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November 4, 2009

Fewer troops in the Kashmiri heartland

After the successful conduct of assembly and parliamentary polls in Jammu & Kashmir, the alleged incident of rape and murder of two women in Shopian saw the return of protests, rallies and agitational politics. The incessant attention of the local and the national media has placed Chief Minister Omar Abdullah in an unenviable position.

This is reminiscent of last summer when a section of the Kashmiri population led by separatist leaders agitated after a parcel of land was transferred to the Amarnath shrine board by the state government. The vociferous nature of public protests led many Indian commentators to articulate an argument for Kashmir’s eventual secession from India. They despaired that India had lost the battle for the minds and hearts of the Kashmiri people.

However, only a few months later, despite the same separatist leaders issuing an unequivocal call for an election boycott, the assembly elections witnessed a very heavy participation from the electorate of the state. This led to many separatist leaders reconsidering their stand on elections. While Sajjad Lone chose to participate in the parliamentary polls, other separatist leaders—for the first time in two decades—refrained from calling for a boycott of the Lok Sabha polls. Thus, it appeared that successful conduct of two successive elections in the state had turned the tide decisively against the separatists and dented their claims of representing the aspirations of the Kashmiri awam. In this light, the alleged incidents at Sopore and Shopian have allowed the separatists to come back from hibernation and to show that they are not irrelevant.

The Shopian and the Amarnath land agitations mark a sharp shift in separatist strategy. Despite frequent attempts by hard line separatists to cast Kashmir as part of the global Islamist jihad in the last decade, the struggle for “self-determination” has adopted an ethno-political-nationalist idiom to justify its movement against the Indian state. But faced with dwindling support from the Kashmiri awam and little international appetite for their diatribe against the Indian state, the hardliners are now trumpeting the religious-ethnic identity argument— an Islamic Kashmir whose very survival as a “Muslim land” is under threat from a largely Hindu India—to rouse the average Kashmiri against the Indian state and revive the fortunes of separatist politics.

While this “Islam is in danger” slogan is clearly successful in rallying the crowds—it doesn’t clash with the average Kashmiri’s urge for economic growth and development—the separatists realise that they must dent the credibility of the promising and charismatic new chief minister to succeed against him politically. Incidents such as the ones in Sopore and Shopian provide an excellent opportunity to the separatists to direct public ire against the state government. These unfortunate but relatively minor incidents, hardly unique to Kashmir in the Indian context, tend to conflagrate into bigger stories of Kashmiri grievance with many diverse and unconnected issues ending up at the top of the separatists’ discourse in these protests.

The mainstream political parties in the state—from Mufti Mohammed Sayeed’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) to the Congress Party—have shied away from confronting the separatists ideologically. While the overt armed support provided by the jihadis to the separatists certainly has a role to play in this unwillingness, it also points to the mainstream politicians’ lack of trust and faith in the central government. It is here that New Delhi must step in and initiate certain major steps to shore up the confidence of those who support India in this proxy war in Kashmir.

The first and foremost among these steps is to reconsider the deployment of the central security forces in the state, and review the desirability of continuance of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). The deployment of the central forces, under the AFSPA, is an emotional rallying point for the separatists that no elected government in the state can counter credibly.

After the Sopore protests, Mr Abdullah lobbied New Delhi hard for withdrawal of AFSPA from the state. The same story has been repeated after the recent Shopian incident. The army has opposed this vehemently—arguing that the anti-militancy operations in Kashmir would be adversely affected in the absence of AFSPA. The military operations against the jihadis in Pakistan, and resultant media spotlight on the continuing terror threat to India, has aided the army’s argument.

Nevertheless, the army’s argument needs to be examined carefully and dispassionately. Now, no sensible observer would argue that the situation in Kashmir has improved to the extent that the complete withdrawal of the army from counterinsurgency operations is plausible in the medium-term.

However, it does not follow that army should operate in the entire region in the same manner—the security contexts at the Line of Control (LoC) and Srinagar, for instance, are very different. Indeed, the prevalent notion that army requires a carte blanche to operate across the entire state makes little sense. The army has to be at the forefront of counter-terrorism operations on the LoC, but it should play a secondary role to the political leadership in counter-insurgency operations in the Kashmiri heartland.

Theorists describe counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy in three simplified stages: clear, hold and build. Today, Indian security forces have largely “cleared” Kashmir’s key population centres of major terrorist threats. As there is no indigenous terrorist movement in Kashmir, the process of “hold” has to be implemented on the LoC to prevent Pakistan-aided terrorists from infiltrating into the Kashmiri heartland. Its dynamics must be left entirely to the army. Finally, the process of “build” is a socio-political process that has to start from the population centres in the state under the guidance of the political leadership of the state—with a substantially reduced role for the army.

With the improvement in the security—especially in population centres—and the election of a popular government, the security goals need to be woven into the larger narrative of reconciliation and peace. The civilian-army conflict—the cause of much angst among ordinary Kashmiris—takes place not in isolated forests but in large population centres. An army-led operation to kill the terrorists in the remote forests of Kupwara is necessary and justified, but similar aggressive actions by the army in population centres can have far-reaching— and often damaging — social and political consequences.

The issue of AFSPA and the conduct of the army in population centres has always provided much ammunition to the separatists. Therefore, the greater challenge in Kashmir is to balance the security considerations with political  imperatives. It is possible to resolve this conundrum if the primary responsibility for securing law and order in population centres is gradually transferred to a re-invigorated local police while the army is placed in the support role—to conduct special operations beyond the capacity of the local police. As the army recedes in to the background

in these areas, the question of AFSPA becomes superfluous to the whole debate. A lowering of political temperature would provide the government with enough space to consider a bold political decision on the continuation of AFSPA in these regions.

More importantly, such a measure will help create confidence among mainstream politicians of the state to take on the separatists ideologically. The battle for winning the ideological space in Kashmir has to be fought by mainstream political, social and religious leaders of the state. All actions of the Indian government must empower this local leadership in Kashmir. An area-wise review of deployment of the central forces, army and the Rashtriya Rifles—leading to a reconsideration of the employment of the AFSPA in certain areas of the state—will deflate the separatist balloon and move the state firmly on the path of permanent peace and normalcy.

The political leaderships in New Delhi and Srinagar must appreciate the distinction in employment and the role of the army in different parts of the state. More than the Omar Abdullah government at Srinagar, it is the UPA government at Delhi that can decide the future course of action in Kashmir.


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