Centre's decision to suspend anti-terror ops in Kashmir was short-sighted as Pakistan continues hostile stance

This Eid in Kashmir was special as it came after a month of minimalist activity by the security forces against the militants in the disturbed areas within the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The decision of the home ministry, based on the recommendation of the state government at that time, did create intense debate with respect to the ‘pros and cons’, of a unilateral suspension of anti-terrorism operations. The recent army casualty along the LoC, IED blasts, attacks on special forces and stone-pelting incidents in the Valley after the holy prayers of Eid on 16 June 2018 once again bring into question the efficacy of the suspension of operations. Undoubtedly, this is an opportune time to assess if this decision achieved the desired results. Also, based on the advantage of hindsight, were the security forces correct when they raised objections for this cessation of hostilities?

On 17 May, the central government must have surprised the PDP leadership in Jammu and Kashmir when it accepted the recommendations for a unilateral suspension of anti-terrorism operations for the month of Ramzan. This was a repeat of the decision taken nearly 18 years ago by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led government in its efforts to facilitate peace. What is common in the two events is that the government at both times has been a BJP-led one. But the ground situation now is completely different from what it was then. Today, the young generation in the violence-prone areas of the state, especially the Kashmir Valley, was born and has grown up under the threat of guns. Therefore, the existing underlying hostility and animosity among the local population and youth cannot be appeased by mere tokenism.

 Centres decision to suspend anti-terror ops in Kashmir was short-sighted as Pakistan continues hostile stance

Army personnel in Kashmir. Representational image. Reuters

The state’s top officials and the chief minister are reported in the media to have said that the suspension of operations has brought down violence in civil areas. This is debatable in view of the casualties caused due to cross-border firing/terrorist actions during this period. The intensity of firing and the continuation of cross-border engagements for nine days from 15 to 23 May resulted in killing/injuring/displacement of large numbers in the border districts of the state, forcing DGMO talks with Pakistan, and India demanding the implementation of the 2003 bilateral confidence-building measure of ‘no artillery fire’ in these areas. Also, the reduction in terrorist-related incidents was a result of the restraint exercised by the special forces to avoid operations, even when terrorist-related intelligence was available.

The concurrent announcement by the home minister of ‘active’ consideration to raise two more border battalions and five Indian reserve force battalions, for employment of the youth of these areas, needs to be reviewed. Further, constructing 14,000 bunkers in the areas affected by cross-border firing is poor optics. There is a need for improving the existing facilities available to the locals in this area for protection from cross-border firing while forcing Pakistan to desist from its chosen path of supporting these inimical elements. There is simultaneously a need for realistic monitoring of the actions of the deployed PMFs/CPOs in not raising the temperature along the borders. It is pertinent to highlight that there is a need for greater maturity in addressing the challenges of border management.

There were four key pointers in favour of suspending anti-terror operations. Firstly, the speedy acceptance of Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s proposal not only surprised her but also the separatist leadership and the inimical elements in Pakistan. A positive outcome was that Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, Syed Ali Shah Geelani and Yasin Malik agreed to resume talks. Secondly, the policy was a political checkmate to the PDP, and it denied brownie points to the party. The PDP had lost space and credibility with a large section of the Kashmiri population after it allied itself with the BJP. The tie-up was taken as a breach of trust and a betrayal of its mission for the people of the state. In addition, the continued violence has led to Mufti finding herself more and more isolated. Thirdly, it was disruptive and did give a chance for the resumption of meaningful peace talks with the separatist leadership. It changed the existing narrative of violence in the state, which is primarily fuelled by Pakistan. Lastly, it did give succour and relief to the locals, as the ‘cordon and search’ operations by the special forces had stopped.

Was the suspension of anti-terror operations a good decision, and were the apprehensions of the security forces justified? In my view, the decision for implementing the policy was an outcome of not having an effective alternative action plan. For the success of such initiatives, the internal enablers for peace have to be present, concurrent with a favourable external environment. In this case, without a change in Pakistan’s approach to the Kashmir issue, this effort was doomed to be a failure. For any meaningful change to take place, a two-pronged approach is necessary.

Internally, there is a need to give the necessary impetus and priority to completion of the projects that link the Kashmir Valley to the rest of India, by an all-weather land route. The removal of this isolation of the population in the Valley, coupled with a comprehensive, long-term and well-thought-out plan to connect with the youth, is a realistic way forward. The present young generation in the Valley is burdened with the baggage of seeing the government institutions and structures negatively, and the special forces as instruments of oppression. This impression needs to be dispelled by subtle methods. Also, the process needs an assured continuity with a political commitment from all the political parties, that they will implement the decided measures and not exploit fissures in society for garnering votes. This has to be concurrent with influencing Pakistan’s approach and attitude towards Kashmir. Otherwise, the suspension of operations will always be advantageous for the protagonist. It will give militants precious time to regroup, build up their resources and carry out unhindered support activities in the affected areas.

A large number of casualties of civilians and special forces personnel during this period and the failure to make a major breakthrough in talks with the separatists has proved that the decision was short-sighted. In case there is a surge in terrorist activities and increased violence in the coming months, it would also prove to have been counterproductive. This would be similar to what transpired in 2000, after a period of ‘no operations’ by the special forces.

It is heartening to see that the home ministry has decided not to extend this policy. For a safe Amarnath Yatra, sanitisation and proactiveness of the special forces in neutralising likely threats is a must.

In conclusion, the cascading impact of contentious decisions should always be assessed thoughtfully, before the decisions are implemented.

The author is a retired lieutenant general and former army commander of the Indian Army.

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Updated Date: Jun 18, 2018 19:04:08 IST