The internal security scenario of India has been a serious challenge at various times in its history since 1947. The Army’s primary responsibility is the defence of India from external aggression and its secondary responsibility is internal security. It has been deployed in the Northeast in various stages of anti-secessionist campaigns. In J&K, it has been at the LoC ever since 1949, but moved into a more classic internal security situation involving counter insurgency/counter terrorism (CI/CT) since 1989.
In that year, the Army was requisitioned when an indeterminate number of foreign and local terrorists backed by Pakistan and supported by the separatists challenged the writ of the police forces, which were not in a position to counter them. At the height of the 31-year proxy conflict, there may have been approximately 5,000-7,000 terrorists in J&K. In 2001, the Indian security forces neutralised 2,100 terrorists, the highest in all 30 years.
Today, there are an estimated 215 terrorists in Kashmir and none in the Jammu division, where terrorism has become transitory. Yet, the Army remains deployed in a CI/CT role. The rationale for this needs explanation. Even in December 2013, the editor of a prominent national daily wrote that the Army should get back to the LoC and give a part of the then peace dividend to the people of J&K. For starters, if that advice was taken, the fate of Kashmir in the period 2016-21 would have been quite different to what ultimately emerged.
At various times, there have been demands by different segments to limit the Army’s role in J&K or withdraw it altogether. Many among the military veteran community did not want the Army to be diverted from its main conventional role. With the situation in J&K much better after the decisions relating to Article 370 taken on 5 August 2019, there are murmurs afoot once again about reducing the Army’s footprint, if not wholesale withdrawal from the CI/CT grid. In light of the conventional collusive threats emanating from China and Pakistan after the Ladakh standoff, the demand for more troops from the internal security grid to the nation’s borders may look prudent.
But is J&K ready to see reduced deployment of the Army? That needs serious analysis. Two examples from the past may be helpful in understanding this. In June 1999, the Army’s 8th Mountain Division deployed in the thick of operations in North Kashmir was suddenly moved to Kargil, leaving a void in the critical area of Handwara-Sopore for almost three months, until the Kilo Force of the Rashtriya Rifles was raised. For the next three years, we had to fight hard to regain domination there. Secondly, in 2012, following a good stable year in South Kashmir, we took a decision to thin troops from there, deploy them to reinforce North Kashmir’s counter infiltration grid and fill gaps created by the move of an independent brigade to Ladakh.
It led to large voids in South Kashmir, which Burhan Wani’s movement found most suitable to exploit. From the ‘karewas’ adjoining the Pir Panjal to the Bring Valley, terrorism re-emerged; it has taken us five years to regain balance. If you have lived in insurgencies and terror-infested zones, you will know that the potential of such zones to return to a state of turbulence is contingent upon the over ground worker networks that flourish there, not on the strength of terrorists or the quantum of violence registered. These networks have the ability to quickly transform from an active to inactive state and vice-versa. Commonly, the temptation is to move troops from areas considered peaceful with an absence of violence. Experience reveals an adage that I never forget: ‘The absence of violence is not normalcy’. It is something practitioners will always recommend and policymakers must accept.
Many times, even experienced practitioners forget the intrinsic link between stages of conflict and potential withdrawal or drawdown by a lead force. In mid-1999, during the ‘conflict progression’ stage, a withdrawal from just a part of Kashmir forced by the circumstances of Kargil was suicidal; yet it could not be helped. In 2021, we may consider we are still at a late stage of conflict stabilisation in J&K. Unless we have progressed beyond the conflict resolution stage, a dilution of resources, especially something as significant as the lead force, will only lead to an eventual bounce-back by adversaries.
What the Chinese want from Pakistan is not war on the western front but posturing and a strong revival of turbulence in J&K that threatens India sufficiently and seriously provides the half front of the proverbial two-and-a-half front war. Besides, if the threat perception indicates early war-like conditions, the Indian Army itself will want its rear areas secure. Under those circumstances, is it even prudent to dilute what provides fail-safe rear-area security, the Rashtriya Rifles (RR)? Conflict termination does not appear on the horizon yet. Pakistan’s intent remains unchanged; the recruitment and holding camps as also launch pads have not been wound up.
Different routes for infiltration and diverse ways of spreading financial networks are being sought—for instance, the Samba route to get to the Valley, with a surfeit of weapons and drugs to proliferate finances. While separatist leaders may be ineffective and new politics is being attempted, the one thing that has seen little change is the degree of radicalisation. The Army’s biggest advantage is its ability to fight terrorists and yet spread goodwill. Its regimentation and training help in a full-spectrum understanding of proxy conflict and that caters to an appreciation of the fact that the population of J&K remains the centre of gravity of the conflict.
It also understands the concept of influence operations and the need to take its military civic action program—Operation Sadbhavana—to the next higher level. What will help most with the situation is that the decision-makers respect the view of the practitioners. The decisions of 5 August 2019 were a step towards final victory but were not the final step. It’s yet a developing security situation that must not swing to the adversary’s favour at any cost. The Army must remain on J&K’s internal security grid; it will ensure we do not yield an inch.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd) (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University of Kashmir