His deep understanding of the Kashmir Valley and its vulnerability to forces from across the LoC led him to widely propagate a strategy that resembled ‘The Winning Hearts and Minds’ strategy
It was the spring of 1984 and, barring the rumblings of dissent in Punjab, the rest of the northern parts of India were relatively quiet except for the odd skirmish along the Line of Control. I was not yet 23, a young flying officer in a MiG-21 squadron based at Adampur, the IAF base on the outskirts of the town of Jalandhar. I had just finished my ‘Day Ops’ syllabus and, because there were too many mouths to feed, the flight commander told me to ‘push off on some leave’ before commencing my night-flying syllabus that would get me my much-coveted ‘Fully Ops’ in my first operational squadron. I quickly called my parents and asked them whether they would like me to plan a family holiday in Kashmir, to which they readily agreed as dad had not yet availed of the leave travel concession (LTC) he was entitled to.
During our wonderful two-week sojourn in the Kashmir Valley, we walked around for a couple of days in Srinagar and did all the things tourists would do. We took a couple of languid shikara (Kashmiri boats) rides at different times of the day on the Dal Lake; spent a night on a houseboat; strolled through Shalimar Bagh and the Rose Garden, which was in full bloom; trekked up to Shankaracharya hill and walked around the Badami Bagh cantonment.
There was peace in the city of Srinagar and, barring a few stray comments from locals that started with “aapke India mein kya chal raha hai (What is happening in your India)?”, there were no real signs of the oncoming storm.
We visited Gulmarg, Sonamarg and the beautiful Dachigam sanctuary where we spotted the elusive Hangul deer. It was 10 days of sheer bliss!
The Chibber Doctrine
It is time, however, after that brief personal interlude, to focus on military matters and some happenings at the same time in Udhampur, which was, and still is, the headquarters of the Indian army’s Northern Command. The occupation of the Saltoro Ridge on the Siachen glacier by the Indian army had taken place quietly in April the same year without any fuss beyond stray ‘Siachen’ reports in the media, but Lt Gen M.L Chibber, the cerebral army commander, had more lined up on his plate.
Unlike the government in Delhi, he was presciently reflecting on what needed to be done in Kashmir to ensure complete integration of the state into the Indian Union with the active assistance of the army. His deep understanding of the socio-economic, religious and ethnic diversity of the Kashmir Valley and its vulnerability to fissiparous forces from across the Line of Control led him to widely propagate a strategy that resembled ‘The Winning Hearts and Minds’ strategy officially propounded by the Indian army nearly two decades later through its ‘Operation Sadbhavna.
If only the government in Delhi had listened to Chibber, who urged them to allocate resources and effort towards the concept of nation-building in J&K, who knows, the ‘proxy’ war may not have erupted in all its fury five years later as it did.
Chibber and one of his generals, Major General Tripat Singh, put together a book titled ‘Soldier’s Role in Jammu and Kashmir’ that was issued to all officers posted at the time in J&K. What impressed me most about the book was that it talked about shaping the narrative at a time when there was none, and today what we are reflecting on is, ‘How on earth are we losing the battle of narratives in J&K?’
Chibber realised that to thwart the designs of stray expressions of secessionist militant dissent and the gradual emergence of indigenous militant groups like the Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) and Hizbul Mujahideen, he needed to create a narrative of inclusiveness among the people of J&K, particularly those residing in the Valley. The main argument in the book revolved around the need for the Indian army to look at their presence in Kashmir as going beyond just the task of defending borders and the porous Line of Control. It stated in the ‘preamble’:
“It is necessary for all ranks, units and formations inducted into Northern Command to understand fully the land and people of the region, the history and basis of our conflicts with Pakistan and China in this region, our national objectives and policy… Thorough understanding of the local environment helps in gearing ourselves for better operational effectiveness. We should understand that while we are a secular and democratic nation, our adversary Pakistan is a theocratic dictatorship.”
The underlying message in the book was that unless the Indian army capitalised on the gentle ‘sufi’ culture in the Valley and played a pivotal role in shaping a secular, democratic and inclusive narrative in J&K, it was vulnerable to separatism arising out of the emerging radical Islamist narrative in Pakistan and historical fault lines.
To understand how events panned out over the next few decades and how J&K plunged into a cycle of insurgency, separatism and terrorism followed by a still ongoing and protracted proxy war unleashed by Pakistan, read Part-II.
Arjun Subramaniam is a retired Air Vice-Marshal from the IAF and currently a visiting fellow at Oxford University