General Bipin Rawat, the Army Chief, responsible as Commander-in-Chief for the security and the welfare of his men, told his Commanders that it was ‘unacceptable to see a growing public interference in anti-militancy operations.’ He cautioned the stone-pelting locals in the Valley that if they disrupt military operations against intruding Pakistani militants or during flushing them out of the houses of their sympathisers, they will be treated as anti- nationals and dealt with accordingly–‘will go after them helter-skelter’.
Having led many counter-terrorist operations and in addition, having the experience of dealing with Pakistan’s proxy war, Gen Rawat’s plain-speaking was strategically important because the number of youth joining militancy has been going up. Over 100 youths joined the ranks of local-origin terrorists in 2016, bringing the total to an estimated 450. These anti-nationals helped 25 Pakistani terrorists escape and more worryingly forced two operations to be called off in 2016. But it is the sudden rise in the number of ambushes of Army convoys and an upsurge in number of casualties of the Army personnel in terrorist strikes that made Gen Rawat caution the stone-pelting youth and other protesters who block military operations.
In fact, his directive to take on the anti-nationals was issued at the wreath-laying ceremony, where he went to pay tribute to four of his fallen colleagues, including Major Satish Dahiya. They had died in three separate operations in Handwara, Bandipore and Kulgam in the space of just three days. An obviously anguished and angry General said, “We would now request the local population that people who have picked up arms, and they are the local boys, if they want to continue with the acts of terrorism, displaying flags of ISIS and Pakistan, then we will treat them as anti-national elements and go helter-skelter for them. We are giving them an opportunity, should they want to continue, then we will continue with relentless operations, maybe with harsher measures.”
By which measure did it appear that the COAS was threatening all Kashmiri youths? He “requested’ the youth to stop aiding Pakistanis; he did not simply told them off. In fact, he should be praised for his sensitive handling of a difficult and complex situation. By issuing a prior warning, Gen Rawat actually tried to prevent misguided local youths from becoming victims of anti-terror operations. To say that the COAS shouldn’t have said so is to expect him to suffer in silence as his charges keep on falling to terrorist bullets. Which General will allow that?
Just the day before, three Indian soldiers had faced heavy stone-pelting at Parray Mohalla of Bandipore in north Kashmir while launching an operation against insurgents. As The Indian Express report pointed out, the stone-pelting crowd bought terrorists some precious time by distracting the soldiers. As the security forces held their fire to avoid civilian casualties, the terrorists lobbed hand grenades and fired from automatic rifles leaving three jawans dead and some others injured. One terrorist gave forces the slip. Firstpost had pointed out that enticing the youth to ‘work’ to aid and support militants was the latest tactic employed by Pakistan in its asymmetric battle against India. Local youths and flash mobs are mobilised by rabble-rousers who alert terrorists through their local intelligence network when a counter-insurgency operation from the CRPF, BSF or the Army is imminent.
The General, it appears, has caught on the dirty game being played. The separatists should have seen in the Army chief’s statement another opportunity to whip up anti-India sentiment. But their protestations and hastily arranged stone-pelting incidents must have revealed to Gen Rawat the murky games they had been playing–civilians preventing the Army from carrying out anti-terror operations or posing obstructions during a ‘live’ encounter. This is the new reality in the Kashmir quagmire–an active civilian-terrorist nexus. It has been known for some time, albeit not widely, that the Pakistan-sponsored terrorists from across the border have been getting shelter in hamlets along with intelligence and logistical support. The earlier impression that the villagers were forced to give shelter to the terrorists has proved to be fallacious. Worse, if during such an encounter to flush them out, any civilian is hit, there will be protests, and New Delhi will have to bear the condemnation from the likes of Amnesty International.
There is another problem–the world is focussed on Kashmir imbroglio. The slightest over-reaction by the Army or para-military forces and all the western governments would be pulling Delhi’s ears. Yes, the advent of Donald Trump can change the whole dynamics of the religion. But so far, very little is known about Trump except that he has vowed to eliminate Islamic terrorism. But being inward looking, his priority will be his own country. India can hardly wait for possible Trump factor impacting on the geo-politics in the region. The situation is grave in Kashmir. Major General (retd) Afsir Karim said that today India has no friend in the valley, which means most can be persuaded by Pakistan to neutralise Indian Army’s operations against militants.
Gen Rawat’s decision to deal with the stone-pelting youth and their supporters cannot, and should not be objected to. Even with most militancy confined in the south of Kashmir, it has so far been difficult to cope with the anti-India crowds. Ajai Sahni, Executive Director of the Institute for Conflict Management, which maintains the South Asia Terrorism Portal, is editor of South Asia Intelligence Review and Faultlines is worth quoting: “Islamist radicalisation and terrorism will have to be addressed in Jammu and Kashmir. While the security forces are perpetually left to carry the can in the struggle against their violent manifestation in terrorism, successive governments, at the Centre and in the State, have done nothing to contain the rampant processes of Islamist radicalisation, and have at least occasionally facilitated these.
“The state’s timidity in the face of the spread of radical Islamist institutions, and of their messages of hate and violence, is incomprehensible and unacceptable. Unless this challenge is squarely addressed, without communal biases and without the targeting of the larger community, the separatists and their Pakistani handlers will always find willing dupes for their murderous cults of terrorism and martyrdom.”
Sahni is right that apart from Pakistan, politics too has worsened the situation. “Politics, moreover, has been part of the problem in the relative escalation of recent years, with most principal political parties engaged in communal polarisation, and Valley-based parties – including the ruling People’s Democratic Party – pushing appeasement of the extremist constituency and, opportunistically, a soft separatist line. This often translates into deliberate mischief, as in the case of the release of 634 stone-pelters by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, just before the outbreak of street violence in realistic expectation that it will make them return home.
Sahni endorses Gen Rawat’s decision for controlling those who create problems during operations or encounters to ferret out militants. “General Rawat is right, consequently, to recognise the need to employ counter-violence, or to apply a gentler euphemism, coercive use of force, against those who are violently facilitating the terrorists during operations by or against them.
The question, however, is what kind of use of force is necessary or expedient? Simply concluding that if force is necessary, all force is justified, would be wrong; and the security forces leadership, with its enormous experience in counterterrorism, cannot be unaware of this. This experience amply demonstrates, not only that indiscriminate violence against wider populations is counter-productive, but also that going after the “cannon
fodder” that the separatist leadership is throwing at the forces would serve little strategic purpose. It is the leadership that must be identified and targeted. Also ‘intelligence and enforcement apparatus must aggressively and urgently target these elements (funds coming from abroad), if the hard gains of the past decade are to be consolidated.
A retired Lt. Gen, who did not want to be named, while supporting Gen Rawat, said, “I would have, in fact, been more severe. And why some people are objecting to his decision, from now on, the stone-pelting youth or other civilian who become disruptive would be countered. How can a General allow his men being killed or his country defied by agents of a foreign country! He added that when he was in Nagaland, the mutinous Naga leader asked why he was there. I told him bluntly to see that he and his followers behave. The Army Chief has the responsibility to see that these agents of Pakistan behave.”
Gen Rawat’s urgency in trying to counter the stone-pelting youth and the civilians who disrupt military operations is because he realises that so far the anti-India elements are active in north Pir-panjal and south Kashmir, but if uncontrolled, it can spread all over. Major-General Karim’s assessment that there are no friends of India was further affirmed when Farooq Abdullah suddenly ranted outlandish charges against India and called the militant youth freedom fighters. SSSSThe son of Sheikh Abdullah, a great nationalist, Farooq could be so full of venom against India was unimaginable.
The number of Indian soldiers getting killed during counter-insurgency procedures to the number of terrorists neutralised are steadily going up. According to data from South Asia Terrorism Portal, 41 soldiers sacrificed their lives in 2015 as opposed to 113 terrorists getting killed. A year later, 88 security force personnel were killed while 165 terrorists were executed. In less than two months this year, eight soldiers have already laid down their lives. The number of injured is obviously many more. In several recent instances, indicate media reports, the Army has withstood huge interference from civilians acting as cover for the terrorists. That interference frequently lapsed into severe provocation in some situations where soldiers, under siege from terrorists, had to hold their fire due to a battery of local youths forming a cordon and pelting stones and non-lethal missiles at them. This gives enough time for the militants to escape.
Safety of security forces is sacrosanct
But not for Congress
The Congress Party, led by Rahul Gandhi, is becoming irrelevant in the country’s politics. But while elections in five states have been going on, its Vice-President smelled an opportunity to regain people’s focus by kicking up controversy over General Bipin Rawat’s warning to the stone-pelting youths who have been helping Pakistani terrorists. That this would be anti-national act is not something Rahul, in a desperate situation politically, would worry about.
In any case Rahul Gandhi is so full of venom against Narendra Modi and is so desperate to somehow find some issue to remain relevant, that he or his colleagues no longer care about the country’s interest. Their political desperation shows.
In any country, the safety and security of its citizens and security forces are considered sacrosanct and are never made the subject of partisan political debates. Only in India do we find parties bickering over a non-negotiable condition while hoping to catch fish in muddied waters.
While to a certain extent such opportunism is understandable from separatist parties in the Valley that are on Pakistan’s payroll, it boggles the mind that India’s grand old party would find itself boxed into such a corner.
This is not new. Rahul wanted proof that the surgical strike had actually been conducted, he wanted to meet the soldiers and officers who took part in the strikes and also raised questions about counter-insurgency operations. Possibly, at the back of his mind is that all objections about actions against Pakistan and the Muslims in the Valley will appease the minority community and swell his vote bank.
Gen (retd) Hasnain and other Kashmir experts feel Congress is facing an erosion of mass base and national footprint and is acting out of political desperation. In fact, there shouldn’t be a debate over the statement of the Army Chief. Gen Rawat did not declare war on innocent Kashmiri citizens. The ‘Liberal’ section of the media, which feels ‘embarrassed’ to praise anything and everything about India, ‘deliberately obfuscated’ General Rawat’s statement.
The party’s senior leader P Chidambaram was quoted by DNA as saying: “The Army chief’s comments are intemperate. It is a political problem which needs a political solution and a political reach out. I am worried and I request the government to halt this approach and adopt a different one. More infiltration and more encounters are taking place in the state and things are getting very bad.”
Nothing could be more ridiculous and shameful. Accusing the Army Chief of being intemperate, chief of the fourth largest army in the world, is insulting and intentionally undermining his authority. He must know, having been minister for years that innumerable number of meetings, dialogues and negotiations have been held over the years. The Mehbooba government is in Srinagar. Modi has appealed so many times to youth to join the mainstream. But they have preferred tying up with Pakistan to fight common ‘enemy’.
A party having leaders with the most deprecating and deplorable idea of politicising the Army is itself being anti-national and does not deserve to survive. A commentator assessed the 131-year old party well. “This is a mainstream political force, Congress appears rudderless and clueless. The party’s collapse is none of our concern. It becomes worrisome, however, when it tries to frequently drag the Army into the political ring.”
The Times of India reports that a Pakistani terrorist from Lashkar-e-Taiba managed to give security forces the slip at Hajjin in Bandipora. Quoting an intelligence officer, the report says terrorist sympathisers came out with lathis, rods and threw stones on the security forces. In south Kashmir’s Frisal, counter-insurgency forces came under attack from locals so that the terrorists could escape from the hideout. In another instance, three soldiers faced heavy stone-pelting at Parray Mohalla of Bandipore when they were about to launch an operation, reports Hindustan Times. The terrorists took this chance to fire hand grenades and automatic rifles leaving three troopers dead and some injured.
Syed Ata Hasnain, former GOC of India’s Srinagar based 15 Corps, explains this relatively new operating procedure of terrorists in his column for Swarajya magazine. He says, “Paid rabble-rousers in villages use the local mosque’s public address system and social media to generate a flash mob as soon as their intelligence networks bring information about an impending Army operation.” He writes, “This does three things to the situation: Prevents the Army from closing on the target hideout, obviates CRPF from being effective in the cordon, and diverts attention from focus of operations. It makes an already difficult situation far more challenging. Momentary loss of focus leads to casualties as exposure from cover is liable to make troops easier targets.”
There are two arms to this asymmetric battle, funded and planned from across the border. The first part involves, as has been described, pushing through terrorists who take advantage of local support to implement a shoot-and-run strategy. So far, the Army has been exercising “maximum restraint” during counter-terrorist operations to avoid civilian casualties. But clearly, this has emboldened the terrorists and resulted in higher fatalities for our security forces. It is in this context we must place Gen Rawat’s statement. “While our aim has been to conduct people-friendly operations, the manner in which the local population is preventing us from conducting the operations, at times even supporting the terrorists to escape. It is these factors which are leading to higher casualties among the security forces… We would now request the local population… local boys if they want to continue with the acts of terrorism, displaying flags of IS and Pakistan, then we will treat them as anti-national elements and go helter-skelter for them… If they do not relent and create hurdles, then we will take tough action,” he said.
Controlling militancy in foreign countries
The Indian security forces have now established a rare counter-terrorism strategy of using minimal force in narrowly targeted small unit operations, at great cost to lives of their own personnel. This militates against global practices, including the hallowed traditions of British counter-insurgency – despite the reams of nonsense written about “winning hearts and minds”, “that nauseating phrase I think I invented”, according to its original author, General Sir Gerald Templar. Indeed, Western practice has invariably been shaped by the principal and belief that is often attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, “If you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.”
The Americans have simply devastated nation after nation, and bombed out whatever they label “terrorist” – often in drone operations controlled from secure command centres on American soil, thousands of miles from the theatres of conflict – refusing to place their own troops at significant risk. And Pakistan, much-admired among the terrorist and separatist constituency of Kashmir, depopulates entire regions, and then blows up anything that moves in the “terrorist-affected areas”.
None of this is envisaged by counter-terrorism strategists in India today (though the crudities of Templar’s much-vaunted Malay model were followed in Mizoram). Nevertheless, the impunity with which terrorist collaborators have operated in Kashmir cannot continue.
A false narrative of human rights and the “innocence of the Kashmiri people” has undermined every principal of the rule of law in Kashmir, to the enduring detriment of the people themselves, ceding their leadership and control to a strident, violent, unelected minority.
This is not how democracies function – or, indeed, survive.
After this statement, a section of media worthies have started condemning the General’s statement but no Army chief can stay indifferent to fatalities suffered by his forces and cannot be expected to let the vulnerability remain unaddressed. General Rawat’s warning obviously wasn’t aimed at all dissenting Kashmiri youths but only against those who are actively aiding and abetting enemies of the state. But this military action, though necessary, doesn’t address the second arm of Pakistan’s asymmetric war. This involves creating a conducive atmosphere for insurgency and subversive activities through overt and covert means. If India’s stated goal is to bring stability in Kashmir then military action can only address one part of the problem. So far, we have remained oblivious to the way a radical, narrow version of Islam is being spread in Kashmir and how the insurgency is slowly changing in character from a clamour of independence to rise of an Islamic Caliphate. The waving of Islamic State flags is becoming more and more common.
There has also been, as usual, much talk of the necessity of a “political solution” to address the crisis of “alienation” in Kashmir. Indeed, a recent conference on counter-radicalisation and counter-terrorism in the global context articulated the proposition that “counter-violence… has not proven to be a successful strategy”. This contra-factual twaddle met with general approval, including that of many retired military brasses. The hard reality is that no movement of widespread violence in history has ever been contained or neutralised in the absence of proportionate, if not disproportionate, counter-violence. There are clearly no “political solutions” currently available to magically bring a Pakistan-backed terrorist movement to its end in Jammu and Kashmir. Indeed, as has been noted in the past, prevailing violence is an index of political failure – or, conversely, success. Encouragingly, it may be noted that violence has declined dramatically from the distressing levels that prevailed through the 1990s and early 2000s.
In an interview to Sanjib K Baruah of Asian Age, retired Major General Afsir Karim has red-flagged the increasing religious radicalisation of youth in Kashmir that Pakistan is using to great effect. He says there can’t be a military solution to this and there must be greater policy initiative at the national level. He also points out, “Pakistan has been inducting a large number of Wahhabi preachers in the valley, who are exhorting Kashmiri Muslims to give up their moderate Sufi culture and fight to establish Sharia laws. This movement is the vanguard of a new phase of war sought to be waged by the people.” Wikileaks has already released documents revealing the huge amount of funds being released by Saudi Arabia to spread Wahhabism in India.
The government must come up with a clear strategy. It must also remember that the moment civilian casualties increase during terrorist encounters, no one will remember the operational difficulties of Indian security forces or the way soldiers are being blindsided by local youths. The morality burden of both soldiers’ death and civilian fatalities will be India’s to bear. The entire narrative will change from terrorism to “oppression of Indian state” that will make Pakistan’s job easier. Therefore, military response must go hand in hand with policies aimed at reducing the support for terrorists among locals. This calls for long-term planning, not knee-jerk reactions.
One suggestion is that forgetting about vote-bank politics, Article 370 should be abrogated, and the Valley’s demography changed. A cancerous boil needs knife surgery. India has suffered too long the Valley’s animosity. It has to be dealt with determination. Come what may, the contours of the valley have to be drastically chiselled.
by Vijay Dutt