'Army footprint in Kashmir Valley cannot be reduced at the moment,' Lt-Gen DS Hooda tells Firstpost

As the Shopian operation pushed the Indian Army into direct confrontation with civilians to 'restore normalcy' in the restive south Kashmir, Lieutenant-General DS Hooda, former chief of the strategically-critical Northern Command in Jammu and Kashmir speaks to Firstpost about the deteriorating law and order situation in the Valley and why the political leadership must step in to defuse the burgeoning crisis.

Since the time you retired as Northern Army commander, what has changed in Kashmir?
The situation was troubled in 2016 before I retired and remains troubled today. In the larger sense, therefore, conflict still remains the defining characteristic of Kashmir. However, there have been some subtle shifts. Social media has acquired a larger role and is being exploited to spread narratives which are hardening divisive positions. This will only make any resolution more difficult.

File image of Lieutenant-General DS Hooda. AFP

File image of Lieutenant-General DS Hooda. AFP

The presence of students in uniform on the streets is also worrying.

While this complicates an already complex law and order situation, there is the larger issue of the direction in which we want our youths to progress. Let us not take joy over a young girl with a basketball in one hand and a stone in the other. It will haunt Kashmiri society later.

What can be done to get Kashmir out of this current abyss?
Frankly, there are no easy answers. The situation has to be calmly assessed, stripped of verbiage and shorn of sentiment. To me, this is the key. Today there is so much rhetoric on both sides that sensible words get drowned out. For any conflict resolution, there must be a clear understanding that there are two sides, each with a respective position.

The Kashmiris are today angered and alienated at the sense of neglect from Delhi, but they are also not helping their cause by pro-Pakistan slogans that anger the common Indian. It would serve little purpose to debate who has the higher moral ground; just understand that there are two sides to a coin. Then work to find a common position.

A singular hard approach to dealing with Kashmir will not work. Youths are at the forefront of the protests and have to be engaged. A healing touch, a sense of being wanted and restraint while dealing with protests will go a long way in assuaging some of the angst.

Do you think more than ever there is need to reach out to Kashmiri youths, not just by State, but also by the people of India?
Absolutely. Wherever there is genuine pain, the people of India must reach out.

The fact that you are asking this question obviously means that there is some lack of confidence.

I have one suggestion. What will help is if we can put aside some perceived wrongs and suppress our prejudices. I know this is not easy, but is perhaps the best way to move forward.

How do you read the recent operation in Shopian in which the army was pushed into direct confrontation with civilians?
Let's be fair. If terrorists are roaming around, policemen getting killed and banks being looted, the State cannot sit on its hands. It has a responsibility for law and order and that responsibility has to be fulfilled. The recent operation in Shopian was a step in that direction. It was an operation directed against terrorists and not the population. I think we should not give it an anti-population spin.

Representational image. AP

Representational image. AP

Many veterans had come out recently talking about serious political engagement in Kashmir. What is the your position on this?
There is no doubt that engagement is required, but I think that trying to focus only on the political aspect will not give us all the answers. This is a multi-faceted problem and solutions have to be more comprehensive — looking also at the human, emotional and developmental aspects. Solutions must address the aspirations of all the three regions of Jammu and Kashmir. Focusing only on one area will not help.

The army has been carrying out massive developmental projects in the Valley for a long time. When you look at the Valley today, do you think these projects have failed to bring any change on the ground?
I think this is an over-simplification. The army’s efforts and its approach to aiding development in remote areas has had a significant effort in reducing terrorism from Jammu and Kashmir. The current problems in Kashmir have no direct correlation to the army’s SADBHAVANA programme.

The army’s efforts have certainly made a change on ground, and it is clearly reflected in (Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah) Geelani’s recent statement. Discouraging students from attending Army Goodwill schools — that are extremely well run — displayed his sense of vulnerability. Frankly, I was surprised that he would ask students to leave a good education institution, irrespective of who runs it.

Do you think there is a need to decrease the army footprint in the Kashmir Valley.
The army’s footprint is based on the existing security situation. For example, as the situation improved in the Jammu region, army presence reduced very significantly and a large number of troops were pulled out.

Can it be reduced in Kashmir Valley? In the current environment, the short answer is 'no'.

Updated Date: May 08, 2017 11:01 AM

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