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No, J&K is NOT Syria. And Army Chief Can’t Fix 70-Yr-Old Conflict

The complexity of Kashmir conflict is such that an alternative narrative to ‘azaadi’ has not been enunciated.

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Army Chief General Bipin Rawat’s latest pronouncements on Jammu and Kashmir, through an interview to a national newspaper, is direct messaging to militants (and their cohorts and Pakistan) that azaadi (secession) is beyond their reach: “... it is not going to happen; never,” he said adding, “... you can’t fight the Army… but fresh recruitment will go on and the cycle (of violence) will continue…”

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Why Bipin Rawat Stands Apart

Henry Kissinger would say, “When a guerrilla does not lose, he wins; when an Army does not win, it loses.’’ This was the dictum from the Vietnam era which has not changed. In this century though, Sri Lanka has defeated the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) comprehensively but this is an exception. Rawat has admitted that there is no military solution and the security forces can only create conditions for a political settlement.

Sri Lanka consciously chose the military route. Rawat raised no earth-shattering conceptual issues on counter insurgency, although that counter insurgency was his forte was the government’s justification for his out of turn promotion as Chief of Army Staff. Rawat is no ordinary Army Chief.

After all, he has superseded two lieutenant generals to reach the ultimate appointment mirroring the times when Gen KS Thimmaya (and his senior, Field Marshal KM Cariappa, both from Coorg were in the news last week during Karnataka elections for the wrong reasons) achieved this distinction similarly.

Rawat is probably the most voluble and multi-lingually articulate service chief. His predecessors uniformly preferred reticence and avoided the media, save the ritual comments on Army Day. Some were media shy; others believed in the maxim ‘discretion is the better part of valour’.

Army Chief’s Main Preoccupation

Rawat’s pedigree and persuasion are radically different: He has developed the style and substance of a vigorous commentator on matters military, some touching politics. He has used innovative ways to express the Army’s and his own viewpoints, albeit, not always in consonance with government thinking, but essentially conforming to the official line.

Rawat has discussed in public themes as varied as relevance of the Cold Start Doctrine; readiness for a two and a half front war; signalling to Pakistan, options other than surgical strikes; doggedness at Doklam; recommending shifting attention and emphasis to the northern borders; divulging how transborder operations in the Northeast in Myanmar were temporarily halted by the government; and last but not the least, his favourite theme and the subject of his latest interview — the proxy war in Kashmir.

Rawat has raised hackles by recommending a Bharat Ratna for Field Marshal Cariappa (instead of Sam Manekshaw for whom a movement for Bharat Ratna is already in place), awarding a gallantry medal to Maj Nitin Gogoi who used a Kashmiri voter as a human shield, observing that ‘politicisation of the military was gaining ground’ and immigration from Bangladesh was a threat.

On adequacy of the defence budget, he has shown some flexibility: First saying the government was supporting modernisation; then switching to insufficiency of resources; and later reverting to being ‘able to manage with meagre funds through readjustment and prioritisation’ after his Vice Chief, Lt Gen Sarath Chand painted a gloomy picture on funding and modernisation before the parliamentary standing committee on defence.

But Rawat’s principal operational preoccupation is with Kashmir. The situation in Kashmir and the surfeit of comments he has made in the past seem to have been synthesised in the interview this week. The thrust of Rawat’s remarks is that Kashmiri youth picking up the gun and hoping to achieve azadi are being misled though once earlier in anger at the locals disrupting army operations he had wished they picked up the gun instead of pelting stones.

His other grief was about civilian sympathisers (overground workers) interfering in Army operations resulting in terrorists escaping as security forces are still operating to ensure minimum collateral damage and avoiding civilian casualties.
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Why the Kashmir Conflict Is NOT Like Syrian War

The Indian Army is using minimum and proportionate force unlike in Syria, Pakistan and Afghanistan where security forces use optimum kinetic force like tanks, artillery, air power and indulge in brutality. The Indian Army has never used such lethal weapons in counter insurgency. This unique strategic restraint, which is lost on the international community, results in magnifying casualty of own forces.

The centre of gravity is south Kashmir where locals have lionised dead militants and disrupted army operations enabling militants to flee. Rawat said he was willing to suspend military operations provided he is given an assurance his boys and vehicles will not be fired upon by terrorists. He was at pains to emphasise he wanted to create an environment of peace so that local politicians could engage the stakeholders. The uptick of violence started in 2016 with the killing of poster boy Burhan Wani. Sixty terrorists were killed till 10 May this year.

In the same period 44 youths had joined terrorists. In 2017, 147 youth joined terrorist ranks with a surge of local boys joining the Hizb ul Mujahideen. 

Unlike in 2000, when PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee had initiated a ceasefire along LoC, Gen Rawat is unlikely to recommend any ceasefire for Ramzan and Amarnath Yatra, as the India Pakistan equation is very different today.

Back then, India-Pakistan were engaged in civilised converstion, and to that effect, an MoU on ceasefire along LoC was signed in 2003.

One can take issue with some items in Rawat’s inventory of politico-military comments, especially regarding Maj Gogoi.

But such is the complexity of the 70-year-old conflict in Kashmir that an alternative narrative to azaadi has not been enunciated, alienation of Kashmiris has gone unaddressed, and youth not insulated from Pakistan’s low cost high gain proxy war.

Preventing the creation of such an environment in a political vacuum is well nigh impossible. Even Rawat, at his eloquent best, like his predecessors, can do little more than manage the violence, because his choices are between ferocious military action and courageous restraint, while the political channels are firmly shut.

(Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta is a founder member of the Defence Planning Staff, the forerunner of the current Integrated Defence Staff. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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