Why India Must Not Blink Despite J&K Protests After Burhan Wani Killing

Kashmir counter-terror operations (Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
  • Despite pressure from Islamist groups in Kashmir, and some in the media, India shouldn’t hold back on the offensive against jihadi terror in Jammu and Kashmir.

    Jihadis use every concession as evidence that they are winning the war.

The contest of wills between the Indian state, the Pakistani state and a whole bunch of non-state terrorist actors has resumed once again in Jammu & Kashmir. This time it has happened with the killing of Burhan Wani of the Hizbul Mujahideen by the security forces. It’s a contest India cannot afford to lose. The last thing we need is a namby-pamby response just because popular passions have been aroused during Wani’s orchestrated funeral. The funeral triggered attacks on the security forces, with the total of civilian and police killed adding up to 23 at the time of writing.

The contest of wills has now been extended to a new domain, heroics on social media. Wani’s claim to fame is not good deeds, but murder and mayhem enhanced by cyber-heroics. Like the Islamic State, which too relies on social media and the internet to draw recruits, Wani has been successful in enticing a few more Kashmiris to his flawed cause by effective use of online media. It is easy to do this for you can now burnish your CV with inspiring tales or photographs that may show not the real Wani indulging in killing and maiming, but a hyper-exaggerated picture of valour and courage against the odds.

The security forces should be congratulated for reducing our self-created cyber-hero to a cipher. And the public display of anger was only to be expected. When you shred the aura of invincibility and make-believe about a plastic hero, you get anger and violence. Nobody likes a hero to look like a zero.

There has been much ‘secular’ breast-beating after the killing of Burhan Wani, with the human rights-wallahs, who never register even minor squeaks of protest when terrorists kill innocents, making this seem like a staged encounter. Kavita Krishnan, a Politburo member of the CPI(ML), tweeted recently:

It is apparently normal for parties espousing violence to achieve their ends to demand human rights for those who kill and not their victims. This is why Maoists find themselves in the same boat as violent Islamists.

We should treat the Kavita Krishnans as a joke and move on.

What we should not treat as a joke is the nature of the challenge confronting us in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K). While we can surely try hard to win hearts and minds through various confidence-building measures in the Valley, but here’s the truth: it is only when you win the war against terrorism decisively that the hearts-and-minds part of the operation can attempt a reconciliation. The reason is simple: as long as terrorists hold sway, the moderates will also toe the line of separatism. Terrorism first silences the moderates. They won’t speak up till they feel secure, and they won’t feel secure till the extremists are seen to be defeated. The moderates in Punjab could not come out of the woodwork till the Khalistani terrorists were neutralised by KPS Gill.

This is not a short-term war. It can go on for decades, for the will of Pakistan to keep insurgency going is strong. We have to produce stronger will to defeat its machinations. It is only when Pakistan is defeated and demoralised that we can win the war in Kashmir. So the last thing we need is a weak-kneed response to the aftermath of Wani’s killing. We now have to go after the other 60-70 terrorists whom Wani managed to entice under his banner.

While this does not mean talks with the Hurriyat should be abandoned altogether, we have to be clear about their purpose: we talk to prove our sincerity, but not to make any material concessions on the assumption that there will be some give from the other side when they take what is on offer from us. Jihadis use every concession as evidence that they are winning the war, and will temporarily talk peace only to regroup and regain strength. This is what the LTTE did successfully in Sri Lanka for years. It was only when the Sri Lankan army decided to go for total victory that the LTTE was defeated. India thus has no choice but to take the war – including the propaganda war - to the jihadi camp.

Wani’s elimination was thus critical for the security forces. And Omar Abdullah, former Chief Minister of J&K, was surely wrong when he claimed that Wani would be more dangerous after death. He tweeted: 

This is the moderate trying to avoid being the target of terrorists. Abdullah is wrong for many reasons.

One, as Islamic State’s initial success shows, it did not need martyrs to recruit people to the cause of terror. A capacity for violence and a show of strength was enough. Social media-based propaganda, often doctored with loads of untruth, entices unsuspecting youths to the cause of jihad. Or why else would 15-20 people from far-away Kerala disappear, presumably to join Islamic State? The Islamist-separatist movement in Kashmir Valley has learnt valuable lessons from Islamic State. Which is why it is too dangerous to be treated with kid gloves.

Two, showing weakness to murderous jihadis is the worst thing you can do. They can only be overcome by force and effective intelligence to eliminate the kingpins one by one. This should be backed by effective counter-propaganda to prevent others from seeking glory in terrorism. If Wani can create a heroic narrative based on half-truths, surely the security forces can do the same? The war must be joined at the level of propaganda too.

Three, Wani became a hero in death only because his funeral became a media event. Future killings of popular terrorists should not involve the handing over of their bodies to their families. The families can be asked to come for a quiet burial inside a jail, and if they refuse, the bodies can be buried at sea, like Osama bin Laden.

Four, Wani is not just a separatist, he is an Islamist. The Kashmir movement is no longer about azaadi or separatism; it is about eliminating non-Muslims from the Valley, if not the whole of J&K. Hurriyat leader Syed Ali Shah Geelani wants Sharia in Kashmir, not Kashmiriyat. This is why the post-Wani funeral crowds targeted Pandits, who had nothing to do with his killing. It is significant that Wani’s father said he was a “martyr in the service of Allah,” and not “azaad Kashmir”. Islamism is antithetical to secular India. It has to be contained and defeated. The “azaadi” cry is now about communal bigotry, not Kashmiri independence.

So what should India do now?

#1: The first need is intelligence. We have to invest large sums of money in buying and generating both human and electronic intelligence so that we are a step ahead of the jihadis.

#2: We have to move out of a defensive mindset and turn aggressive. This does not mean more use of the army, but less. Terrorism cannot be defeated by the army; it needs a mobile and agile special police force that operates like a guerrilla counter-insurgency outfit. Andhra defeated the Maoists with its Greyhounds. KPS Gill defeated the Kahlistani militants with his police force that used unorthodox methods to tackle terror. When terror is homegrown, the terrorists themselves are vulnerable, as they have families in the same place where they create mayhem. So while the army is slowly withdrawn to the barracks and the borders, special police forces need to be created to neutralise the terrorists one by one. Wani is only the beginning, not the end.

#3: Political moves to end Kashmiri alienation need to be accompanied by hints of changing laws to allow Indians to settle in Kashmir. This move will have support in the rest of India, even if they are opposed in the Valley itself. Threats to change the demography over the next 25 years are important to send a message that terrorism will not be allowed to succeed.

The stakes are high for India in Jammu & Kashmir. If we lose this battle, we have lost the soul of secular India. It is not about a piece of real estate. Kashmir is where the idea of Pakistan should be comprehensively defeated and buried.

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