Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain
PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SM, VSM (Bar) & Advisory council member of GCTC
The first week of May each year brings the J&K government back to Srinagar after its six month occupation of the seat in Jammu. It’s the time when many activities occupy the minds of the political and military leadership on the security front. Among them is the need to take stock of the strength of terrorists and the available indicators of the infiltration attempts in the calendar year.
Equally important is to remain fully updated on the attempts of inimical elements to bait the government and the security forces in the hinterland. The baiting process is work in progress through winter to which the separatist leadership in Kashmir, the terrorist leadership in Muzaffarabad and the sponsoring elements in Islamabad, subscribe their interest and their ideas; the veritable Nexus, so to say.
The J&K government has a lot more on its hands than what governments of other states ever have. The Sri Amarnath Yatra will commence in late June, subject to snow conditions at higher reaches. It needs not only security but also tremendous planning for logistics with time usually at premium. The threats are both from climatic conditions and terrorists. It may be recalled that in 1996, snow blizzard conditions led to loss of 250 innocent lives. In the year 2000, terrorists struck at yatri and CRPF camps at Pahalgam leading to casualties. The National mood today can hardly accept a repeat of this in relation to a very sensitive and emotionally important annual event. The separatists will make weak attempts to once again demand a cap on the number of pilgrims and on the duration. These can be dismissed with the contempt they deserve. In the year 2011, just after the end of the tumultuous three year period of street turbulence, we oversaw the highest ever footprint of ‘darshan’ at the Holy Cave, with 640,000 pilgrims.
Besides this the Ladakh region (Lima sector for the Army) opens up after winter, with the clearance of snow from the Zojila Pass. The logistics stocking of the region both for the civil and the military population becomes an imperative. The window for stocking is short (four to five months) and disruptions on the road networks brought on by street violence can play hell into the sustainability of Ladakh in winter. This is another area where baiting is a live possibility.
The other event which syncs with the arrival of the government in Srinagar is the beginning of the tourist season. The most lucrative time is mid-May to early July when the schools in Northern India shut. The tourist influx in J&K is a major contributor to the economy of the state and the overall level of happiness of its people. Turbulence in the streets and one or two terrorist related events can set back the entire economy for the season as the tourists vanish overnight. There is a common perception that the Nexus prefers not to be in the bad books of the local ‘awam’ by disrupting the tourist season. However, no such Separatists their ilk have no such sympathy.
Then there is political activity which must take place at grassroots as the absence of the government and the harsh winter conditions do tend to relegate this. It is one of the major reasons why there is seething discontent in smaller towns and many of the villages; no politician or bureaucrat has much time to reach out to the populated but remote rural areas.
Given these challenges it is with a measure of satisfaction that one observes that immediately on move to Srinagar the Chief Minister has conveyed an appropriate message by convening the Unified Command meeting to take stock of the security challenges. Actually, the Unified Command meeting can be the best braining storming institution which can advise on issues beyond security. It is learnt that this was the Chief Minister’s first such meeting after coming to office. Open source media reports state that she was apprised in great detail about the new trend of protests and stone pelting on the security forces engaged in encounters. She directed them to exercise utmost restraint while dealing with the civilian population at the time of encounters.
Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti was entirely right in her reaction and advice but it is hoped she was sensitized more extensively on the dynamics of the current situation. There is nothing new about the situation. In some form or the other it is a repetition of the past and the answers do not have to be sought anywhere else except in the memories of the various officials who handle J&K.
The news, about ‘sainik colonies’, which played out as a rumor, is an attempt similar to 2008. That is when rumors went viral on the ‘permanent’ handing over of forest land to the Amarnath Shrine Board for construction of ‘permanent’ facilities for pilgrims. That became the sticking point for the street turbulence of that year. In 2009, the unfortunate death of two women in Shopian after being allegedly raped was bandied into a believable rumor which kept the agitation on the streets. In 2010, it was different. The Machil fake encounter offered the trigger and the regretful death of the young Tufail Matoo only helped lighting more fires. What the CM would have been told is that the ‘sainik colonies’ issue is likely to be a shot in the dark to follow the Handwara incident; which too was set up and followed a familiar pattern. The J&K Government has done well to refute all issues concerning the rumors. However, it must not be defensive either. If indeed there is a legitimate move to allocate land for settlement of ex-servicemen who are state subjects, there should be no hesitation in backing the scheme which is rumored to have been initiated during Governor’s rule. The efforts to paint this as a clandestine step to change the demographics of the Valley is a part of the larger and more sinister perception management which the Nexus is attempting, in a vain hope to repeat 2008.
The state government has to be made aware that attempts are being deliberately made to bait the Security Forces at sites where terrorists are holed up and encounters are in the offing or have commenced. The rabble rouser leaders generate passions and collect large mobs at the sites. Thus far the joint efforts of the Army, CRPF and JK Police have been smart and they have managed to evade mobs or finish encounters early enough with minimal deployment. This cannot become a system of functioning because it is far too risk prone. Sooner than later there will be big mistakes while under pressure; soldiers will die and so will civilian demonstrators, more commonly people who are just bystanders or observers. This is what the Nexus needs, to sustain the adrenaline this summer. If the Chief Minister has not been extensively briefed on this through scenario building as described above, the Unified Command would have failed to place the issues squarely and the SF will be blamed for everything when the cookies start crumbling. In fact, almost everyone from the J&K Police hierarchy can explain just how Sheikh Abdul Aziz’s death was set up on 11 Aug 2008. It all started from a small challenge to prevent a forced demonstration to symbolically march to the LoC near Uri to demand the opening of the trans-LoC trade route. That was very adroitly manipulated to become a big event and with the Hurriyat leader’s death it became a mega one; how Sheikh Aziz died is still a matter of speculation. Similarly today, passions of Handwara, which too was a bait, have not yet subsided and the intent of the Nexus will be to build up on that through rumors such as those about sainik colonies.
What should the State Government being doing? For one, it should be working very closely with the Security Forces and intelligence agencies. The Chief Minister knows South Kashmir better than almost everyone. This is the time she should be demanding that her party leaders be seen more at tehsil and block level resolving problems with the administration. She should also be demanding from the Army to continuously brief her on its vision of things. The Army should be requesting that the State Government and all other agencies join hands with it to evolve a perception management program. This should result in an outreach to the public with an intent to isolate the Separatists. It will be a transformation of sorts because no form of strategic communication with a clear intent has ever evolved in the Valley to beat the Separatists’ psychological outreach. Sadbhavna, the Army’s hearts and minds exercise is a useful tactical measure which is only a subset of the larger game of strategic communication which needs to involve all agencies with the State Government as the prime stakeholder, overseen by the Central Government.
The most positive development on the J&K front has been the Civil Services result in which a 23 year old Anantnag youth has stood second in the all India list. With it comes the news of the first commercial lady pilot from Kashmir. To cap it came the results of the Super 30, the Sadbhavna aided scheme for talented youth. 15 out of 26 candidates have been successful in All India Joint Engineering Examination. These are developments which are being allowed to become flash in the pan events whilst they should be actually sustaining memories of great pride. This is where perception management plays its role and helps defeat the hyperbole of the Nexus. I hope somebody somewhere is listening. For far too long have we been reactive to events manipulated by the Nexus and set up as baits; for a change let us force them to be the responders.