In October, India’s focus was back on Jammu and Kashmir. Targeted killings of 11 civilians – 2 resident Hindus, 1 resident Sikh, 3 resident Muslims, 4 non-resident Hindus and 1 non-resident Muslim – took place between 5 and 17 October. There were reports of minorities and migrant workers leaving the Valley. These killings were overlapped by one of the longest, one-sided and inconclusive encounters in Dera Ki Gali and Bhatta Dhurian forests of Poonch district beginning 11 October, in which nine soldiers were killed in action without any terrorist being killed.
These two incidents cast a shadow over the planned visit of Union Home Minister Amit Shah, his first since the abrogation of Article 370, from 23 to 25 October. Rather than taking stock of the situation, fixing accountability and clearly spelling out the government’s political strategy, Amit Shah dished out the usual platitudes of ‘all is well since abrogation of Article 370’, ‘sacrifices of security forces’, ‘strides in development’
In my view, there have been lapses with respect to counter infiltration and counter terrorism grid in the hinterland and the Narendra Modi government seems to have resigned to manage the insurgency with maximum political gains for the BJP rather than find a solution.
Pakistan has a very clear long-term strategy – to annexe J&K or at least its Muslim-populated areas through a proxy war. This strategy has remained unchanged for 32 years. At the tactical level, the intensity of the insurgency varies due to the international/regional strategic environment, Financial Action Task Force (FATF) sanctions, Pakistan’s other military commitments, and India’s political and military strategy in J&K. Pakistan is a nuclear state and has created adequate conventional capability to stalemate India’s actions to force compellence from surgical strikes to limited war.
After the decisive victory of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Pakistan has neutralised the alleged covert operations by India. Its diplomacy and pivotal geo-strategic location have warded off the threat of FATF sanctions. There is no end in sight to the standoff at the LAC in Eastern Ladakh and some readjustment of troops has created voids in the counter terrorism grid in J&K. In view of these factors, Pakistan has decided to revitalise the insurgency.
It has focussed on increased infiltration into the Valley and southwest of Pir Panjal Range, particularly in the Poonch and Rajouri districts during this summer. The latter development is a matter of concern as this area has been dormant since 2007 both for terrorist activities as well as routes for infiltration to the Valley. The Gujjar and Bakarwal populations are not radicalised and have generally been pro-India. Due to the rugged terrain and dense forests, this area can also be utilised for permanent terrorist bases as had happened in 2003 in Hill Kaka. This model has been successfully exploited by the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Targeting minorities and outsiders is always an easy option for the terrorists. Contrary to prevailing opinion, it is resented by the Muslim population. There are approximately 1,40,000 migrant workers who provide labour to the industry and the orchards. However, the crackdown by the security forces brings about greater alienation. Also, the demonisation of Kashmir’s Muslim population by the “godi” media and neo-nationalists further alienates the people. Targeting of minorities/outsiders also embarrasses the BJP government and puts a question mark on its claims of normality post revocation of Article 370.
What we are witnessing in J&K is tactical course correction by Pakistan to revitalise the proxy war. All stratagems of Pakistan are well known to the government and the military. Why then have we been taken by surprise?
Eye off the ball
In the last 10 years, a plateau has been reached in J&K with respect to the degree of violence in terms of the number of terrorists/security forces/civilians killed.
Ironically, contrary to the claims of the Modi government and the Army, the level of violence has shown a slight increase in the last five years. Emotions aside, this degree of violence is at par with the annual violent crime rate in Mumbai.
Militarily, the height of the plateau can be reduced with greater focus on counter infiltration while maintaining the counter-terrorism grid in the hinterland. The current spurt in the level of violence is due to the Army’s lapses this summer with respect to both these two fundamentals. The increase in the activity of terrorists in Poonch and Rajouri districts southwest of Pir Panjal was evident from July onwards. There was a requirement to strengthen the counter infiltration grid, which does not seem to have taken place.
To compound the problem A few years back, some Rashtriya Rifles Battalions had also been moved from this area as it was dormant, to the Valley. Consequently, the counter terrorism grid has got stretched creating voids which have been exploited.
Since an encounter with a relatively large group of terrorists was taking place in this area (southwest of Pir Panjal Range) after nearly a decade, the troops were over enthusiastic and also casual with security precautions. Hence, the disproportionate casualties. This is one of the rare encounters in the history of terrorism in J&K when the terrorists have got away after causing such high casualties. An inquiry is in order to learn the lessons. I am keeping my fingers crossed with respect to the establishment of permanent terrorist bases.
The arrest of a number of civilians from a hitherto friendly population, for assisting the terrorists in Dera Ki Gali and Bhatta Dhurian is also a matter of concern. There is an urgent need to strengthen the counter infiltration grid and counter terrorism grid by inducting additional forces. The rugged terrain adjoining Pir Panjal Range also needs to be dominated to prevent establishment of permanent bases.
There has also been increased infiltration in the Valley. In September, the infiltration attempts were downplayed by the Army in the Uri Sector. The absence of any encounters on and north of the Shamsabari Ridge also indicates that infiltration has taken place.
The missing political initiative
The only other thing that can reduce the level of insurgency is a farsighted political strategy to win the hearts and minds of the people in J&K. The very fact that Amit Shah visited the Valley for the first time in October 2021 after abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019 puts a question mark over the seriousness of any political initiative. What he said there and the actions of the administration seemed to be indicating that the government has reconciled to managing the insurgency rather than finding a solution.
Over the years despite lack of a clear-cut political strategy the Army has managed the insurgency well. Off late, it has shown a tendency to toe the political line on “normalcy” and let its guard down, knowing fully well that not much has changed. Rather than focus on accountability for intelligence and security failures with respect to targeting of minorities, the Director General of Defence Intelligence Agency castigated the common people living under the shadow of the terrorist guns for not condemning the killings. The fact is that the dastardly acts were strongly condemned.
With politics in suspended animation in J&K, the ball is back in the Army’s court and it simply cannot take its eye off it. Any fusion with the political line of “all is well” will surrender the initiative to Pakistan.
Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R), served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post-retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. He tweets @rwac48. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)