Killing Of Mohammed Ayub Pandith: Hard Decisions Needed In Kashmir

Killing Of Mohammed Ayub Pandith: Hard Decisions Needed In Kashmir Paramilitary soldiers stand guard during curfew in downtown area in Srinagar. (Waseem Andrabi/Hindustan Times via GettyImages)
  • Kashmir is all about decisions, taking them in time and keeping all imponderables in mind.

    The lynching of Deputy SP Mohammad Ayub Pandith has changed things in Kashmir, and the time to take hard decisions is now.

In Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) hard decisions are usually difficult to take because of the spin offs and complicated second and third order effects, which are never decipherable at the moment of decision. I recall 11 August 2008, when the infamous Muzaffarabad March was undertaken by some Hurriyat leaders with a huge mob-like procession from Sopore and Pattan towards Uri. The mob moved on the Baramula-Uri road with my headquarters at Baramula on either side of it. My soldiers had their fingers on the trigger awaiting a wrong move by elements within the mob which could directly affect their security. I was in touch with all higher headquarters to get a sense of understanding of what they wanted me to do with this mob.

There had been an utter intelligence failure because I had been asked to cater for a situation involving the move of a 100 traders in three or four vehicles in a symbolic march to the Line of Control (LoC) to press for opening of the trade route to Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) via Uri; surely not for a 50,000 strong mob in hundreds of vehicles and willing to resort to violence. I catered for a little more than what was informed. What surprised us completely was the unwillingness of anyone in the higher chain to take a decision on dealing with the unexpected situation of the huge mob and the possibility of it reaching the LoC; live coverage on television channels was on almost the entire day.

Finally, a senior staff officer at the Command Headquarters, Udhampur, and a good friend gave me the soundest advice in a lifetime. In his words – “there is paralysis everywhere and no one is going to give you decisions and do not expect any. It is best to take your decisions alone and stick to them, you will be right”. That was an advice for a lifetime and I took my decisions, but that’s a different story. The only other thing which needs mention is that my immediate superior, the then GOC (General Officer Commanding) 15 Corps, ensured that he considerably relieved our burden by flying down to my headquarters and being there for critical decisions at his level; a gesture which was in the best spirit of the working ethos of the Indian Army and greatly spoken of even today.

Kashmir is all about decisions, taking them in time and keeping all imponderables in mind. Right or wrong, at least they are decisions and no one is left to function in a vacuum. The current run of terrorist activities targeting personnel of the Jammu and Kashmir Police (JKP) culminating in the lynching of Deputy Superintendent of Police Mohammed Ayub Pandith appears to push for all those decisions with the latter being the trigger. A mob of 200 (in fact more) at the Jamia Mosque in Srinagar killed the braveheart officer, who was deployed in civilian clothes for the security of, out of all people, Mirwaiz Umar Farooq because he was apparently perceived to be an Indian intelligence operative.

There will be versions and more versions, but none can hide the fact that JKP personnel irrespective of faith, region or caste are active objectives of instigated wrath in Kashmir. Srinagar is perhaps the worst for this as policing of the densely populated city is always a challenge. Offensive counter insurgency operations in the urban environs of the city have not been conducted for over a decade except for the odd intelligence based surgical strike. The JKP and Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) who control the security of the city are both in defensive mode, trying to prevent terror strikes and that isn’t an easy job either.

The deterioration of control over Srinagar has been progressive. A few months ago an unarmed traffic policeman, who is essentially on a social not security duty was targeted. I have been witness to how those not appearing like Kashmiris are the subject of suspicion at Hurriyat-related events. An intelligence operative in my time as Corps Commander was disarmed by some persons at such a meeting and handed over to the local police, but none dared to even think of lynching or take law into their own hands as far as the security forces were concerned. Thus Pandith’s lynching is actually a game changer in the murky world of Kashmir’s badlands.

This change of attitude comes from two things. First, a creeping and now steadfastly marching emboldened approach towards targeting those who are in service with the Indian establishment. It aims at discouraging the youth of Kashmir towards aspiring to be partners in India’s aspirational growth. This is exemplified by the criminal terrorist assault on Lt Umar Fayaz, the young Kashmiri Army officer from Kulgam who dared to enter the officer ranks of the Indian Army, and the string of terrorist attacks including the killing of Feroz Dar, SHO Achabal and his five policemen.

Stung by the long lines of youth at the recruiting centres of the Security Forces and the success of young Kashmiris in the Civil Services recruitment process, the proxies of Pakistan, encouraged by the likes of the Hurriyat, have unleashed a campaign to physically intimidate them. Policemen form an easy target because their deployment is never like the Army or the CRPF which is in sub units with due command and control.

The second reason for the change in attitude is the other steadily mounting characteristic of the movement in Kashmir, the radicalisation process. Taliban-e-Kashmir leader Zakir Musa is the latest symbol of this, urging all towards the proverbial Caliphate. Not too many have any idea what this is all about except to relate to something novel, which will in their eyes promote Islam. They have no idea of the intensity and degree of crimes of the proponents of the Caliphate, wherever they are attempting the same in different parts of the world.

It is easy to spread radicalism in an environment where there already exists a proxy conflict and social media helps in this to no end. This is what is steadily increasing the confidence of the anti-national elements; the Pan Islamic links are considered as fasteners and strengtheners.

Intimidating the Army is quite different. It has no social effects. However, intimidating the local police force, which is composed of personnel from all three regions and all major faiths can be a disastrous decision for the separatists and their masters. Little do they realise this for indirectly they have unleashed a force chastened by the intimidation. It is up to the JKP leadership to harness the emotions and passion of the force towards tactical gains and domination of the environment. The Army and CRPF can quietly assist in this.

The passion generated within JKP ranks by the dastardly act of targeting its Deputy Superintendent of Police on Shab-e-Qadr must be focused through astute leadership and engagement with all ranks within the force. I continue to remain an admirer of the JKP for its resilience and professionalism; time to display these in good measure is now.

The Hurriyat otherwise progressively less important is attempting to return on the back of this new alienation. This is dangerous and that is why decisions are needed, and needed quickly. An energising of the grid within Srinagar and its suburbs is immediately called for. The defensive grid aimed to prevent terror strikes needs to go back in time and become an offensive one. Now one can recall all the arguments we made for retaining the Army’s landed properties at Haft Chinar and Tatoo Ground. Islands of the Army within Srinagar will always assist the police forces and that’s the reason why the separatists wanted the Army out from Srinagar. Politicians also lined up behind the separatist demands.

When the Indian Express wrote in December 2013 about passing the success dividend to the people by getting the Army out of the counter terror grid of the hinterland, I was pointing out the immaturity and ill timing of the demand. Conflict stabilisation never means automatic conflict resolution; it’s a slow creep forward from that stage with many setbacks and that’s the reason why we are suffering today. I can recall that soldier par excellence Lt Gen Mohammed Zaki, as adviser to the government of J&K, directing operations in the bylanes of Srinagar in the early Nineties with a platoon of Garhwali soldiers.

No one is saying the situation is anywhere akin to that time but it could deteriorate to it, if we remain defensive. Large cities are never easy to keep free from terrorists if they desire to enter and make them their abode. With waterways, wetlands, nearby mountains and densely built old town areas, Srinagar is a haven for the terrorists, which is why the policing needed in such situations needs to be far more robust. Mobility of small teams is needed and traditional policing methods of neighbourhood watch, surveillance and reporting with due rewards will add to the effectiveness. When people speak of the K P S Gill strategy in Punjab they incorrectly interpret it as intimidation of the public; it actually was a system of much more robust and empowered policing with complete backing.

I have often been told stories of the Srinagar Central Jail. There it is the rule of the terrorists. Once I complained to the Director General of Police of the amount of communication activity emanating from the jail and that’s when I learnt of his helplessness to do much about it. There is a need to relook at the entire policy of detention and the ability of the jail system in Kashmir to remain effective. In an environment where threat to the integrity of the nation exists, we can ill afford a prison system which does not support the overall national strategy of fighting separatism.

That brings us to the issue of leadership. The Hurriyat, as stated earlier, is attempting a comeback. Government of India may be tempted to continue treating it with kid gloves in the absence of identified alternatives. This may be naive because patience is on strain and the Hurriyat shows no propensity to ever work towards mainstreaming itself from the separatist line it has followed. Cutting the financial conduits to its coffers, which hopefully is underway with operations of the National Investigation Agency will have a salutary effect.

The most effective way of throttling a resurging terror movement besides choking its numbers and finances is to target the leadership. One of the reasons for the 2011 success in paralysing the effectiveness of the movement was the studied focus on the terrorist leadership in the major centres, which today and potentially in the future, are – Kulgam, Shupiyan, Pulwama, Pampore, Anantnag, Sopore and Handwara. Multi force teams of terrorist leadership hunters with award dividends must be formed. The Army, JKP, Intelligence Bureau, State Criminal Investigation Department and elements of the CRPF should constitute these to shun all competition and share credit. Army’s Para Special Forces (SF) can also form a part of such teams besides the Rashtriya Rifles.

Finally, the string of events in the last few weeks must not demoralise our leadership. It was entirely expected this summer and we have to face even greater threats. The counter terror and counter infiltration grid has also scored good results which needs further improvement. With the induction of additional army units in South Kashmir and the presence of many more troops in anticipation of the Sri Amarnath Yatra, the leeway available to terrorists will reduce. The SF must also ensure that they do not offer targets through undisciplined movement without adequate security.

Any advisories, at present, need to be limited to the tactical and operational level. It is not the time for any strategic initiatives; just regain tactical and operational balance. The order of effects of these will give the government better alternatives in the future. Simultaneously, if initiatives are needed anywhere it is to resume outreach and engagement with the public in rural areas where movement of government officials is once again becoming a problem. The Army must do this in good measure; it’s a legitimate operational responsibility to restore the writ of the state.

Also read: Time To Revive The Hasnain Strategy In Kashmir Is Now


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