The events at NIT Srinagar are sickeningly familiar. Yet, we keep falling prey to these triggers designed to cause more dissension. When people are unaware and unable to discern where the national interest lies, it’s up to the authorities to educate them and take necessary precautions. On April 2, I was travelling abroad when a social media message drew my attention. It was someone from the non-Kashmiri segment of NIT sending an appeal. I could discern the seriousness of the issue within seconds. Before boarding my flight, I sent out messages to people I knew in Kashmir, warning them that something very serious was happening at NIT and that it must be nipped in the bud.
Handling sensitive issues with an assessment of future impact is always advantageous. However, in my experience, even more important is decision-making and intervention well before an issue reaches a crescendo. In today’s social media-driven world, every message, word, emoticon and upload has a contributory effect on opinion. Attempts at dissuasion will hardly connect but everything disruptive will sync in seconds and go viral. Thus intelligence agencies, the police and army have to be sensitive to emerging situations. The JNU events have harmed the political and social fabric and given ideas to those who wish to see India burn.
There are many for whom the strength of India’s unity is a sore. I’m not being escapist by laying the blame at the door of adversaries. In fact, I’m not blaming them at all. They will wish India to be weak, divided and at war within. It’s for us to realise how we get exploited, how we contribute towards weakening the very entity we call our motherland.
I’m relating two examples from my military leadership experience when uncomfortable decisions had to be taken by me to avoid potentially turbulent situations.
A few years ago, the ICC Cricket World Cup was upon us. I was heading the army in the Valley. My enthusiasm for cricket and conscious understanding that every Kashmiri loves the game but rarely gets a chance to watch it even on TV in an exciting environment, made me take a positive decision. The army made extensive arrangements to put up large screens in some towns and villages and project the live coverage, with continuous power provided by generators. The arrangements were hugely appreciated even by the media because little do people outside Kashmir realise the passion for the game there.
Then came the awkward situation: Pakistan and India faced each other in the semi-final at Mohali. While cricket enthusiasts were falling over each other, I was wearing a crown of thorns because of what could transpire at the public screenings where troops were watching the matches with young enthusiasts. People advised me that pulling down the screens would result in the army being criticised by the media. I did an analysis: We would only gain some temporary accolades for being brave and not bothering about the consequences, but my sixth sense told me it could be a trigger for more. We couldn’t afford that when we were seeking to reverse the situation in the street. The decision was made and the screens were taken down. We lost face for a day but kept passions in control.
A second example: I happened to travel to Turkey in 2006. In Ankara, it was evident that nationalism of the Kemal Pasha brand was worn on the sleeve. What impressed me were the massive fluttering national flags that adorned each hilltop. I immediately pictured fluttering tirangas on hilltops. When I was commanding the division at Baramula, I attempted to emulate Ankara’s example by placing four huge tirangas, two on each side of the Jhelum and on the mountain tops. A local Kashmiri friend came to me after three days. He complimented me on the flags but had a word of caution. Did I think the flags would remain undesecrated or even unburnt? Shouldn’t I place a guard for each flag to ensure the sanctity they deserved? I agreed wholeheartedly and planned to deploy protection. It then dawned on me that 40 men would be required to guard my project of selling my enthusiasm for nationalism and it would keep us all on tenterhooks. Was it worthwhile where every man counted? I was mindful that I was instigating, and doing so imprudently, because there would be attempts to trigger trouble by targeting the tirangas. Our response would create more trouble. The flags were taken down without ceremony. No problems occurred.
There are no lessons from this experience except the use of discretion and the anticipation of trouble when we are managing a situation and don’t wish to unnecessarily charge up the environment. Anyone who has been in Kashmir for even a single tenure knows how passions run on just about everything. You’ve got to watch your back most times, lest you be surprised. NIT has students from other parts of India. Surely, some intelligence agency would have anticipated the problem. Once it occurred, the situation should have been managed so as not to allow it to get out of hand. Incidents at Meerut last year and elsewhere recently, where Kashmiri students were beaten up, should have been a warning. Everyone knows what Kashmir is all about. Take your eyes off the scanner, and things will get out of control.
There are smart people sitting across the LoC, reading the situation at all times and awaiting or creating opportunities. The NIT incident of virtual revenge for Meerut is bad enough but then social media commenced discussion threads on J&K Police. How enthusiastically people with simply no national interest in mind, no vision of India’s future, are painting black the one institution in J&K that has withstood the onslaught of militancy and terror with great nationalistic fervour. J&K Police is a truly professional force, whose men and women have never bothered about personal safety. Through curfew-bound Srinagar and Anantnag, I have witnessed the courage of these bravehearts who were on duty even if they had to carry their uniforms in bags to avoid detection by mobs. Someone has allowed J&K Police to either handle the situation unprofessionally or egged them into making mistakes, if what’s described is actually true. The disenchantment of J&K Police is something every adversary will wish for. Hopefully, the brass is ahead of the situation.
No inquiry is going to satisfy anyone because when passions are inflamed, and no one has the national good at heart, this will become one more issue for point-scoring. This is the new state government’s first challenge. There will be more campus standoffs elsewhere in India now that the scope for a politics of confrontation via such incidents has been established. There’s only one victor in all this — our adversaries, for whom burning India internally continues to be the priority.
(This article first appeared in the print edition under the headline ‘Know your Kashmir’)