Above: There is widespread resentment in Kashmir over the prolonged shutdown, lasting for over two months/Photo: UNI
In the Army’s assessment, insurgency could get a new lease of life in the days ahead, with Pakistan proxies and ISI’s material support, and things may get worse before they get better
By Major General Ashok Mehta
During last week’s bi-annual Army Commanders’ Conference, the highest conclave that meets to discuss both tactical and strategic issues facing the Army, its chief, General Bipin Rawat, complimented the forces for responding to difficult operational situations in a most innovative manner. In his address, more than two months after the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), he singled out troops in Kashmir for foiling the actions of Pakistan’s Border Action Team (BAT) along the Line of Control (LoC) and keeping at bay terrorists in the hinterland.
The Indian Army has not ceased countering the designs of the Pakistan Army and those of its proxies inside J&K since October 27, 1947, when it was airlifted into Srinagar after the Instrument of Accession was signed the previous day by the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, Hari Singh.
The Army has since fought many wars and skirmishes in the state—the 1947/48 operations; Operation Gibraltar and the war that followed in 1965; the epic 1971 war in the west and east that liberated East Pakistan into Bangladesh; the Pakistan-instigated insurgency of 1989 which continues to this day; and Pakistan’s misadventure in Kargil in 1999. This does not include the numerous major terrorist attacks, among the most recent being the one at Pulwama. Cross-border terrorism has become Pakistan’s instrument of coercion and it has cost that nation dearly.
Recently, Lt Gen Ranbir Singh—remembered as the iconic turbaned face of the surgical strikes when he was former Director General Military Operations in September 2016—the Northern Army Commander incharge of J&K, in an interview to a national daily, spelt out the operational situation and his plans to prevent Pakistan from destabilising J&K through increased infiltration. He said that the Army has deployed additional troops by inducting them from outside the Northern Command to strengthen the counter-infiltration grid.
This consists of a first tier of defence along the forward posts and gaps between them are covered with surveillance devices, mines and troops. The second counter infiltration tier follows the barbed wire fencing along, ahead and behind the LoC/forward posts—its location depending on terrain and defensibility—which is also manned by troops and surveillance devices. The third tier in the hinterland consists of posts both static and mobile. For infiltration to succeed, terrorists have to penetrate two or three tiers of an elaborate network of defences as explained above.
Singh noted that following revocation of the special status of J&K on August 5, there was an unusual spike in infiltration but all attempts were thwarted. Still, he said, the situation was fragile, adding that nearly 500 terrorists were poised in various training camps along the LoC, waiting to sneak in.
Over the years, the terrorist population has declined, from a high of 2,000 to 3,000 in 2000, to just 200 to 300 today, mainly in the Valley. Of these, 60 percent are local youths and the remainder from Pakistan, mostly belonging to the Jaish-e-Mohammad.
There has not been a single major terrorist incident for the last 70 days, due to the lockdown and high density of security forces in J&K. Singh said that due to the impenetrability of the counter infiltration grid, it is likely that terrorists will now use other border routes like Punjab, Gujarat and Nepal.
On a visit to Doda’s “Sangam” youth festival at the Bhaderwah campus of Jammu University, Singh took questions on the situation in J&K. When asked about infiltration by Afghan militants, he said there was speculation about that but reports had not corroborated it. He explained that terrorists generally dodge the first tier on the LoC but are ambushed in the next tiers. He also confirmed that the option of another surgical strike was on the table and it could be exercised at an opportune time. Counter-terrorism operations, he said, were in full swing and areas from where militants had infiltrated are being combed for stragglers. One such operation was carried out last month for two weeks in the Gurez sector, near Ganderbal lake, scouring for terrorists believed to have penetrated the first tier on the LoC. At least two terrorists were sighted and shot dead.
Here are some statistics: Ever since the removal of Article 370, the LoC has become volatile with over 600 ceasefire violations being recorded over the last two and a half months. The violations involve exchange of small arms fire, sniper fire and mortar and artillery duels. Usually Pakistan initiates the firing to light up the border so that infiltration is facilitated. This year, the army has registered some 2,330 ceasefire violations, a number which exceeds the annual record since 2003. Till October 13, the security forces had gunned down 150 terrorists in different operations along the LoC and in the interiors, at the cost of 33 soldiers being martyred. More than 60 terrorists have come in.
Once the lockdown is lifted and political leaders are released, the ground situation is expected to be different. So far, only post-paid cellphones are working and that too without SMS facility; the internet is still shut down while Section 144 has been imposed in some areas. The government will be under immense pressure to lift the residual restriction as the US House of Representatives will debate the human rights situation in Kashmir as part of its survey of South Asia on October 22.
Further, the Block Development Council elections are to be held on October 24. On October 26, the seat of government in Srinagar will shift to Jammu, the winter capital, and will be functional from November 5. By October 31, J&K and Ladakh will be reincarnated as Union Territories. These events and changes will occur under the shadow of the terrorist gun.
With the lockdown being eased, threat of violence has increased, proportionate to the restrictions relaxed. In his election rallies in Haryana recently, PM Modi had set a four-month limit for normalcy to return in J&K. Both Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah think that defanging Article 370, removing 35-A and restructuring J&K and Ladakh into UTs are the silver bullets to end terrorism and will put the state on the path of development.
The majority of people in the Valley are “not happy”, but the leadership claims they are. The pent-up alienation of Kashmiris has transformed, according to ground reports, into serious resentment. All symptoms and actions of a civil disobedience movement are manifest. Yet, the narrative painted by the government is optimistic. Still the benefit of the doubt must be given to the government. It must have carried out risk assessment and contingency planning before scrapping Article 370.
Meanwhile, the Army, which has been in the state for 74 years, is not too hopeful. Winning back the confidence and trust of the people, vital for restoring normalcy, will be extremely difficult. The only people who can help to secure the hearts and minds of the Kashmiris are soldiers but even for them it will be an uphill task. In the Army’s assessment, not shared with the government, the insurgency could get a new lease of life with Pakistan proxies and the ISI’s material support. Things are expected to get much worse before they can get any better. A serving general told me last week: “It will be a long and bloody haul”.
Meanwhile, during the army commanders’ conference, Singh analysed the situation in Kashmir. The possibility of a Pulwama-type terrorist attack was considered. Both the Pakistan and Indian army chiefs have said they are ready for any eventuality. Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan has mentioned the possibility of an accidental nuclear war to internationalise Kashmir.
Singh is geared to confront the worst case scenario in J&K. He has to be. For he is the front-runner to become either the next army chief when General Rawat retires on December 31; or the next chief of the defence staff. Given the ground situation in Kashmir, his credentials for promotion are impeccable.
—The writer has fought in all the wars after 1947 and was Commander of the IPKF (South) in Sri Lanka