Understanding the Present Kashmir Imbroglio
Vol 10 Issue 4 Sep - Oct 2016
An exhaustive and erudite account of the Kashmir situation and the way forward
Monday, October 3, 2016
I am aware that in writing this piece I can be overtaken by events even before it reaches print. Therefore I shall restrict myself to analysing and commenting on issues which are core and not peripheral.
We are moving through a situation akin if not worse than 1989-90. As a nation India had succeeded in weathering the militancy in J&K which has been dynamic with highs and lows. However, what has eluded our efforts has been the alienation which has been rife and increasing. The Indian Army along with Police forces has ensured that strength of the militants/terrorists has reduced to a low; a zero figure will always remain utopian. Yet the Deep State comprising Pakistan, its Army, the ISI, separatists and terrorists, has used a calibrated strategy of ensuring that the Kashmiri people remain alienated. It has achieved this through a masterful combination of psychological warfare and political-diplomatic gamesmanship exploiting every mistake we made. In the current context the killing of Burhan Wani, the charismatic young local terrorist leader from Tral in South Kashmir, has been exploited to the hilt keeping the streets alive. A mix of street agitation, Intifada style stone throwing and political rabble rousing has proven to be lethal enough to keep the Valley on the boil for over 60 days.
It’s important to recall the chronology to make this essay comprehensively stand alone. It all started with Zia ul Haq’s dubious agenda of retribution against India for the loss of Bangladesh and the defeat to the Indian Army in 1971. Zia’s strategy was clear; it could be only done by Pakistan going nuclear and then striking at India’s supposed Achilles heel – religious and ethnic fault lines while remaining within limits of tolerance to avoid robust and kinetic Indian response. In other words, it was to be a ‘war by a thousand cuts’, fought by proxy. The strategy was tested in Punjab through the Eighties even as Pakistan was deeply embroiled in Afghanistan as the frontline state of the US and the Islamic world against the former Soviet Union. The situation through 1987-89 both globally and regionally gave Pakistan the best opportunity to execute its larger plan.
Progressively, it first used local Kashmiri dissent based on the unfortunate events of the allegedly rigged election of 1987, then brought in foreign mercenaries from Afghanistan in the early Nineties. When that pipeline diluted it outsourced the labeled Jihad to Pakistan based radically endowed clerics. The Lashkar e Toiba (LeT) and its ilk thrived at this leeway. Islamic radicalism had been identified by Zia ul Haq as one of the force multipliers within the strategy. There were two reasons for this. First that it would attract greater support from the Islamic world, especially Saudi Arabia whose brand of Wahabi Islam Zia was espousing. Second that the branding of struggles within India with an Islamist stamp would draw greater transnational Islamic support; ‘faith first nation next’ was Zia’s apparent message. Punjab was only a testing ground to create turbulence; Kashmir was the apple being prepared to pluck.
The Indian establishment was in politically, financially and strategically unstable times when all this happened; 1989-91 was a low period in India’s history. Yet, we stemmed the rot and fought the Deep State successfully through the Nineties and the Millennium, sometimes innovative, sometimes ham handedly. We raised the Rashtriya Rifles (RR) an innovation whose founding fathers need to be blessed. We re-introduced democracy in J&K in 1996 proving that the establishment was thinking correctly. Farokh Abdullah returned democratically as the Chief Minister. The senior political leadership kept trying hard and we had Mufti Mohammed Sayeed in power from 2002 with his Healing Touch policy.
An area where India and all its security forces failed miserably was in the protection of the minorities. The minority Hindu population became the target of the initial ire of the terror groups. They perceived that by removing the Hindus from the scene it would be easier to islamise and on that basis fight an effective jihad against Indian control over J&K. It is unclear whether Pakistan ever perceived that a military secession of Kashmir without a full blown winnable conflict against India would ever be possible.
On the military front General Nirmal Vij’s bold experiment in fencing the LoC in 2003-4 effectively reversed the mathematics involved in terror; more terrorists were then onwards neutralized at the Fence and the hinterland than the numbers that could infiltrate. That almost singularly turned the tide along with his direction to the field commanders that the strength of terrorists be brought down below 1000.
Any militancy has to be handled on the basis of certain dimensions; the military is the premier one up to a threshold stage where after the political dimension takes over. The social, economic and governance dimension is a common thread which runs through the campaign. These need to be ratcheted upwards as the situation changes for the better with greater military control. The one dimension which is usually forgotten by the establishment is the need for a deliberate psychological and information campaign to bring the disaffected population back on track. All these dimensions have to work simultaneously. It is the political leadership which has to have the measure of the conjurer’s stick to mix and match based upon the way it reads the situation. In our case the conjurer’s stick appeared to have gone missing at some stage.
By 2007 the situation had improved in military terms although the Army was suffering from a series of small terrorist strikes along the highways. These were nothing compared to the suicide actions that were witnessed in the wake of the Kargil operations in 1999; they lasted till 2003. However, the Deep State was adept at innovating. Driven against the wall with large scale successes of the Army against terrorist leadership in 2007 and a very effective counter infiltration grid based upon the LoC Fence it came back with a new ploy in 2008 – reinvention of street agitation. Obviously someone was following Gene Sharp (the American author and thinker who wrote the famous essay “198 Ways of Non Violent Revolution” as an epilogue for his book “From Dictatorship to Democracy”), quite avidly. The Palestinian model of Intifada or protests was adopted with the stone becoming the primary weapon. Well-armed policemen and even combatant soldiers usually find it extremely difficult to deal with this phenomenon; it was exploited by the separatist ideologues and the terrorists to the hilt through 2008-10 with triggers employed to enflame the streets. Doctrines and non-lethal weapons were necessary to tackle these. We erred on both counts although by 2010 the Police forces had found ways of dealing with street mobs. It remains unfathomable why the establishment could not brainstorm and emerge with imported or improvised indigenous genuine non-lethal equipment.
The agitation of 2010 came to a halt in Oct 2010 for a couple of reasons. Primary among these was the erosion of public stamina and the ability of the Police forces supported by the Army’s outreach in rural areas to neutralize the Deep State’s intent on the streets. 117 young men lost their lives in that year alone. This colossal failure on our part was once again due to faulty tactics of mob control and lack of non-lethal weapons. It was just what the adversaries wished because the alienation multiplied and just when a new generation was emerging into prominence. The government of the day in J&K did not live up to its promises to investigate the death of 117 people on the roads.
Analyzing Proxy War till 2010
The year 2010 is a crucial year in the J&K conflict. When a dispassionate analysis is done a number of contesting issues come to light with respect to the proxy war till that stage.
• The Army had a measure of understanding of the conflict and pegged its concept with a balance of hard and soft options. The soft options enhanced as we progressed just as the nature of hard options regressed.
• The military option was pursued with vigor and legally the empowerment of the Army was done through the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1990) or AFSPA (1990).
• Soft power was restricted to the military civic action program under Operation Sadbhavna which remained a tactical to operational program to supplement aspects of governance which could not be extended to the population of areas most hit by militancy. The psychological aspects of the program included national integrations tours, construction and running of high quality schools called Goodwill Schools and medical camps. Basic infrastructure was also included as were things such as enhancement of quality of education through provision of computers and IT education. Operation Sadbhavana’s concept remained static and did not go beyond the above. It did help greatly in connecting with the people.
• The political understanding too was correct as proved by the introduction of democracy and restoration of an elected government as early as 1996. However, the single flaw was that the coming of a government was taken as restoration of full democracy. This was not true. Political activity of the type conducted in other states which keeps the populace enthused as stakeholders, never emerged in the Valley; in the Jammu division it did to a greater extent. The grass roots remained outside the purview as political leaders found it difficult to travel and live in terrorist infested areas. Thus the political dimension remained only half baked.
• The Deep State could sustain the proxy war through alienation brought on by an information campaign, an area which we could not counter because of an utter lack of understanding of psychological and information operations.
The Aftermath of The 2008 -10 Agitation By end of 2010 the strength of terrorists both in Jammu and Valley had fallen to sub 300. Infiltration was fairly well under control and the Valley in particular was recovering from the self-inflicted wounds of street agitation and stone throwing brought on by the Separatist leaders who too were divided on the methodology they wished to adopt. It was necessary to ensure that the terrorist strength did not increase while the fatigue of the population would need to be exploited by bringing in sufficient measures of outreach to reduce alienation. To do that a change of concept was outlined to include the following:-
• The LoC formations were tasked to ensure a strong counter infiltration grid and conduct social outreach to the population in a 50 km swathe from the LoC all along its length.
• The hinterland formations were tasked to conduct surgical intelligence based operations with minimal collateral damage. In addition important terrorist leaders were hunted by specially set up joint teams with JK Police and intelligence agencies. 19 terrorist leaders were eliminated in 2011 including the notorious Abdullah Unni in North Kashmir.
• Outreach programs were progressively designed to engage with population in the deep hinterland and the urban areas. This included youth who were engaged with skill development and employment opportunities. Almost all these programs were conducted jointly with the civil authorities and political leadership was facilitated with security to reach the grassroots.
• A change of force ethos was brought about through training at the Battle Schools. It was starkly brought home to the troops that the manner of handling the population would have to change to one of firmness and friendship.
• A fledgling attempt was made to replicate some measures earlier undertaken to effect strategic communication to the people in the form of goodwill through sports, interaction and assistance to the youth and aged.
The Army in conjunction with the civil administration, the intelligence agencies, JK Police and political leaders could bring an element of change in the environment where a hope developed for a better future. It was the moment which should have been seized by the political functionaries more than anyone else. Unfortunately a non-issue became the main issue – the withdrawal of AFSPA. The Army got painted as the villain as it perceived that it was premature to withdraw an enabling instrument and it would be better to enhance accountability rather than rescind a full legislation which had helped contain the situation for over two decades.
Alongside the initiatives by all agencies and organizations the Government of India set up the team of interlocutors which came out with a comprehensive report which went beyond the ordinary and was not ‘convenient’ to address. It should have been discussed and debated in all think tanks in Delhi and by the Government of the day. Unfortunately, it never saw the light of day proving that one time interlocution attempts are seldom successful if political will is missing.
The period 2011 to 2015 would probably be classified as one of lost opportunities. Admittedly from late 2014 J&K has been in the throes of political turbulence and therefore initiatives could hardly have been expected. Prior to 2014, in the narrow window of 2011-14 the UPA Government had lost energy and therefore the initiatives of the Army and agencies could not be taken to a logical conclusion. The engagement, outreach, compassion and positive energy which had emerged after the disastrous 2008-10 period remained in isolation. Therein lay the tragedy of J&K.
The Deep State was itself in flux through 2008-15. It had three priorities– Pakistan’s internal security, reoccupation of the strategic space in Afghanistan and continuation of its mission in J&K. It juggled with these three according different priority to each from time to time. For example when under pressure of the so called friendly terrorist groups and when there was absence of any major activity in J&K it revised its priority to J&K and triggered actions at the LoC to attract attention of the international community or attempted high profile terror acts in areas where it is comparatively easier to strike such as the Pathankot Jammu highway and Northern Punjab.
Around 2010-11, the militancy started transforming. The effective sealing of the LoC commencing from 2004 made it extremely difficult for the Deep State to sustain the numbers and induct war waging wherewithal. That’s when the local content started to emerge once again after the early Nineties. A new generation of Kashmiris had grown up, those who had witnessed the progress of internal conflict through their growing years, seen their parents humiliated at check points, suffered the mid night knock during security searches and developed a severe antipathy for the Indian State. The efforts of Op Sadbhavana were insufficient to prevent this, neither were the almost nonexistent soft power efforts of other agencies or even the democracy which prevailed. Termed the New Militancy this phenomenon of a fresh breed of local terrorists was centred on South Kashmir, the ideological hub of the Islamisation efforts by the Deep State; Kulgam, one of the core centres of the current agitation is the seat of power of the J&K Jamat e Islami (JeI). The leader was Burhan Wani, a young rebel from Tral the notorious tehsil of Pulwama district. He neither listened to HM Chief Salahuddin nor toed the Separatist line. He was adept at using social media and created an aura of a hero in a society which is largely bereft of heroes. All his fellow terrorists were locally trained boys and they resorted to harassing the police by snatching weapons as they had few of their own. The cult of Burhan Wani was the romanticisation of violence and dramatization through social media posts. His popularity was perhaps underestimated by the agencies. The linkage of New Militancy to a more puritanical form of Islam was much more distinct than any such strains before. So even as Pakistan backed terrorists started to take a lower profile local terrorists proliferated.
In many ways New Militancy was the product of the information revolution and spread of Islamic sentiments from West Asia in the wake of the failed Arab Spring. Radicalism was on the rise and Islam was increasingly perceived as the potential deliverer of what the advanced world had achieved. It was a manifestation of frustration among the youth. Kashmir had the thriving environment of such frustration and was therefore fully vulnerable to the flames of radical ideology. To counter it, it was not counter violence but greater outreach which was necessary; outreach to parents, teachers and clergy, all who mattered in the handling of youth. Since the outreach never took place New Militancy proliferated and the situation brought us to the unhappy impasse we are at today. It may be a trifle unfair to state that engagement did not take place; it did but not with desired intensity and messaging. The research required was missing and the politicians played virtually no role.
The killing of Burhan was but a trigger. It would still have happened one way or the other. Surrender offers are always open but someone of Burhan’s repute would have been severely constrained about image and legacy to surrender. Those who have no understanding of this conflict continue to believe in such inconsequential issues such as the handing over of his body to his relatives. Assuringly, without the body there would have been as many Namaz e Janazas as there were on 9 Jul 2016. It is the inability to appreciate the nuances of ideological conflict mostly led to our failure to tackle the New Militancy but it is our lack of understanding of the overall history of the CI/CT campaign which is preventing us from containing the strife, restoring order and returning to proven approaches to resolve the problem.
What Needs to be Done
The number of days gone by with an uncontrolled agitation in the streets is not good for the reputation of the nation. The agitation is under the control of a diffused leadership which will not allow the established Separatist leaders to negotiate. Talking to the Separatists is therefore good as a gesture but nothing beyond. Pakistan’s hand is very much behind it and it must be relishing the perception of some analysts and political leaders that it has nothing to do with it. The flow of finances has probably been considerable. Agitation stamina can continue fairly long as despite curfew the availability of essential food items has been ensured by the administration. Yet chinks are beginning to appear as business is down to zero with promise of even worse times. It is largely muscle power that is controlling the streets which if not there would have seen the agitation draw down by now. The two most significant things done by those who are running the show are first, the targeting of the JK Police and second, the taking of the agitation to the rural areas. Both were the failings of 2010 on their part which allowed us to force the agitation to wilt. The All Party Delegation(APD) did a good job under the circumstances and the Home Minister has throughout displayed sincerity and concern besides robustly engaging any available organisation or personality.
The heartening thing thus far is that mainstream parties from Delhi have not expressed any major differences. But they have no idea whom to engage with. I have said it before and I am stating it emphatically again, there is no on organisation or body which has a better connect with the ground than the Indian Army. The JK Police is the Army’s best partner. The Army, now that it has been tasked to regain control over rural areas needs to take the JK Police on board and together engage the diffused and invisible leadership with firmness and resolve. Crackdowns of the variety being contemplated can be completely counterproductive. The engagement has to graduate beyond the ordinary with the Army and Police jointly enabling the move of political leaders to the countryside, to engage their constituencies. We cannot forget that J&K still has a representative government which has been hamstrung by the paralysis of the Police.
People spoke at the All Party meeting of removal of AFSPA as a confidence building measure. It is unfortunate that the Army and the agencies were defeated at the perception game and could not project the legislation as an enabling act with accountability. There is little scope for abrogation of the legislation because the Army will not be able to function without it. Yet, there has been insufficient attempt to look for alternatives which exist;including a brand new legislation with provisions of time bound accountability and a surfeit of guidelines which will help in painting it much more rights oriented.
We are yet far from political solutions. The first and foremost thing is to restore order to the streets with a mix of engagement and hard approach. The rest of India can help if it does not send messages of antipathy against Kashmiris. I can only quote the example of a young Maharashtrian who arranged over a hundred eye surgeries by organising leading eye surgeons from all over India and taking them to Kashmir. It is such acts which will send home the right messages to the Kashmiri people. The alienation may be justifiable or not but currently it is the issue which is preventing return of order and this needs reconciliation over a period of time. The use of hard power to contain the irrational violence may produce more alienation but the state and its agencies cannot be seen to be weak especially against actions which have the stamp of the Deep State written all over it. Selecting and identifying the right targets is half the battle.
It is resolution of problems that needs to be addressed instead of rhetoric at this stage.