By Lt Gen (Retd) Syed Ata Hasnain*
Something that escaped most observers even as queues at ATMs increased and worries about the next purchase of vegetables kept attention focused, is the sudden quieting of the situation in the Kashmir Valley. In ferment since 08 July 2016, when Burhan Wani was killed, stamina just collapsed after the Durbar moved to Jammu for the winter. Perhaps it was realised well in time that demonstrations and stone throwing are supposedly instruments to communicate collective negative emotions and angst. However, when there is no government to paralyse, no tourists to harass and no minorities to intimidate, there is not much point in protesting. That is the phenomenon that always takes place around the end of the year in the Valley. No doubt this year the de-monetisation exercise is contributing to ensure that professional stone throwers cannot earn their bread nor the smack, ganja or other drugs because there is not cash around with the organisers.
There is an opportunity beckoning here that needs to be grabbed. The emerging window is one in which the missing outreach can be restored. There has been much public debate through the summer such that awareness levels on the real problem of J&K have risen considerably. Everyone blames Pakistan for creating the mayhem on the streets and the strife. But equally after many years there is a majority consensus that the governance and outreach deficits are as much to blame. It is long since any commentaries have appeared blaming Article 370, the failure of ensuring conditions for safe return of the Pandits or even the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). Jammu has approached the problem with sincere maturity through the last many months, without raising a voice of protest despite that there has been reason to feel slighted. There cannot be a better time than now to demonstrate how the Establishment can empathise with the plight of those in the Valley who want to be delivered from the control of the young vigilantes and stop becoming a mirror image of Pakistan with radical faith dictating their lives. Scratch and scratch hard, because under the surface, there is a public awaiting a kind word and a change of heart.
The Army has been the quickest to realise it, as usual, sensing an opportunity. Throughout the summer and the autumn, it doggedly continued its counter-terrorism campaign without getting involved with too many stone throwers and demonstrators. As Headquarters Northern Command made available two brigades to 15 Corps, the challenge was in understanding, evolving, communicating and executing the concept of operations. The demonstration of its concept is best exemplified not by its operations on the LoC, which have been professional no doubt and not by the quick control it established over the so called fedayeens who were threatening to go out of control at a point in time. Instead, it is demonstrated by the runaway success of the most innocuous of all things – a program called ‘School Chalo’ (Let us go to School), once again confirming the immense role of military soft power.
Readers would be aware that schools in the Valley have been shut for the last four months. An atrocious program of burning of schools has been undertaken by unknown elements that are anti-national in character. The Separatists perceive that a way of preventing the return of normalcy is to ensure schools remain closed. The young vigilantes in the rural areas, the ones controlling the stone throwing and holding their parents and elders to ransom, also have no wish to return to school.
However, a vigorous social media campaign run by the Army in South Kashmir to bring home the message of its support to elders and parents, resonated splendidly in the hearts of the weary population. Schools reopened, the examinations drew 98 per cent attendance and the enthusiasm as per ground reports, was palpable.
This is one of the major successes of the Army employing a combination of ground campaign and social media outreach. It gives an indicator that more than anything else, the Army has simply to lead the way in outreach, social engagement and restoration of confidence. The State Government must take ownership of this success; it is not the Army’s success alone because through and through it would have been discussed at the frequent Unified Command meetings and the Chief Minister would have been well aware of it, making it her success.
What does this signify? For those observing the virtual great game in the Valley, it should send home the lesson that a weary population needs to be handled with a heart and requires its hearts to be touched. This is a hearts game waiting to be played all over again. Restoration of self-esteem is the need as much as weeding out of rabble rousers. A degree of reverse vigilantism on the mosques; facilitation of the movement and meeting of political representatives with their constituencies; energetic return of governance demonstrated by good administrative performance against the vagaries of the expected severe winter; and domination of the social media space by positive messaging, will communicate the State Government’s will and capability. The Army must assist in this energetically and whole heartedly. Just remember, it is all about ‘whole of government approach’ which will turn the tide and the Army must guide the government through with all its experience and knowledge of conflict.
The concept of Moral Dominance of the narrative remains the job of the Army, just as I strongly advocated in September 2016 when two infantry brigades were moving into deployment in South Kashmir. That is the way forward. Subsequently, build on it next summer. India will yet mainstream the Kashmiri populace – the Awam.
* Lt Gen (Retd) Syed Ata Hasnain
Member, Governing Council, IPCS, & former GOC, 15 Corps, Srinagar