J&K: Why The Army Is Seemingly Facing Reverses And How It Should Handle Stone-pelters

Syed Ata Hasnain

Feb 26, 2017, 12:17 PM | Updated 12:17 PM IST

A  soldier guards the line of control. (Farooq Khan-Pool/GettyImages)
A soldier guards the line of control. (Farooq Khan-Pool/GettyImages)
  • There are some basics in Jammu and Kashmir which cannot be tampered with. The people of the conflict zone must remain the supreme concern even as operations are important for domination and elimination of terrorists is essential.
  • The ambush on 44 Rashtriya Rifles’ (RR’s) returning vehicle column at 2am on 23 February 2017 was the fourth reverse in succession for the Army in Kashmir, in less than 10 days – an unusual phenomenon. Let me place on record that this was one of my finest units some years ago. I have nothing to doubt that it still is, going by its sustained reputation. The unit was probably out on night operations based on a tip-off or returning from operations, and a mounted column came under fire leading to fairly heavy casualties, some fatal. Mounted movement by troops is often necessary when the potential target site is at a distance but vulnerability increases manifold. Such opportunity ambushes by night are rare in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and that too so deep in the countryside. The feasibility of a trap based on fed intelligence is of course being examined by the Army.

    Much against common belief, counter terror operations in the Valley do witness an upswing in January-February of some years. I recall that in South Kashmir as a staff officer I handled five operations simultaneously on a single day during a bad winter. But times have changed and the current operations have to be viewed contextually.

    Firstly, the simple explanation from experience is that the colder the winter, and more the snow at the higher reaches, more is the terrorist presence in the Valley floor; survival in improvised hideouts isn’t easy in higher areas.

    Secondly, the encounter has taken place a week after the Army Chief’s supposedly controversial statement about the intent of the Army to be tough on those who give assistance to terrorists in any form. This reverse has nothing even remotely to do with that statement; the Army’s operations continue 24X7 irrespective of what happens in Delhi. It is true that 44 RR was operating in search of terrorists in a village, and a few local people attempted to disrupt a part of the cordon, but the contact at 2am on the night of 22-23 February was between a mounted convoy and terrorists, who probably observed the movement and exploited the short term vulnerability.

    General Rawat 
    General Rawat 

    Thirdly, the one thing the operation does convey is that the zone between the Jammu-Srinagar National Highway and the Pampore-Pulwama-Shupiyan Road in South Kashmir continues to be an area with high density presence of terrorists; mostly local, but evidently some foreign too. It is here that the flash mobs have been most active in the recent past and during 2016. This is the area where the induction of additional troops took place in late 2016. The attacks on the convoys along the National Highway from Pampore to Bijbehara were also launched from built up areas in this belt.

    India security in Kashmir (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
    India security in Kashmir (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

    Our concern should be for the turbulence here, and it needs to be addressed comprehensively. But before anything, the degree of terrorist presence just has to be reduced. Numbers are being indicated as up to a 100 newly inducted recruits and an unquantified group of resident and foreign terrorists. Total figures for the Valley are being estimated at 400 which are probably the highest since 2010. There is no need for additional troops if the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) deployment is coordinated with that of the RR.

    Fourthly, there is a world of difference in the operational environment of today and that which existed some years ago. In the early millennium, we could conduct large sized cordon and search operations in these areas without any civil resistance. Even if all operations were not successful, the domination effect then was high, and the freedom of movement afforded to terrorists was much lower. Today, while freedom to operate exists for the troops, the dynamics are a little different with the caution imposed due to flash mobs and the apparent confidence with which the civilian elements oppose the presence of the Army and other Special Forces (SF).

    The intelligence is flowing but obviously the presence of mobs and the need to handle these situations without undue employment of violence is causing worries. This increases the challenge manifold, especially if the Army suffers casualties momentarily in adverse statistical ratios, for whatever reasons. The external pressure on the Army was limited in earlier times. Through the nineties there was hardly a media presence. In the early millennium, the Army had just emerged victorious after the Kargil mis-adventure by Pakistan – drawing room media presence and social media were yet far away. South Kashmir was then considered less dangerous than the North, where a large number of troops had vacated their deployment to move up to Kargil.

    A patrol in Kashmir (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
    A patrol in Kashmir (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

    Today, there are television, social media and divergent political voices with every individual empowered to advise on the national discourse through the smart phone. The government itself is pressurised and the Army leadership has increasingly remained even more concerned about casualties and the effectiveness of its operations, for a larger national audience and its internal rank and file too. It isn’t as if it was not concerned earlier about casualties, but then the Army took much higher casualties in the past, but with lesser public scrutiny and pressure.

    Fifthly, the Army leadership is made up of some solid experience and professionalism. The larger picture is extremely clear to it. It understands the necessity of political guidance in the handling of contentious situations such as in J&K from time to time and the constraints that the political authorities face. Equally it must urge the political authorities to continue taking military advice, even in fields outside the military domain. There is no other way but a joint political-military approach. General Bipin Rawat’s advice and opinion in no way betrayed this crucial aspect when he spoke.

    There are some basics which have stood the test of time and cannot be tampered with. Among them is the understanding that operations are important for domination, elimination of terrorists is essential but despite every provocation (and provocation is part of the adversary’s strategy) the people of the conflict zone must remain the supreme concern. They will be misled, they will be against the Forces but indiscriminate targeting of the people is sacrilege. This is a challenge in the face of stone pelting, considered and sold as an idea by separatists that it is a non-violent act.

    Stone pelting in Kashmir (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)
    Stone pelting in Kashmir (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

    Instead of targeting the local population, which is what many uninformed people recommend out of anger and passion, the only nuanced thing to do here is to target the rogue leaderships of stone pelters, flash mob motivators and those whose actions create situations which threaten lives of troops. They must be objectively targeted to prevent their effectiveness. It’s a difficult task in the face of public ire but only the police can do it as they are aware of the methods. The Army must back up the police for this.

    Three closing issues. The ideologue who gave muscle to the idea of modern nonviolent revolt is Gene Sharp; the man who inspired the Arab Spring. Those involved in handling J&K need to empower themselves intellectually by absorbing some of what he wrote. The Army’s professional ethos needs to continue but equally the concern being expressed about its woeful protection equipment for such operations is relevant. Some of the emergency purchases being resorted to must cater for more hardened vehicles and night vision equipment for the RR troops.

    Lastly, more than ever before, there is huge need for psychological conditioning of troops, and this must extend to the CRPF and J&K police too. There is a thin line which exists here and therefore to condition men for such exhausting operations is a dire necessity. The staying power of the Army and that too in fully stable frame of mind is outstanding, but this aspect must never ever be taken for granted in such operations when they extend for long.

    The writer is a former GOC of India’s Srinagar based 15 Corps, now associated with Vivekanand International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies.

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