It’s exactly a year since Kashmir turned on its head and went on the path of self-destruction ostensibly under a new leadership and new foot soldiers. There are varying perceptions of why Burhan Wani’s death, in an encounter on July 8, 2016, led to the outpouring of emotions which got converted to extreme violence and led to a change in the nature of the conflict. Most of these perceptions are one-sided and based on what one wishes to believe. A recall of the circumstances of the period 2011-2016 may help set the tone for analysis, seek more answers and suggest a way forward.
The peaceful period of 2011-2013 followed the stamina-sapping 2008-2010 when the separatists attempted a strategy of combining terror and street turbulence to make their struggle more relevant. However, 2011-2013 was also a recovery time which the Indian establishment failed to cash-in on despite its default actions of changed strategy of outreach and engagement, and the interlocutors’ genuine attempt at discerning the aspirations and seeking the path of compromise. The ray of hope created in the people, especially the youth, did not find matching energy or a sense of commitment and continuity in the establishment. The demand by the state government to do away with the AFSPA and the contestation by the army only helped create wrong narratives and took the focus away from the emerging situation.
Drift was the order of the day with little idea of the direction towards which it was heading. It is this drift and the dashing of hope of the people that led to the rise of Burhan Wani and the renewed romanticism with the gun. It was brushed aside as an isolated resurgence among renegades but the groundswell of support eluded our assessment. The flood of 2014, followed by the elections, the heavy voter turnout, attempts at political experimentation, its initial disappointments and the passing away of Mufti Mohammad Sayeed, all kept the eye away from the scanner. The engagement with the people once again became transactional, providing the window that was needed by the separatists to energise the movement. Pakistan had probably never considered that an opportunity was emerging, and emerging fast. It desisted from anything major in the Valley and concentrated its focus south of Pir Panjal in its strategy of keeping the fires burning.
Here, let’s recall that major actions in the Valley had ceased prior to July 8, 2016. In repeated assessments, I wrote at the time that making things happen in the Valley was becoming increasingly difficult, forcing Pakistan to focus on the Jammu sector because it was easier to infiltrate and execute actions there in a single night. Pakistan found that the ground under its feet in the Valley had substantially shifted as Burhan and his friends were not listening to Pakistani advice and did not remain under the tutelage of Syed Salahuddin and the United Jihad Council.
It may be an important lessons to note that the new militancy characterised by the presence of social media-wielding youth was little understood by the establishment, intelligence agencies and the media. Their assessments were archaic and based on assumed beliefs. While the youth may have focused on weapon snatching to overcome arms shortages, many were also killed in encounters. All the while they were building a new narrative of resistance through social media outreach. The state was observing this but did little to launch an effective counter in the domain that mattered — social media or any form of communication to the public.
Simultaneously, a quiet process of radicalisation was also on. Social media, ideology and religion are the last things that the security establishment understands because it involves rebooting, relearning, mastering technology and most importantly, getting to know the religious underpinnings of the time. With their typical tenure-based approach to problem solving, the security establishment does not display the capability to assess intellectually or learn nuances beyond the ordinary response involving gun-on-gun. Intelligence agencies have a better measure of institutional continuity but lack the means of persuasion to convince and thereby alter understanding and planning. It is not as if the media had any measure of things to come. Mainstream media was suggesting in late 2013 that the army should withdraw and give the dividends of the success achieved to the people of Kashmir in terms of more freedom of space from the constraining environment brought on by a large uniformed presence.
This is not a blame game assessment but an attempt to look at areas where perhaps the ideas of the time remained out of sync with the situation. One of them surprisingly is also in the domain of military deployment. The army always laid great stress on North Kashmir. This was quite natural with three of its major formation headquarters located there and the task of counter infiltration based on LoC deployment which is essentially army-oriented. The romance attached to big ticket achievements in forest tracts also coloured the view. By contrast, South Kashmir had only a single Rashtriya Rifles (RR)) force headquarters but it had Pulwama, Shopian, Anantnag and Pampore, all trouble spots where the better educated youth reside. In sheer statistics of achievements in terms of terrorists killed, the three army formations of the north outdid Victor Force, the South Kashmir-based formation. It created a picture for the leadership that the focus was required in North Kashmir and the south could be treated as a bank for resources because the achievement pattern there was in bits and pieces. In effect, the mistake made was that the period of the 1990s and early millennium was forgotten when the major operations and achievements were in the south.
The lesson for planners is simple: Absence of or lower level of military achievements does not mean normality. It is the social parameters that need to be viewed. Not having done that and not having had an eye on history cost all of us dearly. The virtual denudation of the southern belt below Shopian Kulgam and the overall inadequacy of troops in the south allowed local militancy to bloom. When it did, we fought it in the physical domain while it was actually flowering in the virtual and psychological domain.
There are at least three areas of focus essential to the progress towards normality. First, the deployment of all forces must be more balanced and no premature withdrawal should be executed on the basis of statistical inputs. Second, the fight in the psychological domain can no longer be ignored. This needs an approach beyond what the army has provided; the army’s achievements are highly creditable but can no longer remain the only domain of focused strategic communication. Lastly, the continuity factor in a hybrid conflict environment has to be taken into consideration. Personnel management practices cannot override national needs and the best talent must be made available to fight the enemies of the state. It’s only then that the campaign becomes comprehensive.