The Army’s new role in Kashmir
Factor in threat dynamics, preserve gains
by Maj-Gen Ashok K. Mehta (retd)
Last week, Defence Minister A.K. Antony warned the Army to expect a hot summer in Jammu and Kashmir not due to climate change but Pakistan’s resolve to escalate violence. Recent calls for jihad in Kashmir by the United Jihad Council and the threat of water wars against India by Lashkar chief Hafiz Saeed are part of the new game plan.
Of the 42 terrorist training camps, 32 are known to be operational with 2,500 militants, some equipped with GPS and sophisticated Thuraya sets ready to breach the fencing on the LoC to reinforce the dwindling strength of militants declined from a high of 3000 to 3500 in 2001-02 to just 600 today.
The calls for withdrawal of the Army are, therefore, insane and claims on deinduction of 35,000 troops not entirely correct. The two Divisions withdrawn are part of theatre reserves and were deployed during Operation Parakram. These were later relocated along the fencing and have been redeployed in their original locations on restoration of normalcy.
With militancy brought down in 2008-09 to the lowest levels in two decades, Jammu and Kashmir is ripe for a political solution which could lead to demilitarisation of forces.
The Army was rushed into Srinagar in October 1947 to save it from the onslaught of Pakistani raiders. It has not ceased battling infiltrators since that day but over time has created conditions for the political process which has lagged behind to take over. The strategy followed by New Delhi has been to keep insurgencies under control, the military employing minimal force in good faith. The government has shown neither any urgency for conflict resolution nor concern for civilian and combatant casualties which have exceeded the collective fatalities of all the wars. India has missed at least two opportunities in 1971 and 2007 to resolve the Kashmir dispute on its terms or ones favourable to it.
The Army is deployed in Jammu and Kashmir both in its war locations on LoC as well as in the counterinsurgency grid, the latter in aid to civil authority. This is unique: the Army performing its primary and secondary roles in one geographical entity. The intention has been to free the Army from its counter-militancy role, with Central and state police forces gradually taking charge. That began to happen in the late 1980s just before crossborder infiltration and militancy rocketed in August 1989.
Srinagar garrison duties were taken over from the Army’s fighting formation by the Sub Area headquarters which handed over to the BSF. While Srinagar is under the CRPF charge today, the idea is for state police forces to eventually take over CIS duties. The CRPF in Anantnag and the BSF in Sopore are just the preliminary steps towards demilitarisation.
In 2007, a committee under Defence Secretary Shekhar Dutt had evolved a relocation plan for troops to vacate orchards, hotels, schools and other civilian premises affecting business and livelihood. Not only has the Army relocated but also paid a modest compensation.
Political initiatives were launched by the NDA government to defuse tension on the LoC and minimise violence in the state. NSA Brajesh Mishra and his Pakistani equivalent, Tariq Aziz working back channel produced the first ceasefire in November 2003. It has held with some violations but over all, provided immense relief to both sides and in financial terms, amounting to Rs 500 crore annually. The big lacuna of the case fire was that cross-border infiltration was excluded as the ceasefire was between the two armies.
The other ceasefire that materialised all too briefly during 2000-01 was internal between the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen and the government. At least twice, UJC chief Salauddin offered conditional ceasefires but these never took off. Operationally, the internal ceasefire had limited utility as foreign militants who constitute 60 per cent of the armed militants were not part of it. Some conversations did take place between intelligence agencies and the Hizb.
The scaling down by the Army of the militant population from a high of 3000 fighters to the current 600 has taken over a decade of hard work. The balance of advantage shifted in the Army’s favour only after it ensured that the attrition of militants outstripped their rate of reinforcement. Fencing along the LoC and a more proactive CIS strategy backed by high-tech equipment blunted militancy that in 2004 it was near-zero infiltration.
The Army’s elaborate Sadbhavna programmes and sensitivity to human rights helped to wean away the people from the militants, especially in the rural areas. The challenge for the Army and security forces is not just to “keep the cap on 600” but to reduce this figure further.
The call for troop withdrawal for reasons of political expediency does not factor in the threat dynamics and the imperative to preserve the hard-earned gains. What is politically correct is operationally fatal. The other demand for repealing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is intimately linked to providing legal safeguards for troops fighting militancy.
AFSPA was notified in 1989 by declaring three districts of Jammu and Kashmir as disturbed areas — the Kashmir Valley and Doda. The ministries of Home and Defence are engaged in making AFSPA more people-friendly and humane but as long as cross-border activities continue, its repeal will undermine the operational effectiveness of troops.
Reducing the stress and strain on security forces is the moral responsibility of the military and political leadership. It is the failure of governance that leads to the political mess which the administration expects the Army to clean up. There is no Sri Lanka-type solution in Jammu and Kashmir and what had been achieved represents the best feasible for transition to the political process.
In 1971, the government frittered away the political and diplomatic gains of the historic military victory in East Pakistan. For more than two decades after that missed opportunity, the government took no substantive action towards a political solution. In 2006-07, back channel talks between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s envoy on Pakistan, Satinder Lambah and the Musharraf-confidant Tariq Aziz produced the four-point Kashmir formula. India could not have expected a better agreement.
Unfortunately, the front channel was unable to capitalise on it. Srinagar lies in the flight path of the Taliban suicide bomber who arrived in Muzaffarabad across the LoC earlier this year. The last and only human bomber to strike in India was LTTE’s Dhanu who took out Rajiv Gandhi.
Jammu and Kashmir has witnessed only fidayeen attacks which is kid stuff compared with multiple suicide bombings, now routine in Pakistan. The Army should be prepared to deter this challenge as the growing turbulence in Af-Pak is bound to rock Kashmir soon. Sixty-two years after it launched its first post-independence, expeditionary forces in Jammu and Kashmir the Army must be ready and willing to stick it out for at least a half century and more, with a fair likelihood of it getting sucked into the Maoist cauldron too.
That’s the price the country has to pay for political shortsightedness and preference for conflict management rather than its resolution.