Amid an increasing number of militant encounters and deaths, the Army’s new Corps Commander in Kashmir, Lt Gen DP Pande, has put out a far-thinking and very encouraging message.
At a time when militant attacks have increased, particularly in Srinagar city, one might have expected hackneyed talk of stepping up anti-terrorist operations from the corps commander. But he spoke instead of breaking the ‘cycle of violence’ by preventing the recruitment of young Kashmiris for militancy.
A tweet from the Chinar Corps handle quoted him as saying: “We seek to break the cycle of violence by two elements. First, creating an environment that prevents fresh recruitment. Second, targeting the OGW (over ground worker) network that feeds and sustains terrorism.”
Going Beyond Operations
This is a laudable strategy. A blinkered focus on counter-terrorism operations by various security forces for much of the past three decades, has just kept the cycle of violence turning.
Over the past decade, more boys have picked up arms, each time one or a group of young men was killed. A 14-year old student of Class 9 was among the several killed over the weekend.
A large number have gone underground in recent months, even after the forces stopped returning to their families the bodies of those they killed — for, funerals had become highly emotional events, motivating other boys to join the ranks.
Earlier Mishandling of Militancy
The irony is that, apart from Pakistani abetment and radicalisation, one of the factors behind the current cycle of violence is the misdoings of some in the security forces, mainly in the decade from around 2006.
That played a huge part in generating rage in a generation of young Kashmiris who had largely been won over by Prime Minister AB Vajpayee.
Around 15 years ago, hardly any Kashmiri sheltered, fed, or otherwise helped militants.
As detailed in my book, The Generation of Rage in Kashmir, the misdoings of some in the forces included the murder of innocents at Machil and Brein in 2010, by various forces in 2006 (for which an SSP was jailed), and of a bright student of a leading college in 2007.
The new militancy, which began around 2010, stemmed from these incidents, and horrific abuse by elements in the police, and the provocative mishandling of the 2008 and 2010 agitations.
Of course, various world powers — not just Pakistan — fertilised it, as did a slew of narratives, publications, and messaging, starting from 2008.
The rising tide of the new militancy, which the resultant rage contributed to unleashing, is now surging close to home. A territorial army soldier was killed at his home near Bijbehara a few days ago in April 2021. Another, who was abducted in the summer of 2020, just disappeared. His father is still searching for his body.
A New Strategist in Town
Now, Lt Gen Pande must work with other wings of State authority to try and reverse the effects of those missteps. It’s a tough ask, but Pande might just manage, for he has demonstrated outstanding strategic brilliance in war games.
Partly under his watch, when he headed the Rashtriya Rifles (RR) deployed in north Kashmir in 2018, two successive commanding officers of 10 RR showed remarkable insight and sensitivity to ease the situation in Palhalan between 2017 and 2019.
Palhalan, which stretches east from the main highway of north Kashmir, had become a byword for stone-pelting and unrest since 2010.
The strategy Pande has now come up with is sensible, but will be very challenging for the officers and men under his command to implement. They are, after all, trained to fight and kill, rather than to counter social media messaging.
Importance of Civilian Involvement
In fact, the task ought to primarily have been taken up by the civil administration, particularly the education department. Lt Gen Pande seemed to acknowledge this: his message specifically referred to the ‘civilian administration’.
Unfortunately, however, the civilian administration has neglected this task, focussing instead, with great gusto, on ‘development’ — which of course draws in massive fund flows.
Why J&K Must Reform Top-Heavy Admin & Bureaucracy
If one were to go by the statements of priority of those in charge of administering Jammu and Kashmir since June 2018 — when Governor’s Rule was imposed — one might imagine that the place was a backward, under-developed place that had been starved of funds and governmental schemes in the past.
The truth is quite the opposite. The Kashmir Valley in particular, much more than other parts of the erstwhile state, has gained great wealth from the vast funds that the Centre has sent over the past 70 years. It is, in fact, the most prosperous part of the subcontinent.
Bakshi Ghulam Mohammed, who was prime minister of the state from 1953 to 1963, accomplished fantastic development — 60 years ago!
If anything, the structure of the economy and polity that has evolved over the past four decades is part of the problem. The place lives off government doles, disbursed in the form of salaries and pensions, for secure but often redundant jobs.
The administration is top-heavy, with a bureaucracy that has often enraged and alienated ordinary citizens through extortionist corruption, nepotism, and unresponsiveness.
Yet, the Centre has further empowered the bureaucracy while marginalising the political class of the erstwhile state over the past three years.
Violence Begets More Violence
Critiquing this, I wrote a few weeks ago that, since 2018, “…the State apparatus did nothing significant to cure alienation and mistrust. The forces were left to deal with militancy, and they continued in the only way they know — a shooting match. They killed militants wherever they could, and waited for others to show up, so that those, too, could be killed. This is what they have done for most of the past three decades. They have only succeeded in keeping their battles going …”
Lt Gen Pande had just arrived in the Valley and was preparing to take charge when that was published. It is very encouraging that he has now spoken of wanting to ‘break the cycle of violence.’
Will ‘Surrender Initiative’ Curb Militancy?
In an interview to me, when he was about to take over as corps commander in early 2019, Lt Gen KJS Dhillon had fervently reached out to militants to surrender rather than get killed.
He said that ‘he would open “all avenues” for local boys to surrender. He said a militant or a family member could approach a village sarpanch or the local administration, or a field unit of the army, even a bunker or post along the road.’
Lt Gen Pande has also now appealed for surrenders and taken it further, by focusing on trying to prevent citizens from going underground in the first place.
It was good to hear him refer to young Kashmiris as ‘citizens’ rather than as ‘boys’, ‘misguided youth’, or ‘potential terrorists’; he said he wanted a better ‘connect between citizens and security forces.’
Why Political & Social Leadership in J&K is Key
Of course, in order to make real headway, it would probably be best to bring the social and political leadership of the Valley on board this process.
There can be no getting away from the prickly fact that there needs to be a political component to any worthwhile effort to wean young citizens away from the lure of the gun. That will be a tough nut to crack, but the intention to try and break the cycle of violence is nevertheless welcome.
(The writer is the author of ‘The Story of Kashmir’ and ‘The Generation of Rage in Kashmir’. He can be reached at @david_devadas. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)
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