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#5111, 22 August 2016

J&K Focus

J&K: Communication Strategy is Key but First, Stabilise the Streets
Lt Gen (Retd) Syed Ata Hasnain
Member, IPCS Governing Council, and former GOC, 15 Corps, Srinagar

Recently, this author was in Singapore interacting with that city state’s marvellous intellectual and strategic institutions. The issue of J&K raised no apparent interest there but scholars were aware about the strife in the streets. It bodes well for India that Pakistan’s efforts to internationalise the issue find little favour thus far. However, the UN Secretary General’s gentle observation and the the UNHCR's demand to send a team to Srinagar must not be taken lightly either. There are Pakistan sponsored organisations that are attempting to raise the temperatures on J&K. The lack of any success so far must not lull India into complacency.

On the ground in the Valley, 41 days of virtual lock down is a test for the administration and the security forces. Rumours are rife and the Separatists are making effective use of the limited means of communication available to them. The ‘Chalo’ programs are reminiscent of the 2008 strategy. The strategy in itself looks at using a landmark to gather large masses with people travelling to the event, commencing resistance from the moment they are obstructed by security forces. This ensures that instead of just the weight of strength at the announced landmark, there are smaller fires too that are burning at different spots all along the National Highway and the feeder roads. The Valley has rarely been subjected to suicide bombings although suicide attacks, in which terrorists fought till their last breaths have been common. In street confrontations with security forces, however, there is a virtual propensity towards suicide through extreme resistance on display. It is a leaf out of an Intifada type resistance commenced by the Palestinian resistance in 1997.

This type of resistance alongside 'Chalo' programs will inevitably add to the numbers of casualties as police forces have no other means to control mobs; and non-lethal weapons do not work in the face of such suicidal resistance. This is something people outside Kashmir do not understand and blame the security forces for excesses. It is this very blame game which is part of the communication strategy adopted by the Separatists. They have been working on this for many years and have an effective system to communicate through couriers. A decentralised system of command works overtime to keep important towns in a state of turbulence.

The government has to go beyond the ordinary methodology of obstructing with use of police forces. Only when the streets are quiet will a counter strategy of communicating with the masses become effective. Foremost must be the understanding that the Separatist leadership is now beyond repair and any chances the government had of employing it for a future dispensation are now passé. The top and middle leadership, along with the important rising stars from the towns have to be neutralised through detention away from the Valley. Fears exist of the possibility of yet another leadership emerging as it happened in the case of Masrat Alam. This is where the measure of test of intelligence comes. All other detainees, the prime leaders among stone throwers, must not be detained in facilities within the Valley since such facilities do not exist. Keeping a stone thrower and a captured terrorist together is the surest recipe to convert the stone thrower to radical terrorist.

There are still many sensible people in Kashmir who are silent due to fear. The local media is also helping in promoting this fear psychosis. A perception is being attempted to project that the Governments in Delhi and Srinagar are incapable of any further initiatives and Azadi is but a matter of time. A similar sentiment was witnessed in 1989-90 and to an extent in 2010. It is dangerous if people believe this because fence-sitters commence moving to the other side.

That is why communication is the key. It is by gestures, actions, events, direct communication, word of mouth, and communicators.

Firmness is the first of the gestures, the resolve that street resistance cannot get a nation of 1.3 billion and an Army of 1.3 million to its knees. There is a thin line dividing routine human rights and the rights of those who choose to challenge the authority of the state through usage of violence. The governments have exhibited all norms of openness and democracy in ensuring that no curbs have been placed on the local media. This issue must be appreciated by the international community to which it should be projected. The views and position of the Central and State Governments must continue receiving space in the local media; and it cannot be a one sided affair in which the local media only espouses the cause of separatism.

The Governments must use the local media as a platform to communicate with the people and use their authority to do so.

The other connectors are politicians who in the face of the anger on the streets cannot easily move about and meet people. Yet, at some stage they will have to. The Army, which otherwise has ensured that it did not directly intervene except in a few stray cases, is probably the best organisation to bring the politician to the people and open new channels. All suspicions about employing the Army for such unconventional tasks is a denial of the tremendous capabilities of the Indian Army. In 2010, it is the liaison and hold of middle level Army officers over local populations which saw them being officially tasked to prevent surge of mobs from rural areas towards the National Highway.

There may be a belief that stamina usually runs out of such movements. It is never good to rely on that although chinks do start appearing and curfew weary people commence counter resistance against mob leaders. Already the taxi unions and tourist operators are indicating their displeasure.

Before long, orchard owners will start doing the same. In 2011, the total number of apple laden trucks which left the Valley crossed the 100,000 mark adding Rs 3000 crores to the pockets in the Valley. This is where the mind games begin and the power of the State to play these if done intelligently can be simply immense. What may be lacking is just ideation.

Lastly, before long, the resistance will peter out; and when exactly that will happen depends on further handling. However, the one thing that cannot be allowed to happen is a surge in terror activity. The attack on a night convoy at Baramulla is indicative that the terror leadership is also thinking. The surge in infiltration attempts in Uri and Lipa sectors although fully countered by the army is an indicator of more to come. The JKP's intelligence capability is bound to take a hit so there will be less success in the hinterland and more losses in stray hits against policemen or convoys. The army must keep a tight control on all this and not hold back from continuous advice to the Government.

A fresh communication and outreach strategy must be placed on the drawing board even as the situation improves over the next few weeks.

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