Shekhar Gupta (‘Disarming Kashmir’, December 7) questioned the role and presence of the army in J&K. Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, former corps commander in Kashmir, wrote back, saying that ‘victory’ had to be defined before the army’s role could be determined (‘‘Victory’ in the Valley’, December 11). Lt Gen H.S. Panag joined the debate, arguing that military strategy is contingent on political direction that is lacking in Kashmir (‘The drift in the Valley’, December 18). Taking the debate forward:
This is in response to Shekhar Gupta’s recent article in The Indian Express, ‘Disarming Kashmir’ (National Interest, December 7). He argues that with peace and normalcy returning on the ground, there is scope for a partial thinning of the army presence in the Valley and some symbolic dilution of the AFSPA. In the process, he has made certain observations, like the presence of half a million Indian soldiers protected by the most illiberal of laws fighting in the Valley, a new factor in Indian policymaking by way of a veto power for the army, etc. All merit serious analysis to reach the right conclusion.
The issue of Kashmir provides a wicket that, in cricketing parlance, is called a spinner’s delight. It is so easy to give twists and turns to these issues, however fickle the supporting facts. To get the right answers, it is essential to get basic facts right. The myth about the presence of half a million army boots in the state is off the mark. The army has for some time now adopted a posture of added emphasis towards maintaining the sanctity of the Line of Control and the counter-infiltration grid, and is already very thin in the hinterland. Only the reserve brigades of the 3 Corps and 62 battalions of the Rashtriya Rifles are deployed in the hinterland on the counter-insurgency grid, with an optimal strength of approximately 55,000-60,000 army troops. This is a far cry from the oft-quoted figure of half a million. By quoting erroneous figures, we only end up providing a handle to our adversaries.
Yes, the proxy war situation has improved considerably with the majority of terrorists eliminated, but there are still a large number of them in the staging areas across the LoC, awaiting their turn to infiltrate. Even more importantly at the strategic level, the overall security matrix in Afghanistan merits consideration. As the American-led Nato forces prepare to withdraw in 2014, if the Taliban gets even partial control of Afghanistan with Pakistan’s support, it is possible that these radicalised jihadis may be directed against India in Kashmir. With this uncertainty, we would be better advised to keep our security posture intact and the contingency plans worked out.
This brings me to the alleged “veto power” acquired by the army. Nothing could be more preposterous and farther from the truth. The problem is that, as George Tanham has stated, “India lacks strategic culture”. We have virtually no institutionalised processes of long-term thinking and planning by a balanced group of experts, and the armed forces are generally kept out of the decision-making loop.
Moreover, has the government even articulated its political aim and strategic objectives anywhere in the insurgency belt, starting from the Northeast to J&K? The army is thus left with no choice but to evolve its own approach and they have done it very well. The lack of a regular dialogue between the government and the commanders has been a major shortcoming since Independence. As a matter of fact, the entire higher defence management apparatus has been asking for major changes, and it was so recommended by the group of ministers after the Kargil War.
It is the duty of the armed forces to offer frank professional advice to the government on national security matters. If a difference of opinion and professional judgement is to be construed as an assumption of “veto power” by the army, it is most unfortunate. Because of the trust deficit with Pakistan, the army has always been against finalising any arrangement in Siachen wherein we can easily be surprised and left in a hopeless operational situation.
This has been our consistent stance for over a decade-plus now. Similarly, in Kashmir, it is time for us to consolidate our gains rather than thin out. It is difficult to fathom as to why anybody would want the army to shy away from its duty to tender its best professional judgement to the government. It is for the government to accept or reject this advice. Rather than blaming the army unfairly, we should work towards structural improvement in our security structure.
Now coming to the sensitive issue that the AFSPA is anti-people and provides the army the licence to act with impunity and without accountability. The key issue is that the AFSPA comes into effect only after the government declares a state, or parts of it, disturbed, meaning that the normal functioning of the government has broken down and there is no choice but to induct the army to restore normalcy. Unfortunately, once a state is declared as disturbed, it continues to be classified so, even when the situation has improved considerably or hostilities have been suspended. On the contrary, the army must be deployed judiciously and strictly for limited periods only. Nagaland and Assam are examples of unwarranted application.
The removal of AFSPA in such cases would be a rational approach, and the army has always promoted this. The strong resistance of the army to the clamour for its induction into Naxal-affected areas amply proves its sensitivity and respect for this principle of civil governance.
On the other hand, if the operational situation in a state is delicately poised, it is time to stand firm. The answer at such junctures does not lie in what has been called a symbolic dilution of the act, because that would risk exposing the security forces to thin legal protection. It must be emphasised that the army tries to set strict standards of discipline for itself and leaves no genuine case uninvestigated.
The army’s decision to start court martial proceedings against six personnel accused in the Machil area is a case in point. It would be the last to deny that there has been the odd mistake. Thus there is a constant effort to improve. This is obvious from a marked decline in allegations, from as many as 1,170 between 1990-99 to 226 between 2000-04, to 54 during 2005-06, nine in 2009, six in 2010 and only four in 2011. Post 2014-15, if the security situation improves further, the AFSPA could be selectively removed from some areas along the international border. But dilution is not the answer.
Finally, the last and the most important question is: At what stage can we consider that peace has genuinely been restored in J&K? Will it be when there is maximum tourism, say over 6-8 million tourists per year, or when the Valley is free of violence to a degree wherein Kashmiri Pandits will feel confident enough to return? To my mind, the return of Kashmiri Pandits should be our real objective.
The writer is the 21st chief of army staff