Friday, February 05, 2016
Gen Rao’s place in the history of Kashmir
Kashmir Times, 5 February 2016
The second of two back-to-back obituaries of military leaders lately, with that of ‘Jake’ Jacob being the first, has been of Gen Krishna Rao. Clearly, obituaries of both were effusive and with good reason. The military careers of both registered a high watermark in the liberation of Bangladesh and both went on to serve the country further in uniform and when out of it in a gubernatorial capacity.
Of the two, interest of readers of this publication is in Gen Krishna Rao’s significant presence in the recent history of Kashmir. What is well known is his tenure at the Raj Bhawan and its continuing ramifications. What is less well known is how the situation came to such as pass in Kashmir in first place.
But first, what is rather well known. Rao was there at the beginning. The political situation resulting from then Governor Jagmohan’s handling of the political impasse in the mid-eighties culminated in the late eighties. The election in the interim in 1987 yielded up a rich harvest of disaffected youth, promptly capitalized on by Pakistani intelligence agencies. A spiral in initially low level anti-India violence started, including the selective killings of Kashmiri Pandits. Governor Jagmohan’s tenure ending led to appointment of Rao in his place for his first tenure in J&K. Rao having served a five year stint in the North East was a figure with experience in handling restive states. Portents of the situation worsening had perhaps led to the choice of an army man for the job.
In the event, his was a turbulent first term. Pakistan’s low intensity war continued, unacknowledged by either side, with Tika Lal Taploo being killed that September, among the first of about 220 Kashmiri Pandits who have died since in the conflict. It witnessed the turning out on the streets of large numbers of people in the last December of the eighties during the Rubaiya Sayeed crisis. The final straw was the announcement by the government of the return of Jagmohan as Governor. Jagmohan was a tough administrator and having just finished a five year stint in Srinagar was thought to be the best bet. Perhaps Rao was seen as too close to Abdullah.
Not only did Rao resign, so did Farooq Abdullah miffed that his political rival Mufti Sayeed had foisted his nemesis Jagmohan on him once again. This resulted in a vacuum in Srinagar at a crucial time, in the run up to Republic Day. Even as Jagmohan hastened to Srinagar for what turned out his ‘frozen turbulence in Kashmir’, the Valley was astir. On 19 January, the police took action under uncertain authority, setting-off agitated crowds on Srinagar streets the next day and setting up the Gowkadal incident. The rumour was that Kashmir was building up to a boiling point culminating on 26 January in a unilateral declaration of independence. In the following weeks, many of the 24000 Kashmiri Pandit families that have left Kashmir exited.
Jagmohan left in a hail of bullets that not only accounted for Mirwaiz Farooq but also for some 60 members of his cortege. At a time when some are returning state awards, he recently collected a Padma Vibhushan for his stewardship of Kashmir at the outbreak of the troubles. His successor ‘Gary’ Saxena is credited with holding firm, but only to pass on the baton to Rao. The dynamics between Rao, his home minister Chavan and Chavan’s deputy, Rajesh Pilot, and the relations (later even familial) of the latter with Kashmir’s most prominent politician Farooq Abdullah, led to Rao’s second chance at the helm.
In retrospect, it appears that Krishna Rao had a single mandate from Prime Minister Narasimha Rao: conduct elections. The aim was legitimate, a return to democracy rather than rule from Delhi. India’s newly liberalising economy needed investment and in the post Cold War climate, the sole superpower, the US, needed to be placated. India’s human rights record was under question and Narasimha Rao had to dispatch both Kashmir’s lead politician Abdullah and opposition leader Vajpayee to Geneva to retrieve lost ground. The economy could not do with another round of war with Pakistan. India’s military might had to be turned inwards.
Creating the conditions for elections and the timing of it was left to General Rao. He began well in his handling of the vacation of Hazratbal shrine. However, General Rao, a former army chief to boot, ended up relying solely on the army to deliver. For its part, the army had a full job on its hands. It had recovered weaponry enough to equip two divisions worth of troops. The insurgency was now more of proxy war with the indigenous face, the JKLF, being eclipsed by the ISI supported Hizb and the foreign fighter dominated Harkat. Apprehending a long term engagement in Kashmir, the army determined that it should not detract from its ability to hit back at Pakistan. It raised the Rashtriya Rifles and pumped these troops into Kashmir in the mid-nineties. It also turned to turn coat militants by creating the Ikhwan.
The Unified Headquarters set up by Rao himself was however not a link between him and the army. This came to a head in the Charar-e-Sharif episode which witnessed Rao quarrelling with his tools and scapegoating the UHQ head, his adviser Home and fellow general, MA Zaki. The event led to elections postponed to the following year, giving Seshan, the election czar, time to conduct a reckonable election. Elections helped India’s case in Kashmir, even if some of the glitter was lost in the tough line India was forced to adopt in face of Pakistan’s continuing challenge. Thus Gen Rao delivered on the aim set by his prime minister. Rao handed the baton back to Saxena, who had two eruptions - the Kargil War and the legislative assembly/parliament attack aftermath – to deal with.
When Kashmir’s history gets to be written dispassionately sometime in the future, it will be said that there were missed opportunities aplenty in Kashmir. The first was when Jagmohan applied the military template, which according to his adviser, Ved Marwah, was not quite necessary when policing action and investigation of firings resulting in uncalled for deaths could have served the situation. The second was in wake of Hazratbal when Rao at the helm could have exploited the effect of the mature handling of the situation, that included the soft touch of negotiated end to the crisis by Habibullah and even serving of ‘biryani’ to militants. Habibullah in his account soto voce suggests that there was more to his removal from the scene in an accident than meets the eye. That the militants got a hiding on surrendering suggests there were forces for the alternate way of handling militancy. It is clear that they won out under Rao’s tutelage.
That said, now for the less visible and indirect influence of Rao on Kashmir. Kashmir erupted at the turn of the decade when the Berlin Wall had just come down and freedom and liberation (‘azadi’) were in the air. India was relatively cowed after its economy coughed and its politics tumbled; its main supporter, the Soviet Union, went into a fright; and its adversary Pakistan became triumpalist over its success in laying out the ‘bear trap’ in Afghanistan. Whereas the semi-fictional scenario Operation Topac was exaggerated, the ISI was itself surprised by the windfall it received in early 1990. So much so that Benazir Bhutto’s fiery jumping into the act in early February after the birth of her child was almost inevitable. Pakistan could not but grab the chance it had only partially created and which India had done more to hand over.
Pakistan needed this since it was long looking for an opportunity to tie down India’s military power. India’s military power had received a fillip in the eighties. The military upgrade that in the event made India’s economy dive, was a brainchild of the Rao-Sundarji combine. It is here that Rao’s indirect role kicks in. After India’s military victory in 1971 that made it a regional power, India in the mid-seventies set up a study group under Rao to chart out its military’s turn towards mechanization. This was firmed in under Rao when as Chief he conducted the first memorable large scale exercise, Ex Digvijay. Pakistan, worrying that this time its mainland would be shred by Indian pincers, sought to under-cut India’s power by first fostering insurgency in its launch pads in Punjab and then extended it into J&K, when India offered the border state as a fertile ground a platter through the rigging of elections in 1987 under Abdullah’s and Jagmohan’s watch. In effect, Rao’s success carried forward by Sundarji resulted in the insurgency in Kashmir that then required Rao’s direct attention.
There was one other manner in which Rao tangentially influenced Kashmir. As Chief he was said to have been close to the Congress. When his time came to hang up his uniform, he pitched for Gen Vaidya to succeed him over the prior claim on seniority of Gen Sinha. Gen Vaidya was winner of two gallantry awards. Gen Sinha on his part left the service, only to follow Gen Rao, if not as Chief, then two decades on as Governor J&K, appointed by the earlier NDA government. While Rao tilted to the Congress, Sinha tilted to the opposition. While both can be credited with setting the stage for political generals of today, Sinha’s has been a baleful cultural nationalist, if not communal, legacy in Kashmir. He completely reversed the healing touch of early this century, so much so that today Kashmiri youth express interest in the ISIS even while that organization has only rhetorical interest in Kashmir.
Rao, as with the other governors in the nineties, bore a great brunt. He had the wide shoulders necessary. It must be said that if Pakistan had its way then things would have been much worse.