By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 21st Apr 16
On Tuesday, army chief General Dalbir Singh flew to Srinagar and Kupwara to be briefed by his top Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) commanders on the situation after the reported molestation of a schoolgirl in Handwara last Tuesday, and the killing of five civilians in the street protests and stone pelting that followed.
The army chief wanted to know: do his soldiers face another season of violent street protests, like the three bloody summers at the end of the last decade: in 2008 over outgoing governor Lieutenant General SK Sinha’s ill-judged plan to acquire land for the Amarnath Yatra; in 2009 over eventually disproved allegations that the security forces had abducted, raped and murdered two local women in Shopian, in South Kashmir; and the worst in 2010, when over a hundred civilians were killed in months of street protests stemming from the murders of three civilians in a “fake encounter” in Machhil, in North Kashmir.
The bland press release that followed Singh’s visit to Kashmir suggested a bleak assessment, noting: “the Army Chief… impressed upon all to ensure security in the area in concert with [the] police and civil administration.”
The army finds itself, yet again, trapped again with a cleft stick --- responsible for maintaining security amongst an increasingly resentful and activist populace on the one hand; and, on the other, with no political dialogue to release the pressure and consolidate the gains of security operations.
Worryingly, intelligence assessments indicate that growing disaffection amongst the youth is ceding ground to fundamentalist Islamist groups like Daesh (also called the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL). Analysts fear that frustration could morph a separatist insurgency into a pan-Islamist jihad based on Palestine-style street uprisings (intifada) and the deployment of terror weapons --- suicide vests, truck bombs and fidayeen-style attacks on civilian targets outside Kashmir. This would also see the separatist leadership pass into the hands of far more radical entities than the known leaders in the Hurriyat Conference.
Already, Islamist proselytizing groups, generously funded from places like Saudi Arabia, have gained ground in Kashmir. The syncretic Kashmiriyat culture has visibly given way to a more puritanical, West Asian Islam. The schoolgirl who was molested in Handwara was not donning the traditional Kashmiri headscarf, but a hijab that would have been rare two decades ago.
Aggravating the army’s predicament is a complicated political playfield in J&K that almost arouses nostalgia for the previous chief minister, Omar Abdullah --- who the army disliked for his unrelenting efforts to lift the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), but admitted was a nationalist. Now, the generals must deal with Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti from the People’s Democratic Party (PDP), who they regard warily as a separatist sympathizer; and her Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) coalition partners who regard her as even worse. Given the distrust within the PDP-BJP ruling alliance, the army is not relying on political dialogue to counter public alienation.
Instead, the alliance partners are stoking dangerous religious polarization between the Jammu region and Kashmir. The BJP (and, to some extent, the Congress) are whipping up Hindu communal passions in Jammu, in a mirror image of the Muslim-identity politics being played by groups in Kashmiri. Identity politics have spread to Ladakh, with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh instigating Buddhist groups there against the Shia Muslims who comprise half of Ladakh’s population.
With our apolitical generals diffident about urging New Delhi to alleviate matters by initiating talks with Kashmiri separatists, Pakistan’s continuing meddling provides them some clarity. Defending the 776-kilometre Line of Control (LoC) and stopping militant infiltration from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir is a priority, with no scope for gentleness. However, a softer approach is evident in the army’s counter-militant operations in the hinterland. Two recent cases of trigger-happiness by army troops were followed by public apologies from the northern army commander, Lieutenant General DS Hooda --- something that would have been hard to imagine earlier.
Even so, given Kashmir’s bloody recent history and embittered public sentiment, there is only limited traction in expressions of regret. And the army steadfastly opposes lifting AFSPA, despite it being a potent lightning rod for Kashmiri anger and a symbol of state repression. The army’s logic is simple: in the absence of a political dialogue with the separatists, public order remains unpredictable. Were the situation to spiral out of control, the army would not like to find itself without the shelter of AFSPA.
From multiple perspectives, and especially for justifying the BJP-PDP alliance in Srinagar, there is a compelling case for the Centre to initiate a dialogue with J&K separatists. Kashmiri leaders point out bitterly that several prime ministers have met Naga separatist leaders, but not even a junior minister has talked to Kashmiri separatists. Without the leverage that comes from sustained dialogue, New Delhi can only watch impotently as Hurriyat leaders make their way to the Pakistan High Commission, and Islamabad continues to paint India in international forums as an occupier in Kashmir.
Insensitive to this complex political-ideological backdrop, the media reports events in J&K largely in the framework of security. Military analysts, who also seldom look beyond the security context, have pronounced the Handwara confrontation entirely predictable, although security managers failed spectacularly in predicting it. Cloaking this failure in success, they suggest that security forces’ successes were compelling militants into desperate incidents to signal that they might be down, but were not out. To explain why a young schoolgirl would provide the trigger, Handwara is dismissed as a “staged event”.
Analysts have also suggested replacing the army in towns and villages with armed police like the Central Reserve Policy Force. This begs the question: what role then for the Rashtriya Rifles (RR), 65 army battalions that are mostly deployed in the J&K hinterland?
On the ground, the army continues to deal with growing public frustration, evident from swelling crowds at militants’ funerals, and mobs throwing stones at soldiers battling cornered militants. And, without a high profile political outreach from New Delhi, the situation in J&K can only deteriorate.