This must start on a personal note because the current Indian Army Chief, General Bipin Rawat, is a former colleague and subordinate. He relieved me in the Military Secretary’s branch as the Colonel in charge of policy and management of the officer cadre. While I commanded Indian Army’s Dagger Division in Baramula, he commanded the Rashtriya Rifles 5 Sector (brigade) in the nearby volatile town of Sopore. Later, as I commanded the Chinar Corps, I also had the opportunity of asking for him by name, to command the Dagger Division, my old formation. He later dealt with the North East as a senior staff officer and commanded Indian Army’s largest formation, 3 Corps, which oversees a major part of anti-insurgency operations and the Line of Actual Control.
On 1 January 2017, when General Rawat was appointed Chief of the Indian Army, he brought to his appointment a wealth of experience of having dealt with hybrid conflict conditions in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and the North East. He inherited a situation in J&K which was tenuous. Six months post the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani which had triggered unending turbulence on the streets; the army faced three major challenges. First, the Line of Control (LoC) was getting much more active with nearly everyday ceasefire violations by the Pakistan Army. The Hindu areas in the vicinity of the Jammu international boundary were under intense fire, which created communal tension with potential for more negative fallout; that was Pakistan’s intent.
The infiltration of foreign terrorists, although under a fair degree of control, had witnessed attempts at targeting the army’s installations closer to the LoC. This was against the usual trends of deeper movement to safe houses and strikes in the hinterland. The suicide attack on the headquarters of the Uri Brigade on 18 September 2016 was part of this trend. Earlier, the army posts in the Jhelum Valley had also been subjected to such attempts and the brigade headquarters at Poonch and Tangdhar had successfully neutralised terrorist efforts to target them. Related to the LoC was also the fact that on 28 September 2016, the much-hyped surgical strikes had been launched against terrorist launchpads across the border. Although casualties inflicted were unconfirmed, the campaign itself became a celebrated event in India, leading to the expectation of such retribution in future too.
The second challenge was the continuing trend of terrorist strikes in the hinterland. From the high of 2011-12, when the army had established complete domination by effectively choking infiltration, the low was the proliferating local militancy, which required no foreign terrorists, to flourish. South Kashmir found its own moorings through the movement led by Burhan Wani, who succeeded in inspiring a segment of the youth through his image management on social media and networks spread by word of mouth. The surge in violence in 2016 was primarily in the southern districts of Anantnag, Pulwama, Kulgam and Shopian, sometimes moving up to Bandipora. The disturbing trend of flash mobs at encounter sites interfering in operations conducted by the security forces (SF) was leading to severe challenges for the SF, resulting in both SF and civilian casualties. The civilian casualties always triggered further disturbances and the potential of a cyclic chain of negative events always remained high.
The third challenge was a flow out of the second and not restricted to any single aspect. The political environment was vitiated and the local political class was being shunned. It did not have the ability of even visiting the rural areas to which the movement had shifted. The alienation against India and everything Indian was massive and no military civic action programmes such as ‘Sadbhavana’ could hope to overcome this. The new generation of Kashmiris, born after 1989, had only witnessed violence in everyday life and knew little about the happiness of a stress-free environment. It had produced a brooding and vengeful youth veering towards suicidal tendencies.
All the challenges which stood evident in early 2017 continued at different levels through the 18 months that General Rawat has been in office, underlining the fact that hybrid conflicts are long-drawn affairs. However, simultaneously, they were addressed with a new understanding of the ground.
General Rawat’s term as Army Chief, mid-way through his tenure, has been characterised by a robust response at the LoC without any horizontal proliferation. There was a choice to proliferate response to the LoC of the Kashmir sector and even to Kargil. This advice has been eschewed in favour of a stronger response in the areas where Pakistan attempted to escalate, with greater flexibility vested in frontline commanders. This was sane because LoC exchanges in the Kashmir Valley segment helps Pakistan divert the attention of our troops from the counter infiltration grid. The Neelam Valley domination that the Indian Army enjoys is a measure of last resort and must never be encashed too early. The subsidiary prong of this strategy has been the continuously strengthening counter infiltration grid. More prioritisation to sub-sectors and induction of additional units from the Pir Panjal South has afforded this.
It was done with an element of risk incurred both in the Jammu and Valley regions. In the Jammu region, militancy and terror have been largely wiped out, but the potential for resurgence always exists. Moving Rashtriya Rifles units from the grid there did weaken it to an extent. Communal violence and other political factors in Pir Panjal South can always contribute towards destabilisation and possible exploitation by Pakistan. Disturbing an existing but stabilising grid is never a good strategy, but the risk has been worth it because it energised the counter infiltration measures along the LoC in the Kashmir segment.
General Rawat’s knowledge of the ground in the Uri and Lipa sectors did ensure the practical deployment of additional troops. There have been strikes by border action teams of the Pakistan Army, but the demand for crossing the LoC has been silenced through effective neutralisation from our side, except in one case in the Poonch sector late in December 2017, when our troops had to do a shallow trans LoC operation.
Before venturing into reinvigorating the counter-terror operations, General Rawat drew the ire of a part of Indian intelligentsia by using some strong language against those who attempted to come in the way of the army’s operations at encounter sites. He termed them virtually as over-ground workers (OGWs) and promised action against them as anti-national elements, just the way other OGWs are dealt with. It was a strong message to the troops that they need not feel cowed down by the attempts to cause hindrance to their operations.
Operation ‘All Out’ was the generic name given for all counter-terror operations as the SF prepared for the 2017 summer campaign season. While cooperation between the SF constituents has always been good, the need for further refinement of cooperation was a necessity due to the changing nature of conflict. The necessity of being on the same page was never felt more as vigilante flash mobs attempted to intervene and prevent the effectiveness of execution of operations. A couple of decisions added weight to the effectiveness. First among them was on reintroduction of cordon and search operations (CASO). Generic CASO is executed when intelligence is not specific but exists in bits and pieces. It involves a larger number of troops and creates alienation among the populace, which has to suffer the ignominy of search of houses over a longer duration. This was the challenge in South Kashmir and the return to CASO ensured better domination, and in some cases, actual contact with terrorists. CASO was progressively reduced through later months of 2017 as greater domination was achieved.
Operation ‘All Out’ remained dynamic in concept as it switched to focus on terrorist leaders, who through social media were attempting to create personality cults and larger-than-life images of themselves. This strategy, which the army adopted to curb terrorist initiatives and break their command, control and planning, again proved invaluable as close to 20 militants were eliminated. The infamous photograph of the team of young terrorists with Burhan Wani saw all the members on display being neutralised. Hard operations convey the right message that life as a terrorist may not exceed more than three months.
It is in the third domain, the socio political one that the SF initiatives have yet to bear fruit to the degree desired. This is work in progress. It needs to be appreciated that soft power initiatives to take effect require the rebuilding of trust and creation of hope through restoration of the dignity and self-esteem of the people, and 2018 is the right year for that. To its credit, the army continued with almost all its soft power measures, but the ability to dilute alienation could enhance only marginally because of powerful narratives, which the separatists had been able to ingrain once again in the minds. General Rawat made it clear in a recent media interaction that the contribution, which infiltration made towards sustenance of levels of violence, has been curbed and controlled.
However, the terrorist strength today is being maintained through the phenomenon of local recruitment of youth driven by the passion generated on the streets and funerals of young terrorists, who were many cases their friends. This means that a virtually interminable chain of induction and availability of local terrorists will make the attainment of peace a non-starter. For this, the assistance of the political community, clergy and academics, and of parents, is a must. They have to be empowered to speak, travel and address through multiple means of communication. The army is never afraid to extend a helping hand well beyond its responsibilities as the attainment of peace remains its ultimate aim. If by its own presence or redeployment, it can assist in this effort, it will ensure that, and even provide necessary feedback for the efforts. The political community has to be urged to engage with the people but shorn of political rhetoric. This assurance has been given time and again by the Chief.
The political and social outreach is enabled by the domination achieved in the security situation. The continuity of that domination is as essential, because such strategies cannot work in fits and starts or remain driven by personalities. They have to be institutionalised. The army under its current Chief understands this better than almost all, and has, therefore, worked towards putting together its best practices for continuity. A major achievement in the internal dynamics of the army has been the careful succession procedure to ensure optimum talent in the field is maintained without trying to question the validity of specialisation needed for India’s most enduring military challenge.
Anyone who knows the profession of soldiering would appreciate that the most important battle-winning factor for warriors remains the entire notion of trust. What the current leadership like many of those in the past has achieved is to maintain and build on the concept of trust. Commanders down the chain have been empowered and backed up many times even in the event of mistakes, which in such conditions will occur. It is important to allow the army to do its work and back it with equal degree of trust from the political leadership. The situation in J&K is as worrisome or stable as one may wish to read it. The most important thing is to back the political community and the administrative machinery and encourage them to provide quality governance and positive narratives even as the army holds the periphery and prevents any breach.
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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