It has been 34 days since mass demonstrations, most of which turned violent, erupted in the Valley following the killing of Burhan Wani, the poster boy of terrorism for the last few years. Fifty six people have been killed; approximately 3,000 have been injured and more than 100 have suffered serious eye injuries due the use of the now infamous pellet guns. Despite the fact that ‘intifada’ has been exploited by the separatists since the 1990s and the experience of benchmark demonstrations in 2008 and 2010, the spontaneity, magnitude and violence of this time’s unrest came as a complete surprise to the state and central government. This itself speaks for the lackadaisical political approach that has been notable for acceptance of status quo, absence of a strategy and focus on tactical responses to recurring crisis. More so, when the nature of demonstrations is political, with the death of Wani merely being a trigger.
An insurgency and a counter insurgency (CI) campaign are both driven by its political strategy on which terrorist strategy and military strategy of the state are contingent. We are at a critical juncture in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K ) The terrorist strategy has failed and political strategy is at centrestage to pursue their political aim and to revive terrorism. On the other hand, the military strategy of the state has been eminently successful despite the political disconnect. But sadly, rather than seizing the political initiative, the state — trapped by ideological political rhetoric, an excited jingoist media and public emotions — is suffering from inertia, and continues to focus on the military strategy. This crisis presents an opportunity to boldly pursue a political strategy to resolve the issue within the framework of our constitution.
The separatist political causes of azadi — which literally means “freedom” but implies autonomy — or merger with Pakistan, which is championed by a relatively smaller section of the population, draws its primary inspiration from religious identity, which militates against the very idea of India. Of course, all the other drivers (real or perceived) of an insurgency in form of poor governance, discrimination, repression of security forces, bloodshed of last 26 years, dilution of autonomy, lack of political empowerment, economic deprivation, unemployment and rigged elections have been omnipresent. The approach of the central government has only strengthened this perception. The inherent political weakness of the separatist cause lies in the multi-religious, multilingual, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic population of the state. Let alone the Jammu and Ladakh regions, even amongst the Muslims, the Shias, Paharis, Gujjars and the Bakarwals do not subscribe to the views of the radicalised segment in the Valley. That this radicalised population has been able to hijack the political space reflects poorly on the political parties of J&K and also on the national political parties.
Be that as it may, the initial strategy of separatists and their mentor (Pakistan) was driven by the Afghan model. Political and military strategy were seen as a homogeneous whole, which is the Islamic jihad. The political ideologues were either coerced into submission or simply made irrelevant by the terrorists. The Indian Army, through a model protracted CI campaign, has broken the back of terrorists. The number of terrorists as per official count has been reduced to 155. Of these only about 40-50 per cent are believed to be active. Violence is at its lowest ebb ever and would compare favourably with the crime rate of a large metropolitan city. Infiltration has been reduced to a trickle. Even the runt of the terrorists will be eliminated by the Indian Army in the near future.
What then are these massive demonstrations all about? In my view, this is the manifestation of desperation of the separatists due to failure of the cause and the frustration of the masses over a futile struggle. A renewed effort is being made by the separatists to precipitate the situation through the chain reaction that violent demonstrations bring about — response of the Jammu & Kashmir Police (JKP), the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF ) and the Army, and the resultant causalities, which lead to renewed protests and more casualties. We must not fall into the trap laid by Pakistan and the separatists in the Valley.
It is empirical wisdom that whenever mass demonstrations, irrespective of the provocations, are dealt with a heavy hand, the end result is counter productive. Political, public and media rhetoric has blurred the distinction between the terrorists and the masses. By focusing on Pakistan and holding it responsible for what is happening in J&K, we are only proving that Pakistan has greater political control over the masses than India. The crudity of our restrained response has placed J&K at the centrestage of international conscience. The image of a swollen and pockmarked (by pellets) face — particular when it’s of a blinded child — has done more damage to our international image than all the propaganda of the separatists and Pakistan. It is time to shed the baggage of the past to review our political strategy.
More by default and less by design, the military strategy has been prime in J&K. The central and state government never defined their political objectives and it is to the credit of the Indian Army that it performed and delivered despite the lack of political direction. Let alone formal directions, there is not even a periodic dialogue between the Indian Army and the Prime Minister, National Security Advisor, Defence Minister or the Home Minister regarding the conduct of the CI campaign. The Unified Command under the Chief Minister remains dysfunctional leading to lack of coordination between the Army, police and the CRPF, which operates under the Director General of Police. The DG Police is equivalent in rank to the Army Commander, Northern Command, and may even be senior to him by virtue of being appointed earlier. This only compounds the problem of coordination.
With the central and the state governments abdicating their strategic responsibility, the Northern Command was left to pursue the self-defined military goals of eliminating terrorists, countering infiltration and creating the conditions required for the political process to take over. Yet the Army was kept out of even the limited political initiatives that were virtually handled by the Intelligence Bureau.
As mentioned earlier, the Indian Army has achieved the military aim. However, in absence of political activism, it is also seen as the ugly face of the state by the people. For the political process to begin, there is a need to reduce the military footprint. The primary focus of the reviewed military strategy should be counter infiltration. Seventy per cent of the 62 Rashtriya Rifles battalions must be redeployed to strengthen the counter infiltration grid. The remaining 30 percent should be readjusted to look after the forest zones and also constitute the CI reserve in the hinterland, to be called upon as and when required. Active CI operations in towns and villages should be taken over by the JKP. The strength of the police must be increased by raising 25 CI battalions, following the eminently successful Punjab model. The CRPF should assist the JKP and take over the road protection duties. Both should be reoriented and trained at the army battle schools.
The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) was progressively applied in J&K with effect from 1990. With the changed strategic situation it must be selectively and progressively removed. The 10-15 kilometre belt along the Line of Control, which has the tiered counter infiltration grid, must be covered by the AFSPA. However, in the hinterland, its application must be progressively removed, except to cover the forest zones and a three-kilometre belt along important convoy routes. Active CI ops in the hinterland particularly in the towns and villages must be the responsibility of the JKP. Both the police and the CRPF are covered by the Criminal Procedure Code. Army and Special Forces reserves, when used, must be covered by AFSPA for the specified area and for a specified time.
The fears of the Army that such an arrangement will lead back to 1990s are based more on emotions than wisdom. The JKP is the best CI force in the country (after the Army) and its conduct right through has been patriotic and professional. One of the principle grouses of the public is that J&K is run by the central government and not the state government. This arrangement resolves this issue. In due course, the CRPF should also be withdrawn.
As a radical change from the past, we should stop discussing J&K with Pakistan in any form. Our dialogue should only be with the people of J&K and that too within the framework of the constitution. Political leaders who inspire secession and violate the law of sedition as envisaged by the Supreme Court in its several landmark judgements, must be placed under detention and prosecuted. Mass demonstrations must be handled with sophistication and finesse. Human beings want stability above anything else. Political intervention must be made as early as possible and at the highest level. Any other approach will not inspire the trust. The entire economic might of the Indian State must be used to improve the wellbeing of the state.
Bring all parties and media on board. Consult your Army. This is our test as a nation. This is an exceptional situation and exceptions must be made. What is autonomy for a state to save the idea of India?
The details of the Naga accord to resolve the 60-year-old insurgency are not public, but indications are that it is based greater autonomy. The body of Isak Swu — the ‘ I ‘ in NSCN (IM) — who fought India for 50 years, lay in state at Nagaland House, New Delhi. The coffin was draped with the flag of the Naga nation (Nagalim). Guess who was there to pay tributes to Isak Swu, ignoring the symbols of secession? None other than National Security Advisor Ajit Doval. Thuingaleng Muviah, the ‘ M ‘ in NSCN (IM), recently reiterated that a separate passport and flag was not a demand but a right. He further said that, “The Nagas were never part of the Indian union by consent of the Naga people. We were ruled by ourselves …This has been recognised by the Indian side.” I have laboured on this issue to prove the point that autonomy within the framework of our constitution is an insignificant price to pay for bonding our nation.
Go, Prime Minister, go! Go to Srinagar, this is your moment! Carpe Diem!