Army Chief Bipin Rawat’s statement that the army will henceforth fire at those who interfere while the army is engaging militants in a firefight has put the focus firmly on how fast the situation in Kashmir is deteriorating – and how critical the challenge is this year. The situation had taken a sharp turn – for the worse – over the last few days before the army issued this warning; several soldiers and militants were killed in encounters.
The organisers of this year’s battles in Kashmir had tried hard over the past few days to step up the momentum of public unrest. They had had some success but a very large number of Kashmiris were reluctant to fall in line – although this was not visible like those high-profile encounters.
In fact, there was much resentment on the ground over the new ‘calendars’ which had just been issued in the name of the Hurriyat Conference – an attempt to revive the disturbed situation of last autumn.
Now, the focus of public attention is on the Army Chief’s statement instead of the Hurriyat’s urgings to engage in fresh protests.
Followed by statements from the Defence Minister and others at the top echelons of government, the Army Chief’s statement has willy-nilly strengthened the argument of separatists that the Indian state is an aggressive, threatening force which does not care for its citizens.
The statement has been presented as a ‘declaration of war against the people’ and also as the reason why there will be a ‘massacre a month’ this year. This was going to be a year of horrific destruction in Kashmir anyway; now the Indian Army will be seen as the bloody-minded cause, not as the target of attacks.
This suits those – within Kashmir and across the border on either side – who want fresh unrest this year.
Kashmir has already been rife with talk of unrest starting much earlier this year than last year. In December, one heard that unrest would begin again before Ramzan in 2017. In January, one heard it would begin by March.
Now it has – in February.
Extremely Urgent Challenge
Any government worth the name should have been preparing with every resource at its disposal – if, of course, it had any information on what was afoot.
Any sensible strategic planner would not only have been aware of the lay of the land, but have made plans for how to offset what lay ahead.
Those who run the country would have been well-advised to reach out to the people at large, to persuade them against more disruptions. They could have built on the widespread resentment against the new ‘calendars.’
As it turns out, the Army Chief’s statement has effectively countered that resentment. Indeed, the statement is now a cornerstone of the anti-state ‘narrative’. However, one might argue that he actually meant to focus on what was right, what the rules say, and how tough it is for soldiers in the field.
The statement has revived the anger that had welled up last year over the reprehensible use of pellet guns as non-lethal weapons to engage boys pelting stones. It will make it much easier to whip up the emotions of a large number of people.
Writing on the Wall
The worst part is that the writing has been on the wall for a while. Since 2008, the strategists of the state should have devoted their hearts and minds to reach out to Kashmiri youth and deal responsively with the causes of their rage, the way the Vajpayee government did from 1998 to 2004.
Since that wasn’t done, any counterinsurgency strategist worth his salt ought to have worked round the clock over the past couple of years (the past couple of months, at the very least!) on ways to effectively offset the emergent trend (tactic in military parlance): unarmed people gathering at the site of an encounter between militants and forces.
This is, in fact, the most challenging specific tactic the forces have ever faced. It is a far more potent challenge than the suicide attacks that came up from 1999 to 2001, when General Musharraf assumed power in Pakistan.
At the most obvious level, it serves as a force multiplier for militants. The deaths of three army men in an encounter a few days ago, in which one militant was killed, is a glaring example of its effectiveness in causing casualties.
The Army Chief, various Union ministers, and several conservative commentators appear to perceive – and have reacted to – this most obvious level of the challenge. But this trend – or tactic, if you will – is far more potent at other levels.
For the first time since the early ‘90s, it pits unarmed Kashmiris against the guns of the state. The moral, diplomatic and even the military ramifications of this tactic appear to have escaped our hardline nationalists.
The country will pay a huge price for their obtuseness.
Ever since Mr Vajpayee lost power, India has lacked leaders who reach out empathetically to alienated peoples. One wishes that we at least had sensible strategists instead of the tomfoolery of clueless ‘experts.’
(A journalist with expertise on politics and geopolitics, the writer has been a visiting professor and has written books on Kashmir. He can be reached @david_devadas. 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.)