Winter is bleak and gloomy in Kashmir. For our security forces tasked with tackling militancy in the Valley, this is a time when geography mirrors operational realities. For us, it has been a 30-year winter in Kashmir, with no spring in sight. And judging by the reaction to what recently happened in Pulwama, where seven protesters were shot dead while violently attempting to aid armed terrorists during a fierce encounter, the winter just got a lot colder.
During the early hours of December 15, a search operation was initiated near Sirnoo, a village 1.5 km from Pulwama district in South Kashmir. Based on an input of there being a hideout in the vicinity, a combined team of the Indian Army, CRPF and JKP swung into action. The CRPF and J&K Police laid an outer cordon, the Army provided an inner cordon while the special teams of the army, SOG, and CRPF directly engaged the terrorists. The actual operation, based as it was on accurate intelligence, was over in less than half an hour. However, by that time, a crowd of around 3,000 from three neighbouring villages had gathered. They started pelting stones and tried to damage the vehicles that would be used by the troops to retreat. After trying to use non-lethal measures that did not deter the mob, the troops opened fire. Three terrorists were killed and one soldier made the supreme sacrifice.
Anyone with experience of leading hybrid teams will appreciate how difficult it is to get troops from three different organisations to work together as a single unit. It is a credit to all our forces in Kashmir that such seamless synergy has emerged over the years. It is a combination that has yielded unprecedented success this year, with nearly 250 militants being eliminated.
If the security forces have a three-tier cordon system in place, so do the militants. Their innermost cordon are the armed terrorists themselves. Their middle cordon is provided by the stone-pelters who distract the security forces and often help terrorists escape from encounter sites. However, it is their outer cordon of sympathisers in the media and civil society who provide cover long after the actual encounter is over. By giving the most effective spin to every incident, they ensure that every successful elimination of a terrorist, and every instance of death of stone-pelters in the middle of operations, is painted as another chapter in the supposedly glorious saga of the jihad to liberate Kashmir.
Predictably, the post-Pulwama narrative in Kashmir, has been hijacked by separatists, and their apologists in the media and civil society, who seem to think that the very presence of security forces in Kashmir represents some kind of an assault on our democracy. A former judge of the Supreme Court, known for being outspoken and outrageous in equal measure, rather crudely compared Pulwama to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. He obviously cannot distinguish between a conscripted army fighting for a colonial or imperialist cause and the all-volunteer security forces of a democracy fighting to safeguard the integrity of a country.
It is also clear that those with such a view about our security forces in Kashmir cannot distinguish, or will not distinguish, between a crowd of ordinary protesters who are to be found in every corner of the country and those at an encounter site pelting stones. The former are often unplanned, and do not always turn violent. The Pulwama-style mobs, on the other hand, gather for the specific purpose of using violence to aid and abet terrorists. It is a clever co-option of ostensibly unarmed civilians for a military purpose and it must be called out for what it is — a cowardly use of unethical tactics to gain military advantage. Occasionally, these mobs have resulted in the successful escape of militants from encounter sites, when local commanders of the security forces have judged that the civilian presence is too large to risk carrying on. However in Pulwama, the encounter had concluded and the forces fired to save themselves.
As many respected military experts on Kashmir, such as General HS Panag, have pointed out, these stone-pelting mobs are a cause for worry on many levels. At the tactical level, they create impossible choices for our troops on the ground. At the political level, they definitely skew the narrative against India and strengthen the hand of the separatists. The fact that these crowds are ready to brave bullets to aid the terrorists is bound to increase the sense of alienation and anger among Kashmiri youth. But do we allow terrorists a free pass every time a mob gathers to aid them? I don’t think that is a realistic option. What we can do is ensure that all possible measures are taken to prevent such mobs from gathering. If they do gather, we use a graded response strategy of beginning with non-lethal measures to disperse the mob. If that doesn’t work, then the use of minimum lethal force to disperse the crowd will be needed. Though Pulwama may convey an impression of security forces running amok, the fact is that our forces have faced such situations in almost every encounter this year, but the civilian casualties have been minimal when weighed against the number of encounters.
This still leaves us with the problem of tackling the existing alienation amongst the youth in the Valley. It is instructive that recently, in the middle of the bandh call following the Pulwama incident, J&K Police conducted an exam for fire service personnel. Over 5,000 candidates were to appear. All but a handful did. Thousands of Kashmiris already serve with pride and honour in J&K Police, Indian Army and our other security forces. While the alienation of a section is very real, the engagement of countless other Kashmiris with the idea and promise of India is no less a reality. Incidents like Pulwama are regrettable and do set us back. But they cannot dictate the external narrative and our own inner faith about what is at stake for India in Kashmir.