Home Minister Rajnath Singh is in Jammu and Kashmir at a very important time. The security forces have retrieved the situation from the nadir it had hit early in the year. Now, it is up to the political leadership to build on it.
India's Home Minister, Rajnath Singh is in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) almost a year after his flurry of visits in mid 2016. That was when violence had consumed the state in a seriously threatening way and the public was yet again demonstrating its alienation from the idea of India. Singh’s calm demeanour, choice of some very sedate language and willingness to listen rather than talking loudly actually helped bring some sense of proportion at that very turbulent juncture. His mission may not have succeeded in bringing immediate peace, but his willingness to go many miles in remaining open minded, reaching out to people even in the face of mounting criticism in other parts of India and not losing his cool even when the Chief Minister was irked by media queries, were sufficient pointers to his resilience.
The period in between his visits has been turbulent. From the low to which the control had slid, when the ratio of terrorists killed matched the fatal casualties of the Army, to the terrorists audaciously executing selective targeting of policemen and even a young Kashmiri Army officer, to the degree of control which exists today, it’s been a slow recovery of lost confidence. When such situations become overly negative its best to shun past attempts at investment in peace and seek fresh pastures. That is why any amount of urging by multiple peace groups to get back into engagement with those who tested national patience while unhesitatingly living off the national exchequer, was shunned, while the security forces (SF) were given greater leeway to achieve the previous level of domination. It would have been very poor strategy to give in to the pressure which was mounted on the government. Singh's contribution here has been the continuous empowerment of the security forces although he does not control the Army. It is well known that he has been in consultation mode for very long.
The positive trigger for the Home Minister to make a top down approach in engaging stakeholders in J&K has quite obviously been the reference in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's speech to the need for an engagement mode rather than just domination. Probably discussed in the Cabinet Committee for Security, the translation of the intent into practice and allowing it to take shape through fresh experimentation is the strategy. This needs to be developed into a doctrine if the same has to permeate the thinking of security practitioners.
There is no doubt that SF domination changes thinking of the public and many other stakeholders. The enormity of attempting to get past a massive security grid once again dawns on the people and notions of azadi start taking a backseat from the idea that the same is likely to be achieved in a day or two.
However, overkill of domination too is counterproductive. Once that overkill starts to manifest, the actions of the SF impinge on dignity and self esteem. It's easy to be roused by those who do not have the long term goal in mind and live by temporary success being perceived as permanent. We still haven't reached the stage where any pullback from proactive operations is possible. The real test will be in the coming winter when levels of violence and the strength of terrorists will indicate how effective were the SF operations against infiltration or recruitment (or both).
My feedback from the ground reveals that we are at one of those rare moments when the public's stamina and desire to resist is at its lowest. While there may not be positive thoughts about India and Indians, there is enough alienation against violence, Pakistan, terrorists and the separatist leadership. Such moments come rarely in a long drawn proxy conflict. It will thus be a failing to understand the demands of the situation if the moment is not seized. Yet, that seizing of the moment must be to create a new hope in the people and not further disappoint them. The Prime Minister's words have not come even a moment too late and the Home Minister is doing the probing. His idea about engaging any and everyone must be like a 'recce in force' creating the opportunities. The Chief Minister and her deputy have huge roles to play in guiding Delhi. The Deputy Chief Minister must put Jammu into an engagement mode too.
While the Home Minister is ensuring that he gives his time, energy and focus to the strategy adopted by the government after the Prime Minister’s speech, it would have been good if he had been advised to conduct one or two public meetings not in the hinterland but in the peripheral areas of Uri, Gurez or Tangdhar. It would have a symbolic gesture of gratitude to those who have supported India and conveyed an indication to those who await outreach in the hinterland. It would be the resumption of political activity in an area devoid of the public voice reaching their representatives due to the prevailing circumstances.
It would also be good for the Home Minister to not just meet Kashmiri stakeholders in Srinagar and Jammu based stakeholders in Jammu. His presence brings what cannot be brought by others and thus it's essential for him to invite a few Jammu based representatives to Srinagar to meet and discuss the future alongside Kashmiri representatives of civil society. Repeating the same at Jammu would be a great gesture and including a few people from Ladakh at both locations would be a winner. For long have I believed that it is Jammu which holds the key in calming Kashmir's social and economic landscape. That calming will bring forth responsible and nationalistic leaders even as it helps the Kashmir media to cast away the shroud of the fear of the separatists under which it exists.
From my experience of Kashmir there is one thing I would always wish to see the home and defence ministers of India to do each time they visit the Valley or Jammu. I want them to meet officials who do not report in their channels. The Home Minister must visit the Line of Control not to say hello to the few Border Security Force troops assisting the Army but to get a wholesome brief from the Army’s perspective. When the Defence Minister goes calling, she must visit the police headquarters to take a brief. For too long have officials below pushed their ministers to function in their channels. The world of hybrid conflict is much larger than any of them can ever imagine. The ministers in turn will return empowered beyond the bracketed information they are provided.