Chief of Army Staff General Bipin Rawat has said that the Kashmiri youth who are seeking azadi, or freedom, can never fight the Indian Army. “I want to tell Kashmiri youth that azadi isn’t possible,” Rawat told The Indian Express in an interview published on Thursday. “It won’t happen. Don’t get carried away unnecessarily. Why are you picking up weapons? We will always fight those who seek azadi, those who want to secede. [Azadi] is not going to happen, never”.

The Army chief said he was willing to halt military operations to avoid civilian deaths. “But who will guarantee that there won’t be fire at our men, at our vehicles?” asked Rawat. “Who will guarantee that policemen, political workers, our men returning home on leave aren’t attacked, aren’t killed?... Those who want to fight us, we will fight them. These youngsters who have picked up guns aren’t a challenge for us. Terrorists aren’t a big challenge for us. We have been telling the people not to come to disrupt our operations, not to throw stones at us.’’

He compared the security forces in Jammu and Kashmir with those in Syria and Pakistan. “Kashmiris have to understand that the SFs [security forces] haven’t been so brutal – look at Syria and Pakistan,” said Rawat. “They use tanks and air power in similar situations. Our troops have been trying their level best to avoid any civilian casualty despite huge provocation.”

General Rawat said the Army had tried a soft approach too and everything was fine till June 2016. “What is that incited people so much because of that one encounter [in which Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani was killed]?” he asked. “Everything was turned upside down in a few days’ time. The entire South Kashmir was out in the streets, throwing stones at us, attacking our posts. By October-November, I was getting messages that people say azadi dur nahi hai [azadi isn’t far away].”

He added: “We had to bring the situation under control. We couldn’t afford all that. We needed to tell people azadi isn’t happening. We had to establish the writ [of the state].”

Rawat said that there were certain elements who were inciting the Kashmiri youth. “Young people are getting excited by IS [Islamic State group] flags,” said Rawat. “Do you know what that means? Do you want to Talibanise Kashmir? Do you want Kashmir to turn into such a society? Do you want to live in such a society?”

He, however, said that there was no “military solution” to the Kashmir unrest. “This is why we want politicians, political representatives to go into villages, especially in South Kashmir, to talk to people,” he told The Indian Express. “But they are scared that they will be attacked. It will happen once there is calm. And we are hopeful that people will soon realise that all this is futile and start thinking differently.”

Reiterating his support for Major Leetul Gogoi who had used a civilian as a “human shield”, Rawat said the decision was based on circumstances at the time. In April 2017, Gogoi had tied a civilian – identified as Farooq Daar – to a jeep, allegedly as a shield to thwart attacks by stone-pelters. “That was the only option other than to open fire at a mob that was pelting stones,” said Rawat. “He [Gogoi] could have opened fire and killed people. Instead, he used the best available option with him in those given circumstances.’’