DS Hooda interview: ‘The image of youth tied to jeep doesn’t define the Army’s approach to Kashmir’

Former Army commander DS Hooda says the action was illegal but there are other factors guiding military action in the Valley.

When images of a young Kashmiri man tied to the bonnet of an Army jeep, as a human shield against stone-pelters, surfaced last week, it immediately set off a furious debate about how the Indian Army conducts counter-insurgency operations in Jammu and Kashmir. While this action by a Major from the 53rd battalion of the Rashtriya Rifles is clearly illegal, many have hailed it as “out-of-the-box thinking”. The images have also sparked a bigger debate about India’s role in Kashmir and how the 28-year-old insurgency may have brutalised the common people and the security forces.

Lieutenant General DS Hooda was General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Udhampur-based Northern Command, which oversees Jammu and Kashmir, till his retirement in November. He dealt with insurgency operations during his many stints in the state and with the violent street protests that erupted in the Valley after the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani in July. He speaks at length about the impact of this incident on the Indian Army’s role in Jammu and Kashmir and on India’s position in the troubled state.

Edited excerpts from the interview:

How important is the role of the Army in the counter-insurgency strategy in Kashmir, which has been on the boil for 28 years? Is this prolonged exposure to counter-insurgency detrimental or necessary for the Army?
The Army took on a counter-insurgency role in Jammu and Kashmir only when the situation had turned highly critical. The law and order and administrative machinery was under enormous pressure and the state was reeling under violence. The situation has been brought back from the brink and the Army has played a significant part.

Can the Army now be withdrawn from this role? I do not think so. We have not reached a state where we can treat Kashmir as a simple law and order problem to be handled only by the police services. There is a huge Pakistan-sponsored terrorism component that can only be countered by a unified approach, of which the Army is an essential component. It is not really a matter of whether it is detrimental or necessary for the Army but what is right in national interest.

Images of a Kashmiri youth being used as a human shield by an officer of the 53 Rashtriya Rifles on April 9 have gone viral. Is this legally permissible as a tactic and if so, under which law?
Honestly, this is a difficult question to answer. From a purely legal perspective, the answer would be, “No, not permissible.” But in conflict zones, there is no single prism through which events can be viewed. Apart from legal, there are also moral, human and practical perspectives. Even while sitting in my comfortable office in Udhampur, I often struggled to find the right answer. It is much more difficult for the officers and men on the ground facing a very complex and difficult situation. The frustration and anger is not only on the side of the Kashmiri youth.

An odd incident will happen when both sides are on edge. This is the unfortunate reality. And though the image of a youth tied to a jeep is powerful, it does not define the Army’s attitude or approach towards the population in Kashmir. Let us not forget the succour provided during the earthquake of 2005 and the floods of 2014, the 49 schools being run for the youth or the daily Sadbhavana or goodwill (through the Army’s welfare and development initiative, Operation Sadbhavana).

For nearly two decades, the Army has underscored the need to win hearts and minds in counter-insurgency operations. Does the use of a young man as a human shield undermine that approach? Also, many military veterans have called for abandoning this approach and adopting a more hardline strategy. Do you think that would serve India’s position on Kashmir, considering it is under so much international scrutiny?
I have not heard many veterans, who actually have had experience in Kashmir, advocating an abandonment of the “hearts and minds” approach. This has been the cornerstone of our counter-insurgency strategy not only in Jammu and Kashmir but also in the North-East. It has served us well and there is no need to think of discarding it.

However, some strong steps are definitely required against those who are fuelling protests. Law and order has to be established, we surely do not want a repeat of 2016 when a prolonged shutdown affected every member of the community. The state does have a responsibility to keep violence off the streets.

As a former Army commander who saw several bouts of street protests under the Srinagar-based 15 Corps’ area of operation, what would you advise as the ideal approach to dealing with this phenomenon?
The first step is to control the ongoing violence. While this may not be an easy task, I think the real challenge is to formulate a comprehensive and long-term strategy that looks at the underlying causes of radicalisation, youth anger, and the sense of alienation. Our inability to do so has perhaps been our biggest weakness. I think a calm and clear-headed appraisal, not clouded by sentiment or rhetoric, has to be made to find lasting solutions. In my view, this is not an impossible task.

Pakistan has always been a major factor fanning and sustaining the insurgency in Kashmir. Do you feel the insurgency and the protests are now becoming indigenous and resentment against India is spreading in the Kashmir Valley?
There is definitely an internal angle to the insurgency in Kashmir. Of late, we are seeing more visible resentment in the Valley. The increase in local recruitment into terrorism is also a matter of concern. But to say that it has now become only an indigenous movement would be an incorrect reading of the situation. The transnational component is equally important. The influence of Pakistan’s support to nurturing terrorism in the Valley is very significant. This is clear when we see that an increase in disturbances in Kashmir over the last two years is also mirrored in increased incidents along the Line of Control – ceasefire violations, infiltration attempts and attacks on border garrisons.

I, therefore, disagree with any talk of involving Pakistan in finding solutions for our internal problems. Pakistan is fully committed to vitiating the atmosphere and can be of no help.

Figures show insurgency-related incidents have progressively come down from the heights it reached in the last two decades. However, political protests by the population seem to have gone up. Should the military be asked to play a role in this, or should the police be asked to take up this challenge?
Insurgency-related incidents have certainly come down from the peak levels of the early 2000s. The nature of the problem has morphed into a form of hybrid conflict where we are seeing the visible involvement of the local population in clashes with security forces. Social media is being used as a powerful tool to radicalise and inflame passions. This does require a slightly different approach where the police are at the forefront of tackling protestors. And this is what is largely happening. The Army does not really get involved in tackling mobs unless they are directly attacked. This is a clear operational principle.

There is a definite need to empower and strengthen the police and the Central Reserve Police Force. Their work today is in some ways more difficult and challenging than that of the Army. They need better self-protection equipment and sophisticated non-lethal weapons. And our complete moral support. However, as I said earlier, the counter-terrorism role must still be carried out by the Army.

If the military is to be tasked with more civilian-related issues, as we saw on April 9, will that be good for the military, or will it be detrimental to its primary responsibility?
Any involvement in internal situations is obviously not the ideal situation for the Army because this is not its primary role. However, national interest will obviously take priority. The Army is very sensitive to its responsibility while operating amongst the people and that is the reason for our “hearts and minds” approach. These are not empty words, they are ingrained in our ethos and training.

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