A source-based report in the Indian Express has cited “officers in the security establishment” to report that the Union government is proposing to “withdraw the Indian Army completely from the Valley hinterland”.
“If approved, the Army will have presence only on the Line of Control (LoC),” says the Indian Express report.
The report says this proposal has been under discussion for about two years and is at an advanced stage now with the involvement of the Union Ministry of Defence (MoD), Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), armed forces and the J&K Police.
The report has not been corroborated by any government official or spokesperson, but ruling party spokespersons on television news talk shows and discussions defend those assertions.
There are, however, several facts that remain unexplained and merit scrutiny.
Firstly, the army has already been withdrawn several years ago from the Valley hinterland. With the formation and growth of the Rashtriya Rifles starting in the early 1990s, the expansion of the J&K Police and the induction of large numbers of Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs), such as the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), into J&K, these forces were handed the responsibility for security of major towns in the state.
The army, thereafter, has had only its major headquarters, such as the 15 Corps headquarters at Badami Bagh in Srinagar, located in the hinterland, along with logistical units such as supply depots, ammunition depots, transit camps etc.
Since then, the army has been responsible for two major security tasks: defence of the LoC, where it is deployed face-to-face with the Pakistan Army; and manning the Counter Infiltration Grid (CI Grid).
The CI Grid is located between the LoC and the hinterland, and exists in order to kill or capture militants that manage to sneak across the LoC and the formidable border fence that is reinforced with barbed wire, searchlights and acoustic and other sensors.
The deployment on the LoC and the CI Grid are regarded as too difficult and dangerous to be handed to the CRPF. It is manned by the Rashtriya Rifles and the army.
The army has two divisions in Kashmir for these tasks, as well as three divisions in the Jammu region. These add up to about 1,25,000 troops. These are reinforced by about 60,000 Rashtriya Rifles soldiers, who operate under five “Force Headquarters”.
The government has not provided any figures that indicate a draw-down of these numbers.
Furthermore, it remains unclear how the army can begin a pull-out from the Kashmir Valley before initiating any de-escalatory measures such as selective removal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) or the draconian Public Safety Act, which allows the detention of any individual for up to two years.
Nor have assembly elections been held in the state since 2014. Local politicians have asked how the former state can be regarded as peaceful enough for army withdrawal when normal political activity remains suspended and full statehood for J&K remains suspended.
Meanwhile militant infiltration across the LoC remains at a low ebb, as do militant activities within the former state. Yet, local politicians point to a deep alienation amongst the people, which they say can only be remedied by the resumption of political activity and the grant of full statehood that existed before August 2019.
Colonel Ajai Shukla (Retired) is a columnist, commentator and journalist who covers regional security issues in South Asia and the Indo-Pacific, military technology and India’s defence economy.
Edited by Jahnavi Sen.