FIRST STIRRINGS LT GEN SHANKAR PRASAD

From lead­ing the oper­a­tion to cap­ture Hathi Mata post in 1971 war to ne­go­ti­at­ing over a month for the re­lease of hostages dur­ing the siege of the Hazrat­bal shrine in the 90s, Lt Gen Shankar Prasad has led a dis­tin­guished life

Gfiles - - FRONT PAGE - As told to Vivek Mukherji

Iwas the first one in the fam­ily to join the In­dian Army. Both my fa­ther and grand­fa­ther were in the Civil Ser­vices and served in what was then known as the United Pro­vin­cial cadre. I was a stu­dent at the Mod­ern School, Barakhamba Road, where I stud­ied for 10 years from 1948-58. We had a great Prin­ci­pal, MN Ka­pur, who in early 1958 called me to his of­fice one morn­ing af­ter the as­sem­bly and said,, “Why don’t you ap­ply for the Na­tional De­fence Acad­emy (NDA) to join the mil­i­tary.” I was taken by sur­prise, but there was no way one could have said any­thing other than re­ply in the af­fir­ma­tive. He was such a tow­er­ing fig­ure for us and we all looked up to him. He met my mother and con­vinced her to let me join the army. Af­ter that, the school worked on me, my mother worked on me and my fa­ther mo­ti­vated me. I joined the NDA in 1958 and was com­mis­sioned in the In­dian Army in ’62 in the 5/3 Gorkha Ri­fles soon af­ter the Sino-In­dia war. As it turned out, my first post­ing, which was in NEFA, (now called Arunachal Pradesh) was one of the ear­li­est defin­ing mo­ments in my fledg­ling ca­reer. It gave me the op­por­tu­nity to go through the tac­tics and de­sign of the Chi­nese Army. This re­sulted in a long march from Tezpur to Bomdila, then to Sela Pass and on to Tawang. Now, that gave a very good start to my in­fantry ca­reer and, that too with the Gorkhas, one of the tough­est fight­ing units of the In­dian Army. The next defin­ing mo­ment in my ca­reer came in the ’71 war when I was a Ma­jor, bat­tal­ion sec­ond in com­mand of 5/3 Gorkha Ri­fles in the Kargil sec­tor. I was as­signed the task to cap­ture cer­tain en­emy posts along the Shingo river. Be­ing a se­nior Ma­jor, I was given the com­mand of two com­pa­nies and was made the Task Force Com­man­der. This oper­a­tion re­mains very mem­o­rable be­cause from De­cem­ber 7-17, 1971, we cap­tured seven Pak­istani posts, in­clud­ing a fea­ture called Hathi Mata. In the words of Lt Gen KP Can­deth, who was then the West­ern Army Com­man­der, the en­tire oper­a­tion in the Ladakh area would have been mean­ing­less if Hathi Mata had not been cap­tured be­cause it over­looked the vi­tal Leh-Sri­na­gar high­way. Since, I was the Task Force Com­man­der, lead­ing the oper­a­tion; it gave me tremen­dous con­fi­dence of lead­ing troops in bat­tle. There are a cou­ple of in­ci­dents from this oper­a­tion that has stayed with me. The first one was on De­cem­ber 12 dur­ing our at­tack, on the third Pak­istani post, parts of which was along­side the Shingo river, al­though the ac­tual post was on higher ground. There was a beau­ti­ful mosque in­side that post. We cap­tured the post, but the en­emy was shelling us quite heav­ily from all sides and we need a cover to pro­tect the troops. I felt that the mosque was the safest place to take cover. So, my men, as many as we could, took refuge in­side the mosque. But for hours the en­emy kept shelling the en­tire area, ex­cept the mosque.

It was around, 9 or maybe 10 pm, when I sud­denly re­alised that the fire was get­ting closer to the mosque. It was on pure in­stinct that I asked my troops to get out of the mosque. No sooner I gave the com­mand, the mosque was hit and was re­duced to rub­ble in a mat­ter of sec­onds, but my men were safe. It made me re­alise that one should heed to one’s in­ner voice even in the heat of the bat­tle. The sec­ond in­ci­dent oc­curred just be­fore the fi­nal push for Hathi Mata at ap­prox­i­mately 18,000 feet. We marched through the night and the troops were in po­si­tion for the fi­nal as­sault at around 4 am. They were ex­hausted, but I wanted to at­tack the en­emy post be­fore sun­light, be­cause they were at an ad­van­tage be­ing on top and could have wreaked havoc. Some of my troops voiced that it’s fool­ish to at­tack the post with ex­hausted troops. My re­sponse to them was: “I haven’t marched the whole night to be sit­ting here now. We are go­ing, come what may. Whether it’s fool­ish or not fool­ish, I am go­ing.” I

A defin­ing mo­ment in my ca­reer came in the ’71 war when I was a Ma­jor, bat­tal­ion sec­ond in com­mand of 5/3 Gorkha Ri­fles in the Kargil sec­tor. I was as­signed the task to cap­ture cer­tain en­emy posts along the Shingo river

started march­ing and the rest of them fol­lowed. We suc­cess­fully cap­tured the most im­por­tant post in the Kargil sec­tor. It was a very im­por­tant les­son in my life be­cause it taught the value of lead­er­ship and courage. Many years later, af­ter my re­tire- ment, in the movie Lak­shya, fea­tur­ing Amitabh Bachchan and Hrithik Roshan, di­rected by Farhan Akhtar and scripted by Javed Akhtar, most of the bat­tle scenes in the movie, in­clud­ing the cap­tur­ing of Hathi Mata, de­pict my life’s story in great de­tail. I was the con­sul­tant for the movie and even es­sayed a cameo in the film.

SUB­SE­QUENTLY, I was pro­moted to the rank of Lieu­tenant Colonel to com­mand a unit, when a very un­usual thing hap­pened. Usu­ally, an of­fi­cer who is com­mis­sioned into a reg­i­ment, which in my case was the 5/3 Gorkha Ri­fles, stays on un­til he com­mands that bat­tal­ion be­fore mov­ing on. Af­ter spend­ing 17 years with the Gorkhas where I was ex­pected to be­come its Com­mand­ing Of­fi­cer, the Army HQ de­cided to trans­fer me to Pun­jab Reg­i­ment to com­mand 3 Pun­jab, lo­cated on the LOC. That is a very big change in any in­fantry of­fi­cer’s ca­reer—from Gorkha troops to a

reg­i­ment com­pris­ing Sikhs and Do­gras. How­ever, this tran­si­tion helped me to un­der­stand the aca­demic side of mil­i­tary sci­ence and the art of mil­i­tary war­fare in vary­ing cir­cum­stances. It helped me to learn how to ap­ply the var­i­ous the­o­ries that one learns in the ju­nior com­mand course or higher com­mand course and even­tu­ally the staff col­lege in a prac­ti­cal en­vi­ron­ment.

IN 1986, I was posted on dep­u­ta­tion to the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Guards (NSG) as the Deputy In­spec­tor Gen­eral, Op­er­a­tions and Train­ing. At that time the NSG was still be­ing raised and evolv­ing it­self into an elite counter-ter­ror­ism force. Once again, I was in­volved with two very in­ter­est­ing de­vel­op­ments that left a last­ing im­pact. The first was Oper­a­tion Black Thun­der af­ter Sikh mil­i­tants had taken con­trol of the Golden Tem­ple the sec­ond time in 1988. It was one of the ear­li­est op­er­a­tions in which the NSG was en­gaged. I wrote the en­tire oper­a­tion by hand in com­plete se­crecy. Only a few peo­ple in the NSG and the then Prime Min­is­ter, Ra­jiv Gandhi, knew about it. The crit­i­cal as­pect of this oper­a­tion was lay­ing a siege around the Golden Tem­ple. While the oper­a­tion was still in progress, po­lit­i­cal pow­ers felt that this siege needed to be lifted to avoid con­tro­versy. How­ever, we al­ready had the PM’s as­sur­ance that he wouldn’t suc­cumb to po­lit­i­cal pres­sure. As a re­sult, the Oper­a­tion Black Thun­der, which was con­ceived and ex­e­cuted from the start to the end by the NSG, was ex­tremely suc­cess­ful as not a sin­gle sol­dier or an in­no­cent per­son died. Only the ter­ror­ists were killed and there was no dam­age to the shrine ei­ther. The sec­ond one was in the mid­dle of Jan­uary 1988.By this time, I was given the ad­di­tional charge of the Na­tional Anti-Hi­jack Force Com­man­der of the NSG. Ear­lier, in Septem­ber 1987, a Frank­furt-bound Pan Am flight was hi­jacked at the Karachi air­port by the ter­ror­ists be­long­ing to the PLO. A lot of hostages were killed in the oper­a­tion to neu­tralise the hi­jack­ers; it was a dis­as­trous oper­a­tion. Against this back­ground, the Prime Min­is­ter or­dered the NSG to carry out a sim­u­lated an­ti­hi­jack­ing ex­er­cise. Con­se­quently, we pre­pared an ex­er­cise, repli­cat­ing a live sit­u­a­tion, called Ex­er­cise Sour Grapes. Once again, this ex­er­cise was com­plete hand­writ­ten by me and apart from the PM, only the DG and IG of the NSG were aware of its ex­is­tence. It was an ac­tual anti-hi­jack­ing ex­er­cise that was con­ducted in In­dia for the first time, if not the world. The pur­pose of main­tain­ing se­crecy was sim­ple: the en­tire se­nior bu­reau­cracy of the Gov­ern­ment of In­dia, in­clud­ing the Cabi­net Sec­re­tary, For­eign Sec­re­tary, Home Sec­re­tary, Min­istry of Ex­ter­nal Af­fairs etc. and the in­tel­li­gence like the IB and R&AW had to be ex­er­cised. When the ex­er­cise com­menced in the morn­ing, sim­u­lat­ing hi­jack­ing of an air­craft that was fly­ing from Delhi to Bom­bay (Mum­bai) via Au­rangabad; it

cre­ated tremen­dous com­mo­tion all around, in­clud­ing the press. With­out go­ing into the oper­a­tional de­tails of the ex­er­cise, when the air­craft was forcibly landed at Au­rangabad, even a “dead body’ was thrown out of the air­craft for good mea­sure. Just that it was a dummy. But it had its ef­fect: there was panic all around. While the ex­er­cise was in progress, I was sit­ting in the Cabi­net Com­mit­tee on Se­cu­rity Op­er­a­tions room in the Cabi­net Sec­re­tariat along with se­nior sec­re­taries of the gov­ern­ment. When the dummy was thrown out the air­craft, they said that this was not an ex­er­cise, but a real hi­jack un­fold­ing. The press was work­ing over­time and ra­dio sta­tions, in­clud­ing the BBC, started broad­cast­ing news of the hi­jack. A day later, the DG NSG re­ceived a call from the PMO, ex­press­ing the de­sire of the PM to meet the per­son who had writ­ten the ex­er­cise. The DG of­fered to meet the PM, but was told that PM wanted to meet the per­son who ac­tu­ally wrote the en­tire ex­er­cise. So, I went to meet the PM, think­ing that I would be court-mar­tialled for con­duct­ing an ex­er­cise that cre­ated so much con­fu­sion. When I was ush­ered into his of­fice, he stood up to shake hands and said, “So, you are the guy who wrote the ex­er­cise.” I could dis­cern that he was not par­tic­u­larly an­noyed when he said that. There af­ter fol­lowed a di­a­logue by him say­ing, “You did a good ex­er­cise, but made a very big mis­take.” The man­ner in which he said it, gave me the con­fi­dence to re­ply, “What mis­take did I make?”His re­ply was, “You should have called a press con­fer­ence.” With­out blink­ing an eye­lid I said, “I am a mil­i­tary man; I do not know how to con­duct a press con­fer­ence.” He re­sponded “You don’t know how to do a press con­fer­ence? But I want you to do a press con- fer­ence.” “Ok, I will do it, if you want it,” I replied. He re­torted, “You just said you don’t know how to con­duct one.” Con­fi­dence build­ing up in me with this on­go­ing di­a­logue, I replied, “I will learn it in the next one hour and have the press con­fer­ence”. “Ok, learn it in one hour and hold a press con­fer­ence at the Oberoi Ho­tel at 3 pm this af­ter­noon,” were his part­ing words. We held the press con­fer­ence, which was at­tended by over 70 jour­nal­ists where I ex­plained the ex­er­cise to the press. I can say with all hu­mil­ity that the ex­er­cise served its pur­pose beau­ti­fully in pre­par­ing us for anti-hi­jack­ing op­er­a­tions. The counter-hi­jack­ing mea­sures un­der­taken dur­ing Ex­er­cise Sour Grapes were writ­ten down as Stan­dard Op­er­at­ing Pro­ce­dures (SOPs) by me to the last de­tail and were approved by the Cabi­net Com­mit­tee on Se­cu­rity. Un­for­tu­nately, these SOPs were lost dur­ing the hi­jack­ing of the IC 184, prob­a­bly gath­er­ing dust in some file in the gov­ern­ment depart­ment. Dur­ing my stint with the NSG, I also un­der­went for­mal train­ing in hostage ne­go­ti­a­tion con­ducted by the Lon­don Met­ro­pol­i­tan Po­lice. Five years later, this train­ing came in handy dur­ing the siege of the Hazrat­bal shrine in Sri­na­gar. Now I was a Ma­jor Gen­eral, com­mand­ing an In­fantry Divi­sion in Ra­jasthan. To my ut­ter sur­prise, I got a call from the Army HQ di­rect­ing me to go to Sri­na­gar to be a part the ne­go­ti­a­tions along with the then Divi­sional Com­mis­sioner, Wa­ja­hat Habibul­lah, who later went on to be­come the Chief In­for­ma­tion Com­mis­sioner of In­dia.

DE­SPITE my protes­ta­tions, I was flown to Sri­na­gar and was given the cover of one Mr Mathur, a jour­nal­ist from Delhi, be­cause the last thing the ter­ror­ists would have wanted was to ne­go­ti­ate with an army of­fi­cer. It was a very long drawn ne­go­ti­a­tion. There were many sto­ries that ap­peared in the press about how the ne­go­tia­tors were go­ing soft, treat­ing the ter­ror­ists as VIPs and feed­ing them biryani, etc. How­ever, in the end, af­ter more than a month of ne­go­ti­a­tions we man­aged to get all the mil­i­tants, in­clud­ing their leader Idris, to sur­ren­der with­out dam­age to the shine or any civil­ian ca­su­al­ties. In 1996, I was pro­moted the rank of Lieu­tenant Gen­eral and com­manded a Corps in the Pun­jab and Ra­jasthan area be­fore be­ing posted as Direc­tor Gen­eral of In­fantry at the HQ in Delhi. It was the time when the Kargil war broke out and the In­fantry was go­ing through mod­erni­sa­tion. Though, I was not di­rectly in­volved with the Kargil war, I ob­served it from close quar­ters and also be­cause it was fought mostly by in­fantry units with sup­port from ar­tillery. I was for­tu­nate to get such var­ied op­por­tu­ni­ties in the In­dian Army that helped me to evolve as a pro­fes­sional sol­dier.

In 1986, I was posted on dep­u­ta­tion to the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Guards (NSG) as the Deputy In­spec­tor Gen­eral, Op­er­a­tions and Train­ing. At that time the NSG was still be­ing raised and evolv­ing it­self into an elite coun­tert­er­ror­ism force

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