By Lt Gen (Retd) Syed Ata Hasnain*
After the 2013 hanging of Afzal Guru, many had expected that the Valley would boil. Nothing much happened, leading people to inquire from Kashmiris as to why this was so. Friends from Kashmir often say that people from the Valley do not respond to events immediately, and that they nurse a grudge or a grouse and add layers of it to their psyche before allowing it to vent into action.
That is why unnatural silence is never good. The silence in the Valley at present can at best be called ominous. It is giving people a break from all the terrible negativity. There is a sizeable population that believes what has happened is wrong but its voice is drowned out by a noisy and clamorous set who wish to dictate the course.
The ominous silence is palpable. Terrorists attempted to break that with the recent ambush at Pampore. That is a tactical event for the Army to sort out by strengthening road security along the highway.
What should the State leadership and the Centre be doing at this time? Aside of congratulating themselves on the demonetisation exercise and its supposed effect of stopping stone throwing there is much that can be done in the winter that will have a positive impact in the summer. There is no need to allow the separatists the initiative to decide what they wish to do.
Firstly, Jammu can begin becoming the hub of the ‘way forward’ discussions. Not among Jammuites alone but between various stakeholders, such as a few Kashmiri students, traders, teachers, retired bureaucrats and policemen. Let the media in Kashmir begin reporting this even though it would tend to initially ignore it.
Secondly, if the Separatists do begin street turbulence again, the police forces had better have answers in the form of non-lethal weapons. The pellet gun that took away much credibility from our otherwise fairly controlled response in 2016 has been branded as the symbol of all oppression. In such internal asymmetric conflicts, symbolism becomes significant. An injury by a pellet gun again will magnify the negative message manifold. Hence, if alternatives cannot be thought of, then the tactics must be thought through, albeit there is no reason why universal methods of crowd control cannot be adapted by India’s police forces. Institutions such as the National Police Academy or even the Central Reserve Police Force Academy, whose job it is to act as intellectual planks for doctrinal guidance for the police forces, must be deeply involved in the research on control of mob violence and employment of non lethal weapons.
The administration should be looking at ensuring societal stability. There are reports of enhanced vigilantism of the kind societies in the throes of radicals suffer. Within India’s social tolerance, such a phenomenon cannot hold people and society to ransom. No administration can absolve itself of the responsibilities of stopping this. Where are Kashmir’s elected representatives? Are they with their people or spending time in Jammu? The political class has to get back to the grind of politics, and that begins from the grassroots and not from the Assembly House. Specific areas that have witnessed voids of such activity for long must have their representatives visiting them along with the ‘intezamiya’ (local civil administration). The Army should only be too happy to create the environment and confidence for this. Its role is not independent from the overall efforts needed to restore normalcy and prevent resurgence of a 2016 like situation again.
What Should the Army be Doing?
As one of the key stakeholders and stabilisers, the Army should be in overdrive in what it is really good at, i.e. in playing potential scenarios of the future. It should also involve other stake holders and even Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti herself who is seen to be far more involved with Unified Command than most of her predecessors. It does this wonderfully. The new Army Chief, an experienced hand, will assume office soon. The Army and Corps Commanders are new and most of the division commanders are due for change. Winter is usually the time for conventional war games in Northern Command. These can always be converted to comprehensive exercises to think the situations through and evolve ideas. The involvement of other institutions such as the Army War College and the Doctrine Branch of Army Training Command must be increased. The degree of thinking the Army does on its current threats in the hybrid sphere is perhaps insufficient. The Northern Command needs as much intellectual support because its command and staff functionaries are always short of time. For measure, the quality of protection of the soft targets in the rear needs to improve manifold. One cannot be strong everywhere but there is nothing that intelligent deployment, back to basics and good response cannot overcome.
The Unified Command must think well ahead. If there is peace and quiet in the Valley once the Durbar returns in May 2017 all the traditional issues will get thrown up again. Among them the West Pakistan Refugees, the return of the Kashmiri Pandits, the restoration of the Kashmiri Pandit culture, and most importantly, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). After the spate of violence in 2016, it was presumed that demands for abrogation of AFSPA were no longer valid as the need for empowerment of the Army was a given. However, even six months down the line if there is peace, demands against AFSPA will rise. Everyone will get back to trying to understand what it is all about. By that time the Army’s hierarchies would have changed and institutional memory being what it is, much reinvention of the wheel would again be taking place. To avoid that, the hard work should be done now by teams of experienced officers.
One simple exercise on social media urging parents to get their children to school had phenomenal effect on turnout for examinations. If just a few themes are selected jointly by the Unified Command to work through social media campaigns, it will boost our capability to fight in different dimensions. The Northern Command is gaining experience in this and the State Government must join hands with it to run more such campaigns.
Both Pakistan and India will shortly have new military leaderships. Let us hope that better sense prevails and J&K can look forward to an elongated period of peace and quiet, without there being anything ominous about it.
* Lt Gen (Retd) Syed Ata Hasnain
Member, Governing Council, IPCS, & former GOC, 15 Corps, Srinagar