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This tolerance is worrying

The deadline for the Ramzan ceasefire in J&K is just three days away. The Army Chief says he's not averse to its extension though Faro...

Written by Ashok K Mehta |
January 23, 2001

The deadline for the Ramzan ceasefire in J&K is just three days away. The Army Chief says he’s not averse to its extension though Farooq Abdullah and others think it is not such a good idea. Killings and terrorism have not stopped though the Line of Control (LC) is quiet. The suicide attacks at Badami Bagh and the airport in Srinagar and the Red Fort have shattered even the illusion of peace. This is not a typical unilateral ceasefire (UCF) but merely suspension of offensive military operations (SOOMO), though surgical strikes are being carried out. The UCF has come about because of the high level of confidence in the Army helped by weather-induced operational constraints to revive the political process. The security forces fighting a proxy war already with one hand tied at the back, have been further disadvantaged. That is why Rifleman Tejbir Singh is in a quandary.

When Havaldar Manzoor Khan told Tejbir that our forces were going to observe a UCF, he was a bit puzzled. He had seen how the earlier ceasefire in July in Jupwara had been broken. Even the latest offer was broken within 48 hours by a Fedayeen attack on his post in which several comrades were killed. For Tejbir, who is fighting a war, the on and off declarations of ceasefire are baffling.

Tejbir smiled cynically when Manzoor tried to explain the rationale for suspension of military operations — giving peace another chance, winning hearts and minds, engaging the Hurriyat, dividing the Mujahideen and testing Pakistani sincerity. Tejbir’s briefing on UCF continued the next day at the Commanding Officer’s Sainik Sammelan. Colonel Kapoor reminded his battalion of the Army tradition of employing minimum force and that too only in good faith as enshrined in the soldier’s ten commandments, the ninth being about insaniyat. He exhorted his men to be vigilant, resorting to defensive action only. But trained in shoot-to-kill, all this is very confusing for soldiers. Tejbir has the difficult task of ensuring that while he is not the first to shoot, he is also not the second to do so. Opening fire during UCF is like opening a can of worms.

There are as severe limitations to a UCF as there are to the use of military force while maintaining the sanctity of LC. The military threshold has been reached in the proxy war. Higher levels of intervention are incompatible with human rights and will only increase alienation. Equally, the UCF will impose severe strain on Tejbir, when he resumes the fighting.

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Although UCF does not mean letting one’s guard down, SOOMO means stopping cordon-and-search and seek-and-destroy operations which keep the Mujahideen on the run. During winter, terrorist groups abandon the heights and merge with the habitation operating from towns and villages. Allowing them safe havens, instead of separating fish from water, is invitation to bloodshed. Further, it will let them regroup and rebuild their capability for terror. Already the number of militants being killed has dropped dramatically.

In the past, we have experimented with ceasefire in the Northeast but these were not one-sided. Even the temporary suspension of IPKF operations in Sri Lanka was of short duration, no more than 72 hours. The Sri Lankans are now loath to accept ceasefire as a precondition to peace talks because they know the LTTE trades truce for time. Tejbir is required not to shoot at an unarmed Mujahideen even when he recognises him as being one. This is likely to undermine the morale of soldiers as they do not understand the bigger picture. But the tolerance level of the Indian soldier is so high it is sometimes worrying.

Following the Ramzan UCF, there has been what a psychiatrist will call a mood elevation in the depression prone, conflict-fatigued Srinagar valley. This is bound to be shortlived unless Pakistan can rein in the Jehadis.

Under conditions of unequal combat, military casualties are bound to increase, though the Army says this price is worth paying for peace. Unfortunately, even after Kargil, the government has not been sensitised to the increasing toll of operational casualties. That is why Tejbir will never understand the language of UCF no matter how meticulously Manzoor and Kapoor try explaining it. Because, after 50 years of sitting on LC, they don’t understand it either. They follow orders.

The writer is a retired major-general

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