Experts who spoke to The Hindu said the Punjab Hotel operation was characterised by three features often lacking in Mumbai: leadership, experience and innovation.

Last week, Union Home Minister had generous words of praise for the police in Jammu and Kashmir.

In the wake of the killing of two terrorists who had occupied the Punjab Hotel in downtown Srinagar, P. Chidambaram applauded the Jammu and Kashmir Police (JKP) and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) for a “brilliant operation, executed with great skill and patience.”

Mr. Chidambaram’s praise has been seen as a long overdue acknowledgment of the successes of the JKP and the CRPF -- but raises questions about the ongoing police modernisation programmes in several States.

In the wake of November’s Lashkar-e-Taiba assault on Mumbai, police forces have begun raising special weapons and tactics units. For the most part, the units are being trained by officers with military backgrounds or foreign corporations. Not a single force in India, though, has deputed personnel to learn from success in Jammu and Kashmir -- or requested the services of instructors from the State.

Getting it right

Like the five fidayeen units which participated in the attack on Mumbai, the Punjab Hotel team was made up of just two men. Having seized a building in a built-up urban area, the attackers were guided by handlers in Pakistan who used five cell phones -- two of them previously known to have been used to communicate with Lashkar field units in Jammu and Kashmir.

How is it that the Jammu and Kashmir Police succeeded in an environment where the Mumbai Police, military commandos, and the crack NSG struggled?

Experts who spoke to The Hindu said the Punjab Hotel operation was characterised by three features often lacking in Mumbai: leadership, experience and innovation.

Minutes after the fighting broke out, Inspector-General of Police Farooq Ahmed cut through red tape and reached out to two officers he felt were best qualified to lead the operation.

The Punjab Hotel was technically outside the jurisdiction of Mohammad Irshad, the Superintendent of Police for Srinagar’s southern region. But Mr. Irshad’s past experience as head of the crack counter-Special Operations Group in Srinagar, was drawn.

CRPF’s South Kashmir Deputy Inspector-General of Police Nalin Prabhat also had no official role in Srinagar. Like Mr. Irshad, though, Mr. Prabhat, is a battle-hardened veteran of counter-terrorism operations in Andhra Pradesh. He has served for over five years in Jammu and Kashmir. He brought in men from some of the CRPF’s best fighting units, the Tral-based 180 and 185 Battalions.

Improvisation played a key role in the success of the operation. As commandos began occupying the upper stories of the hotel, the terrorists opened fire through the wooden floor. Bullet-proof sheets were then unscrewed from CRPF patrol vehicles parked on the street and placed on the floor.

For the JKP, the Punjab Hotel operation was just one in a long series of largely successful urban operations.

In 2001, the Jaish-e-Mohammad staged another spectacular fidayeen attack at the Jammu and Kashmir Legislative Assembly -- a dry run, many experts believe, for the storming of Parliament House in New Delhi later that year. Thirty-nine people died when the Jaish set off a car-bomb outside the Legislative Assembly, and used the ensuing chaos to storm the building.

Despite the initial chaos, though, the JKP succeeded in rescuing the politicians inside the Assembly complex unhurt -- and in eliminating the terrorists.

Later attacks were also contained with minimal civilian casualties. In March, 2004, two Lashkar fidayeen attacked the offices of the Press Information Bureau and the Jammu and Kashmir Directorate of Information in Srinagar.

In April 2005, the Lashkar staged an attack on the Tourist Reception Centre in Srinagar, just a day before the facility was to see the first journey of the Srinagar-Muzaffarabad bus service. Just weeks later, in June, two fidayeen attacked the Dashnami Akhara Building. That November, four Lashkar fidayeen hit the Palladium Cinema complex, occupied by CRPF personnel.

Srinagar saw its last significant fidayeen-initiated siege in October, 2006, when terrorists targeted the New Standard Hotel in the city’s commercial hub. All three terrorists involved in the attack were shot dead in an overnight operation that began after the police evacuated all hostages.

None of these operations saw significant collateral casualties.

Military model

By contrast, military-led counter-fidayeen operations, whose tactical foundations and training methods are being emulated by police forces nationwide, have for a variety of reasons had a poor record.

In December, 1999, terrorists occupied the offices of the Special Operations Group in Srinagar. Worried commanders overrode their subordinates, and called in military special forces for assistance. The Army did indeed succeed in killing the terrorists -- but their use of heavy weapons and explosives also killed six police personnel.

Later, in 2002, the Lashkar staged a dramatic fidayeen attack on the Akshardham temple in Gandhinagar, killing at least 29 people -- the organisation’s first major attack outside Jammu and Kashmir. The National Security Guard was called in but arrived late because of a traffic jam in New Delhi. Fifty hostages were rescued -- but 29 people died, most before the force arrived.

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