Speaking at the ninth Y B Chavan memorial lecture at Indian Institute of Defence Studies & Analysis on “Addressing the Challenges of hybrid conflicts in the 21st century” on November 28, Chief of the Army Staff, General Bipin Rawat, spoke, among other things, about insurgency in Jammu & Kashmir. While one admires his candour in acknowledging that India is fighting a war in Kashmir, he said “I think you have to accept that collateral damage will happen. It is war. If that is something which we can accept, then there is just no problem in using these (drones) kind of weapons”.
Although Rawat remained scrupulously silent about the use of pellet guns against civilians which, despite public protests, continues to be used maiming, blinding or killing, what struck me most was when he said that “(i)nsurgency which started in 1989 has had its ups and downs”. And then went on to assert that “(w)e came down to a situation that we believed was hunky dory. But when things become comfortable, we went into a kind of limbo, thinking peace has returned. Not knowing that every time peace returns, the terrorists have utilised this period to rebuild their capacity and strength. Therefore, sustained pressure is required...Let us look at tiring the other side”.
While the first part of the reported statement was factually correct where Rawat spoke of “ups and downs” of militancy, the latter part about militants “rebuilding their capacity” is misdirected. Therein, in fact lies, a seminal shift in understanding as to what has been going wrong in J&K. Many senior commanders of the Army, from time-to-time, have pointed out that while the Army pushed back armed militancy several times in the past, there was lack of political initiative to seize the opportunity created. Scholars who write on strategic matters and senior Army officers who have served in J&K, have reminded us that there can be no military solution to the Kashmir dispute, which is in need of a political resolution. Field studies of counter-insurgency operations in J&K point out that even when local people praise the Army for its social work, they are one in describing them as an occupation army, and want azaadi.
Writing in The Tribune on June 23, 2018, retired Lt General DS Hooda, after averring that the “overall strategy is obviously a joint politico-military exercise, the aim he wrote was to create a “secure environment” so that “all functions of government can be carried out without fear”. He goes on to say that the “primary task” is to create conditions to enable holding of elections “peacefully and as practically feasible”, and concluded that the Army’s “strategy has proved successful and, on many occasions, brought the state to near normalcy. If any change in approach is required, it is in looking beyond the military sphere”. In other words, Hooda was drawing attention to what was conspicuously missing -- the political approach. While reducing political approach to elections is most unfortunate because this skirts the elephant in the room, namely, the unresolved dispute over Kashmir, his oblique reference to the lack of political initiative cannot be missed.
It’s worth recall that young people drew towards militancy after 2013 after having experienced the bloody suppression of non-violent mass agitations in 2008-2012. Indeed, thereafter local recruitment to militancy began rising. Thus, in 2014, as many as 63 youth joined militant ranks, 83 in 2015, 84 in 2016, 128 in 2017 and in 164 in 2018 till October-end. And out of the 290-320 active militants active, no less than 200 are Kashmiris. The number of local militants may be lower than the actual numbers because of under-reporting by families. It is also worth remembering that Jaish-e-Mohammad was nowhere around after 2003 and revived only after 2016 in the wake of Burhan Muzzfaffar Wani’s killing. Which is to say that Pakistan’s involvement and interference, of which much is made out, is due to the opportunity offered to them by the government of India’s own miserable political failure. This got compounded when the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government took over in Delhi. With this legitimising of a military solution to what is fundamentally a political dispute, has made things worse.
Notably, 2002 onwards there was a discernible shift away from guns and towards mass unarmed protests in 2008. Since 2016, the pendulum has swung back towards armed militancy. This did not happen because “peace” and “normalcy” were exploited by militants to regroup. Rather it is the failure of the government of India to seize the moment in 2008 and after, because no sincere efforts were made to initiate a political process, thus squandering the opportunity. Presumably, the reason for this failure was because the GoI had nothing to offer, believing that militancy had been defeated, normalcy was round the corner, and there was no compulsion to make political concessions. The offer of autonomy is a broken record, brought out whenever conflict escalates. It has no takers, because it has been hollowed out, barring the provision of state subjecthood.
Sadly, the politics being played over J&K shows poverty of imagination in the corridors and seats of power. One does not have to go too far in the past to realise this. Imposition of Governor’s rule, appointment of a ‘political’ Governor, whose public statements confound and please in equal measure, have seen a noticeable upscaling of military operations. The manner in which the Governor, after refusing to dissolve the Assembly, rushed to do it, speaks volumes about how far BJP was willing to go to usurp power in J&K. The Governor justified the dissolution by saying that he was afraid that there would be ‘horse trading’ and chaos had he not done so. But the moot point is that under Governor’s rule, which party was using its muscle and money power to ‘horse trade’ MLAs? Is any party other than BJP and its allies in J&K under Governor’s rule, capable of wheeling-dealing? He rushed to dissolve the Assembly once People’s Democratic Party, backed by National Conference and Congress, pitched Mehbooba Mufti’s party’s claim. This upset the applecart that BJP was counting on, because it pre-empted the cobbling together being attempted by BJP and its allies. The point is that such machinations are confidence busters.
Besides, to blame ‘radicalisation’ on outside agencies is a tried, tested and myopic approach. To deny its indigenous roots is a fatal flaw. Especially when in India the GoI is encouraging Right wing Hindutva fanaticism. Corporate media and the charmed circle around BJP may pretend that India is somehow not experiencing subversion of its constitutional democracy at the hands of BJP and its cohorts or that all India’s problems in J&K are a result of Pakistan’s diabolical gameplan. The fact is that it is the Indian government which has enabled Pakistan to fish in troubled waters, by virtually closing all avenues of protest and expression, forestalling any political initiative and jeopardising the right to life of people by giving legal immunity to the military to kill on suspicion, which has resulted in many unsolved cases of custodial murder, torture, rape, disappearances, and pushing people on to the social media, as also driving them to take up arms again.
Amidst this ground reality, where does the visit by the ex-Prime Minister of Norway, Kjell Magne Bondevik, to Kashmir fit in? In last five years, no foreign envoy was allowed to meet the Joint Resistance Leadership. So, how come Bondevik was allowed to visit Srinagar and meet, apart from JRL, the Bar Association and Kashmir Chamber of Commerce, while staying away from meeting anyone from among the pro-India political parties? He then travelled to Muzzafarabad where at a press conference he spoke of gross human rights violations committed in the Indian side of Kashmir. What does that signify?
Bondevik’s was facilitated by spiritual guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, famed for causing environmental damage to the Yamuna floodplain in Delhi, and said to be close to BJP and RSS. It seems the “godman” was obliged, knowing fully well, that this was an empty exercise. Because it has been a longstanding insistence of the GoI to deny any role for third party mediation over J&K. But it helps to counter the narrative gaining currency the world over that India has much to answer for the bloody mess that J&K has become. The UNHRC report has had a great resonance internationally. So, by showcasing Bondevik’s visit prior to the G20 summit helps, it is believed, to reduce international opprobrium over Kashmir and convey that things may be bad but GoI is doing something about ameliorating it. Although in reality, nothing has changed on the ground.
Against this background, it would have been better were the Army chief to understand that insurgencies maybe fought militarily, but can only be brought to an end through a sustained and sincere political process. The Indian people’s tragedy is that successive GoI have been clueless about what they are willing to offer Kashmiris. Especially when the demand for autonomy itself has been termed as anti-national by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and BJP openly advocates assimilation. The political process has, so to say, nowhere to go.
The Supreme Court memorably pointed out in 2016 that “ordinarily our armed forces should not be used against our countrymen and women” and if it’s absolutely necessary, then there has to be a “reasonable period”. So, the point is that if after nearly three decades, the armed forces are talking of “tiring out” militants, whose numbers are a few hundred, then it speaks volumes about the quality and value of the military approach guiding it, and the senseless political thinking pushing for a military solution. In other words, political wisdom is sorely in short supply when it is needed most, because even enlightened self-interest has no takers in India’s ruling circle.