In Anantnag town, residents say, the pickets that blocked almost every road just a few weeks ago have begun to disappear. This is partly because the boys who had guarded them had to go back to the fields and orchards before harvest season ends in Kashmir. But it's also because the security forces, bolstered by fresh army troops, have started clearing roadblocks from Pulwama district and regions farther south.
Days before the guns rang out at Uri on September 18, the army had quietly moved into four districts of South Kashmir, Anantnag, Shopian, Pulwama and Kulgam. According to reports, at least 4,000 additional troops were deployed under Operation Calm Down, a bid to quell the unrest that has swept through the Valley ever since Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed in an encounter with security forces on July 9.
Former generals and special forces personnel claim it is merely back up, meant to provide support to the Jammu and Kashmir Police and the Central Reserve Police Force rather than to deal directly with protestors. Residents of Anantnag, however, claim to have seen army men beating up protestors with sticks. They also say that the crackdown on pro-freedom rallies, held largely in rural and semi-rural areas, has intensified after Operation Calm Down began.
Meanwhile, in North Kashmir’s Baramulla district, a 22-year-old was killed after the army opened fire on protestors on Friday. Shortly after the attack on the army camp at Uri, which has left 19 soldiers dead, Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti said it was aimed at creating a “warlike situation” in the state, whose residents would have to “bear the maximum brunt of the fresh attempts being made to step up violence and trigger fresh bloodshed”.
Her remarks raised some questions: As temperatures rise at the Line of Control and the government steps up security, will the rest of the Valley feel the heat? Will the army distinguish between the violence at the LoC and civilian uprising as it spreads out in the Valley?
Not like Uri
Former army men feel it will. “The violence at the LoC is a completely different kettle of fish. The LoC is a war zone,” said Subin Balakrishnan, a former Special Forces officer in the Indian Army.
Uri, for instance, was isolated from the rest of the protests. Segregated from the population centres where the recent unrest has taken root, Uri has remained relatively quiet over the last two months. Besides, the cordial relations between the local population and the army are a contrast to the tensions that prevail between civilians and armed forces in other parts of the Valley.
“Uri is an oasis of calm, the army has always had good relations with the population there,” said Ata Hasnain, former general officer commanding of the 15 corps, who had also headed the Uri command from 2003 to 2005. “There is a great psychological connect.”
The difference in the demographic compositions of the Valley and the areas along LoC has also contributed to the way in which the army reads these places. The population along the LoC, dominated by the Gujjar and Bakarwal communities, feels no “connect with the Kashmiri cause”, said Balakrishnan. In this reading, the separatist movement is an ethnic Kashmiri demand that has left other communities cold.
The problem at the frontier, according to former army men, is infiltration from the other side. The pattern has been that militants who crossed over quickly got away from the frontier because of the heavy deployment there, Balakrishnan explained. They then escaped into holding areas – forests and villages not far from the LoC where they could recuperate before launching strikes in the Valley. It was in these places, the forward areas along the LoC and the holding areas near it, that the army would pump in more resources to target infiltrators, he said.
But in the hinterland, including South Kashmir, the army is meant to play a different role. Officers across the board are quick to establish that the army’s job is counter insurgency, it is not trained or equipped to take on civilian protestors. In those areas, the army had been brought in because the existing police and paramilitary had not been able to control the protests. Even then, the military was not supposed to be the first point of contact.
“You don’t want the army to be confronted with unarmed mobs,” said NC Vij, former army chief. “They will have to work in tandem with the police and provide them security on the exterior lines. It is better that riot control activities are undertaken by the police as they are best suited to and equipped for it.”
The idea behind an exercise like Operation Calm Down, according to Balakrishnan, is physical domination of rural and semi-rural areas, which have seen widespread protests, to cut off supply lines and support for militancy. And no, Hasnain says, the army would never indulge in acts of retribution against civilians.
But, going by residents’ accounts, the roles are not so neatly defined on the ground.
Joining the dots
Former officers feel that Uri was meant to blur the distinction between the LoC and the hinterland. “While South Kashmir is burning, if you raise temperatures at the LoC, you can say, look, Kashmir is burning,” said Balakrishnan.
Others, like Hasnain, see the attack as attempt to keep up the flagging of the morale of the protestors in the Valley, who might otherwise have tired after more than two months of unrest. “When the agitation started, the influence of the Pakistani deep state was minimal,” he said. “But after 50-60 days, it was felt that, like in 2010, the stamina of the protestors might run out. So they had to do something that had a Pakistani footprint.”
In this version of the protests, Pakistan has become the motive force of the unrest, keeping it alive with logistical and financial support – Hasnain spoke of accounts in Pulwama district that had been investigated. Both Uri and the civilian protests are believed to be drawing funds and inspiration from across the border.
Return of the army
However the army cuts it, Operation Calm Down and the heavy deployment across the Valley signals the return of the army as a visible force in Kashmir. The jury is out on whether this is one of the sharpest rises in military deployment that the Valley has seen, comparable to the 1990s, when militancy was at its peak.
Balakrishnan says the 4,000 troops pumped into South Kashmir this month were merely redeployed from quieter areas, though there might have been some reinforcements. Hasnain cautiously says it is impossible to compare the current scale of deployment to the 1990s, when military capabilities on the whole were much smaller.
The first battalions of the Rashtriya Rifles, the wing of the Indian Army that is devoted to counterinsurgency, were only raised in 1990. From one or two battalions, the Rashtriya Rifles had been expanded by 63 in 2003. Most of these are now deployed in the Valley. “This kind of strength was not available in the 1989-90” said Hasnain.
Yet in the last few years, the army had been a receding presence in the Valley, clearing out of rural areas, retreating to the camps. This was partly in response to the outcry against the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which had become a lynchpin for anger against the state. It was also meant to provide a civil face to the problem and free up the army for fighting militants, said Vij. In 2008-'09, a number of security reforms in the Valley meant that the army withdrew from civilian functions, leaving them to the police.
In recent years, the army had seemed prepared, quite literally, to cede more ground to the civilian administration in the Valley. In June, it was announced that the army was set to vacate about 57 acres of land in Anantnag’s High Ground. The army post, perched on a hill, has loomed over the town for about two decades now. Now, Hasnain says, the army has put in a request saying that it does not want to give up land in the High Ground.
Last week, it was also reported that the army was finally going to hand over 1,500 acres of land to the state government. “There will be a bit of politicking around this,” said Balakrishnan. “But there must be a process of give and take. Whether Uri happened or not, there is no question that the army would vacate ground of tactical importance just to assuage local sentiment.”
The closing window
But the return of the army became necessary, say the former army men, because of a larger political failure to build on the security gains made in the previous decade, to take advantage of the windows of relative quiet that they bought. Radha Kumar, who was part of the interlocutors’ panel set up in 2010 to look for a political solution to Kashmir, would agree.
“There was an interregnum between 2002 to 2008 when the peace process could have been pushed forward,” said Kumar. According to Hasnain, militancy had almost disappeared in 2012, which was an ideal time for the civilian government to step in. It did not, and the next few years saw local militancy rise again.
But never mind the more complicated manoeuvres of dispute resolution, the political leadership did not even get basic administration right. “It is a real irony that the security reforms were undertaken in the hope of peace in Kashmir,” said Kumar. “But the police was ill-equipped and untrained. Many policemen behaved in an arbitrary and dictatorial manner. It created an additional problem.”
The army deployment now, Kumar feels, could help create an environment for a political initiative. But the deployment, at best, could only be a temporary measure, not lasting beyond a couple of weeks and not months, as anticipated by the generals. Other arms of government had to kick into action but the political leadership had not shown any initiative so far, Kumar felt.
Worse, even if the army distinguished between the conflict at the LoC and civilian protests, the government had shown no such nuance. “The anger and dissatisfaction in the Valley is completely different and has to be dealt with separately,” said Kumar. “What on earth are you doing, are you not aware that some of the statements you make will fuel anger in the Valley?”The government, Kumar felt, could not be ignorant of the effect its aggressive rhetoric has had on the protests. Meanwhile, another window in the Valley is rapidly closing.
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