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#5272, 19 April 2017

Special Commentary

Jammu and Kashmir: A Saga of Neglect
Arun Chaudhary
Former Director General, Sashastra Seema Bal (Armed Border Force), Government of India

The institutions that are supposed to establish calm in the Kashmir valley seem to be opposed or at least indifferent to this idea. The captains of these institutions have, since the 1990s, reviewed their strategies and made amends whenever violence has escalated. Since the summer of 2016 however the situation has been allowed to drift with no visible change in strategies, which has resulted in the present impasse.

Today, Kashmir watchers are of the opinion that the state is fast slipping out of hand and if something drastic is not done before the darbar moves to Srinagar, this summer will be the bloodiest since 1990. Although the central and state governments have the capability to reverse the trend, a lack of commitment and sincerity appear to lacking.

J&K politics and politicians pivot around an exhibition of blatant personal power that accrues after elections or appointments to any institution of ‘profit’. The main leaders of  the two regional parties - Jammu and Kashmir National Conference (JKNC) and Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) - make occasional statements speaking to the crisis but do not show any interest in its actual resolution at the ground level. There is absolute silence from this quarter when a police officer (Kashmiri) is killed or a civilian is brutally murdered by militants. There is also a lack of political will in the cadres and regional leaders of these parties to squarely face the atrocities of the militants. On the other hand, the local militant is freely allowed to ignite a situation, leading to police and army action that often gets bad publicity and affects the morale of the security forces.

Can politicians be expected to come forward and take on this miniscule minority of militants in their areas of influence? The answer is no - the politicians are themselves quite clear that the militants need not be dealt with politically. Occasional statements aimed at lip service when, for example, Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) jawans are stone pelted speak volumes of their resolve to bring the situation to normalcy. This is perhaps why no important mainstream politician been harmed in the last two years.

Of  the two regional parties, the one out of power will always evoke the sentiments of the youth indulging in violence; they will even advocate dialogue with secessionists (Hurriyat), and their masters in Pakistan. Yes, Kashmir is a humanitarian crisis and needs a political solution, but the stakeholders who should come forward are hiding behind a facade of fear. 

On a visit to the valley in June 2015, this author had the opportunity to talk to security and police personnel from both the state and central police organisations. All of them uniformly shared the view that violence and militancy were a thing of the past and Kashmiris were more keen on going about their daily routine and business. To this end, the boom in tourism was welcome. Tourists were flocking not only to Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Sonmarg, but also to interior areas such as Yusmarg, Wular Lake, Kokernag, Aharbal and Daksum.

The situation seemed to be looking up on the militancy front - an operational officer of the J&K police, for example, said that the number of registered militants had gone down drastically and several were also on the run. However, he also cited a new trend where old militant leaders were now handing weapons to the youth to target police constables in market places or wherever they were alone and without support. About a dozen killings of this nature had been reported from Anantnag, Kulgam and Pulwama; districts in South Kashmir.

The government had decided, despite opposition from the security forces and intelligence agencies, that they would bring militant leaders and their families based in PoK back to the state. Their movement after arriving in J&K was to be regularly monitored. It seems this was not done meticulously, leading to some of these ex-militants successfully initiating many Kashmiri youth into militancy.  This induction grew apace, with the police failing to keep track of young Kashmiris leaving their homes. This time, they were not crossing the border but seemed waiting for an opportune moment to strike. 

At this time, a 'silent' social media revolution, especially out of South Kashmir, was developing. Youth like Burhan Wani made regular social media appearances, eulogising the virtues of taking up arms against the ‘enemy’ security forces. Looking back to the spurt of violence and large-scale disturbances that followed Burhan Wani's neutralisation, it seems that the security forces and intelligence agencies failed to see the potential of this growing band of ‘neo-militants’.

The youth were fed on Islamic State (IS) visuals and literature, and with every taste of success against the security forces, they were further emboldened. Further, the timely escalation of border violence by Pakistan and the actions initiated by Pakistan-based militant groups like Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) lent a fillip to their resolve. They were also assured of continuing cross-border support following the Indian "surgical strikes." The casual attitude of the security forces in arresting this trend in 2015 gave rise to full-blown civilian unrest, resulting in bloodshed on both sides. 

The Kashmir valley continues to witness unabated violent incidents on a daily basis. The responses of the security forces to actions initiated by militants have been negatively highlighted by bad press. The central government thus needs to immediately review the working of security forces and intelligence agencies in the valley. There is a need to make the leaders of these forces realise that they are accountable for any lapse. Coordination between the state and central police forces should be made flawless; intelligence-sharing should be free, swift, and lead to exemplary operations. The army's role should be limited to guarding borders and anti-insurgency operations. With Pakistan trying to push in more militants, the borders must be completely sanitised. The J&K police is also under immense pressure from the local population to not act against the militants. These developments must be attended to immediately, and measures taken to keep morale high. Although directly talking to Pakistan or secessionist leaders in the valley at this point would be a futile exercise, the intelligence agencies should keep their dialogue with important and amenable secessionist leaders open. 

Mainstream political leaders need to acknowledge the stakes involved and attempt a dialogue with the disgruntled youth. Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti must be more assertive and accountable, and demonstrate her resolve to the administration as well.

The J&K police is capable of sorting this out in their own way - it was done in the past and it can be done now. The state and its development departments have to be more visible and deliver projects in time, the ultimate objective being to initiate dialogue with all stakeholders, including the leaders of the youth brigade.

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