excess of the SF. However, they must convince the insurgents to avoid violence and join the mainstream. Once there is normalcy and peace returns in a geographical area, the AFSPA is completely withdrawn, as was done in Meghalaya in 2018, Tripura in 2015 and Mizoram in 1980, but its partial withdrawal from Manipur suffering from ethnic violence has been counterproductive. Time and again, there are media reports on human rights violations by the SFs, and human rights activists and lawyers have been relentlessly advocating the removal of the AFSPA, which has more perceptual problems than legal ones.


Our SFs need drastic reforms in organisational, administrative, intelligence collection and sharing, and conducting operations in the CI environment, which are beyond the preview of this article. A commission of eminent serving and former military and police officers, administrators, human resource development and legal experts, criminologists, forensic experts, trainers, and media managers with experience in CI operations need to associate with the Bureau of Police Research and Development (BPRD) and entrusted with this enormous task in time bound manner. Last but not least, the media, civilians, policemen and bureaucrats may please note that the army soldiers are referred to as Jawans. Ones in police, PMFs and constabulary should always be addressed as Constables. It won’t be out of place to mention that CAPF should not wear military badges of ranks or camouflaged uniforms to maintain distinct characteristics and identity between both forces.


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