The dawn would have illuminated the pools of blood, as the villagers emerged to count their dead. For all of the night of February 24, 2000, residents of the hamlet of Lanjote had bunkered down, hoping not to be hit by artillery fire arcing across the LoC. The 16 bodies on the streets, though, bore evidence of the precision savagery of the knife, not the shell: 90-year-old Mohammad Alam Wali, and a young couple, Mohammad Murtaza and Kali Begum, had been decapitated. Limbs were severed; heads hacked. The youngest victim, Ahmad Niaz, was just two.
With deliberation, it seemed, the killers left behind a watch, Indian-made, and a hand-written note: “how does your own blood feel”.
For years now, Pakistan has claimed the massacre at Lanjote was carried out by Indian special forces. In private, some Indian intelligence officials admit the killings were carried out through pro-India insurgents — as revenge for the near-identical massacres of scores of Hindus by the Lashkar-e-Toiba in J&K’s Doda and Rajouri districts.
Like everything to do with successful covert operations, this story is opaque — and the facts hard to establish. For those who imagine that Tuesday’s strike deep across the border into Myanmar marked a new chapter in India’s military history, though, the Lanjote killings should give reason to pause.
Independent India came to covert warfare late. In 1947, imperial Britain stripped the assets of India’s covert arsenal as it left. The seniormost British Indian police officer in the Intelligence Bureau, Qurban Ali Khan, left for Pakistan with what few sensitive files departing British officials had neglected to destroy. The Intelligence Bureau, Lt Gen L P Singh has recorded, was reduced to a “tragicomic state of helplessness”, possessing nothing but “empty racks and cupboards”.
The Military Intelligence Directorate in Delhi didn’t even have a map of J&K to make sense of the first radio intercepts signalling the beginning of the war of 1947-48.
Faced with a larger and infinitely better-resourced neighbour, Pakistan knew it could not compete in conventional military terms. Khan’s doctrine posited that sub-conventional offensive warfare could provide it defence. From 1947, Pakistan engaged India in what Jawaharlal Nehru would later call “an informal war” — sponsoring terrorist groups in both Kashmir and the Northeast.
Nehru was, in general, content to use conventional military force against this aggression. Indira Gandhi used air power to bomb Mizo insurgents in March 1966, killing dozens of civilians in Aizawl in the process.
India’s covert capabilities grew in the wake of the 1962 war, after which technical assistance from the US and trainers from the UK became available. Helped by the US, the newly-founded RAW developed the capacities for deep-penetration espionage meant to target China. It used its new tools to target Pakistan in 1971.
Establishment 22, operating under the command of Maj Gen Surjit Singh Uban, carried out a secret war in what is now Bangladesh — using Tibetan troops trained by the CIA to fight the US-equipped Pakistani forces. Later, Establishment 22 personnel aided Sikkim’s accession to India, trained Tamil terrorists, and armed rebels operating against the pro-China regime in Myanmar.
For India, the experience was transformative. From the early 1980s, Khalistan terrorists began receiving weapons and arms from the ISI. Rajiv Gandhi ordered retaliation. RAW set up two covert groups, known as Counter Intelligence Team-X and Counter Intelligence Team-J — the first targeting Pakistan in general, the second directed in particular at Khalistani groups. Each Khalistani terror attack on India’s cities was met with retaliatory attacks in Lahore or Karachi.
“The role of our covert action capability in putting an end to the ISI’s interference in Punjab,” former RAW officer B Raman wrote in 2002, “by making such interference prohibitively costly is little known”.
In one famous incident, now National Security Advisor Ajit Doval is said to have penetrated Khalistan terrorist Surjit Singh Penta’s networks, posing as an ISI operative. He entered the Golden Temple, the story goes, and rigged it with fake explosives — ensuring that Penta could not blow it up when Operation Black Thunder began in 1988.
Doval also penetrated Mizo insurgent groups’ networks in the 1980s, forcing a peace accord — compensating, in part, for Indira Gandhi’s brutal use of force.
I K Gujral, though, ended RAW’s offensive operations against Pakistan — and his predecessor, P V Narasimha Rao, wound up its eastern operations. India continued to possess a superior conventional military, but as it became known in the late 1980s that Pakistan possessed a nuclear weapon, it became clear this sword would remain sheathed.
Has Prime Minister Narendra Modi changed the rules of the game? Yes, and no. It’s often imagined that the Indian Army has been a passive victim of enemy atrocities — but it has, in fact, dished out at least as good as it has got. In Myanmar, the Indian Army has staged largescale cross-border operations in 1999 and 2006. In 2009, it pushed Northeast insurgents out of Bhutan. Indian intelligence services have successfully operated in Nepal, Bangladesh, and even Pakistan.
For the most part, the Army is also believed to have retaliated against atrocities — though without publicity.
In May 1999, Capt Saurabh Kalia and five sepoys were kidnapped by Pakistani troops. Post mortem revealed bodies burnt with cigarette-ends, and genitals mutilated.
In January 2000, seven Pakistani soldiers were alleged to have been captured in a raid across the Neelam River. The bodies were returned, according to Pakistan, bearing signs of brutal torture.
There have been a string of smaller incidents. In June 2008, Pakistani troops attacked a border observation post in Poonch, killing a soldier. In retaliation, Pakistani officials allege, Indian troops beheaded a Pakistani soldier on June 19, 2008 in the Bhattal sector.