In terms of tactics, Kashmir might as well be back to medieval times. One of the reasons why clashes flared up in Pulwama early on Wednesday morning is that boys were out on watch. They spotted the police forces that moved out at dawn to seal the place at which people of the district had been called to gather for demonstrations. The police probably also meant to impose strict curfew in surrounding areas.
That they succeeded in sealing that venue but clashed with people who emerged from their houses — and so could not effectively impose curfew — owes to a pattern that has become obvious over the past few weeks. In nooks and crannies across the sprawling Valley, three or four boys stay awake together on 'duty' every night. These knots of boys keep watch on every major approach towards their village or mohalla.
Their task is simple: To raise an alarm if a security forces approach. They signal a look-out on a height, often a mosque minaret. Those look-outs in turn use bells and/or mosque loudspeakers to rouse the entire village. People then emerge from their homes with kitchen knives, hammers, garden tools and whatever other potential weapon they can lay their hands upon — to stave off the forces. To pick up and detain 'stone-pelters' has become a challenging task. The police has nevertheless been rounding up key trouble-makers in different parts of the Valley over the past few weeks. This has substantially dampened stone-pelting.
The death of a lecturer in an assault by army men also contributed to stemming the pelting, particularly after the Northern Army Commander, Lt Gen DS Hooda publicly castigated it.
Also, fewer people than before were participating in the district-level demonstrations that had been common since mid-July. It remains to be seen whether the deaths in Pulwama and Srinagar on Wednesday spur a new round of agitations.
The Pulwama violence certainly gives occasion to analyse the night-watch pattern. It is new in Kashmir, but effective. Wide-eyed young people have described it to me in different parts of Kashmir - Tral and Pulwama in the south, for instance, and Baramulla and Kupwara in the north. They say that most of those who participate are teenagers. One of them says that people in their 20s and 30s also join. In some places, each household is given a turn every few nights: messages are sent to the family that it will be their turn to send a man on a certain night. One friend who described himself as a 'nationalist' (Indian) viewed the message that arrived at his home as coercive, but sent a nephew.
Three things emerge. One, teenagers are not only extremely well organised and resourceful, the fact that they have adopted similar tactics across different parts of the Valley indicates that things are being minutely coordinated — that tactics have been recommended to 'handlers' in different places, and in turn they are doing an efficient job of teaching the boys they coordinate. This is true of other patterns too. On the very first day of the current upsurge, the day after militant commander Burhan Wani was killed, mobs in different places right across the Valley attacked police stations and paramilitary camps — at several of these places, they tried to set fire. Either people in different places just happened to get the same idea simultaneously, or the strategy was recommended to the prime movers of mobs across the Valley.
Limits of technological shock and awe
Two, this shows that technological wherewithal does not necessarily mean tactical superiority: Depriving people of internet and phone access has by and large failed to prevent teenagers from mobilising effectively. And they have had enough communication to adopt similar tactics in different places.
Yet the government plows on with failed strategies. Internet access has remained shut since mid-July. For long periods, mobile phones other than BSNL post-paid connections have functioned as little more than camera-clocks. In places like Kupwara, there has been no internet access at all since 9 July. Only the few with broadband connections have been able to access the net.
Since the beginning of this century, technology has been at the heart of counterinsurgency operations in Kashmir. First there were Kenwood-Motorola frequency-jumping communication devices. When the forces got equipment to beat that (at very high cost), militants took to satellite phones. When the forces got equipment (at very high cost) to pinpoint sat-phones, they were replaced by another generation, which too has been beaten. Now, they use y-sms.
While this cycle of high-cost technology battles continues, Kashmir’s tenacious teenagers have demonstrated that the bells, trumpets, cat calls and bird-calls, as well as the mosque and church tower look-outs, that worked in medieval and even primitive times remain just as viable and effective today.
Three, this shows that, despite all the oft-repeated claims of counterinsurgency success, we might as well be back to 1989-90. An entire generation has passed since then, but the resilient enthusiasm of bunches of teenagers is holding security forces at bay more effectively than back then. All the claptrap about grids and area dominance turns out to be hogwash. As a prominent youth leader of the ruling establishment points out, if anyone learnt lessons from what happened in the past, it is the boys, not the state.
In any case, treating Kashmir as primarily a security challenge is counterproductive. One aspect of this is that the army’s hugely-funded 'Sadbhavana' programme — and all the high-cost, feel-good propaganda around it — has been counterproductive. It has failed miserably to win hearts and minds. In fact, community leaders, politicians and former militants highlight the point that bonhomie has washed away fear of security forces. One can’t have it both ways, they say. So it would be best if the army were to stick to its job — as the redoubtable General BC Joshi (COAS - 1993) had wanted.
Throwing money and jobs at Kashmiris through intelligence agencies and administrative measures has done even less good than the army’s sadbhavana. Incisive analysis might even reveal that it has done more harm than good. For, corruption alienates its victims. Worse, it turns administrative systems into robbery rackets, which people outside the extortionist cabals experience as terribly oppressive. Particularly in unstable places, accountability is far more vital than cash flow.
Several local-level community leaders (such as lawyers and traders’ associations) argue that the government’s rehabilitation policies too have been counterproductive. Some of the ex-militants-turned-mercenaries who were then absorbed into policing have not been up to much good over the past few weeks, they allege. Particularly over the past decade, there was an urgent need to grapple with educational, cultural and sociological problems. Sadly, hardly anyone even tried to understand the dimensions of those problems in Kashmir, leave alone try to resolve them.