By Khursheed Wani
On February 23, Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat took an unscheduled flight from New Delhi to hurriedly land in Srinagar. Only a few top-ranking officers in the Northern Command and XV Corps headquarters knew about his arrival, necessitated by an overnight militant ambush in Shopian that killed three soldiers and injured five others, including two officers.
The Army chief spent the next 24 hours in discussions with field commanders on the security scenario. He visited the headquarters of the two counter-insurgency divisions — Victor Force and Kilo Force — to get a feedback on the emerging situation. The harshest reality was that in 12 days prior to his visit, the Army had lost nine soldiers, including an officer, in separate encounters. The latest attack carried out by Hizbul Mujahideen cadre was, as the outfit claimed, in reaction to Gen Rawat’s statement, warning that the local population will be treated at par with militants should they interfere with the anti-insurgency operations carried out by the security forces. The remark has ruffled many a feather and stirred an intense debate on the ground realities in Kashmir. The velvet glove or iron fist arguments occupied much of the media space.
Much before Gen Rawat became the Army chief, the situation in the entire Jammu & Kashmir region, be it along the borders or the hinterland, was not in full control. The skirmishes along the borders in violation of the November 2003 ceasefire pact were a routine; infiltration attempts a norm and uptick in militant-security forces clashes a reality. To top it, the five months of unrest triggered by the killing of Burhan Wani in July 2016, disturbed the security set-up. For around six months, the Army did not carry out any counter-insurgency operation in south Kashmir. It was a period when militant groups got fresh recruits and replenished their arsenal.
One of the attributes for Gen Rawat’s ascendancy to top post was his counter-insurgency experience in Kashmir. It was projected to be in line with National Security Advisor Ajit Doval’s ‘doctrine’ to deal sternly with people pursuing, sustaining and supporting secessionism. Therefore, the people supporting militants holed up in an encounter were bracketed with the separatist Hurriyat Conference and militants, and dealing with them was akin with fighting militancy. “We are giving them (people) an opportunity, should they want to continue (to support militants), then we will continue with relentless operations, maybe with harsher measures and that is the way to continue”, Rawat said on February 15 — on a day when four militants and six soldiers including an officer were killed in two separate encounters in north Kashmir.
During the past 27 years, Kashmir has been a laboratory for dealing with public dissent and dispassion. There was a time when thousands of militants operated in the region and there also came a time when the number of militants reduced enough to be counted on fingers. In the initial years of counter-insurgency, soldiers during cordon and search operations were herding all men of a habitation to an identification parade in a bid to track down militants. There was hardly any resistance from the people. During a raging gun-battle, the people would run away from the site, leaving only the combatants to fight each other. Now, at innumerable places, youngsters attempt to break the cordon and help militants escape.
Several times, they succeed. This happened at Pampore, where a dreaded counter-insurgent, Papa Kashtwari, now jailed for murder, once ruled the roost and almost wiped out militancy. Women were seen singing folk songs when an encounter continued for three days in a Government building. It also happened at Hajin where slain counter-insurgency king Kuka Parray once lived and sent shivers down the spines of militants and their over-ground sympathisers. At least five times, local youngsters foiled the cordon and helped militants escape at Hajin in recent months.
It requires a deeper understanding of the situation in Kashmir before mechanisms can be adopted to tackle it. The harsher methods — custodial deaths and tortures, fake encounters, public beating and in a few cases, gang rapes — have miserably failed and proven counter-productive. The indiscriminate use of pellet guns to blast out eyes and the killing of protesting civilians in the summer of 2016 only proved it once again.
The defiance at the encounter sites reflects the hopelessness of Kashmiris, especially the youngsters, who seem to be ready to prefer death if it comes out of some degree of ‘heroism’. The Government and its agencies may rightly blame Pakistan and the separatists for this situation, but this cannot exonerate it completely. The fact is that the people in Kashmir perpetually live an abnormal life. There is uncertainty about the future as people discuss real and perceived threats to their existence.
Two years ago, on March 1, the PDP and the BJP had inked an alliance with the promise to provide unmatched governance. It was given to understand that the ‘north-pole south-pole alliance’ would initiate political measures. Ironically, things went awry. Instead of engagement with the voices of dissent, the harsher methods came into practice. The promises of development took a back seat when pellet guns ruled the roost and detention under the Public Safety Act became a norm.
Kashmir has witnessed several phases of peace and revolt in the past decades. The violence went to its lowest ebb when there was a sense of engagement, both internally and externally; it touched heights when there was none. The warnings have not worked, the engagement has. The youth in Kashmir have dreams and aspirations like any of their counterparts anywhere in the world. They need to be heard and engaged with. Delay only suits vested interests, like Farooq Abdullah, who now appreciates the youngsters’ yearning for azadi. This is his out-of-power rhetoric. Kashmir, in the final analysis, needs an honest appraisal and a sincere approach to resolve the underlying conflict than rhetoric of any variety.
The author can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org