In conventional warfare, the enemy is easily identifiable to the soldier. He — there is hardly any she — wears an identifiable, distinct uniform (as mandated by the Geneva Conventions), and is armed and equipped to fight. Things become dodgier in irregular warfare, or what are now popularly called counterinsurgency operations, where the enemy is neither distinct nor identifiable. At times, “who is the enemy” is not evident. This confusion is a huge challenge for the soldier who is trained to “shoot to kill”.
Army chief, General Bipin Rawat’s statement on dealing with protesters in Kashmir was meant to clear that fog of confusion for the average soldier fighting in the strife-torn state but has ended up complicating matters. In the early years of trouble in Kashmir, the army used to call anyone with a weapon militant; a few years later, it started calling them ANEs or anti-national elements; and now, they are called terrorists. Unfortunately, the loosely bandied around nomenclature hides more than it shows.
The spectrum of people being dealt with by the military in Kashmir encompasses a wide range of actors, each of whom have to be dealt with differently. On one extreme are the terrorists, those who kill innocent civilians and spread terror to create social, political and economic instability to destabilise the state. There is unanimity on dealing with terrorists: They need to be physically captured or eliminated. Any idea of negotiating peace with the terrorists is out of the question. This makes it a simple choice for the army: Find and eliminate the terrorists.
Next on the spectrum is the militant. In theory, a militant ought to target and fight only the security forces of the state, taking care to not hurt the civilian population. The non-violent face of the militants is provided by the extremists, persons or organisations, which hold extreme political or religious views. The Hurriyat Conference, popularly called a separatist group, would fall under the category of extremists. Broadly clubbed together, terrorists, militants and extremists in Kashmir would qualify as insurgents.
When it comes to militants and extremists, the Indian state has an enviable track-record of negotiating with them and bringing them into the mainstream. In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed an agreement with the NSCN(IM), which had waged a prolonged violent struggle in Nagaland against the Indian state. He was following the example of Rajiv Gandhi’s accord with the Mizo rebel leader, Laldenga, who eventually ended up becoming the chief minister of Mizoram. Even in Kashmir, the previous NDA government under Atal Bihari Vajpayee announced a ceasefire with the Hizbul Mujahideen during the month of Ramzan, and the then Home Minister L.K. Advani chaired a roundtable with Hurriyat leaders in Delhi.
Should the security forces work towards total elimination of militants or should it only act so as to push the extremists to the negotiating table? A political solution is important for two reasons. While security forces can win the war against the militants, peace can only be won by political engagement and outreach. More importantly, the security forces have no means to deal with the extremists who are not resorting to violence. An extremist may not necessarily be committing a crime under the law, which means that he has to be neutralised only politically.
In Kashmir, in the grey area between the militants and extremists lie violent protestors, who resort to heavy stone-pelting against the security forces. As they are
interspersed among a non-violent crowd of protestors, dealing with them is the trickiest area for the security forces. The use of pellet guns by paramilitary forces last year exemplified the challenge, and the consequence of choosing from a menu which has no good options. There are only bad and worse options.
General Rawat’s statement also dealt with this grey area, but it was largely interpreted as boxing everyone on the spectrum — from the terrorists to non-violent protestors — under the same sobriquet of the enemy. That clearly would not have been the army chief’s aim who was selected because of his experience and proficiency in counterinsurgency. Indian army’s counterinsurgency philosophy has been based using an iron fist in a velvet glove. The army chief, it seems, wanted to send a warning which would act as a deterrent to the protestors while boosting the morale of his men in Kashmir, who have had a very tough past few months.
On the final end of the spectrum, occupying the largest area is the civilian population. It is the hearts and minds of this population which the army hopes to win by its actions in Kashmir. After all, as Mao Zedong famously explained, the insurgent is to the population as a fish is to water. A fish cannot live without water, and nor can an insurgent survive once it has lost the support of the population. In Kashmir or for that matter anywhere else, the army can finish insurgents but it can’t finish the insurgency. That needs serious political engagement and outreach. The army chief is not best suited to fill that gap in political communication.