By Ashok Bhan*
Indian Army Chief Gen Bipin Rawat has rightly shown his serious concern regarding the developing situation in the Kashmir valley where interference of separatists’ supporters is jeopardising the implementation of collateral-damage-free counter-insurgency operations. These protests have led to losses of lives of security force (SF) personnel and even escape of terrorists – both of which were avoidable. On 12 and 14 February 2017, eight terrorists were killed in three encounters that were based on specific information regarding the presence of the former in residential houses at Nagbal Frisal (Kulgam), Hajan (Bandipora) and Handwara; but these operations also led to the deaths of two civilians and six SF personnel, including a Major in the Indian Army, and injuries to over a dozen SF personnel (including a Commanding Officer of the CRPF). In these encounters, locals are learnt to have gathered in large numbers and alerted the hiding terrorists, and even pelted stones at the SFs, resulting in unusually large casualties on the SF side.
This is not the first time that SF personnel have lost lives fighting terrorists in such numbers. The difference is that in the past, generally, such high numbers of casualties occurred in explosions, suicide attacks, ambushes and hit-and-run incidents in crowded places – always initiated by the terrorists. This time, as well as in most other cases in the recent past, the losses of lives took place during information-based operations wherein the troops had had time to plan and go well prepared. The locals’ large scale support for the terrorists during these operations is a cause for concern. The Army Chief has appropriately voiced his concern and has warned those attacking SFs during anti-militancy operations of tough action. There are reports of the state government issuing prohibitory orders in a three kilometre belt surrounding an operation site to keep the protestors away from the line of fire.
Security Related Trends
Between January 1990 and December 2016, 5630 SF personnel (including 983 Jammu and Kashmir Police personnel, 486 Special Police Officers and 131 Village Defence Committee members) lost their lives in the ongoing armed conflict. As per the J&K State CID statistics, over 27 years, one SF member has lost his/her life for nearly four terrorists killed (see table below). In the initial years (1990-98) the terrorists were present in large numbers and operations were carried out unhindered, resulting in proportionately fewer losses of SF personnel. During its Kargil misadventure and thereafter (1999-2003), Pakistan inducted hardened foreign mercenaries; and the state witnessed a spate of suicide attacks leading to higher casualties on the SF side, with one soldier’s life lost for every three terrorists killed. Thereafter, in the decade spanning 2003-12, a steady ratio of 3.5:1 was witnessed. In the past four years (2013-16) one SF personnel’s life was lost for every two terrorists killed.
This is indicative, in addition to other evidence, of the drift in the situation on ground, and must be noted with seriousness.
Period [1990-2016 (twenty-seven years)]: Terrorists Killed (21930); SF Casualties (5630); Ratio of Terrorists to SF Casualties (3.9:1)
The increase in casualties in the recent times can be partly attributed to fewer numbers of terrorists being spread over a large area, making counter-insurgency operations tedious and man power intensive. Additionally, fresh induction of locals in militant ranks, better training, increased infiltration, ceasefire violations by Pakistan, and increase in local support for terrorists have all contributed to this situation over the past four years. Despite India’s best efforts, Pakistan is not keen on resumption of dialogue and there exists a lull in the engagement with the separatist groups. Meanwhile, Pakistan is exploiting its support base in the Valley to the fullest extent. The 2016 agitation that followed the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani has increased local support for militants and separatists. There are reports of separatists’ plans to resume protests and agitations after winter ends.
There is a disconnect between the elected representatives and their constituents, particularly in the Kashmir valley, and alienation has increased. Mainstream politicians, instead of reaching out to the people, are busy indulging in army-bashing at every opportunity. This is demoralising for the SFs and encourages hostile elements to lay impediments to the former’s operational duties. Barring the chief minister, all other Valley based leaders are maintaining a studied silence, expecting the SFs to magically bring peace. Meanwhile, the agitating separatists construe this silence as support.
It is a tight rope walk for the SFs in such a hostile environment. People-friendly measures to avoid collateral damage and operating with hands tied behind will mean more casualties and demoralisation for the troops and the police. Conversely, harsher measures will further alienate the people. While the SFs must carry out their mandated responsibility of flushing out terrorists, other players cannot ignore their role of reaching out to the people and other stake holders any further. The fact of the matter is that isolating Pakistan or avoiding separatists has not helped India’s cause in Kashmir. The wait-and-watch approach has not yielded any positive results.
The peace process in Jammu and Kashmir faces a serious challenge that cannot be met by security forces alone. The Army Chief has voiced his concern and has appropriately reflected on his mandated area of responsibility. The political leadership at the Centre and in the State will have to urgently review the situation and take appropriate initiatives to ease the law and order situation on the ground to prevent recurrence and escalation of the violence and protests of 2016.
Distinguished Fellow, IPCS; Former Director General of Police, J&K; former Member, National Security Advisory Board, India