The District Development Council elections were held for the first time and peacefully in Jammu and Kashmir. The voter turnout was healthy and the verdict on expected lines. This showcased two things. First, that the elections were free and fair, and second, that people welcomed empowerment at the grassroots level. It will lead to decentralisation of power and benefit citizens. This was possible only because Article 370 was amended by the Narendra Modi government. Its good effects will show in the long term. Panchayat elections held a couple of years earlier and the DDC elections now have taken the political process to the grassroots. The next step has to be the kickstart of the political process at the state level, as soon as the situation permits.
What is the way forward to move towards state elections in Jammu and Kashmir? Terrorist violence has been fairly under control during the year gone by. The incidences of mob violence and stone pelting have also been very little, compared to earlier times. Despite the dilution of Article 370 or the detention of political leaders, there has seen comparatively lesser spilling of anger onto the streets.
The numbers of terrorists operating in the Valley are in the region of a couple of hundred, compared to thousands in the nineties. They are also poorly trained, if at all. The strong anti-infiltration grid along the Line of Control (LoC) does not allow militants to exfiltrate to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) to be trained in terrorist camps. They have started relying on the use of social media as a force multiplier for mobilisation as well as radicalisation of youth. This is information warfare. The battle is shifting to the mind-space of the youth, rather than the jungles and mountains only. Our approach must also change accordingly.
First, we must recognise this change to digital recruitment and focus on information warfare by itself seriously, and not as an adjunct of kinetic operations.
Recently, the Army has been conducting a spate of cultural and sporting activities. The response from the youth has been overwhelmingly positive. It shows that youth anywhere have similar aspirations. Of late, a few popular fast food chains have set up shop in Srinagar, and the response again proves that the youth desire change. They want freedom for growth and azadi from violence. An Indian-owned Abu Dhabi-based company called LuLu has already made public its plans to set up food processing units in Jammu and Kashmir. This will result in creating more jobs as well as entrepreneurship. The Centre is making efforts to increase such investments. None less than Prime Minister Modi himself has been pitching for foreign investment in J&K. Private sector involvement is the way to go, rather than state-sponsored largesse, which gets corrupted or, at best, is inefficiently utilised. Kashmiri handicraft and other such specialties are waiting for organised outlets in India and abroad.
The state needs to build a narrative around the positives. The other side, the Deep State, has built a narrative on hate, on negativity. They’ve radicalised the youth, by preying on the fears of people, made false promises, whether it’s to do with jannat and hoors or better days in Pakistan or azadi. A national narrative should be created around the positives that are tangible — jobs, opportunities, industry, good administration, grassroots empowerment, recreational outlets like sports and cultural enrichment.
An exit strategy
Several agencies are indulging in psychological warfare, but there is a need to coordinate the efforts. My suggestion is that Army can be effective at coordinating this information warfare, especially with the raising of cyber command/agency. The Army is the only organ of the state that has a warfare mentality. With its experience of civil military operations, it has started expanding to counter information operations.
Is it also time for India to articulate an exit strategy for the Army in J&K? Let me explain. As the situation in the LoC and hinterland is getting better, we should think of how to repurpose the Army’s involvement in Jammu and Kashmir. The Army’s presence and reach in remotest areas and its organisational strength can be leveraged for coordinating the information warfare and the psychological dimension. This will also require internet to be restored.
It is time that 4G services are restarted. The fear is that it will be used to spread hatred, mobilise crowds for violent protests and more. It might also lead to casualties. The apprehensions are well-founded. But there is also the need to start this service for all the right people and right reasons. It can be easily stopped if misused. Winter is the best time to experiment with this. Chillai Kalan has already started, which is the coldest time of the year.
On the hard kinetics, should we articulate an exit strategy for the Army? Imagine that the Army returns to barracks and hands over the day-to-day security operations to the Jammu and Kashmir Police and the CRPF. The Army can remain in a hand-holding role and continue to underwrite peace by remaining in their hubs and bases, in case the situation turns ugly. It can also help in training and intelligence gathering. But, day-to-day operations and protection of roads and installations can be handed over to the CRPF and the state police. This will leave the Army free to conduct information warfare and target the mind-space of the youth.
This transition cannot happen in a hurry, but merely by articulating it, we will create more stakeholders in the peace process. Today, sadly, every aspect of the situation in Kashmir seems to be outsourced to the Army.
The Army will continue to be deployed on the LoC to safeguard the borders as well as in the anti-infiltration grid. This grid had to be made as foolproof as possible, in view of more terrorists that are likely to be available to Pakistan, as the situation in Afghanistan is becoming more volatile consequent to the continuing drawdown of American troops.
At another level, someday we must start thinking and talking about an exit strategy for the Army. The State and other forces need to start preparing themselves for it. When it can actually happen, that will depend on the improvement of the situation.
Lt General Satish Dua is a former Corps Commander in Kashmir, who retired as Chief of Integrated Defence Staff. Views expressed are personal