The South Kashmir Rage: What Went Wrong?
South Kashmir with its real estate and people cannot be relegated in importance.
This game will eventually be won through the wisdom of experience which clearly says, you cannot ignore the people.
People reading, observing and commenting on the happenings in Kashmir rarely ever look at a map and understand the lay of the ground and the significance of geographic and demographic factors in the proxy conflict imposed on India. It was only after 8 July 2016 that South Kashmir became a landmark region in the minds of common Indians. That was the day Burhan Wani, the young Kashmiri terrorist leader, was killed in an encounter by 19 Rashtriya Rifles (RR) and other security forces (SFs), and Kashmir started burning.
Sensing opportunity, the sponsors and managers of proxy conflict exploited every negative moment to their advantage and helped create an environment of turbulence, which has not stabilised to this day. The focus of the turmoil is in South Kashmir, where the new militancy has raged for the last four years or so. Before that it was mostly the badlands of Handwara, Sopore, Lolab and Bandipura in North Kashmir. Yet, South Kashmir was always relevant; it is only that we have been mistakenly relegating its strategic importance in the proxy conflict.
Why has South Kashmir become the new turbulent zone? What was it like at the commencement of the proxy conflict and near midway around the turn of the millennium? These are natural questions anyone should ask if he is interested in studying conflict and is not fully aware of the dynamics of South Kashmir.
There are various ways in which one can look at South Kashmir. The northern part hugs the Shamashabari Range and is prone to infiltration into the wetlands around the Wullar Lake and the forested belt of Rafiabad and Hafruda forests. In the eastern part of North Kashmir, the heights around Safapura leading up to Harmukh feature are suitable areas for terrorist hideouts and camps. However, the southern part hugs the vast Pir Panjal and Kishtwar ranges bordering Jammu region. Infiltrators enter the region from all directions; filtered from the north through the urban areas of Srinagar and Budgam, via the Mahadeo Ridge to Tral and the infamous Meadow in the Pahalgam heights, across Doda-Kishtwar into the Kapran valley, directly via the Pir Panjal axis from Rajouri and through the gullies such as Chinamarg and Chor Panjal to the karewas (broken plateaus) of the Beerwah belt.
In the heydays of splurging infiltration, South Kashmir was sandwiched from virtually every direction. The Wullar in the north severely restricts movement to areas around it, making it simpler for the security forces (SFs) to deploy and focus on intelligence efforts. The south is open country only restricted by the flow of the rivers from the Pir Panjal, Jhelum, Rembiara and Vaishav plus Lidder from Pahalgam. There are karewas, forests and densely packed villages, which dot the area. The line from Qazigund to Pir Panjal road, which hugs the Pir Panjal range is heavily populated. It is this area, which has been largely ignored by us in our deployment in recent years.
It was because the local hold of the Hizbul Mujahideen was far greater here that Pakistan perceived the movement slipping from its hands, as early as 1991. Without its direct control the direction it wished for the movement to take would have actually not materialised.That is why we found the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) taking primacy after 1996 and announcing its arrival here with every major atrocity.
South Kashmir has traditionally been the breadbasket of Kashmir, the land of the white collared citizens from Anantnag and Pulwama. It is in Kulgam that the seat of the Jamat-e-Islami (JeI) Kashmir exists; the Amir-e-Jamat resides and functions from here. While the population all over Kashmir is restive, in South Kashmir, the awareness levels are much higher. Leadership among terror groups has usually rested in the hands of locals. There have been some very high profile and long lasting leaders such as Amir Khan, Engineer Zaman and the wily division commander Shabir Baduri. That a Burhan Wani arose here should never have surprised people.
The Ikhwans, as a counter group, were centred in both North and South Kashmir under their respective leaders; Mohammad Yusuf Parray (Kuka Parray) in Hajan and Liyaqat Ali in Anantnag. While Kuka Parray entered politics, Liyaqat Ali’s movement in the south proved extremely useful for the security forces to control the very turbulent Anantnag and Pulwama districts. Kuka Parrey was killed in Septemer 2003 but well before that the Ikhwan movement was the victim of the lack of understanding by both the Army and the political leaders. This usually happens with counter group movements. For the sake of political expediency of the time, the Ikhwan’s contribution was ignored and its future capacity to deliver was never developed. There is no doubt that South Kashmir’s Ikhwans contributed immensely towards establishment of control by the Army, but as in other aspects of the situation it was considered only a stepping stone towards normality as the political dividends of then emerging peace could not factor the Ikhwans into it.
So what was it like in South Kashmir when I took charge as the Colonel General Staff of Headquarters (HQ) Victor Force (planning and coordination of operations, intelligence and training are the responsibility of this appointment in a division headquarters). The HQ itself was an experiment, raised in 1994 to take control of the entire expanse of South Kashmir. It was and is still located at Avantipura just above the National Highway.
In 1999, when I reached to take over the appointment, the HQ was a sparse entity, in fact, almost Spartan in terms of comforts you usually associate with large HQ. What was on at the very moment I stepped in is history. The Kargil intrusion had just been discovered and 15 Corps was in flux. For us, on that day three operations were simultaneously on, two in 1 Sector’s Chhatergul and Aishmuqam areas and one in 2 Sector’s Kapran valley. Helicopters were whizzing across from Srinagar to pick up casualties in Chhatergul. Three terrorists had also been killed there while in Kapran a leading Afghan terrorist had been killed. This was to become a routine affair for the next two years, where at times, I was monitoring five major operations simultaneously.
There is much that characterised South Kashmir in 1999, but three issues demand mention. First, the area had an improvised explosive device (IED) threat even greater than what I faced in Sri Lanka. The route from Victor Force HQ to Avantipur airfield was itself so unsafe that moving in vehicles was fraught with risk. There were a number of IED doctors (fabricators) among the terrorist ranks; an IED was always referred to as roti or chapati in all radio communications which were intercepted by us. With trained monitoring, it was always possible to home onto a general area where an IED was being prepared to be laid; the exact point could not be ascertained. The National Highway was always vulnerable; on 28 May 1999, a sideways IED in the hillside targeted an officer bus of the Jammu convoy just across the tunnel towards Banihal. Families were the victims, something I cannot forget, although many human rights activists never ever mention such events in their commentaries.
The road from Kulgam to the National Highway near Khudwaini was even worse. Through June-August 1999, Victor Force was also responsible for the safe movement of ammunition convoys from Khundru where the large ammunition depot exists. The 18km route from Khundru to Khanabal at the National Highway had 110 Hume Pipe crossings; each such crossing was a potential IED site and one successful IED meant the loss of momentum of the ammunition movement for the Kargil operations. To top it the road did not even have tarmac, it was just macadamised. This was the area where Army dogs from our outstanding Dog Units along with their handlers carried out operations all the time. There is but one way to prevent the emplacement of an IED and that is day and night domination. It means identified segments of the roads or tracks have to be under constant surveillance of static and patrolling troops by day and night. It is a sapping operation, which requires dedication and stamina. Today, IEDs have completely dried up. The last one with any major effect was on 20 July 2008, at the crossing of the roads from Srinagar to Gulmarg and Baramula. Nine soldiers proceeding on leave lost their lives when their bus was targeted.
Yet, it needs to be mentioned that the then GOC Victor Force, Maj Gen Raj Kaushal moved more by road than by helicopter. I almost always accompanied him but no one ever had an inkling of where we would go on a given day. That is the best precaution against IEDs.
The second issue of concern in South Kashmir was the ever present threat against minorities – Kashmiri Pandits still resided and there were many Sikhs all living in clusters. Victor Force never seemed to have sufficient troops for us to be able to provide this security. In 1999, a place such as Tral did not have an RR unit; a Border Security Force (BSF) unit was responsible for its security. Today, everyone knows Tral as Burhan Wani’s town. A full RR unit was deployed only in 2002. Vulnerability of minorities still remains a challenge although a well-guarded camp of Kashmiri Pandits exists at Wisu near Qazigund, on the highway. There are Sikh settlements, which need dedicated protection, considering that local terrorists have shown no qualms about targeting Lt Umar Fayaz, who was unarmed and a Kashmiri.
The third observation; in 1999, our focus was once again on the Pulwama – Shupiyan – Kulgam – Bibehara (PSKB) quadrangle, where a mass of villages and orchards exist. Our deployment was right up to the Pir Panjal and in fact even beyond. Victor Force strongly believed that intelligence about possible infiltration from across the Pir Panjal would come from the Army bases at the foothills on the southern side towards Surankot, Rajouri and Thana Mandi. We thus had deployment at the meadows looking towards the gullies and intelligence detachments deployed with the troops in the south of the range.
In May 1999, the PSKB quadrangle was flush with troops, three mechanised infantry battalions without their main equipment (the BMPs), an armoured regiment without its tanks and almost two sectors of RR. The mechanised troops were very good at their job, full of enthusiasm doing a duty different to the normal that they otherwise perform. Interestingly, there was a unit HQ near Shupiyan, a sector HQ (a sector has three units under it) at Koyil near the Avantipura airfield and another sector HQ was at Kulgam. The west of the National Highway from Qazigund till Pampore had fairly heavy deployment except in Tral, where the BSF operated.I would say that in May 1999, pre Kargil, Victor Force had a fairly good control over the situation and the units were not stretched.
From early June 1999, the depletion process of South Kashmir began and never ended. First the mechanised and armoured units disappeared almost overnight as war in the plains almost became a reality. Then the HQ and units from Kulgamand areas moved for other tasks leaving Victor Force virtually in the lurch. Only in 2002, for a while we had redeployment with some additional strength coming in. The karewas hugging the Pir Panjal and the string of villages never ever had that density of deployment as existed in 1999.
Why was this so? In military operations, assessment based deployment is the norm. In priority, counter infiltration in North Kashmir took the higher level in comparison to stabilisation operations in South Kashmir. All resources started to gravitate there. The reception areas needed domination as much as the towns so these had their own deployment. No one can fault this because from a military assessment angle it is absolutely correct. It is just that Victor Force and South Kashmir did not get what they deserved. In retrospect now it is easy for me to recount that local militancy was invariably given lower priority because the presence of foreign terrorists always spelt greater threat and in the north there were more such terrorists. The south had them but not in the same measure. In purely psychological terms the farther a place is from the border the more it is considered secure. Comparatively, the south is much farther from the LoC than the North, which virtually hugs it.
The challenge for the forces today is how to balance deployment between South and North. With all the infiltration attempts (11 in four days) there seems desperation on part of Pakistan to fill up the North, gravitating the strength eventually to the South. The bids are also aimed to force the Army and other SF to strengthen deployment for the Amarnath Yatra due next month so that a degree of imbalance emerges. The PSKB quadrangle needs to be reinforced and the alignment hugging the Pir Panjal villages needs a much greater density of troops to prevent a free hand to the local terror groups. The Lidder Valley is also active but the Yatra deployment should cater for that if it stays on even after the event.
As the SF redeploy, the lesson for the future should stick to planner’s minds; never underestimate the power of the local. South Kashmir with its real estate and people cannot be relegated in importance, for military operations, winning hearts and minds and governance. I wish well my former HQ at Avantipura, now under the command of another very able General Officer, Maj Gen B S Raju. May there be more strength to their operations and more wisdom to their approach. This game will eventually be won through the wisdom of experience which says clearly, you cannot ignore the people.
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