It would be a great mistake to ignore anger in the ranks of the army posted in Kashmir while focusing on the mechanics of how — or even whether — strikes were carried out across the Line of Control on 29 September.
The men and officers of the army must surely be livid in the wake of the terribly lethal attack on the army camp at Uri on 18 September. The hoo-ha over the who and how of that attack and the consequent 'surgical strikes' tends to ignore the fact that 19 soldiers were killed. A large number of them were charred. Six of those were
cookhouse workers — hired for their cooking skills more than their commando or sniping abilities.
One presumes that their deaths have scarred the psyche of their comrades-in-arms, the other soldiers, and officers in the field. There will be hell to pay if the restraint under which those soldiers and officers have operated in the Kashmir valley for the past three months were to snap.
The army is bound to come under increasing strain, given the surge in the infiltration of highly trained militants across the Line of Control over the past few months (to some extent, over the past couple of years). The level of the infiltrators’ training — similar to that of the 10 who attacked Mumbai in 2008 — became evident during an encounter on the outskirts of Srinagar since Monday. They held out for more than 24 hours until the army brought down the building in which they were.
To exercise restraint when one is being stoned and abused (as over the past three months) is one thing. But the effect of such encounters, and of the horrific deaths of one’s comrades, can charge up the nerves of men trained to fight and win.
To commit the army for policing over these months of great unrest has been a risky move. One gets the impression that the brass has not adequately factored in the strategic risk involved. In fact, over the past five weeks, Operation Calm Down stepped up the army’s involvement in civil pacification in south Kashmir - just a fortnight before the Uri attack dramatically highlighted other dimensions of the challenge the army faces in Kashmir.
The army’s institutional insistence on remaining deployed across the Valley after the militancy that began in 1988 ended about a decade ago has additionally complicated the challenge it is likely to face in the foreseeable future.
Based on the presumption that 'the situation is under control' in Kashmir, the army kept a very low profile through the second half of the previous decade, so that it would not be forced to draw back deployment to cantonments. After the uprising of 2010, that strategy switched. Recalibrating its high spend Operation Sadbhavana (goodwill), the army deliberately presented a friendly face to the people in the first half of this decade.
That strategy remains in place. Although it worked as long as the situation was actually under control — indeed, there was no militancy — it is coming unstuck now that the 'situation' has changed dramatically - and unexpectedly. The worst part is that, as in 1989, there was no intelligence information about that dramatic worsening, and so no strategy to cope with it.
If operations such as the one at Uri do raise the pitch of anger in the ranks, the ingenuity of the brass will be challenged. For, to allow army wrath to turn against the Kashmiri people at large could exacerbate the external challenge they face.
I have pointed out since 2010 that it is of vital importance for the survival of a robustly multicultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious India that the causes of youth anger in Kashmir be addressed. Not only was that important for its own sake, it was also strategically vital. For, angry Kashmiri youth could become a vital ally and resource for strategic planners of antagonistic powers such as Pakistan and China.
It is of course too late now (has been for more than a year) to wean over the mass of teenagers. But India’s strategic planners and hyper-nationalistic media hawks must recognize that adding to youth anger would not only be wrong for a host of ethical and legal reasons, it would also be costly on a purely strategic level.