The conflict in Kashmir took a dangerously vicious turn when three policemen and eight relatives of police personnel were kidnapped by terrorists on the evening of August 30 from South Kashmir. Fortunately, all were freed 24 hours later, with some media reports suggesting that this was done in exchange of the police quietly releasing some family members of terrorists.
Although the immediate crisis has abated, it confronts the security forces with a clear and present danger. There is a concerted effort to pressurise the Jammu and Kashmir police. They are key players in the counterterror operations, carrying out law and order duties under the most difficult circumstances, providing most of the human intelligence for targeting terrorists, and are the local interface for gauging the people’s sentiment. They have been hardened in the three-decades-old conflict but are not immune to the danger to their families. The senior police leadership in the state is outstanding and this is a big challenge that they must squarely face.
Terrorists in Kashmir will always adopt new tactics to keep the security forces off-balance. However, these tactics are not always born out of inspiration; some come about as a result of desperation. And it is important for the security forces to understand the “why” of what is happening in order to devise a comprehensive strategy.
Violence against civilians has often been a strategy adopted both by the state and non-state actors during internal conflicts. There is also abundant evidence to indicate that indiscriminate targeting of the civilian population is mostly counterproductive in the long run. Therefore, why is the Hizbul Mujahideen killing and kidnapping civilians? Stathis N. Kalyvas has carried out an extremely influential and comprehensive study on violence against civilians in his book, The Logic of Violence in Civil War. Kalyvas suggests that when an actor in a conflict starts losing territorial control, he is more likely to indulge in indiscriminate violence against civilians.
A similar point is made by Wood, Kathman and Gent in their article, Armed Intervention and Civilian Victimisation in Intrastate Conflicts, “As a conflict actor weakens relative to its adversary, it employs increasingly violent tactics toward the civilian population as a means of reshaping the strategic landscape to its benefit.” In view of the dwindling capability of the terrorists in Kashmir, it is likely that we will see continued efforts by them to terrorise the civilian population.
Is the pattern of civilian targeting also an indication of the true ideology of the terror groups? While the terrorists have always presented their fight in terms of an independence struggle, this now seems to be changing. Groups openly call for jihad and the rule of Sharia in Kashmir. Terror has become the primary tool and there are no qualms about killing soldiers and policemen while on leave to attend family weddings, gunning down Shammema Bano on suspicion of being an informer, or kidnapping young boys only because they are related to policemen.
What should be the broad contours of a strategy to meet this challenge? Obviously, terrorists who bring violence on innocent civilians must be hunted down. But the focus must also be on providing security to the common man. The Hearts and Minds campaign to woo the population and bring them on the side of the government will fail if civilians can be easily targeted by the terrorists. As David Galula wrote in his classic, Counter-Insurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, “When a man’s life is at stake, it takes more than propaganda to budge him.”
A question is often asked as to why there are thousands of soldiers in Jammu and Kashmir to fight only a few hundred terrorists. This shows an inadequate understanding of counter-insurgency campaigns. The soldiers are present to ensure that the population is protected from the terrorists and can go about their daily lives in peace and without fear. Sometimes, this basic realisation also escapes some of the security forces operating in these areas and they direct all their efforts towards the elimination of terrorists. Killing terrorists is not unimportant but greater emphasis needs to be given to providing a secure environment for the people.
We must also refine our information strategy. Perceptions are crucial, and we cannot win if the opponent thinks he is not losing. The complete narrative during the kidnapping episode was dominated by Hizbul Mujahideen, from video clips of family members appealing to the terrorists to the audio message of Riyaz Naikoo warning the police of dangerous consequences. The government’s narrative, on the other hand, appeared diffident. Even after the news of the kidnappings had become common knowledge, the police tweeted, “Some incidents of abduction have come to the notice of police in #South Kashmir. We are ascertaining the details and circumstances.”
The government, typical of all bureaucracies, will always be slow to respond to the speed of the social media. However, that does not prevent it from crafting an effective information campaign that exposes the true character of the terrorists and their sympathisers, and their reliance on terror as a tool to force the population into submission. Government actions are often criticised for not being in sync with the local sentiment, sometimes for the right reasons, but the absence of an effective information and communication plan has hobbled the government’s ability to respond even when it is on the moral high ground. This must be immediately corrected.
It is also extremely important that the security forces not fall into the trap of a tit-for-tat fight. There is a lot of talk about adopting the Punjab model. It is true that violence against civilians has an immediate and visible impact, and this can be seductive. If terrorists can terrorise police families, the state can be even more coercive against terrorists’ families. Embracing this strategy could lead to some short-term gains, but in the long run, it will only be a pyrrhic victory. In a democracy, and while dealing with our own people, sensibility has to take precedence over sentiment.