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#924, 28 December 2002
Lessons from India’s Kashmir Engagement Firdaus AhmedFreelance writer on security affairs
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The Nanavaty proposals are reported to include an intention to conduct ‘people friendly’ operations. This indicates that there has been a turn around in the ground situation, a fact buttressed by the retiring Army Chief’s indication that infiltration had reduced by over fifty percent in the past year. This article suggests that the turning of a new leaf is perhaps a decade late, but is a welcome measure to supplement the Common Minimum Program of the new dispensation in Srinagar.

There have been three occasions over the last decade in Kashmir when a new opportunity beckoned Indian initiative. The first was with the decline in people’s participation since the uprising of early 1990, by around 1992, in terms of organized demonstrations that took place despite the curfew raj imposed. Alternative approaches could have prevented the militancy being utilized by Pakistan. The second was in the upper hand gained by the security forces over the jihadi infiltrators by the late Nineties, forcing Pakistan to raise the ante by its Kargil intrusion. The third is the present situation brought about by the ‘high stakes, high risk, high cost’ strategy of compellence through mobilization of forces along the border. Indications are that the window of opportunity opened by the elections will be positively exploited this time. However, it is worth analyzing our past response to forewarn ourselves that wasting this opportunity would be unconscionable.

The first phase of the Kashmir militancy could be characterized as a movement that had popular involvement. This was largely due to the inability of the Indian security forces to tackle crowds that took over Srinagar’s streets in the early Nineties. The principle reason was the blunt instrument available to the government viz., its central police forces and the inability of the Center to grant concessions owing to rightist ascendance in the polity. Pakistan was thus provided an opportunity to fish in troubled waters.

The second phase, Pakistan’s proxy war, was furthered by a decimation of the pro-azadi militants by security forces to gain military dominance. Again, military and political inadequacy revealed itself. Limitations of the instrument available to the state, this time in combination with the newly raised Rashtriya Rifles and paramilitary forces, did not permit a nuanced approach. Politically, Pakistani interference in the background of pan-Islamism, prevented a people-centric approach. Therefore, the option of a discriminate approach based on the indirect strategy of whittling down their support base was ignored.

The third phase, heightening of the proxy war by Pakistan, was informed by its eviction from the Kargil heights. The people were caught between the security forces and jehadist terrorists. The psychological and physical impact on them was self-evident. Security policy was not sensitive to this, and there was no course correction. This indicates that territory was privileged over people in the state’s counter terrorist response. Politically, the complexion of the governments in both Srinagar and Delhi lent itself to a power oriented approach that climaxed in the mobilization of this year. The Central government being run by the BJP, was not able to compromise on security, as it could not be seen to countenance a ‘soft line.’ The Abdullah government in Srinagar was not in control of the security forces, nor did it have the moral authority to exercise this control given its poor record in administration and on the development front. Institutional momentum, reinforced by a post-Kargil implacable disposition, stayed any review of strategy. Public exhaustion was allowed to function as the operational hammer; hence the problem metamorphosed from one of internal political management at the end of the last decade to one of external security.

The principal lesson from the previous missed opportunities is that the ‘hard-line’ approach was substantially responsible for continuing alienation of the population, and its tacit support to jehadi elements and pro-Pak insurgents. The admittedly counter-factual argument here is that a ‘soft-line’ policy distinguished by a militarily restrained, discriminatory, people-centric and political approach was feasible at all junctures over the past decade. The danger here is that the need for adopting a changed posture has not been sufficiently recognized. A reading of the ground situation is behind the modification of the ‘hard-line’ approach presently being considered. The logic is that an insurance for the ‘gains’ over the past years has to be taken out lest the clock move back to the time when the present Chief Minister was the Central Minister for Home Affairs.

Nevertheless, the fresh breeze in Srinagar is likely to lighten the situation, given the current military situation in India’s favor. Strategic sense lies in preventing the resurgence of Kashmiri disaffection, the fertile ground for Pakistani involvement. One part of this strategy has been the coming into power of a government committed to a change of course in Srinagar. The end game in Kashmir has only just begun. It requires to be realized that tactical course corrections do not result in strategic dividends. Given the Indian record in dealing with insurgency situations, it is time that the doctrinal principle of ‘hearts and minds’ trumps the pathology of ‘body counts.’

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