Siddharth Varadarajan, the founding editor of The Wire, and Manoj Joshi, senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, discuss the controversy over army chief Bipin Rawat’s comments on Kashmir.
Welcome to The Wire, this is Siddharth Varadarajan. The army chief’s comments day before yesterday on Jammu and Kashmir said in the context of an encounter which saw army casualties has created a huge controversy. The opposition parties have read his comments as being highly insensitive and inflammatory. The comments that he made essentially seemed like he was warning the local population that has not just been ambivalent about many of these encounters between militants and the army but have often resorted to stone pelting or other forms of obstruction during army action and Bipin Rawat, the army chief’s comments have been seen as a warning to people not to get involved, to stay away and to not do anything to hinder army operations and if they do, he more than amply suggests that they would be placing themselves in harm’s way.
As the opposition has attacked General Rawat the government has defended him and joining me today to discuss General Rawat’s comments and the political controversy is Dr. Manoj Joshi, well known journalist author of a book on Kashmir and of course currently a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and also a columnist at The Wire.
Manoj welcome to this discussion. We will start with General Rawat’s comment itself. And I will just read it out for clarity sake for our viewers..
‘We would now request the local population that people who have picked up arms, and they are the local boys, if they want to continue with the acts of terrorism displaying flags of ISIS and Pakistan, then we will treat them as anti-national elements and go helter-skelter for them. They may survive today but we will get them tomorrow. Our relentless operations will continue.’
Pretty strong stuff. What do you think he had in mind?
You know, I think there was an element of anger and frustration. It is true that when some of these encounters are taking place that civilian locals gather and they raise slogans and protests and yes there is an element of brinkmanship involved there because you know shooting event is taking place and those soldiers are being kind of being crowded by the crowd as it were, so I think basically it was his frustration at that because it is a kind of a readymade situation for a greater disaster.
So we are talking about an encounter happening in a sort of residential or a rural area where you have habitation and perhaps the army is zeroing in on a particular house or compound and residents around are kind of expressing their anger, disquiet or support for militants even as the army is shooting. That’s the scenario we are talking about?
That’s the scenario. You know you have a situation where cross over is taking place in the sense you have civil protest, sometimes violent civil protest when you look at stone pelting. I call it violent civil protest because it is by unarmed people but then stones can also be pretty damaging
So you have violent civil protest and you have an actual militant action taking place. Guns are firing etc. So what’s happening here is that the violent civil protest is moving towards the militant zone of militant action
Zone of that action, yeah.
This is the point where something could go wrong, in the sense you have guns bullets ricocheting. Many people don’t realise that even a leaf can ricochet a bullet so you can have let’s say a situation where a large number of civilians those are protestors get killed. Whether they get killed by a burst from the militant side or the army side.
But it is a situation, it is a recipe made for disaster and basically of course because it is frustrating for the army people because in their book they would much rather have the support of the locals. But that support has not been forthcoming for two reasons. One is that many of the militants now are actually locals.
You are seeing images from these funerals. I mean even when militants or extremists crossed over from the Pakistani side locals tended to throng to their funerals, but some of these recent funerals of local boys have seen huge gatherings.
See now because the Pakistani numbers have receded and locals have become again once again more involved. Nowhere near what it was in the 1990s or in the early 2000s, but still the numbers are growing. So one reason is the frustration with regard to that. Second is I think the state, the government, the authorities conflate violent civil protest not just with militancy but with terrorism. So when you look at violent protests you say all these guys are terrorists, anyone throwing a stone, waving a flag, raising a flag is a terrorist.
The army chief’s comments seem to suggest that he is conflating all of these things in his mind as well.
Confalting all these things in his mind and that is dangerous because that guy is not a terrorist. Even if someone waves a flag, even if it’s a Pakistani flag, so what that we actually..
Many would find it objectionable but in terms of…
I am saying many will find it objectionable but the point is under Indian laws, I don’t think you know you would be able to find any section of the Indian law which would say that that’s a crime. I think may be ISIS, if it has been declared an unlawful organisation, may be waving their flag could be a crime. But even then I don’t think it’s a crime of such magnitude that you can shoot a person. So what I am trying to say is that this analytical inability to understand the difference between violent civil protest and militancy.
Now Manoj in your writings for us you have often argued that the Indian state in the past has made a distinction between terrorism and militancy, and you believe that this distinction is important and if you don’t make that distinction you can err in terms of policy. Do you want to elaborate on why you think the two are different categories?
You see in my book and in the book of most rational people, a terrorist is someone who wantonly attacks non-combatants, unarmed people, civilians. So he deliberately targets them. A militant on the other hand normally targets instruments of the state, meaning army, police etc, and does not target civilians deliberately. Yes, civilians can be killed by a militant attack but, likewise, when you are countering militants, civilians can get killed in the crossfire. Now the two are different. It is important to see the differences between the two because obviously, I think most people realise that its impossible to negotiate with a terrorist and I think we learnt our lesson with Prabhakaran that a terrorist is a person who has a 100% demand and sometimes irrational demands. Meaning that if someone says that Islam should rule the world, you know now that there is nothing to negotiate in that kind of demand. Whereas a militant often has a known objective. He may have a separatist objective. He may want to separate his part of India from India, set up a separate state entity. He may have some other kinds of demands, reservation or something like that and in the past India has negotiated with militants. We have negotiated with the Naga militancy and Mr. Doval himself lead the negotiation with the NSCN (I-M). The NSCN (I-M) was…
And brought it to a successful conclusion as per official…
Naga militancy is the oldest of our insurgencies and they have killed a lot of our soldiers. I mean if you go back, some of the ambushes have been very deadly. But the Indian state kind of bit the bullet and decided to negotiate with them. And then, of course, the whole issue of the ceasefire in 2000 when Atal Behari Vajpayee government set out to negotiate with the Hizbul Mujahideen.
And Kamal Pandey was actually sent to Srinagar, there was this picture of him with these masked guys who were the Hizbul Mujahideen representatives.
So what I am trying to say is that if you are able to separate these analytically, then you can say well, we can do something about militancy, we can bring them around politically. And the terrorists cannot be brought around, so they are outside the pale. But when you say that everyone, meaning everyone from a flag waver, everyone who raises his voice, who says that Kashmir is not a part of India is a terrorist, then you are in trouble, because like that then you would have to wipe out half of Nagaland and half of many other parts of India, particularly in the Northeast.
Right. Manoj the issue which the army chief was objecting to, which was of civilians crowding in the encounter zone and showing their support for militants or opposing the army, has been a problem with many counter insurgency operations that the army has dealt with in Kashmir for the last decade and a half. The last time this became a big issue I was talking to one of the counter-insurgency experts and he said, look we have dealt with this ten to 12 years back. What has changed that has lead the army chief to employ somewhat strident language, somewhat menacing language?
Well you know the thing is that we had very high casualties, I think between 1996 and approximately 2004-2005 if you look at the casualties, they are all above 500, you know of the security forces. And then they went down sharply.
From 2004 onwards.
I think in 2012 it was 16 or 17, so the situation had dramatically improved. Now what is happening is we are finding an optic and the optic is coming because the army can deliver so much, the army has the counter-militancy operations. You have wiped out you, you have effectively wiped out armed militancy. Because from the kind of high that I spoke of, killing 600-650 security personnel a year down to 17. So militancy as a challenge to the state has effectively been contained but the problem is that the second part of it, which is very important, which is the political part of it, the political negotiation with what gives rise to the militancy – which is the separatist movement. You still need a political negotiation with them and that political negotiation has gone on fitfully. Actually, there is a three-way negotiation. We have to also deal with Pakistan.
But when you say political strategy, in a way that is separate from winning the hearts and minds or it is a component of winning hearts and minds in terms of getting the civilian population on your side right?
It is a component of hearts and minds in a larger sense but I am saying in a strategic sense when we have to deal with the Kashmiri separatists. Now we know that yes separatists are in the Valley. The Valley has a huge population and whatever you may do anywhere else, at the end of the day, you have got to make some kind of a deal with that separatist movement in the Valley. You can’t kill them all because simply…
And the agenda for governance that BJP signed with the PDP, in fact explicitly it talks of having that kind of a political negotiation.
Unfortunately, that has not been happening and so the security forces have a Sisyphean task in front of them. They roll the rock up and then the rock comes rolling back, and they do it again and again and again.
Because of the civilian leadership in a way not delivering on the political part, you know there was this interview that Rajnath Singh gave to the Indian Express. Our mutual friend Sheela Bhatt interviewed him, and she asked him a whole bunch of stuff including on J&K. When she said to him look the government has not been active in finding a political solution and he said we have done a lot, and she said such as what and he said there is a whole list, I will send you the details. He did not have whatever they have done that information on his fingertips because they haven’t done much. Look at the record of this government, in a way signing the agenda for governance with PDP marked a bold dramatic beginning where they essentially embraced a party that the BJP spokespersons in the past used to call soft separatists. And you say we are going to have negotiations with separatists and there is a reference to the Hurriyat in that in a way. Mufti Mohammad was very committed to this but he passed away, and the current CM doesn’t have the kind of heft to push that point with the Modi government. But where do you see the BJP’s own attitude towards the political settlement in J&K? Do they at all consider this important or do they think based on what the army chief has said, they really are seriously thinking of finding pure military means to this issue?
Look at the record of this government, in a way signing the agenda for governance with PDP marked a bold dramatic beginning where they essentially embraced a party that the BJP spokespersons in the past used to call soft separatists. And you say we are going to have negotiations with separatists and there is a reference to the Hurriyat in that in a way. Mufti Mohammad was very committed to this but he passed away, and the current CM doesn’t have the kind of heft to push that point with the Modi government. But where do you see the BJP’s own attitude towards the political settlement in J&K? Do they at all consider this important or do they think based on what the army chief has said, they really are seriously thinking of finding pure military means to this issue?
I think BJP is caught in a bit of a dilemma. As you know famously the BJP does not… one of the three key political articles they have is the removal of the Article 370, they dont support the idea of autonomy in any case in Jammu and Kashmir. So you are right and that was done by Mr Modi. Incidentally he insisted they do this deal with PDP because that was the only logical and useful outcome that kept a sort of…
And he sent Ram Madhav over who is ex-RSS or from RSS. Ram Madhav negotiates that deal so you have to assume there was some political buy in to that document.
There was a political buy into that, but they also kept peace till as long as Mufti Mohammad Sayeed was around. You see the problems have begun thereafter so one is the question of the BJP’s strategic sort of attitude towards the issue of Article 370 and autonomy. The second problem is the BJP’s bureaucrats, or let me say officials who work for the BJP government whose attitude towards counter insurgency, I think they think that counter insurgency does not involve hearts and minds at all.
Is this the so-called Doval doctrine or a part of it?
Yes the doctrine that relentless military pressure is the only way out in these circumstances, I am afraid that is simply not true.
We have been there done that as you said, and the problem reemerges after some time.
That is strange because Mr Doval played an important role in bringing Mizoram around as a covert operative. And he knows very well that all those Mizo separatists became Mizo politicians. So that has to be the goal of any policy in Kashmir that those militants actually become politicians and adopt political means rather than military means to…
Pursue whatever agenda they have…
So I think that there is a failure in imagining the counter-insurgency operations, but you know the important failure is political. As I said that the armed forces or the police are all instruments of the state. And if the state continues to fail, these guys will be thrown into the breach. After all, who dies? It is the army guys who die, the policeman who dies, the politician doesn’t pay the cost.
We have a question that has come in from Facebook. Suhas Paradkar says that the army chief appears to be too loose-tongued. Essentially he is asking whether the army chief has spoken out of turn, said things that are inappropriate?
You know I would not be so harsh on the army chief because the army chief is very new. And invariably what happens is that the army is not encouraged to talk as it is. The 15 Corps which is in Srinagar historically has had a certain amount of leeway in being able to hold forth. But in this case I would say that the army chief is very new, he may not have anticipated the kind of reaction because he is now the army chief. You see if he had been the corps commander and he would have said this somewhere maybe people would not have noticed it to this extent, but being the army chief everyone’s come down on him on this issue because of the position he holds. Yes he is somewhat new in the job, he has said certain things. He didn’t weigh his words carefully perhaps he should have weighed them carefully and all said and done this is a tactical operation. The army chief need not have spoken at all, he should have left it to the corps commander to say whatever he had to say.
And I suppose the government also compounded this problem by leaping into the fray. We had this statement by Kiren Rijiju who has made a habit of mouthing off on all sorts of things.
But you know the problem with the kind of people like Rijiju, Parrikar and others is that sometimes they don’t even comprehend the issues that are involved. They speak, their conversation is in terms of labels, ‘this is anti-national, this is nationalism, this is anti nationalism, this is terrorist,’ and so. They tend to speak, its actually their illiteracy which is showing up. Its their illiteracy which shows up and the illiteracy eventually becomes incompetence. And so you find these people are simply not competent in doing what they are supposed to do. And this is the problem we are finding with this government. All of Modi’s instincts are great. He wants to do great things, he wants to transform this country, but he is simply not finding the way with all his advisers etc. Whoever advised him on demonetisation or something like that, they didn’t know what they were talking about. And so the result is that we are kind of plungering in a range of areas from Kashmir, demonetisation, the economy, you name it. There is a sense that the whole system is floundering and its just hanging on because of Modi’s personal appeal, his charisma as it were and there is enormous support among the public who are still willing to give him the benefit of doubt.
You know there was a briefing by a senior government official that came in one of the papers where they were trying to in a way put out that India will continue to stick to its policy. The government will stick to its policy of not engaging with Pakistan, essentially the line that talks and terror can’t continue. It would seem over the past two or three months that whatever acts of terror or violence we have seen in J&K do not easily have a close link to state actors in Pakistan, or for that matter, you know the Pakistani state for domestic reasons has also begun to move against people like Hafeez Sayeed. Pressure mounting from the US, even domestically the horrible attack that we saw at Sehwan Sharif you know the Lal Qalandar shrine. Is it your sense that things may finally be moving in Pakistan in the right direction from the point of view of the political leadership and the military establishment? Maybe three, four, five months down the road India may again be looking at a possibility of an engagement with the Pakistani government on the whole range of bilateral issues but also confidence building vis-a-vis J&K.
Pressure is mounting from the US, even domestically the horrible attack that we saw at Sehwan Sharif you know the Lal Qalandar shrine. Is it your sense that things may finally be moving in Pakistan in the right direction from the point of view of the political leadership and the military establishment? Maybe three, four, five months down the road India may again be looking at a possibility of an engagement with the Pakistani government on the whole range of bilateral issues but also confidence building vis-a-vis J&K.
Definitely, I think that this is very much the possibility and because with Pakistan that is how it works usually. But don’t forget that there are still people in Pakistan and this has been a pattern going back a long time, atleast since Mr. Vajpayee’s time that we are able to find interlocutors in Pakistan, we do move but every time we move a terrible terrorist attack takes place and there is a setback. Because the problem is that this government in New Delhi is unable to deal with the emotional response and this problem has become worse since 26/11. 26/11 is a watershed in the sense that after 26/11 a lot of people who had some kind of sympathy for Pakistan or felt that we could deal with Pakistan have also become skeptical because Pakistanis have refused to move in the 26/11 case, meaning yes they arrested four guys but after that they have been kind of obfuscating issues and so people in India are not even willing to give Pakistan the benefit of the doubt. We say guys do something and something which there is a lot of evidence because they would never have arrested the four guys had they not had evidence
26/11 is a watershed in the sense that after 26/11, a lot of people who had some kind of sympathy for Pakistan or felt that we could deal with Pakistan have also become skeptical because Pakistanis have refused to move in the 26/11 case. Meaning yes they arrested four guys but after that they have been kind of obfuscating the issues and so people in India are not even willing to give Pakistan the benefit of the doubt. We say guys do something and there is a lot of evidence because they would never have arrested the four guys had they not had evidence.
We know from the FIA investigation in Pakistan that they actually put together stuff.
They have a lot of evidence. If they had a cooperative attitude they would have given us something instead of getting on their high horse. We need a clear signal that Pakistan has made that strategic shift.
We have a question from Shoaib Rafique. Rather unfair in my view, but I would read the question out. He says that this discussion is doing exactly what the state has ever done and dealt with Kashmir. Why do people support militants and pelt stones and tools of the Indian state which are controlling them at the helm of a gun. The best and sane thing would be to accept that Kashmir is a political problem, a disputed region and to engage Kashmiris of all sides to the discussion. Throw away the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act. Do away with the immense amount of military in civilian areas and release young boys and political prisoners. This is a commonly held view in J&K.
Manoj: The point is I don’t disagree with most of the points, meaning I too think that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act should have been done away with a long time ago. As far as the political part is concerned, I am sure I have been saying the political. But that is what Vajpayee was trying. There was a ceasefire. Let Hizbul Mujahideen declare formal ceasefire. Let Salauddin declare that because right now you have armed men there. There are armed men who are taking on the instruments of state. So I would not advocate a unilateral movement to withdraw the armed forces from there.
To engage with militants you need to have something there…
But certainly I would think that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act is a monstrosity. No business to be instituted there. As far as releasing people is concerned I think yes the kind of violence we are talking about has declined sharply. You probably have no cause to be holding people under the preventive detention Act or whatever it is. So I don’t disagree with many of the points that he has made.
So that wraps up this discussion on Jammu and Kashmir triggered by the army chief’s recent comments. As I said the comments led to a huge controversy about what really goes to the heart of how the Indian state deals with the problem of Kashmir. There is a military challenge that the Indian state faces, but there is above all a political challenge and that its time that the government got serious about solving the political basis of the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir. On that note thank you very much for watching.