I have always bemoaned India’s poor strategic culture which leads to lack of understanding of the requirements of security in emergent conditions; the various actions which necessarily have to be taken.
That is exactly what is happening in the case of the security lockdown in Kashmir post the momentous decisions on its constitutional and administrative status.
If not knowledge on security affairs, surely a sense of history should prevail to appreciate what goes into managing and ensuring stability when decisions perceived as contentious are taken.
Let us try and put this in perspective but let me also state that the best form of security is always freedom and transparency but that comes at a particular stage when people have been taken into confidence and the state information machinery has at least partially succeeded in informing the public about the virtues of its decision.
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When that has not been done for various reasons extending to high antipathy and alienation, temporary lockdowns are the only solution to maintain peace and order.
History would always indicate what the needs of a situation are. In the case of Kashmir, the leading consideration remains that it has been subjected to sponsored proxy war by Pakistan.
A major part of that war is about promotion of alienation against India. The latter is best played when there are triggers which are essentially sparks flying from street battles leading to casualties and protests in any form including preventing security forces from tackling terrorists known to be hiding in safe houses.
The separatists—usually when free from lockdown—have been known to rally people from all over the Valley to a particular spot where insidious speeches create the passion leading to standoff with security forces.
The Bijbehara massacre of the early 90s and other such infamous incidents have become landmarks in collective memory of Kashmiris. In 2008, while I was General Officer Commanding, Baramulla in Kashmir, I was forced into handling the infamous Muzaffarabad march.
On August 10 of that year intelligence services informed my headquarters that a token march by some Kashmiris would take place from Sopore with three to four apple-laden trucks towards the LoC near Uri; at best a symbolic gesture to convey the need for opening LoC trade with PoK.
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The next morning those trucks got converted to hundreds of buses, trucks and pick-up vehicles with almost a hundred thousand people thronging the road with my units on either side. One wrong move on the part of either side could have led to a massacre.
Ultimately, five unfortunate people died unnecessarily before the mob sensed the futility. It burnt property worth lakhs and some police stations too. In the evening cable networks put up cameras inside operation theatres in the hospitals in Baramulla to relay live medical procedures being performed on casualties.
Kashmir, already inflamed by sentiments of the Shrine Board agitation, was instigated further.
We did not wait for anyone to give us orders: the cable networks were taken down, even physically where warranted. Negative information triggering more passion in the streets was not an acceptable situation.
Whether we transgressed rights of freedom or not was immaterial to us; it was national security which took priority.
Cut to August 2019, 11 years later. The decisions of the Government of India are potentially contentious in the eyes of the Kashmiri public. The quantum of communication networks has increased by leaps and bounds. Pakistan’s Inter Services Public Relations (ISPR) wing is known to be adept at putting out insidious propaganda to influence the vulnerable population.
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Its reach is sufficient even through mobile networks. Breaking the curfew had become a norm in the 2016 agitation, post the killing of Burhan Wani and the instigation of masses to come out in the streets was done from across the LoC as much as the Separatists.
With knowledge and experience of all this, would the government be so laid back as not to have a counter-strategy?
What the government failed to do is have knowledgeable security experts explain this to the public and to Kashmiris living across India. Such restrictions on communications at the time of a festival are never warranted because the promotion of happiness is the aim of any government.
However, momentary happiness leading to instigation, triggers, agitation and casualties is not the means of lasting stability which provides the real happiness.
It’s a matter of time that Kashmiris will find all their facilities restored provided that elements within do not once again fall prey to the machinations of the sponsors of proxy conflict.
The government is justified in laying restriction in challenging security situations, but it is always good to add to these doses of public outreach to explain the ‘why and the how long’.
It dilutes restiveness. Gestures such as those by the Punjab Chief Minister’s invite to Kashmiri students, who could not travel home, go far in arresting restive minds.
Information battles will need to be fought in continuity once restrictions are lifted. The J&K issue is receiving international media attention although almost all governments have supported India’s rights in J&K.
This media attention can sometimes trigger more unpredictability than is palatable. India needs to be prepared for that.
Lt Gen (retd) Syed Ata Hasnain
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps