The new army chief, General Bipin Rawat, must be learning just how important it is to weigh one’s words when in the hot seat. His remarks, made no doubt in anger, that the army would treat all those in Kashmir who do not support army operations or obstruct them during encounters “as overground workers of terrorists,” are clearly over the top and probably do not meet the legal standard – especially his belief that displaying ISIS and Pakistani flags is tantamount to terrorism.
His threat of “tough action” against protestors raises more questions than it answers. Because in army parlance, tough action could imply a shoot-to-kill policy. No self-respecting army can turn its guns on unarmed protestors, even if they are throwing stones; their job is to take on armed militants and leave civilian protestors to the police.
Minister of state for home Kiren Rijiju’s defence of Rawat – that action could be taken against anyone who “works against national interest as national interest is supreme” – is simply fatuous. No ‘national interest’ can justify gunning down unarmed protestors. Besides being characterised as a war crime, such action would actually be anti-national.
The chief is clearly frustrated at the high casualties the army is suffering in the Valley in recent times. However, there are two specific reasons for this. First, in winter months, the security forces usually launch an across-the-board offensive in the Valley to catch militants who are compelled by the weather to abandon their forest retreats. Second, the government and the security forces have boxed themselves into a situation where counter-insurgency has been stripped of its crucial “hearts and minds” element and the only instrument being used to resolve the Kashmir issue is the proverbial ‘danda‘, or stick.
First and foremost, it is important for everyone to have their definitions right. Stone pelting is violence, but it is not the same thing as armed militancy. The latter can only be fought with the gun, while the former must be tackled in a different manner, most certainly not by shooting pelters. Second, all anti-government militants in Kashmir are not terrorists. Only those who deliberately target civilians can be put in that category.
Looking back at events in Kashmir since last July, the security forces cannot be blamed for going after Burhan Wani since he was a self-professed militant and lived by the code of kill or be killed. At the same time, it is wrong to dub him a “terrorist”. To the best of our knowledge, Wani and his fellow militants have not deliberately targeted non-combatants. Seeking to undermine Kashmiri separatism by describing it as “terrorist” is not likely to work, and it is also not accurate, and will only result in faulty responses.
By deliberately creating obfuscation on this issue, the government is making things difficult for itself. No self-respecting government – not this one or any other – can negotiate with terrorists. But such governments can and do negotiate with militants. The Doval negotiations with the NSCN(I-M) is a recent example. During the first NDA government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the government sent the Union home secretary to meet with masked militants in Srinagar.
Public attitude a cause for concern
The crossover of violent civil protest into violent armed militancy is not a good sign. General Rawat is right to warn those who try to obstruct anti-militancy operations. This is sometimes done in a very risky fashion where crowds gather and launch protests near an ongoing shoot out. The protestors at the site of an ongoing anti-militancy operations are deliberately seeking to obstruct a military operation through an act of brinkmanship which could go horribly wrong if a grenade or AK-47 burst goes the wrong way in the tense environment.
Perhaps the army and the civil authorities need to work on new strategies of dealing with such situations. But the problem is that at present, many of the militants being killed are Kashmiris and their relatives and friends live nearby and are agitated when they get killed.
On the other hand, the Modi government’s style raises a few questions. It has adopted a uni-dimensional policy of hitting hard at the militancy, without seeking any political means to undermine the support the militants’ cause has generated. Many so-called counter-insurgency experts in India look admiringly at Israeli methods, but the Indian and Israeli situations are as different as chalk and cheese.
For one, the Israelis are dealing with a conquered population and that, too, not too well, considering their retreat from Gaza. The repeated cycles of Israeli military operations have degenerated into an armed stand-off with no resolution in sight since Tel Aviv refuses to conduct any political negotiations.
The other method of dealing with an insurgency is the Sri Lankan approach – using a scorched earth policy resulting in a horrific toll of non-combatants and tens of thousands of displaced persons. The Pakistanis also hew close to this style, though they first ensured that all civilians had left the areas which they subsequently attacked with gunships and artillery.
Militancy in the Valley has never been anywhere as bad as things have been in Waziristan or in Sri Lanka. Today, the militants are few in number, and they are armed with AK-47s and grenades. To use Israeli or Sri Lankan means would be to use the proverbial hammer to kill a fly, with horrific consequences.
The real challenge is to maintain pressure on the militants, even while undermining their cause through political means. This requires sophistication and patience. Sadly, there is little of that in display in the Modi government’s approach. The result is that the clock is steadily being turned back to the 1997-2004 period when security forces routinely lost hundreds of personnel every year, peaking in 2000 when 638 died. In contrast, from 2007 onwards, the numbers fell below 100, dipping to just 17 in 2012.
The authorities need to ask themselves why the civilian support to militancy in Kashmir has risen in the past two years and why the people there risk crowding encounter sites even while the shooting is going on. Government ministers have said Pakistan is paying people to pelt stones, but it is unlikely that you could pay an unarmed crowd to push against the army where bullets are flying. The government needs to reflect on this situation, and also worry about the possibility of an incident in which a large number of unarmed protestors get shot – something that hasn’t happened since the Bijbehara incident of 1993 and which would be a blot on India’s reputation.
Manoj Joshi is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.