Revisiting Kashmir: How Security Forces Counter Proxy War Under Hostile Winter Conditions
Many think that winter in Kashmir is a quiet time and one for the terrorists to withhold activities. It is actually the time when the army goes into higher drive.
Here’s a look at three distinct dimensions of military operations in Jammu and Kashmir.
In Jammu and Kashmir (J&K), military operations have three distinct dimensions. First, there is the Line of Control (LoC) to be secured with assurance against any transgression, its ‘sanctity to be maintained’ as they say in military language. This is the segment, which also handles trans-LoC firing which, as is known, has been continuing for better part of the year in some pockets. The second is counter infiltration in which there are troops deployed on the LoC and others located at tiers in depth to prevent the entry of aliens, terrorists and anti-nationals from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) as also any contraband and military wherewithal. The third is the widespread counter terror (CT) grid in the hinterland on both sides of the Pir Panjal range, extending right up to Udhampur and Jammu.
The first two domains are purely of the Indian Army with some deployment of the Border Security Force (BSF) to assist the army to, very importantly, allow it some leeway in its turnover of troops. It is an important aspect that the BSF chips in here because many even in the army do not realise that their field tenures would otherwise be inordinately extended. Each deployment has its distinct characteristics. I shall explain the LoC and counter infiltration grids in a separate essay for public knowledge. This essay is also for public information about the ways of the counter proxy war related to the hinterland CT grid. As we are already in winter there are misnomers, which need to be rested but before that a brief review of the situation at the end of 2017 is in order.
It was good that the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh elections temporarily took away the focus from J&K, which needs a little reprieve from national public gaze. In that period and more specifically on 17 November 2017 the J&K government moved from Srinagar to Jammu bringing an end to its six-month stay at the summer capital. It was a period characterised by some good achievements and a few failures. The commendable part was that development activity picked up despite the higher quantum of military operations, although tourism remained very low. The freedom given to the security forces (SF), the coordination between them and the non-interference from the political side made for some good operational success.
Beginning the season with an abysmal ratio between own soldiers martyred and terrorists killed, the same was recovered but not to the much more favourable ratio five years ago. In terms of numbers the figure of over 200 terrorists killed was obviously not anywhere near the high mark of 2,020 killed in 2001.
However, considering that the militancy in Kashmir has been largely controlled and the number of terrorists is much lower, it is the fluctuation in the ‘last mile’ operations that has led to the highest figure of terrorists eliminated in six years; a job extremely well done. The ‘last mile’ mentioned here refers only to the military domain and not to the comprehensive counter proxy war/hybrid war campaign that the nation is involved in. It always needs reiteration that this is not the battle of the army and the other SF alone.
There is a multitude of agencies involved in the creation of peace in J&K. Just a case in point to understand this better; in South Kashmir, where local ‘militancy’ is rife, by October 2017 85 terrorists had been neutralised but a little over 90 had been recruited. This should give a better idea of the challenges before the SF and the multiple agencies involved in the conflict. It is not known what the state of cross LoC infiltration has been but the high quantum of encounters (could well be based on better intelligence) indicates that it could be a reasonably high number. If that be so, the good achievements of the SF would already have been neutralised through numbers; the number of terrorists virtually remains the same.
What additionally remains a challenge is civil strife, including flash mob intervention in SF anti-terror operations; as demonstrated in Kelar near Shopiyan on 19 December 2017 where a woman was killed in firing. Stone throwing incidents, although reduced, continue sporadically to demonstrate public resentment. Social media displays the evidence of extreme alienation driven partially by Friday prayers and largely by the spewing venom emerging from loudspeakers. The domain for which the government can claim much credit is the focused way in which the financial networks appear to have been marginalised. Finances are the greatest enabler of a separatist movement, especially a sponsored proxy one, which uses violence to continue its effort to remain relevant. This was long in the making and has delivered at last, although the networks are deep rooted and dispersed which will require sustained efforts to prize out.
It is alienation which continues to persist. Since it is historical and extremely deep even a minor difference is not easy to perceive. If we continue to believe that it is only a handful of people from a small segment of districts who are alienated then we must also believe in their power to set the agenda; it is always a minority of people who become the biggest rabble rousers.
Many think that winter in Kashmir is a quiet time and one for the terrorists to withhold activities. It is actually the time when the army goes into higher drive. For the terrorists, it is difficult to survive long in the mountain and jungle dugouts beyond a few days. Anyone who doubts that should try being in a mud splattered hideout in minus 12 degrees Celsius. Sustained snowfall makes it difficult to move and immediately after fresh snow, movement is suicidal because the army’s wide area surveillance and observation helicopter flights can spot footprints in way out areas and alert lurking army patrols, which then home on to the hideouts. Forced into villages and small towns in safe houses they are vulnerable to intelligence sources of the police whose information dragnet extends into almost every village. Night movement to change location is difficult in the absence of foliage on the trees and no undergrowth. By day, multiple SF checkpoints appear on the roads with their ‘spotters’ carefully camouflaged. Transportation of weapons by day is almost impossible except by way out routes, which take extremely long to traverse.
The importance of checkpoints in winter gets enhanced. Manning a check point professionally is one of the most demanding things. The focus has to be undivided, security of soldiers has to be foolproof and the rights and dignity of innocent people who pass through have to be guaranteed. Otherwise, the effect of a check point is neutralised. The hundreds of check points of this type remain under terrorist surveillance through over ground workers (OGWs), who assess the effectiveness and efficiency before advising on movement of stores or even an odd leader in disguise. Professionals will never be harsh on innocents but discerning who is innocent and who is not is the challenge. The separatists and terrorists are the happiest with indiscriminate check points manned by poorly-trained troops, who are unsuccessful in spotting and in maintaining dignity of the populace.
The other threat comes from the ‘ferans’ (loose overcoats) worn by the local people in winter with ‘kangris’ (baskets with embers of coal in an earthern pot) which are used for warming. Weapons, grenades or explosives can easily be hidden in these.
For troops, winter is also uncomfortable time. Physically, being in ambush or in cordon by night in minus 6 degrees Celsius is sheer discomfort. It needs to be remembered that for a hundred ambushes or even cordons there may be one success. The psychological conditioning of soldiers is so essential to accept disappointment in operations day after day but the domination achieved by the sheer presence is the less recognised achievement.
Unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) flights and helicopter sorties for surveillance create much psychological pressure on terrorists, who are still in hideouts. After a fresh snowfall wide surveillance of the lower mountains gives out telltale signs, which are checked out by patrols.
The recent killing of a Sumo driver, who was apparently innocent and probably became the victim of a mistaken shooting was an unfortunate case. This happens when innocent people forget the rules of night movement. Offices of deputy commissioners notify a warning every three months that after dark all movement must be made with positive identification. This essentially means that any citizen who needs to move out of his residence needs to carry a torch or lantern and must halt if challenged. People pay little heed to this, particularly in winter. If challenged by an ambush or patrol if they are without a light they tend to run giving indication to the army that they are terrorists. That is when the army resorts to firing. Such mistaken shootings lead to a loss of trust and offer triggers to separatist leaders to create more alienation through agitation and bandhs. Such situations again need to be handled sensitively.
Colder nights mean more discomfort for sentries and therefore correspondingly higher chances of sneak actions by desperate terrorists in suicide mode. The most secure establishment will always be that which does not depend for it security on sentries but on patrols operating outside its periphery. The more a garrison dominates beyond its periphery the greater will be its security.
Weather constraints offer tremendous scope for the army’s hearts and minds programme, beyond the structured Sadbhavana. Snow conditions inevitably lead to passengers getting stuck with vehicle breakdowns and roads becoming impassable. The army is the first out to assist because soldiers have the zest, energy and initiative to deliver. The state machinery has resources but slow responses. But the medical evacuation of women in the family way from remote mountain villages is an act akin to Florence Nightingale. Young officers can always be trusted to lead a few soldiers and hardy local porters to perform such acts.
When Kashmir is blanketed by heavy snow, remote public health services become extinct. It is this which the state government must reinvigorate and it needs proactive administrators of the Kashmir Civil Service who need to show their commitment. Otherwise, the way is left for the army’s medical patrols to quickly swing into action. I do remember the black marketing of mobile charging when long power breakdowns occurred in winter due to breaks in power lines. Each charge through a generator set cost Rs 75. The army put an end to it by fabricating multiple port chargers and mounting them on vehicles with generator sets. These were parked at city and village centres to ensure free mobile charging.
The inevitable question which arises is that with the quantum of assistance the army renders to the community at large why its popularity graph in summer points south. It is because the separatists and the OGWs are proactive in painting a negative image about it and creating alienation. In other words, the alienation efforts of the separatists overshadow the popularity efforts of the army. The incumbent commanders need to introspect more on this. They have to overcome their reluctance to use soft power that goes beyond Sadbhavana. It has to be well understood that their military professionalism has to include soft power, which is a part of all concepts of counter hybrid warfare operations.
The public all over India is happy to see a higher degree of military domination in Kashmir during later part of 2017 than that existed in 2016. There is a hurry to declare the end of the problem and withdraw interest. It must be remembered that absence of violence is never considered normalcy in pure military professional terms. There has to be a sustained period of such a phenomenon to make a difference and it has to be accompanied by perceptible change in the social environment. That cannot happen without a deliberate effort. The interlocutor appointed by the government of India is seeking the means and the parameters which can bring that perceptible change. Hopefully spring will bring with it greater hopes for peace and stability.