The abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A has put the Army in a new and unknown terrain even as it comes to grips with escalating resentment and radicalisation in the Valley
The Indian Army has held Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) together since October 27, 1947, when troops were airlifted into Kashmir Valley, hours after the Instrument of Accession was signed by Maharaja Hari Singh the day before. October 27 is celebrated as Infantry Day; ‘Infantry’ being the queen of the battlefield. Infantry and the Army have become synonymous. The latter has since not ceased fighting, defending and protecting J&K. Every Infantry soldier has spent the best part of his youth on the Cease-Fire line (CFL) and after the 1971 war, Line of Control (LoC). Nearly one-third of the Infantry is deployed on the LoC along with sizeable other supporting units of the Army. Previously, they were deployed only on CFL/LoC but now, they are in the rear areas, too, protecting the lifeline to forward posts. The Army is twin tasked: Defending the LoC and fighting insurgency behind LoC, thus maintaining the sovereignty and integrity of J&K. Intermittently, a debate starts on whether the Army could have re-taken one-third of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) still held by Pakistan. Given the geopolitics of Partition, balance of military forces and historical evidence, this was not feasible. It is wrong to blame Jawaharlal Nehru and indulge in wishful thinking.
My own tryst with J&K began days after my commissioning on December 15, 1957, when I arrived in Srinagar on my way to join 2/5 Gorkha Rifles (FF), winner of three Victoria Crosses. The battalion was deployed near Uri in a blissfully serene environment. Roads and tracks near villages and towns were lined with rosy-cheeked kids offering apples, flowers and smiles to the troops. Soldiers would visit Srinagar on weekends to exult in the magic of the Dal Lake and Shalimar Gardens. Kashmiris were friendly and inquisitive. Those days, some officers did not even own a watch and when they asked for local time, it was indicated but accompanied with the wry question: “But what is the time in India?” Ten years after accession, for Kashmiris, across the Banihal was another country.
The 1965 war triggered off by Pakistan’s ‘Operation Gibraltar’ started in Rajouri sector, south of Pir Panjal. The battalion was in the thick of it. Because of local Kashmiri support, Operation Gibraltar failed. The kids were back with apples and smiles. I returned a third (and a fourth) time to J&K with my Gorkhas to Kargil-Leh after fighting the 1971 war in the east and west. Pakistani troops were on their best behaviour, thanks to the Simla Agreement which had put a lid on violence. The insurgency, which started only in 1987 after the rigged elections in J&K, has waxed and waned since recording high points in the 1990s, 2008, 2010 and 2016. The big change: Flowers and fruit offerings changed to stones, abuses and cries of azadi. My visits to J&K continued in the 1990s and a decade later at the peak of insurgency. I joined a People’s Group concerned about the difficulties faced by Kashmiris and Jammuites, in villages divided by the fencing on LoC. After investing most of my Army time understanding the internal factor in J&K, upon retirement, I joined the seminar circuit to understand the jugular vein of J&K in the Pakistan card.
In 2003, following the attack on Parliament by Lashkar and Jaish terrorists from Pakistan, I was appointed convenor of the India-Pakistan Track II initiative, which survived uninterrupted till last year when even German sponsors thought the investment risked its own good offices — so deep was the India anti-Pakistan sentiment following Uri and Pulwama.
The Kashmiris have borne the brunt of both the predominantly Pakistan-instigated insurgency and cross-border terrorism. The Army is entrapped by these two evils. It is true that during 1947, 1965, 1971 and 1999 wars, the people of J&K stood shoulder to shoulder with India and the Army. Kashmiri shepherds were the ones who gave early warning about Pakistani intrusions in 1965 and 1999 conflicts. The Army has held the State together despite political instability, corruption and misgovernance of both State and Centre through most of the 72 years. Its several Sadbhavana programmes, rescue and relief missions during floods and earthquakes and people-friendly projects, which captured hearts and minds, were marred only by rare fake encounters.
Without meaningful political initiatives, parts of Kashmir have turned into hot-beds of insurgency and terrorism. The Army’s Operation All Out has certainly put it and other security forces on top, confining terrorism to few of 10 districts of the Valley but without addressing the exponentially growing alienation and radicalisation.
The 250-odd militants in the Valley are mostly locals, poorly trained but highly motivated, especially in the post-Burhan Wani period. But motivation, no substitute for lack of terrorism skills, has restricted the life cycle of militants to a few weeks and months, not years as in the past. The Army has forfeited its popular local support as civilians now glorify martyred militants and actively disturb its military operations. Yesterday’s apple givers have turned stone-pelters.
The Army is in aid to civil authority since the late 1980s in J&K where the Disturbed Areas Act, Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act and Public Safety Act are promulgated. Its mission in internal conflict situations is to create an environment conducive to conflict resolution, which it has on several occasions, without the political class displaying requisite will to engage with internal and external stakeholders. Now, after the momentous decision of de-operationalising Articles 370 and 35A, a new and unknown terrain lies ahead for the Army — this following the loss of identity by Kashmiris and the unprecedented step of demoting the State into a Union Territory. These perceived punitive actions rather than ending terrorism, as envisaged, will spike insurgency and extend its life for another 30 years, according to the Observer Research Foundation’s Kashmiri researcher, Khalid Shah.
The enduring image of Kashmir in lockdown will confront the Army as it comes to grips with escalating resentment and radicalisation and remains stuck for a few more decades. Despite our denials, the internationalisation of Kashmir has already begun, thanks to Messrs Xi Jinping and Donald Trump. Two futures are envisioned. One by New Delhi, of Kashmir turning into a land of milk and honey; and the other by the silent few: Of more and worse of the same. Only the Supreme Court can reverse the triumphalist action of the State — involuntary integration of J&K with the rest of India. Either way, for most Kashmiris, across the Banihal will remain another country. For Army’s sake, one hopes it is otherwise.
(The writer is a retired Major General of the Indian Army and founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, currently the revamped Integrated Defence Staff)
Writer: Ashok K Mehta
Courtesy: The Pioneer