The Army has a wonderful organisation located at its HQ Army Training Command (ARTRAC) at Shimla. It is called the Centre for Army Lessons Learnt (CALL), but not too many people take it as seriously as it should be taken. All after-action reports of operations are supposed to flow to it, and it collates and synthesizes these for distribution.
With the lockdown in Kashmir entering its 24th day, there is a challenging situation for the Army, but it can always reflect back to actions taken by it over the years, and recall some of the best practices in dealing with these. CALL may not have them all, but can always assist in extracting lessons of the past for immediate sharing.
A Soldier’s Tryst With Kashmir
Memories from Baramulla, 2008
I can recall a similar situation in the town of Baramulla in North Kashmir in the second half of 2008. The lockdown in this turbulent town continued for almost eight weeks. It was always a restive place strung along the river Jhelum, at the point where the river leaves the Valley and enters into the Baramulla gorge. The town is split into two by the river with a prominent cement bridge in the centre, and a couple of footbridges to cross over. To the north lies the old town, densely pack with a labyrinth of narrow lanes, ideal for terrorist entries and exits.
The triangle, Baramulla-Sopore-Pattan, forms a lethal zone of turbulent separatist trends, and was earlier the core centre of terror activity. The Sri Amarnath Shrine Board (SASB) agitation of 2008, as it is called, was a transition in the low intensity conflict (LIC) or proxy hybrid war situation, that Pakistan had brought to bear against India. On a flimsy pretext, an agitation against the so-called illegal lease of some land for yatri facilities, was launched by the separatists. It led to a response in Jammu, further resulting in a virtual blockade of Kashmir from Jammu.
The first sight of the Army would always force mobs to disperse, but eventually they got used to its presence.
The SASB agitation itself locked down Baramulla, but then a massive protest by nearly a lakh of people on the road, with 500 trucks and buses, attempted to march to Uri to demonstrate at the LoC a need for opening trade with PoK, to beat the Jammu blockade. It had to be stopped well short of Uri; five people died, and since that day (11 August 2008), Baramulla saw no peace, until almost November the same year.
How We Handled ‘Mischief-Makers’
As the GOC of the Dagger Division, it was my responsibility to handle the situation, which proved to be more than volatile. Mischief-makers with strong networks of communication, attempted to break the curfew and battle the J&K Police (JKP) and the CRPF at the cement bridge and the civil lines complex.
It was also a necessity to bring to the public the benign hand of humaneness. Under such circumstances, none better than the Army to do that.
This prevented movement of army convoys or any other vehicles, and the curfew had to be enforced strongly. The local civil authorities were too dependent upon the Army to deliver, and called upon it to come to their aid whenever a mob was sighted. In Kashmir, with AFSPA in place, there is no need for any requisition by civil authorities; the Army is always readily available, but the fine decision always rested with us as to when to go to their assistance and when to leave it to them to take steps within their resources.
The first sight of the Army would always force the mobs to disperse, but eventually they got used to its presence and realised that its disciplined approach would not allow it to cross the brink. The challenge was how to convey that we would broach no breach of peace, and yet would remain completely legal and humane in our approach. Many mohalla committee meetings were called, and my various officers attended these and advised against the use of violence and stone-throwing. Yet, the effect was only marginal.
‘The Benign Hand of Humaneness’
The mobile networks were all down and the limited broadband internet similarly suspended; social media access on smart phones was not yet a reality. Communication lockdown remained in place without a complaint, but we ensured that all cable television networks were also banned. These were responsible for spewing hatred, the equivalent of social media today. It was a necessity.
In these challenging times in Kashmir, the Army is probably doing even more than ever, but that needs to be known to the people.
It was also a necessity to bring to the public the benign hand of humaneness. Under such circumstances, none better than the Army to do that. The problems involved freedoms that normal human beings take for granted. Weddings had been planned. We attempted to allow maximum of these to continue, as far as possible. The town rapidly ran out of baby food, milk, tea, vegetables, and then even basic essentials such as soap. Each morning we endeavoured to have one or two mohallas opened up to allow essentials to be delivered. Early morning is the best time to take a round of curfew bound areas. I invariably stepped out at this time and sensed great opportunity to build bridges with the local community.
People would be sitting in their compounds and it became a routine, such that they expected me to drive or walk by. My vehicle carried enough packets of biscuits and sweets for children and for everyone else. We got into conversations which helped understand the issues troubling the people. One or two medical doctors invariably accompanied me, and we would set up temporary clinics in a compound, and word would spread. We always made it known that local doctors and chemists could always break curfew anytime and keep their shop or clinic open. Doctors and chemists however, found it difficult to do that, due to there being no staff.
‘Army Never Discriminates When It Comes To Welfare Of The Needy’
Under restrictions, rarely does one realise that the government servants themselves also suffer. Their ability to look after their families is limited due to scarce resources. On learning this, we immediately prepared 50 packages of rations and some delights for children to sustain a family for a fortnight, and distributed these. More demands came and they were never refused. The local St Joseph’s maternity hospital ran out of diesel for their generator sets; power was intermittent. Their ambulances which roamed the rural areas picking up expectant mothers and families, too had no diesel.
The same was provided, and the services kept running. Many will question the expending of government resources on local people who may not necessarily support the national cause. Our approach was clear; the Army never discriminated when it came to the welfare of the needy. It won some great friends in the town. In fact, the stabilisation of Baramulla and its Old Town was largely due to the presence of the Division Headquarters and a permanently located Sikh Rashtriya Rifles unit. It is their attitude which changed things to a great extent.
In these challenging times in Kashmir, can this example inspire? The Army is probably doing even more than ever, but that needs to be known to the people.
(The writer, a former GOC of the Army’s 15 Corps, is now the Chancellor of Kashmir University. He can be reached at @atahasnain53. 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.)