The temperature in Kashmir is in the mild 20s, but the heat of conflict is already being felt. Stone-wielding crowds regularly clash with security forces and allegations fly fast and thick on both sides. Voter turnout in the Srinagar election was the lowest since the start of the insurgency, forcing a postponement of polling for the Anantnag seat. For the largest democracy in the world, this is a setback. There are also concerns that we could be seeing the start of a repeat of 2016.
Where do we go from here? Frankly, there are no easy answers because of the large number of complex issues, but let me talk about a few key steps. I think it is time to take a calm, practical and realistic look at the situation in the Valley. Unfortunately, this kind of appraisal seems to have become the first casualty. Sentiments run high on both sides as people take to Twitter and Facebook with a vengeance. One side calls for a no-holds-barred approach against the “jihadi youth”, while on the other side, images are flashed of young boys taunting the security forces and showing little fear.
The middle ground, where some solutions are to be found, seems to have disappeared. Yet, it is crucial for the state and the Centre to find a way to defuse the situation. Let us not look for final solutions — just a way to bring a semblance of calm back to the Valley. The rest can follow.
The army in Kashmir is today squarely in the centre of public discourse, either being strongly supported or strongly castigated. This kind of visibility is detrimental to a force involved in counter-insurgency operations. After all, social media has a powerful influence and even a highly disciplined force is not immune to it.
What has earned respect for the army, even in internal conflicts, has always been its secular and impartial character. It has never taken sides. While the army values the support of its countrymen, suggestions on how it should conduct its operations are, frankly, not needed. The army knows what to do and has been doing it successfully since Independence. I personally know the general in charge of South Kashmir and he is an outstanding professional with a clear understanding of the nuances of the area. Trust him and his men to do their job, including dealing with any aberrant behaviour.
For Kashmir, 2016 was a difficult year. Faced with a highly volatile situation, the army launched Operation “Calm Down” in September. This was a massive, people-friendly outreach to the local population. It helped control the situation because the army still commands respect among the population of the state. Keeping it out of the public eye will enable it to quietly go about its work.
Youth engagement is the key. This is obvious and efforts in this direction have to be spurred on. It is too simplistic to label everyone as a paid agent. Initiatives for the youth of Kashmir have been half-hearted and ineffective, leading to radicalisation and terrorist recruitment. In the ongoing video war, to me, the most defining clip was of a five-year-(or so)-old boy, walking around alone among a group of security force jawans on a street in Kashmir. He struts, shouts, glares at them and then attempts to kick a jawan three to four times. The jawans are calm and take the incident in good humour.
For me, it was like staring at the future of Kashmir, knowing the critical importance of somehow rescuing this boy from himself. Let us also clearly accept that Pakistan and the separatists are not going to easily change their tune. This is where we have to be muscular — not against our own people. What steps are appropriate is for the government to decide, but things can’t be allowed to drift along. It would be poor strategy to hope that General Qamar Javed Bajwa would be less hostile than General Raheel Sharif, and that infiltration would reduce.
We have to take our own steps to improve border management. A smart fence is required immediately — but we are yet to even execute a pilot project. This needs urgent attention. Similar focus should be given to the separatists. Decide on one way to deal with them and carry that through. Ignoring them is no longer an option.
In any internal conflict, perceptions are key. The hearts-and-mind campaign is less about the heart, and more about the mind. The heart of the Kashmiri will always be with his wife, son, daughter, relative and friends in his village. The government can’t hope to vie for this space. But it can earn his confidence and respect and this will be the first step towards conflict resolution and normalcy. That confidence will come about through both words and deeds. The rhetoric will continue, it now seems to have acquired a life of its own, but the government and all its organs, including the security forces, must calmly assess the situation and adopt a clear strategy. Development is helpful but it cannot compete with the power of emotions, with desires and perceived wrongs. These will have to be tackled only in the human domain. By the end of last year, things had somewhat calmed down after a summer of massive unrest. We missed the opportunity of a quiet winter. Let us now devise a coherent plan.