Every insurgency reaches a critical stage where some imperceptible shift in strategy changes the nature of the campaign, guaranteeing success or failure. Mao Zedong, the founding father of the People’s Republic of China, used to call it “contradictions of purpose”. The basic idea was to use civilians as human shields, and force the state’s security apparatus to overreact and alienate the local population.
However, when state forces don’t fall into the trap, it’s usually the insurgents who start losing popular support. By torching apple orchards, attacking traders, and killing an apple trucker and a stone crusher, militants in the Valley are simply betraying their desperation and sowing the seeds of their own irrelevance. The unintended consequence of the communications blackout was that the security forces couldn’t react even if they wanted to, but the “contradictions of purpose” brought upon by the Narendra Modi government with its 5 August move have refracted to start impacting the militants in the Valley.
Orchards provide cover
To understand why this has happened, we need to understand why apples and stone crushing are important to Kashmiri militants. Apple orchards have only one house in the middle of a large tract of land, insulated from prying eyes in villages and smaller towns where everyone knows everyone else. With the foliage growing outwards up to 12 feet, an apple tree blocks the line of sight and makes for the perfect cover for militants to move around freely. Apples being highly nutritious, an apple orchard thus creates a perfect ecosystem to harbour insurgents coming from a hazardous border-crossing.
Unfortunately for the militants, the apple orchard owners are also the biggest source of intelligence for security forces, as I learned in the core apple-growing districts of south Kashmir – Shopian and Pulwama. About 90 per cent of the actionable human intelligence comes from these cultivators, who accept payment from militants to give them shelter but inform the security forces the moment they leave. This is done for two reasons: first, nobody wants a shootout in their orchard; and second, the reward for handing over a militant is far too good for subsistence farmers to resist.
When militants act, forces react
The apple harvest also dictates the cadence of the insurgency and counterinsurgency operations. Given the extreme danger of operating in the August-October harvest season, when the apple trees are dense, security forces avoid going into the orchards. This is usually when militants plan most of their attacks, putting the foliage to good use. When the trees start shedding in mid-October and go completely barren by November, security forces go hunting. One of the greatest worries of the local security commanders was that the blocking of mobile services had completely shut them off from this timely intelligence that they needed during August-September to fend off terror attacks from mid-October onwards.
Looking back, we can now say it was probably for the good since we know other forces were also at work. The orders from Pakistan dictated a complete halt to economic activity, to “show solidarity with the Kashmir cause”. In effect, this made the insurgents forcibly turn on their biggest benefactor in the valley – the apple farmers. The first turning point came in mid-September when an orchard was burnt down and a cultivator family was attacked in Sopore.
In the past, the smooth running of the apple business was seen as critical to the functioning of militancy, so it came as a surprise to the cultivators that this was no longer the case. During my visit, I filmed the gathering of the early September crop of the “Kullu” variety having been successfully evacuated by stealth, mostly at night, for fear of militant retaliation, and preparations were underway to do the same for the October harvest between 5th and 15th, which includes the Maharaji and Delicious varieties. Clearly, the rise in violence against apple farmers and their orchards indicates that instead of cowing down the farmers, the militants have only succeeded in aggravating them. And so, once mobile services are fully restored, the quantum of tip-offs is only going to rise.
Business that provides finance
The stone crushing is a different story altogether. Dominated by mafia groups across India, the situation in Kashmir is no different. Much of what happens, happens illegally. In my interviews with stone crushers from Jharkhand at a clearly illegal operation, the workers told me they had been well looked after. Within days of the mobile blackout, the quarry owners had provided them with landline phones with free calls to home. The local police, however, confirmed that the stone-crushing business continues to attract protection from higher echelons.
They also confirmed the existence of a “hafta” model where quarry owners would pay militants a fee to be left alone, unlike the informal arrangement mining companies have in the Naxal belt. While there was no unanimity on this (primarily because money laundering is one of the weakest points of both intel and security operations in the Valley), officers estimate that anywhere between 40 and 70 per cent of local operating funds comes from such extortion by militants.
To sum up, apple orchards provide the cover and stone quarrying the finances for significant parts of the Kashmir militancy. The fact that these two critical assets are being attacked, shows that in some form, the Indian state has reversed the “contradictions of purpose” onto the militants, who are now not just preventing people from earning their livelihood but also compromising their own operational advantages due to orders from Islamabad. Delhi may or may not have realised this, but this could very well be the turning of the tide, where Pakistan’s insurgency strategy is at direct variance with its diplomatic need to “internationalise the dispute”.
The author is a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He tweets @iyervval. Views are personal.