The Union government’s proposed move to progressively remove the Army deployments from the outlying areas of J&K close to the Line of Control (LoC) was long overdue. But the dodgy manner in which the reports regarding the decision are being filtered out into the press, and the serious shortcomings that the critics highlighted in the proposed program, serves to suggest (or rather, make the observers wary) whether it is going to happen at all.
It is also possible, the critics insist, that the government may well have announced the decision keeping the optics in mind.
On Monday, the Indian Express reported that the Union government had already been discussing this plan for the last two years and that it was now in its “advanced stage.”
Express wrote that the Army’s footprints in the J&K hinterland will grow sparser as its operations would be confined to just the LoC. “The matter is under serious discussion at the inter-ministerial level and it is understood to be feasible. In a way, the decision has been taken and it is a matter of when it will be done. Ultimately, however, it will be a political call,” it wrote, attributing the quote to a senior security establishment officer.
Is Army's Withdrawal From Valley an Exercise in Optics?
The paper reported that after the Army frees itself from the towns and villages close to the LoC, it will be the central paramilitary forces as well as the J&K police that will take on the responsibility to secure law and order and engage in counter-terrorism operations.
“If the Army was really to be withdrawn, the government would have been portraying that as proof of its policy being successful in Kashmir,” said Colonel Ajai Shukla (Retired), a prominent commentator on defence and security. “Instead, it is encouraging its spokespersons to defend its argument in TV debates while not officially acknowledging the proposals. That immediately puts a question mark on it.”
Shukla said that the Army was already limited to holding the LoC, and manning the counterinsurgency grid, between the LoC and the population centres in the hinterland.
“The fact is that being a regular visitor to Kashmir myself, I have not seen the army being deployed in towns and large population centers. They might once in a while take out a tour or go out on a patrol but it is largely the CRPF which is really posted there.”
The Issue Traces Back to 1990s
While Army deployment in Kashmir has a history of its own, the issue became marred with controversy in the early 1990s after the Union government escalated counter-insurgency campaigns amid the raging militancy.
For decades, the sweeping powers enjoyed by the Army like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act(AFSPA)while dealing with militants have led to accusations of abuse. In its first-ever report on Kashmir, the UN Human Rights Office in 2018 noted that AFSPA has “created structures that can obstruct the normal course of law, impede accountability and jeopardise the right to remedy for victims of human rights violations.”
In the same year, the Minister of state in the Ministry of Defence, Subhash Bhamre in a response to a question in Rajya Sabha informed that the Centre had received requests seeking prosecution sanction against armed forces in 50 cases of rights violations. But permission was denied in all of them for the want of “sufficient evidence to establish a prima facie case.”
The Express story also lays bare, perhaps for the first time – the strength of the Army and other paramilitary forces deployed in J&K.
As per the report, the Army is said to have posted around 1.3 lakh personnel in the entire J&K of which around 80,000 were stationed on the border. Complementing the army in the counter-terrorism operations are around 40,000-45,000 personnel from the Rashtriya Rifles.
In addition to this, there’s also the widespread presence of the CRPF in J&K which has close to 60,000 boots on the ground.
J&K Police on the other hand has 83,000 personnel. “Apart from this, a few companies from other Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) remain deployed in the Valley,” the story reported. “The figures for CAPFs fluctuate depending on the security situation in the Valley.”
According to the officers quoted in the story, the proposals to lessen the Army footprint were motivated by the idea to make a tangible articulation of normalcy in J&K, and not merely to offer proclamations.
Not the First Occasion of Drawdown
This is, however, not the first time that the Union government has decided to scale down the presence of armed forces in Kashmir. In 2004, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced the withdrawal of 1000 troops from Kashmir in light of declining militant violence.
In 2011, the then Union Home Secretary GK Pillai announced a 25 percent reduction of the armed forces from the populated areas in Kashmir. The measure had come just a year after the killing of three locals during a “staged gunfight” in the Northern Kashmir village of Machil had triggered a civil uprising. The government had branded the withdrawal as a “confidence-building measure.”
But after witnessing the brief spell of relative calm, J&K experienced heightened levels of violence in the years after the Modi government came to power for the first time in 2014. With around 500 casualties in 2018, J&K saw its worst year in a decade.
Within two years of the revocation of Article 370, violence turned deadlier in J&K after militant groups started targeting civilians belonging to minority communities.
Taken aback by the series of attacks, the Union government decided to ratchet up the numbers of security personnel in Kashmir. In late 2021, for example, it rushed in an additional 5000 CRPF troops to deal with the evolving security situation in Srinagar.
For the last few months, however, the Union government has been drawing attention to significantly lower levels of violence in J&K. In 2022, the recruitment into militant ranks stayed below 100, the lowest in six years. 2022 also saw 123 militancy-related incidents down from 229 the previous year.
Recently, Inspector General of CRPF, Kashmir Operations MS Bhatia also said that there has been a “sea change” in Kashmir. “Forces are on the offensive, the new cadres are not coming while the existing cadres are being demolished,” he said during an address.
Jammu Is the New Hotspot
While militancy appears to be vanishing inside the valley, it is in Jammu that a handful of breakthrough attacks have taken the security establishment by surprise.
Last month, after border areas in Jammu witnessed surprise militant attacks resulting in the death of eight people in the village of Dhangri in Rajouri, the Centre flew around 18 fresh companies of CRPF into the Union Territory.
“These issues (removal of the Army) are sensitive and have to be taken only after ground-level assessments from particular areas that are based on specific and very detailed intelligence,” said Ajai Sahni, Executive Director at the Institute of Conflict Management, New Delhi. “Of course, the levels of violence have come down substantially in J&K. Perhaps, it is desirable to let the Army do what it is supposed to be doing which is guarding the borders. Being posted amid civilians was a role that they shouldn’t have been given in the first place.”
Sahni said that the Army is always the instrument of last resort as far as internal security is concerned. “To the extent that it is the paramilitary forces and the state police that are taking care of the problem; minimising the Army presence is desirable for the local population as they are outside forces and have a different orientation,” he said.
Sahni also added that even if the number of casualties are coming down, that in itself is no meaningful basis to downsize the boots of security forces. “You don’t know where terrorists are going to hit. So you always have to have adequate saturation that makes sure that your forces can respond to desirable objectives,” he said.
(Shakir Mir is an independent journalist. He has also written for The Wire.in, Article 14, Caravan, Firstpost, The Times of India, and more. He tweets at @shakirmir. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)