A Soldier’s Tryst With Kashmir

Days after commissioning from the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun, I arrived in Srinagar on a cold December afternoon in 1957 enroute to my battalion 2/5 Gorkhas, deployed near Uri. Thus started my tryst with Kashmir.

It was blissfully quiet on ceasefire line – not even a shot fired in anger. The patchy roads would be lined with pink-cheeked and smiling kids, holding flowers and apples for soldiers who would reciprocate with toffees and sweets.

On weekends, one could go into town in Srinagar to exult in the raw majesty of Dal Lake, the famous Bund lining the Jehlum river and Nedou’s Hotel. Kashmiris would ask, with nothing else to say: ‘Sir, what is the time in India’. For them, across the Banihal was another country.

The Simla Agreement had put a lid on the violence till the insurgency was sparked in the late 1980s following the fraudulent elections of 1988 in J&K. 

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Second Stint: Operation Gibraltar Had Muddied People’s Warmth

The second stint in J&K came in 1963, south of Pir Panjal in the Mendhar Poonch sector. The warmth and goodwill of the people was intact and visible, though Pakistan’s grand infiltration Operation Gibraltar culminating in the 1965 war, muddied some of it. Skirmishes and battles continued for a month after the ceasefire.

The 1971 war took the battalion to Bangladesh and soon it switched to the west, returning in 1973 to J&K, this time to Kargil-Ladakh, making it my third time in J&K in 15 years. This is the story of most Infanteers.

The latest constitutional overhaul of J&K is bound to cloud the future of India-Pakistan relations even more.

After the drubbing given to them in 1971 war, Pakistan Army was very subdued and all of J&K tranquil and peaceful. The Simla Agreement had put a lid on the violence till insurgency was sparked in the late 1980s following the fraudulent elections of 1988 in J&K. The rest is folklore.

My return to Srinagar – coinciding with the simmering insurgency – was as a member of the Defence Planning Staff in MoD to study the internal and external dimensions of the unrest.

The study continued with regular visits to the Valley till 1993, even after I retired. As it was impossible to wean myself away from J&K where I had spent a substantial part of my youth, first on the CFL and then along the LoC, the search for addressing the external factor, Pakistan, in the Kashmir dispute became a natural corollary.

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This resulted in my attending several international and bilateral Track II conferences on the Kashmir issue culminating in my appointment as convenor of an uninterrupted India-Pakistan peace process beginning 2003 which was running till last year, even after the Uri strikes.

‘India Cannot Be Seen To Be Acting Like Pakistan!’

The latest constitutional overhaul of J&K is bound to cloud the future of India-Pakistan relations even more after Defence Minister Rajnath Singh asserted that talks with Pakistan will now be held only on PoK and that too after Pakistan ends cross border terrorism.

It is sad, what has been done to J&K without the people’s consent.

This was avoidable, adding fuel to fire after stirring the hornets’ nest by creating strategic ambiguity over India’s nuclear No First Use (NFU) policy. While a display of bravado preceding four state elections is one thing, honouring treaty obligations like the Simla Agreement wherein resolving the Kashmir dispute through peaceful means is pledged by both countries is sacrosanct. India cannot be seen to be acting like Pakistan!

It is sad, what has been done to J&K without people’s consent. When Sikkim was merged with the Union of India, a referendum and ratification by the legislature was done. But in the case of J&K, with cunning and deceit the government has withdrawn its special status and peremptorily demoted it from statehood to union territory.

What has happened to Insaniyat, Jamhooriyat and Kashmiriyat, promised to Kashmiris by former PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee?

The constitutional and cartographic assault is supposed to be ‘good for Kashmiris’ because it will apparently ‘end’ terrorism and corruption and bring in ‘development’ – optimism so misplaced, as to make the heaven on earth a fool’s paradise.

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What has happened to Insaniyat, Jamhooriyat and Kashmiriyat, promised to Kashmiris by former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee?

Since 1947, Indian Army Has Held The State Together

Even Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged last Independence Day from the Red Fort that the problems of Kashmiris cannot be solved by ‘gaali’ and ‘goli’ but by ‘gale lagaane se’. What has changed? The state authorities told the people that a big terrorist attack was likely and evacuated Amarnath Yatris and tourists.

The Kashmiris stood by the tricolour in 1965, 1971 and 1999 wars, and during other Pakistan-instigated revolts.

A fraud was perpetrated on the people. The prime minister reportedly informed a sitting Kashmir MP and his son, both former chief ministers of J&K, that there will be no tinkering with the special provisions for the state. The governor also conveyed the same message. After these events how can the Kashmiris trust the central and state leadership ?

This is not the first time this narrative has been played out but the difference is in the method and timing.

Lack of trust is the main reason that even after 72 years, leave alone assimilating the people of Jammu and Kashmir in the mainstream, the state has succeeded in turning their alienation into resentment. The Kashmiris stood by the tricolour in 1965, 1971 and 1999 wars and during other Pakistan-instigated revolts.

With the soft equivalent of ‘surgical’ strikes done on the people of J&K, the insurrection and insurgency will spike sharply.

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The Indian Army since 1947 has held the state together despite misgovernance and partisan politics of the Centre and state.

The army’s numerous Sadbhavna programmes including rescue and relief operations during floods and earthquakes capturing hearts and minds have been washed away. Regrettably only the image of bunkers, barbed wires and bayonets remains. On J&K the Kargil Review Committee report had noted ‘the last few decades have been marked with vacillation and drift placing an increasing burden on the armed forces without requisite clarity in political and strategic objectives’.

With the soft equivalent of ‘surgical’ strikes done on the people of J&K, the insurrection and insurgency will spike sharply, aided inevitably by Pakistan fishing in troubled waters.

The army, whose job it is to create conditions for political outcomes, will remain stuck firefighting indefinitely in J&K and inviting the wrath of Kashmiris. As a veteran of Kashmir, this saddens me. Only the highest court can now provide relief to the people of J&K and breathing space for the army.

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(Major General (retd) Ashok K Mehta is a founding member of the Defence Planning Staff, the forerunner of the current Integrated Defence Staff. 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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