The debate on Kashmir in these columns has been rich, substantive and provocative, enabling some nostalgic indulgence and crystal gazing. Three salient issues are raised: the counter-insurgency campaign has been won, and therefore troops can be withdrawn and AFSPA scrapped; the intricacies of securing a political mandate from the government; and the final settlement of the Kashmir “masla”. As someone who has served both north and south of Pir Panjal, as well as north of Zojila, and is familiar with the tyranny of geography and terrain, some comment is in order.
My Kashmir story begins along the Cease Fire Line (CFL) in the peaceful Uri sector 10 years after Pakistani tribal raiders first entered the Srinagar valley when innocent locals would curiously inquire about “the time in India” and our weekends were spent convivially in the Srinagar Club. On Rustam picket, the copy of the Calcutta Statesman would arrive on muleback seven days late, but AIR and BBC filled the news gap.
Just before the 1965 war and launch of Pakistan’s Operation Gibraltar, my home was the Balnoi-Mendhar CFL. It was Pakistan’s second futile attempt at infiltration and fuelling insurgency. Cross-CFL raids were common for collection of body parts as evidence of revenge.
Sniping and laying of mines in each other’s territory was routine. Post commanders, then as perhaps now, slept with their boots on. The most curious event of 1965 was the capture and return — twice — to Pakistan of Point 13620, the feature dominating Shingo river and Kargil-Leh road. At least three Maha Vir Chakras were won storming 13620, which was kept for good after the 1971 war when the CFL transformed into the Line of Control (LoC).
Pakistani posts were at their docile best immediately after the wars they lost, especially 1971. The trick was to attain and retain ascendency over the opposing battalion through Gorkhali guile and rituals of loud khukuri drills, and within their sight, sacrificing buffaloes with a single strike of the khukuri.
Altering the LoC’s alignment to secure tactical advantage became a strategic territorial exercise during Operation Parakram. While the creation of Bangladesh served as revenge of geography over history, it, along with Parakram, unfortunately failed to change the history of a partitioned Kashmir. Begum Akhtar’s thumri: “meri atariya pe aayo balamwa, dekha dekhi mein sara jhagda khatam hoi jaave” was the song designed to put the failing Simla talks back on rails. The wily Zulfikar Ali Bhutto is known to have told the Begum after the performance in Simla: “kaam ban gaya hai”.
The cumulative charm of Cohiba cigars, Red Label whiskey and Indian hospitality, coupled with 5,000 sq miles of Pakistan territory in the west and 93,000 prisoners of war in the east, could not equip Indira Gandhi with sufficient coercive power to get Bhutto to agree to convert the CFL into the International Boundary (IB). All India got from the Simla Agreement was the LoC.
Even Parakram yielded more: a 50 per cent drop in infiltration and a stable ceasefire agreement (CFA) in 2003. Infiltration has been brought down from a high of 1,852 terrorists in 2001 to just 90 in 2013. The population of terrorists has been reduced from 2,500 in 2002 to less than 250 today. This has come about due to the fencing and anti-infiltration and CIS grids in place. Still, these achievements do not add up to “mission accomplished” as the ground situation is reversible at short notice.
In J&K, governance and political management are adjuncts to military operations. Events in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate that political stability is rarely achievable with hostile contiguous borders.
In the short term, a withdrawal of troops is ill-advised if Kashmir is to preserve and consolidate the gains of the last three decades. The fear of Talibanisation of Kashmir post-2014 drawdown of Nato forces from Afghanistan has to be factored in. One key element of the five-point Kashmir formula not consummated in 2007 is “demilitarisation of Kashmir commensurate with the decline in cross-border terrorism”. The tooti (tap) for the insurgency is embedded in Pakistan. R&AW’s famous intercept of a conversation between then-General Pervez Musharraf in Beijing and his CGS, Lt General Aziz Mohammad Khan, during the Kargil skirmish, confirms this known “known”.
The task of the security forces is to create conditions conducive to a political settlement. For the military, political directive or strategic guidance from the government in Kashmir, as experience has shown, is unattainable. There is no instance where the government has offered any original political directive. Chiefs of service staff glean out passages from the prime minister’s speeches at military functions, which they cite as assumed political directive in the absence of any formal strategic guidance. In India, a Strategic Defence and Security Review or Defence White Paper has never been attempted. This is not a reflection of missing strategic thinking among the military, but absence of political will to reduce vital strategic issues to writing.
As for winning over Kashmiris first before finding a political settlement with Pakistan, the conditionality could be easily reversed. As long as the LoC is open and access to Kashmir is available from Nepal, Bangladesh and the high seas, the fear of the gun and the edict of the ISI will prevail. A political solution to Kashmir, according to Stephen Cohen, will materialise after the India-Pakistan animosity is 100 years old. It is no sacrilege that the army has a veto over Siachen, AFSPA and issues related to governance in Kashmir. The dismantling of the Technical Support Division — like the winding down of R&AW’s Clandestine Units — was a blow to deniable covert capabilities.
The army is in Kashmir for the long haul. While withdrawal of troops should be ruled out in the short term, thinning out from selected population centres must be ordered. The counter-infiltration grid should be tightened. Legal safeguards of AFSPA should be humanised and made more transparent. Indian soldiers do not enjoy immunity and are subject to military law. Not well known is the fact that many of the 104 personnel, including 34 officers and nine JCOs, were cashiered or jailed for human rights violations. The use of minimum force limited to small arms and no heavy firepower in Kashmir is doctrinally unique and requires wide publicity.
The biggest blot, though, is fake encounters like Machhil. These must be prevented at all costs to enable the army in keeping Kashmir an integral part of India. Without the help of Kashmiris, this would not have been possible.
Ashok K. Mehta. The writer is a retired major general