In appointing Mr Dineshwar Sharma, former Director Intelligence Bureau, as its interlocutor for Kashmir, conventional wisdom would have us believe that the central government has displayed a newfound willingness of much needed political resolve in its attempt at finding a genuine solution to the long-standing Kashmir imbroglio. He does, of course, have the onerous task of once again attempting to recommence dialogue within the body politic on finding a way forward that would meet the aspirations of all stakeholders.
However, lest the governments’ actions be misconstrued, the Centre has made clear that despite its outreach, it would continue to wield the iron fist, albeit in a softer velvet glove. Towards this end, the security forces, especially the Army, have adopted a seemingly pro-active and hard-hitting policy to confront and neutralise anti-national elements operating in the valley. As a result, just over two hundred militants, the highest in the last decade, have been eliminated just within this calendar year.
Simultaneously, it has also adopted more robust diplomatic measures that not only aim to isolate Pakistan internationally, but also make clear to the international community that we will not be constrained by Pakistan’s threats of escalation or nuclear blackmail and are willing to conduct cross-border punitive strikes if the situation so demands. All of this has resulted in a more chastened and circumspect Pakistan, less willing to openly support Jihadis or indulge in unilateral cross-border shelling or high profile attacks on civilian targets.
These initiatives, along with inclement weather and snow in the higher reaches, have certainly had an impact, given the fact that infiltration into the valley and incidence of extremist violence are significantly down. One, however, hopes that all of this has not led the Centre to conclude that despite the refusal of the Hurriyat and other separatists to engage in any meaningful dialogue with Mr Dineshwar Sharma, the situation is on the mend and therefore the Government can afford to let the status quo continue. If so, such complacency would be a grievous mistake, something that previous governments have repeatedly committed over the years. There is every possibility that we are just witness to a very deceptive calm before the proverbial storm.
More importantly, there is a necessity for the political leadership and other policymakers to understand that the insurgency has changed qualitatively over the years. In earlier years the local population found itself squeezed between the militants and the security forces and remained neutral in order to avoid repercussions. However, at the present time the local population, not necessarily supportive of the separatists or their aspirations, is no longer willing to be brow-beaten by the security forces. The tactics that have now been adopted by the local population, such as stone-throwing and interfering in the conduct of operations, have made it increasingly difficult for the Army to carry out strikes to neutralize militants without resorting to strong-arm tactics against non-combatants, certainly not something that they are keen to do.
It is then not surprising that raids conducted on militant hideouts, where there may well be just a couple of militants hiding, is now normally undertaken by a company, if not two, of the Rashtriya Rifles supported by elements of Special Forces and huge contingents of local police and Central Armed Police Forces to keep stone-pelters at bay. The overall strength involved in such an operation can easily exceed 1500- 2000 personnel. Moreover, these raids have an added aspect of risk as unlike earlier operations are hurried through in the shortest possible time. This implies the need to resort to forced room entry techniques by Special Forces, a sure recipe for incurring casualties. One may recall the Pampore operations where two officers and an NCO of the Special Forces were killed not too long ago.
This is not all, even the Army’s Company Operating Bases (COB) are no longer able to acquire intelligence or dominate their own Areas of Responsibility (AOR) because sending out routine area domination patrols is fraught with risk of personnel being trapped by stone-throwing mobs of local villagers. As a matter of fact movement of personnel outside COB’s is restricted as they are prone to random attacks by local stone-pelters whenever administrative or operational columns move in or out of these bases. Not only has this impacted the military’s efforts to conduct operations but it is now increasingly dependent on Police and Intelligence Agencies for hard intelligence, thus making COB’s increasingly redundant. Incidentally, our counter-insurgency operational philosophy of grid system deployment is underpinned on the deployment of COBs to ensure area domination.
Interestingly, even at the height of the insurgency, when between 150 -200 militants used to neutralised on an average every month and fire-fights and encounters were a matter of routine, operations were by and large conducted at platoon level and the question of either attacks on COB’s or patrols by local villagers was unheard of. The truth is we live in a different era in which communication technology has transformed the availability and transmission of information raising awareness about issues even among those living in remote localities. Add to this vested interest of various groups, including mainstream political parties, to keep the pot simmering so that not only are vast sums of taxpayers’ money provided to deal with the situation but that their utilization is unaccountable. `Obviously, corruption and malfeasance are the expected consequences.
Finally, to this mix add the ambivalent attitude of our courts towards the conduct of counter-insurgency operations in disturbed areas. This has forced troops to be extremely chary of conducting pro-active operations against militants because they can never be certain as to when their actions will suddenly be construed as a gross violation of human rights. It would be worthwhile to note that sustained pro-active operations is the key to wresting the initiative from insurgent elements, controlling levels of violence and allowing the various organs of the state to regain administrative control.
The directions of the Supreme Court pertaining to the findings of the Justice Hegde Commissions’ Report on encounter killings in Manipur are a case in point. Due to its flawed findings based on a complete lack of understanding of how the forces actually operate in an insurgency area the court has now commenced proceedings against officers and men of the Security Forces that it believes were responsible for human rights violations decades after the alleged incidents happened. In such circumstances, military personnel are fairly clear that neither their own senior commanders nor the political hierarchy will come to their aid and will have little hesitation in throwing them to the wolves lest their own reputations or actions come under adverse scrutiny.
At the end of the day, all of this implies one thing. Matters in Kashmir can no longer be left to simmer. The Central and state governments must realise that the scope for the security forces, especially the Army, to conduct counter-insurgency operations, without serious collateral damage, is rapidly diminishing. A just and equitable political solution that will help the State economically and meet the aspirations of its diverse population is unavoidable and must be pushed through despite whatever Pakistan may choose to do. A start could be made, for example, by dividing the State into the Union Territory of Ladakh and two separate States of Jammu and Kashmir and unilaterally accepting that POK as a part of Pakistan. Inaction is no longer a viable option and we are looking at days and months rather than years within which the necessary political and economic measures need to be initiated.
This commentary originally appeared in The Times of India.