Jammu & Kashmir- On the Path to Nowhere: Review of Security and Political Developments

From security perspective, the events in Jammu & Kashmir during the year 2016 and in the first four months of the current year, present an extremely confusing, disturbing and challenging scenario. These also necessarily got reflected in the overall political narrative in the state, which was otherwise moving smoothly following the 2014 elections to the State Assembly, leading for the first time, to the formation of the PDP-BJP coalition government. In this brief paper an attempt is made to examine these issues with a view to understanding the evolving scenario and finding ways to deal with the situation in a manner that could restore normalcy, peace and stability in the troubled state.

For the sake of convenience, the developments leading to the current all-round stalemate are sought to be examined in three distinct but interconnected phases; the post-Pathankot (Jan 2016) developments; post-Burhan Wani agitation (Jul 2016) and the post-Uri/Surgical Strike phase (Sep 2016). While details of major incidents that occurred in these three phases are well documented and need no elucidation, it may be noted that in all the three phases, Pakistan remained the constant spoiler by encouraging, promoting and guiding the proceedings through cross-border ceasefire violations, infiltration of militants across the borders and launching targeted attacks through its proxies, funding the disruptive activities etc.

Phase-I: Attack on Pathankot Air Base

The terrorist attack on the Pathankot air force base in early Jan 2016 by a group of JeM terrorists infiltrated from across the borders, though not directly aimed at a physical target in J&K, was clearly designed by the Pak establishment to derail the fast pace at which Indo-Pak rapprochement was progressing under the personal guidance of the Prime Ministers of the two countries. Their efforts had acquired a positive dynamics, giving rise to genuine hopes for bilateral relations acquiring a new robust trajectory. Obviously, this was not in line with the long established agenda of the Pakistani military establishment which felt compelled to terminate the ongoing engagements at different levels to quell the huge euphoria building around it in the state of J&K and possibly even in some segments of the political and bureaucratic circles in Pakistan. The Indo-Pak bonhomie was moving too well and too fast for the liking of the ISI/military establishment.

Pathankot was not an isolated incident; it was just the beginning of a series of provocative actions such as the Jun 3 ambush attack on a BSF convoy near Bijbehara on Srinagar-Jammu National Highway in Anantnag District; Jun 16 major infiltration bid in Tanghdar sector in which four heavily armed militants were killed and large quantities of arms and ammunition and war like stores were recovered; Jun 25 attack on a CRPF convoy in which eight troopers were killed and 20 others injured near Pampore on Srinagar-Jammu National Highway.

Besides, there were numerous other incidents including intelligence driven encounters involving militants and the security forces. There was a definite sense emerging from these that Pak establishment was determined to create conditions that would eventually derail the process of political engagement that was paused, but not totally called off post-Pathankot.

Phase-II: The post-Burhan Wani Phase

This phase of agitation started after the killing of Burhan Wani, the young HM leader from Tral in an intelligence driven encounter carried out by the security forces on Jul 8, 2016 in Anantnag district. His burial procession attracted huge crowd leading to law and order problems. During the first week itself, agitators started confronting the security forces with intense stone pelting leading to police firing and deaths/injuries including blinding of scores of young people. Each morning, groups of young agitators stated coming out mostly under duress, in pre-designated areas determined by a few Pakistani and local activists acting under instructions from their handlers across the borders.

Significantly, no one disputed the fact that Burhan Wani was indeed a terrorist nor did anyone question the genuineness of the encounter. What was being described by the media as an ‘uprising’ was completely Pak instigated and micro-managed operation, largely confined to the five rural districts in south Kashmir. Hurriyat leaders were not in control but played the role of trouble shooters. Local administration went in total disarray; political leaders were nowhere to be seen on the ground and followed the separatist’s narrative for short term political gains. In the entire phase that spanned over nearly three months, according to the former DG CRPF Mr. K Durga Prasad, over 90 civilian agitators were killed and nearly 12,000 injured in nearly 200 violent incidents comprising 142 of stone-pelting, 47 grenade blasts, 43 incidents of acid/petrol bomb attacks and 3 incidents of firing. The DG went on to add that his forces maintained major restraint duly reflected in the fact that nearly 2580 CRPF jawans were injured in these incidents, 122 of them grievously. As regards the major public outcry against use of pellet guns, a report in the Indian Express (Oct 9) around 1000 civilians received injuries, with many requiring prolonged treatment including some cases of blinding. This was most unfortunate and the government is reviewing the options on use of less lethal crowd control equipment.

Phase-III: Uri Attack and the Surgical Strike

And then came the most audacious trans-border terrorist attack, again by a group of JeM fidayeens on the army’s camp at Uri in the early hours of Sep 18, 2016 in which 19 army personnel were killed and many injured. The government’s initial response was on the expected lines of condemnation of the incident, mobilization of international support against Pak-sponsored terrorism and an aggressive diplomatic initiative to isolate Pakistan, at least regionally. However, what delightfully surprised the strategic community in India was the extremely well planned, swift and effective counter attack by the Special Forces (SF), aptly described as ‘Surgical Strike’, on Sep 28/29 in which a large number of militants awaiting infiltration at various launching pads were killed and their camps destroyed. The Special Forces contingent safely returned without suffering any losses.

This stunned the Pakistani establishment as well and it quickly ran for cover, totally denying the strikes, describing it as routine trans-border operation. Obviously, they did not want to admit what had hit them lest be compelled to escalate the incident by launching counter attacks. Equally or perhaps more stunned were the Kashmiri agitators who too ran for cover and disappeared from the streets, at least for a while. However, once again the street agitators and stone-pelters are back in action in the affected districts, posing serious challenge to the security forces, even as they continue to act with restraint, thereby ensuring lower casualty and injuries.

Government Assessment

The situation in J&K not only remained in media focus through all the three phases but also attracted political concerns, particularly on the question of Pakistan’s support and involvement in fanning trouble. Some of these were expressed through a spate of starred and un-stared Questions over the last couple of months from a number of MPs in the Parliament seeking government’s assessment of the security situation in the state of J&K. The questions mainly focused on the important and related aspects of ceasefire violations, infiltrations across the borders, terrorist incidents, deaths of civilians, security forces and militants etc. and measures initiated by the government for political mainstreaming of the youth.

Replying to these, the Minister of State for Home Affairs cited a range of statistical details to assert that the situation was generally under control and improving. Based on these, and the details available in the recently released Annual Report of Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), the following overall picture of the security situation emerges.

Infiltration across IB/LoC

Pakistan was continuing to encourage and facilitate infiltration of trained militants and that the “levels of terrorist violence in the hinterland of J&K (was) linked to the infiltration from across the border”.


Year Attempted Killed Returned Apprehended/ Estimate
2010 489 112 281 1 95
2011 247 35 159 1 52
2012 264 13 130 0 121
2013 277 38 142 0 97
2014 222 52 105 0 65
2015 121 46 41 1 33
2016 364 35 217 3 112


As can be seen from the table, the number of attempted infiltrations remained high except for the dip in the year 2015 even though, as many as 121 attempts were made that year with 46 infiltrating militants killed and 33 estimated to have managed to sneak through. The year 2016 was particularly serious with 364 attempts at infiltration in which 35 militants were killed, 217 were pushed back and yet 112 managed to sneak in. Government’s efforts focused on a “multi-pronged approach to contain cross border infiltration which, inter-alia, included strengthening of border management, and multi-tiered deployment along the IB/LoC…” Other measures included improved intelligence and operational coordination, use of improved technology and weapons etc. the government statement added.

Ceasefire Violations

It was also clarified in the Parliament that alongside the rise in attempted infiltration, there was also a perceptible increase in ceasefire violations along the IB/LoC as detailed in the table below. While the LoC sector was under greater pressure in 2014 & 15, last year the violations affected both the sectors in nearly equal measure.


No. of Ceasefire Violations
Year Along the line control in the State of the J&K under operational control of Army Along the International Border in the State of J&K under operational control of BSF
2014 153 430
2015 152 253
2016 228 221


Read in conjunction, the two tables on infiltration and ceasefire violation clearly establish a link between the two, substantiating the view that most of the cross-border firing by the Pakistani SFs along the IB/LoC were actually part of the overall design to infiltrate trained militants into the State. It is also clear that the Pak authorities have been using both segments of the border for infiltration purposes.

As the table below shows, the indiscriminate firing along the borders has caused more deaths and injuries to the civilian population than to the SF personnel. Obviously, the design was to spread a sense of terror and panic in the minds of the innocent civilians residing along the borders.



Casualties of Civilians and Security Personnel due to Ceasefire Violations

Year Civilians Army Personnel BSF Personnel
Killed | Injured Killed | Injured Killed | Injured
2014 14 | 101 1 | 11 2 | 17
2015 16 | 71 6 | 17 4 | 9
2016 13 | 83 8 | 74 5 | 25


Terrorist Incidents

According to the government statement, ‘situation in Kashmir was showing signs of improvement’, particularly after the ‘Surgical Strike’ undertaken in end-Sep 2016. Month wise tabulation of such incidents is as under:-


Month July
16
Aug
16
Sep
16
Oct
16
Nov
16
Dec
16
Jan 17 Feb
17
Mar 17
No. of Incidents 820 747 535 179 73 36 05 49 27


Clearly, the period from July to September 2016 that coincided with the post-Burhan Wani phase, was extremely violent with a total of 2102 incidents in the affected parts of the Valley. The trend started declining in Phase-III, i.e. post-Surgical Strike from October 2016 and continued in that mode during the winter months till the recent reappearance of the street agitators and stone-pelters once again.

The chart below gives details of terrorist incidents and civilians and security personnel killed in Jammu and Kashmir for the corresponding period before and after the Surgical Strikes:-


Period Terrorist Incidents Security Personnel Killed Civilians Killed
01.07.2016 to
30.09.2016
110 34 7
01.10.2016 to
31.12.2016
87 19 6


Summing up the security situation, the MHA, in its Annual Report just released, has conceded that the year 2016 marked “significant increase in terrorist violence and causality of the security forces, in comparison to last year (2015)”. In fact the number of violent incidents have progressively gone up from 170 (2013) to 222 (2014), 208 (2015) and 322 in 2016. Similarly the number of terrorists killed has also increased from 67 (2013) to 110 (2014), 108 (2015) and 150 in 2016. The MHA Report adds that “the year 2016 witnessed a 54.81 percent increase (in terror incidents) and 110.25 percent increase in fatalities to security forces in comparison” to 2015. There was also an 11.76 percent decrease in civilian casualty and 38.89 percent increase in number of terrorists killed during the year.

Likely Scenario in 2017

The statistical details apart, it is widely acknowledged that the situation in Kashmir is at its worst in the last 15 years, perhaps as bad as in the 1990’s, though the two periods are not really comparable for the very fundamental reason that the Valley had never before witnessed the kind of confrontational defiance by street agitators, stone-pelters including women and children. The MHA Annual Report acknowledges, “Change in Pak tactics following a strategy of the superimposition of militancy over ‘civil resistance’ through radicalization by vested interest groups and social media”.

So, the question is whether the trend of infiltration, violence, confrontational stone-pelting and occasional major targeted attacks would continue in the same mode and intensity in the coming months too, particularly as the border passes are reopening and the seat of the government has moved back to Srinagar? Local Kashmiri’s generally agree that this may be so since, in their assessment, even though the Surgical Strike had its impact on the minds of the people that the government was determined like never before, to deal effectively with the miscreants, yet there will be no letup in the agenda of their sponsors from across the borders. Besides, they maintain, the government could have used the opportunity to engage politically with the trouble-shooters to reduce their outreach to the disgruntled youth. Ideally, they feel, any move to engage Pakistan would have helped a great deal but even in its absence, local efforts could have produced significant dividends. It is also pointed out that the number of Kashmiri youth joining the militant ranks has again started showing an upward trend as seen in the table below:-


Year 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016
No. of youth joined militancy 54 23 21 16 53 66 88


With fresh recruit joining the militant ranks in higher numbers, more trained militants likely to be inducted in the coming months and the SFs continuing to adopt a cautious approach in dealing with the agitators, the law and order situation is likely to worsen this year compared to 2016.

As is apparent from the facts and figures on the state of militancy in J&K presented by the government, Pak-sponsorship and trans-border support to what has been going on in the State, has not abated nor is it likely to happen in the months ahead. Therefore, targeted acts of terror will continue to happen, particularly against military and other establishments of the Security Forces. There is thus need for greater vigil along the borders to check infiltration attempts and greater recourse to intelligence driven operations to neutralize resident militant modules. ‘Seek and destroy’ operations of the type that used to be carried out in the mid-1990s could be an option worth consideration. It is assessed that on ground conditions today are more favourable for these, due to easier availability of actionable intelligence on militant hideouts and their movements.

What is different now and remains a matter of major concern is the fact that unlike in the earlier times, the local population around the areas of operation, have started counter attacking the SF contingents to physically obstruct their operations leading to unintended collateral civilian damages. Classic example of this has again been witnessed in the recent operation in Durgagh (Budgam district) on March 28 when an SF contingent comprising CRPF and local police, tried to flush out HM militant Touseef Ahmad Wagey, holed up in a house. A large number of local residents started pelting stones to obstruct the operation. In the ensuing action, according to media reports, 3 youths and the militant were killed and 25 others injured. Security forces acted in restraint and 43 jawans of CRPF and 20 police men were injured.

This was the first instance of crowds resisting and obstructing SFs’ operations after the stern warning issued by the new Army Chief during his recent visit to the Valley stating that those indulging in such activities will be treated as equally complicit in abating militant activities. What is worrisome is that this trend is likely to continue, making it so much more difficult for the security forces to operate without running the risk of heavy collaterals and the attended negativities. As the weather conditions improve and more militants get inducted into operations, the law and order situation can only be expected to present greater challenges for the security forces.

Therefore, the questions being asked are: Whether (1) one is looking at a repeat of the pattern witnessed last year or worse; (2) only a kinetic approach to dealing with the situation as law and order issue should suffice; or (3) is it time to examine ways to suitably engage with the people politically?

There are no easy answers to these; there never was nor does one exist now. However, there can be no two views on one issue; that it is the responsibility of the state to ensure peace, public order and security to the lives and properties of its citizen. The rule of law must prevail at all cost. And therefore, the security forces charged with these responsibilities, must be encouraged and enabled to carry out their tasks without any hindrance. In recent pronouncements at official and political levels, the government has spelt out its intent in unequivocal terms that there was no question of engaging with the stone-pelters and the separatists. To back up its intent, the security forces have already started (May 4, 2017) combing operations on a massive scale by deploying, as per media reports, over 4000 men belonging to the army, Central armed Police Forces (CAPF) and the J&K police. The aim seems to be put the agitators on the back foot, identify and apprehend the trouble makers, restore law and order and bring back a sense of normalcy. This clarity of approach is commendable since the situation was turning into a stalemate, giving an impression that the governments in Delhi and Srinagar just didn’t know what to do.

But this can only break one of the three ‘stalemates’ in Kashmir-that of law and order. The second stalemate relates to the political process. It is widely recognized that, important as it is, the kinetic approach can only help prepare the ground for the State to initiate the required follow up action to address the core concerns of the people. Unless this is done, one cannot rule out the re-emergence of instability of the kind witnessed last year. In this connection, it may be recalled, in the mid-1990’s when the ‘backbone of Pak sponsored militancy had been effectively broken and the militants were on run’, as assessed by the then Governor and the security establishment, the government in a bold move, went for parliamentary election followed by elections to the State Assembly in 1995-96, respectively. And since then, the democratic processes in the State have been well supported by the people.

Fortunately, in Kashmir we have a well stabilized democratic process and a stable government that effectively represents the will of the people of the entire State. The Mahbooba Mufti led PDP-BJP coalition government, despite being accused by its political opponents as ‘marriage of convenience’ has done well on all fronts except in the area of maintenance of law and order where, to be fair, a larger share of responsibility has traditionally rested with the central forces acting in tandem with the State Police apparatus. It is imperative that, despite media debate and opposition demand, the democratically elected government should continue and play its rightful role in breaking the political stalemate once the security situation is firmly brought back under control. And this must also include the other political parties both at the state and national levels. Unfortunately, in recent times, the state level opposition leaders have not been playing the role expected of them, being largely driven by perceived electoral dynamics. Regrettably, analysts find their stated positions, even on issues of vital importance, getting closely aligned with those of the separatists and anti-national elements! This must end in the overall interest of the State and its people, sooner the better, so that on critical issue, we are seen as united and determined to set things right.

There is yet another ‘stalemate’ in Kashmir. This relates to the perceived fall out of Indo-Pak relations on the events in Kashmir. Since the intent of this paper is ‘Kashmir Centric’ evaluation of the situation, it should suffice here to say that Pakistan’s strategy will remain on pushing harder to take Kashmir to the ‘tipping point’. To this end it will continue to encourage acts of terror targeting security forces, induct more trained and battle hardened militants, organize and support heightened level of street protests and civil disobedience, internationalise the events in Kashmir as gross Human Rights violation, create ‘defused leadership’ of the movement in place of the separatist leaders who have lost credibility with the youth, encourage greater involvement of mosques in an attempt to intensify spread of radical Islam, etc. In brief, Pakistan would like to ‘take Kashmir back to the mid-1990’s’. It is unlikely that these would change since Pakistan will only tinker with its tactics and not make any fundamental shift in its anti-India strategy, and therefore the ‘stalemate’ on this front will continue.

What then Needs to be Done?

As stated earlier, in the short term perspective, the state and central forces including the army, have no option but to draw on all their experience and resources to effectively counter the militancy, street protests, .and stone-pelting activities, with a view to restoring the rule of law. The now started ‘search and seek’ operation should be carried to its natural conclusion without any let. The leaders of the current wave of unrest need to be identified and taken into preventive custody and removed to distant locations. Intelligence driven targeted operations also need to be simultaneously intensified to break the backbone of the street agitation. Of course, similar stern action is also warranted against people providing sanctuary and funds to the agitators.

Needless to say that these measures will have to continue over an extended period of time since perceived half-measures could be counter-productive. Also needless to stress that the lead role in these operations will have to be played by the state police, its intelligence wing and the Special Operations Groups, duly backed by the CAPFs and the army. Obviously, these will require revival of a revamped Unified Command under the leadership of the Chief Minister for fully coordinated operations by the SFs on a daily basis. Alongside the above outlined kinetic measures, it is imperative that the border management efforts along the IB and LoC is once again raised to the levels attained in 1999-2001 period.

On the non-kinetic side, greater emphasis needs to be placed on perception management through the mainstream media, social media platforms, organized groups of intellectuals and women’s groups, youth activists, main stream political parties and advocacy groups. This perhaps, deserves higher prioritization, at par with the actual security operations. The general perception that the main stream political parties have totally abdicated their rightful role, true as these are, has got to be reversed. The ruling and opposition parties alike are perceived by the people of having ‘runaway’ from the scene when they should have been playing the lead role in a public outreach programmes to convince the people and instill a sense of care and concern for their wellbeing.

The final component of the overall strategy could be designed to, in the long run, say over the next six months, enable policy makers in New Delhi and Srinagar to reach out to the people including the youth, the alienated sections of the society and the ‘dispersed’ leaders of the agitation. This can be better achieved by the intelligence apparatus and credible interlocutors, both of who have always played an important part in ‘breaking the ice’ and creating the right environ for resumption of dialogue under the Vajpayee enunciated doctrine of Insaniyat, Jamhooriyat and Kashmiriat that PM Modi has also repeatedly assured the people of Kashmir as the basis of his policy on Kashmir. The State has to be pulled out of its current slide ‘On the Path to Nowhere’, sooner it is done, the better.

(The author is a former Secretary ®, Cabinet Secretariat, Govt of India. The article is based on cited material, media reports, interactions with a section of Kashmiri leaders and expert commentators and statistical inputs by Ramanand Garge, VIF)


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