The Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat has stirred up sentiments with his statement of the obvious, that elements within the Kashmiri population are functioning as “overground workers of terrorists” and “aides of jihadis”, and would henceforth be dealt with as such.

A stream of apologetics has argued that not all Kashmiri youth can be described or treated as such, and that the forces cannot “shoot at women who dare to vent their frustration because they are tired of living wretched lives in a militarised zone.”

On the other hand, we have some exultation in the expectation that “anyone with a stone or gun in his hand is the enemy” and would now, perhaps, face a hail of Army bullets.

Neither position reflects the realities of the ground, and while there will be a likely hardening of the security forces’ response to acts of active collusion with terrorists, Rawat’s statement is not a declaration of indiscriminate war against the “innocent youth and womanhood” of Kashmir.

It is, simply, an expression of the determination to curb manifestly illegal and violent actions intended to aid terrorists during operations – operations, it is useful to recall, that have resulted in a succession of civilian and security force deaths in the recent past.

A false narrative

Indian security forces have now established a rare counterterrorism strategy of using minimal force in narrowly targeted small unit operations, at great cost in lives to their own personnel. This militates against global practices, including the hallowed traditions of British counter-insurgency – despite the reams of nonsense written about “winning hearts and minds”, “that nauseating phrase I think I invented”, according to its original author, General Sir Gerald Templar. Indeed, Western practice has invariably been shaped by the principal and belief that is often attributed to Theodore Roosevelt, “If you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.”

The Americans have simply devastated nation after nation, and bombed out whatever they label “terrorist” – often in drone operations controlled from secure command centres on American soil, thousands of miles from the theatres of conflict – refusing to place their own troops at significant risk. And Pakistan, much admired among the terrorist and separatist constituency of Kashmir, depopulates entire regions, and then blows up anything that moves in the “terrorist affected areas”.

None of this is envisaged by counterterrorism strategists in India today (though the crudities of Templar’s much vaunted Malay model were followed in Mizoram). Nevertheless, the impunity with which terrorist collaborators have operated in Kashmir cannot continue.

A false narrative of human rights and the “innocence of the Kashmiri people” has undermined every principal of the rule of law in Kashmir, to the enduring detriment of the people themselves, ceding their leadership and control to a strident, violent, unelected minority.

This is not how democracies function – or, indeed, survive.

Political solution

There has also been, as usual, much talk of the necessity of a “political solution” to address the crisis of “alienation” in Kashmir. Indeed, a recent conference on counter-radicalisation and counterterrorism in the global context articulated the proposition that “counter-violence… has not proven to be a successful strategy”. This contra-factual twaddle met with general approval, including that of much retired military brass present there. The hard reality is that no movement of widespread violence in history has ever been contained or neutralised in the absence of proportionate, if not disproportionate, counter-violence.

Further, there are clearly no “political solutions” currently available to magically bring a Pakistan-backed terrorist movement to its end in Jammu and Kashmir. Indeed, as has been noted in the past, prevailing violence is an index of political failure – or, conversely, success. Encouragingly, it may be noted, that violence has declined dramatically from the distressing levels that prevailed through the 1990s and early 2000s – a high-intensity conflict, with more than a thousand deaths each year, raged in Jammu and Kashmir from 1990 through 2006. The year 2016 saw 267 terrorism-related deaths according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, sharply up from the low of 117 in 2012, but a tiny fraction of the 4,507 killed at peak in 2001. For all the hysteria that attends commentary on the conflict in the Valley, the reality is not entirely gloomy.

Politics, moreover, has been part of the problem in the relative escalation of recent years, with most principal political parties engaged in communal polarisation, and Valley-based parties – including the ruling People’s Democratic Party – pushing appeasement of the extremist constituency and, opportunistically, a soft separatist line. This often translates into deliberate mischief, as in the case of the release of 634 stone pelters by Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti, just before the outbreak of street violence in Kashmir in July 2016.

Downtown Srinagar. File photo: PTI
Downtown Srinagar. File photo: PTI

Unrealistic expectations

A crucial part of the problem is the unrealistic expectations in which assessments are being made. This is a region of persistent instability, and has only recently emerged from high intensity conflict. To believe that it can abruptly and miraculously be transformed into the imagined firdaus – paradise – of the past is folly. Kashmir will see violence for a long time to come, irrespective of what New Delhi or Srinagar-Jammu do.

The most significant reason for this remains Pakistan. One prominent commentator raised the question, “Why is the Valley back in a phase where local Kashmiri militants outnumber the foreign terrorists?” The answer to this is plainly visible in the record of the past. Islamabad has defined the trajectory of terrorism in Jammu and Kashmir for nearly three decades now, raising and dismantling terrorist groups at will.

For years, “indigenous” Kashmiri groups were sidelined, reduced to the status of contemptible guides and porters to the Punjabi-Pakistani terrorists who were being pumped into Jammu and Kashmir from across the border. This has clearly become problematic, with the growing global exposure of the footprint of Pakistani malfeasance, not only in India, but across the world.

Hafiz Saeed, the Pakistani leader of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, leaves in a car after being detained by police in Lahore, early on Jan. 31, 2017. Image: AFP
Hafiz Saeed, the Pakistani leader of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, leaves in a car after being detained by police in Lahore, early on Jan. 31, 2017. Image: AFP

More urgently now, the escalating threat perception in Islamabad as a result of Donald Trump’s ascent to the Presidency in Washington, is forcing changes. The result has been that groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammad are being held back, and resources as well as pressures are now being funnelled into the “Kashmiri” terrorist formations, and into street mobilisation in the Valley.

It is useful to recall that, as US and global pressure grows, reluctant and obviously deceptive action has been initiated against Hafiz Muhammad Saeed and his Lashkar-e-Taiba – Jamaat-ud-Dawa combine. More significantly, this formation has quickly sought to reinvent itself as the Tehreek-e-Azadi Jammu Kashmir, in an effort to distance itself from the global jihad that it has long advocated, and that so frightens the West, to adopt the subterfuge of a regional struggle for “freedom”, which an ignorant West, eager to deny reality, may be tempted to embrace.

Coercive use of force

General Rawat is right, consequently, to recognise the need to employ counter-violence, or to apply a gentler euphemism, coercive use of force, against those who are violently facilitating the terrorists during operations by or against them.

The question, however, is what kind of use of force is necessary or expedient?

Simply concluding that if force is necessary, all force is justified, would be wrong; and the security forces leadership, with its enormous experience in counterterrorism, cannot be unaware of this. This experience amply demonstrates, not only that indiscriminate violence against wider populations is counter-productive, but also that going after the “cannon fodder” that the separatist leadership is throwing at the forces would serve little strategic purpose. It is the leadership that must be identified and targeted, and not only in military campaigns.

For all the nonsense about the impact of demonetisation on the trajectory of terrorism and street violence in Kashmir, the truth is, the flow of resources to the provocateurs in the Valley has never been interrupted. The intelligence and enforcement apparatus must aggressively and urgently target these elements, if the hard-earned gains of the past decade are to be consolidated.

Cause and consequence

And finally, speaking of the frustration of women (and, presumably, men) who are tired of living wretched lives in a militarised zone: the militarisation of Jammu and Kashmir is not the cause of radicalisation and terrorism; it is the consequence of radicalisation and terrorism. The women (and men) who are pelting stones at the security forces in full confidence that they will not be fired on, are not the only ones who are frustrated and wretched; there are millions of others who want to live in peace. They may not be flag waving Indian patriots, but they are sick of terrorism, of violence and of the shenanigans of Pakistan’s proxies in India. Unlike the women (and men) who come out to pelt stones on the security forces, they cannot protest; they would be hunted down and killed by the terrorists if they did, as many have been for simply voicing dissent against the separatist cause.

Islamist radicalisation and terrorism will have to be addressed in Jammu and Kashmir. While the security forces are perpetually left to carry the can in the struggle against their violent manifestation in terrorism, successive governments, at the Centre and in the State, have done nothing to contain the rampant processes of Islamist radicalisation, and have at least occasionally facilitated these. The state’s timidity in the face of the spread of radical Islamist institutions, and of their messages of hate and violence, is incomprehensible and unacceptable. Unless this challenge is squarely addressed, without communal biases and without the targeting of the larger community, the separatists and their Pakistani handlers will always find willing dupes for their murderous cults of terrorism and martyrdom.

Ajai Sahni, Executive Director of the Institute for Conflict Management, which maintains the South Asia Terrorism Portal, is editor of South Asia Intelligence Review and Faultlines.