Kashmir goes to elections, more radicalised than before.
As everyone concentrated on high-profile electoral contests in mainland India, did we miss the wood for the trees because it was expected that elections in Kashmir would be peaceful? A TV news anchor mentioned the six months of relative peace as she asked me where we were heading after the Shopian encounter, which left three terrorists and two soldiers dead. Even a reporter from an English daily in the Valley expressed surprise that Pulwama district, the first in J&K to go to polls, on April 24, looked as if people there were unaware of the election. This was predictable. It is just that the rest of India mostly misreads Kashmir based on skin-deep currents.
Kashmir was witnessing a high-profile political event after a long time — perhaps the first since the hanging of Afzal Guru. In the interim, it has got more radicalised than ever before. Radicalisation doesn’t only mean religious extremism — it is also the belief that only violence can resolve an issue. A majority of people have a deep-seated angst against the rest of India. It was therefore not difficult to predict that polling on April 24 would be a no-show, adroitly managed by separatist cadres.
The acquiescence of political parties to low turnouts in areas where their rivals were stronger was also predictable. The use of violence to ensure this might have caught many observers by surprise, but not those who know Kashmir’s political landscape. Interestingly, even the Kashmir media and police were surprised at the effectiveness of the calls for a boycott.
The Shopian encounter was the culmination of the violence that shook South Kashmir. The question is, will Srinagar and Baramulla be any different? The hapless sarpanchs, who have been awaiting empowerment for the last three years, are easy targets to demonstrate terrorist capability and intent. For the sake of their lives, they had to be closeted in police stations on polling day. So, the message from the violence is clear — even as Pakistan reels under terrorism, separatism will be kept alive through violent or other means. The next two polling dates (today and May 7) might be used to send this message out.
The summer has just begun and some of the northern gullies are not even open yet.There have been few infiltration attempts, which signifies that the paralysis of parts of Kashmir can be achieved by resident terrorist cadres and new recruits, without additional reinforcements from across the LoC.
This must be read in conjunction with events across the LoC, where Hizbul Mujahideen leader Syed Salahuddin has been actively preparing for the summer, and leaders in hiding, such as Masood Azhar (Jaish-e-Mohammad), have been exhorting their cadres to be ready for the onslaught after the International Security Assistance Force withdraws from Afghanistan. The Lok Sabha election is the ideal stage for the Hizbul Mujahideen to display its capability to create turbulence. Radicalised youth and cadres of the Jamaat also made themselves available and took the authorities, including the Union home ministry, it seems, by surprise.
While we may have dismissed these events as aberrations related to the elections, we cannot forget that the assembly polls are scheduled for the end of 2014. In the wake of the Amarnath Shrine Board agitation in 2008, Kashmir surprised observers with a reasonable turnout. A similar trend could upset the separatists, who want to preserve the momentum from the Lok Sabha polls boycott. The separatists will want the period in between the two elections, which spans the summer, to be turbulent. Against common belief, there are enough cadres to ensure this. The Hizbul Mujahideen appears to have created sleeper cadres, which can surface in urban areas at will.
What do we need to worry about in the wake of such an assessment? First, infiltration through the LoC by a fresh terrorist leadership must be prevented at all costs. Second, financial conduits that may route money into the Valley must be choked early on and controls established. Third, soft targets such as sarpanchs must be protected to prevent radicalised elements from enjoying a psychological victory. Fourth, given that every attempt will be made to exploit tension triggered by inadvertent mistakes by security forces, they must be circumspect and avoid tactical encounters for the sake of success-related statistics. They must only conduct intelligence-generated operations so as not to fall prey to separatist machinations.
The success of security forces in keeping the Valley incident-free through the summer is likely to be countered by moving their attention towards the LoC. The army leadership must prepare itself for this. The Hizbul Mujahideen is aching for a showdown and its efforts at the LoC must be countered at the outset, before it is emboldened to try anything more innovative.
That the LoC will be hot later this summer is a foregone conclusion. While there is nothing that cannot be handled by India’s competent military leadership, there will be new personalities in the driving seat. The incoming political leadership in Delhi must quickly be briefed about fresh challenges in Kashmir, where the emerging situation can be ignored only at the peril of India’s national security.
The writer is a retired lieutenant general and former GOC of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps, senior fellow of the Delhi Policy Group and visiting fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation, Delhi