last month has seen multiple developments in the Indian security and defence sphere that gives us an inkling into what the future may hold.
The first set of developments took place in Kashmir. The terrorism-hit region saw a sudden spurt this month in targeted killings of civilians, taking the local administration by surprise after months of what was projected as ‘restoration of normality’. This, coupled with infiltration attempts, many successful too, death of soldiers along the Line of Control (LoC) despite a fragile ceasefire holding ground, has turned out to be a deadly mocktail that may see the situation worsening if preventive steps are not taken.
The other development was along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) where the latest round of talks between India and China have failed.
For those who have been following the Kashmir and India-China developments closely, both outcomes are not a surprise.
Terror spike in Kashmir was expected
The rise in terror activities in Kashmir was expected, especially with the Afghanistan situation and the over-zealous push by the Indian administration to project everything there as normal. The fact that things remained more or less calm since the 5 August 2019 move, despite a greater sense of alienation, was an indication that something was cooking. Not to forget Pakistan’s attempt to smuggle in more arms and ammunition into Kashmir through drones and other means.
Despite what the Narendra Modi government and security forces might say, the fact is that there has not been any significant drop in the terror recruitment in Kashmir and this itself is an indication that things are not as calm as the government thought.
The sense I got from the ground and after meeting multiple key people involved in the security establishment is that we dropped the ball in Kashmir. The administration seemed to have believed too much in its own projection of ‘all is good’ that a sense of normality had crept into it despite the fact that Kashmir has multiple dynamics at play all the time.
This was also reflected in the kind of transfers and posting that had taken place in the security set-up, as if it was being done in states like Uttar Pradesh or Delhi. Transfers and postings in Kashmir have to be carried out only after assessing multiple factors including experience, local background and ability to work taking everyone in the security system along. Mere seniority or any other factor cannot come into play in a conflict zone like Jammu and Kashmir.
The fact that the elite anti-terrorism unit Special Operations Group (SOG), whose headquarters is dubbed ‘Cargo’, finally got a full-time Superintendent of Police to head it after a gap of nearly five months, and that too after the killings, is a sad example of the priorities.
I had argued last year that while things are calmer in Kashmir, the government should listen to its development pangs. What is needed is for the Kashmiris to see development taking place on the ground, something that was not really visible during my recent trip. The administration is doing a lot of reforms, but the need of the hour is ‘visible development’ on the ground. There needs to be a concerted effort to reach out to the Kashmiris because, without it, all steps taken to hoist the national flag in every corner of Kashmir will be futile.
At the same time, there should not be any let up in the sustained operations against terrorism – both at the tactical and strategic levels where terror financiers and influencers are targeted by the investigative agencies.
The problem is that every time terrorism levels go down, everyone takes it easy forgetting that a sustained approach is what is needed in Kashmir.
Can’t afford to drop the ball on China
While the ball may have been dropped in Kashmir and will be regained in subsequent weeks, India cannot afford to drop it when it comes to China.
Army Chief Gen. M.M. Naravane recently said that if the Chinese military maintains the deployment through the second winter since the tensions began in 2020, it may lead to an LoC-like situation at the LAC. Though not an active LoC like there is on the western front with Pakistan. Incidentally, last month I reported that the winter deployment will continue at the LAC even if the 13th round of India-China talks have a breakthrough. So the Army chief’s comment is not a surprise. Even the LoC-isation of the LAC was feared by a section within the Indian defence and security establishment, which I had reported on in September 2020.
The fact is that while disengagement might have happened in some friction points, largely thanks to India’s decision to pull back from the Kailash Range as demanded by the Chinese, the Peoples’ Liberation Army (PLA) is unlikely to budge from Depsang Plains or Demchok anytime soon. The Chinese have invested a large amount of time and money on infrastructure along the LAC and also in the depth areas.
What the Chinese have eventually achieved is converting the LAC into more of an informal border. Creation of buffer zones at friction points have ensured that India’s claims over these areas will remain just claims on paper with any actual physical presence. But the Chinese, who have built up in the rear area near the friction points, have ensured that even if border negotiations drag on, Indians will be in violation of agreement if they take a single step ahead, including in the southern banks of Pangong Tso.
And the infrastructure development that has taken place on the Chinese side are not just habitats or roads for additional soldiers but heliports, surface-to-air missiles sites, airstrips and underground bases among others to counter their existing military weakness in the region. This along with the Chinese push for creation of border villages, which will have dual use, and their recent border law is a clear sign that Chinese have decided to flex their muscles.
Every respectable voice within the Indian defence and security establishment has pointed out that tensions at the LAC have the capability to spin into something much more concerning. So, India cannot afford to let its guard down or slow down the pace of modernisation thinking that things are normal at the LAC. Because it is not.
We need to have a sustained all-government approach in tackling the Chinese. This means that India’s response options cannot be just military. India will also have to reach out to friendly nations and come together with the rest facing the Chinese aggression. It is important to be prepared rather than being taken by surprise like India was when the Chinese crossed over into the Indian side of the LAC last May.
Views are personal.