For almost eight months Kashmir has been quiet, both in the streets, the jungles and the mountain tops. However, with effect, early April this year terrorist-related incidents have been on the rise, at the Line of Control (LoC) and the hinterland. South Kashmir is active but there also appears an intent to activate North Kashmir. The streets so far are quiet and devoid of the activities of rabble-rousers and stone-throwers. Primarily the money to reward them has run out from the hands of the handlers, thanks to some smart footwork by the National Investigation Agency (NIA). Many high profile street leaders and overground workers have been detained by the Jammu and Kashmir Police, thus dismantling the structure created for this activity by separatists.
It's often said that absence of violence is not necessarily normalcy but if such absence persists it helps the target state to convert the situation to one of normalcy and thence stability. The state that is sponsoring violence, Pakistan, in this case, will early enough, aim to create the conditions for the return of violent activity lest the long years of investment in violence in Kashmir go waste.
It is with the above aim that Pakistan has upped the ante to activate violence through the few means over which it may yet have control. The August 5, 2019 decision to revoke Jammu & Kashmir's special status effectively neutralised a range of its options. However, with the snow melting, the anti-infiltration obstacle system ineffective due to being under snow and ice rendering it derelict at the higher reaches, and the attention perceived to be diverted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Pakistan has chosen to up the ante with a combination of activities to try and restore the situation to its favour. This includes the information domain where fake news, doctored videos and messages on social media have all been combined to create greater alienation among the people against India and paint India red in the eyes of the international community. The comprehensive nature of this strategy can be judged by the fact that a serious effort is on towards creating a wedge against the Indian expatriate community in the Gulf region of West Asia.
The Handwara incident of May 4 needs to be seen from the above context. A little explanation about this township may be interesting. Along with Sopore, Bandipora and Baramula, it has been a part of the quartet of towns of North Kashmir where the presence of foreign terrorists has been traditionally strong. It is located on the infiltration routes, from the areas in the vicinity of where the anti-infiltration obstacle system (AIOS) is buried and emerges virtually derelict in this season, that all converge here. On its west is the large tract of densely wooded hilly terrain, called the Rajwar and Haphruda forests. This is the area where infiltrating groups gravitate, are received undercover and thence clandestinely guided to safe houses in the villages around Handwara before attempting to move to Sopore.
In the past, a disproportionately large number of clashes took place here with much success making 21 Rashtriya Rifles (21 RR), which is responsible for the area, one of the most experienced units. In the last few years as South Kashmir went into a terror overdrive engagements here reduced in numbers and intensity. I can recall that in 1999, at the height of the Kargil crisis, troop presence from this area had to be reduced to move some to Kargil. The terror groups went into overdrive to establish their presence in this sector to enable the North Kashmir sub-region to be fully activated. Painstakingly the Indian Army regained full control until finally the foreign terrorist (FT) presence diluted. With local terrorist (LT)-dominated South Kashmir emerging the centre of terror activity, Pakistan’s control through the presence of Pakistani terror groups also waned. In fact, over the last few years, the ratio of FTs to LTs in Kashmir went into reverse.
Pakistan now aims to revive the ratio in favour of FTs. It happened similarly in the early nineties when the ISI, Pakistan's military intelligence agency, realized that long term sustainability of terror activity could not be achieved with a higher ratio of LTs.
Both the encounters where losses occurred should be viewed with the above analysis in mind, the one on April 1 in the Jumagund area north of Kupwara and the one in Handwara on May 2. The elimination of a track of five terrorists indicated that serious infiltration efforts were underway to fill FTs in North Kashmir. The one at Handwara indicated that possibly some successful infiltration into Rajwar had taken place. The loss of our own troops, including Colonel Ashutosh Sharma, Commanding Officer (CO) 21 RR, has been most unfortunate but needs to be ascribed to contingencies rather than any faulty response. The response by helicopter with Special Forces on April 1 was a tactical necessity which is part of the response mechanism in the mountains to overcome the limitation imposed on local movement by the unit in contact due to heavy and soft snow.
The contingency at Handwara was classically one which develops in semi-urban areas where there are no fronts and no rears, with the CO’s party becoming the one closest to the place of occurrence. Call it the ‘fog of war’ in counter-terrorism operations where the speed of response is of utmost importance. It is small teams quickly responding to situations with hazy information that becomes the challenge. To play safe and await full information, confirmed and reconfirmed is not the acme of such operations. Risk has to be taken and the Indian Army does not frown on such risk-taking. It only legislates ‘good judgement’ and is aware that all contingencies cannot be imagined by the human mind. Even in conventional operations, a CO’s party moving up after Phase 1 of an attack could well be ambushed away from the immediate front. It’s unfortunate that we lost Colonel Ashutosh Sharma just like we lost Colonel Rajender Chauhan (also a CO 21 RR) in August 2000, a short distance away from the site of this encounter, in an IED incident in which we also lost the Sector Commander, Brig B S Shergill
It needs to be remembered that in the month of April alone there have been 16 encounters, or firefights, with 30 terrorists killed. Majority of the encounters remain undertaken on the initiative of the security forces. Intelligence flow is good and the COVID-19 lockdown has helped bottle the terrorists to safe houses where an excessive stay compromises them. Riyaz Naikoo, the high-profile Hizbul Mujahideen leader responsible for abduction and killing of many policemen has been similarly eliminated. As such the Indian Army is on top of the terrorists and losses occurring in two incidents must not create any false perception.
There is public outrage on social media on the loss of precious lives. This is not to be taken negatively because it is out of concern and affection for the army and police forces as institutions who command much respect. Technology is the issue which a lot of people are talking about and is no doubt at the top of the considerations by commanders on the ground. There is a lot of scope for induction of more of this related to counter-terror operations given the fact that special financial powers of higher order are delegated to the level of commands. It’s happening too and perhaps not too much information on this is in the public space, rightly so. Whatever it may be the human factor will always be present.
The zeal and passion of our tactical leadership has to be admired. Commanders at a higher level do caution restraint but it would be against the ethos of the Indian Army if COs were to direct operations from the comfort of their headquarters. The very nature of this prevailing operational environment demands boldness and inspirational leadership. No two military contingencies are ever the same so it is pointless quoting any campaigns or situations of the past. The only caution I would advise is restraint; once terrorist presence is confirmed and a cordon laid, intervention is unnecessary. With a little patience and the media kept away with effective and polite handling, the terrorists can be eliminated without own losses. In a jungle terrain and while seeking encounter in broken terrain such luxury, of course, cannot be pursued.
What is the future course for India? We have all the means and the confidence to prevent any deterioration of the situation. We have demonstrated an ability to hit back at terrorists inside PoK and in Pakistan. International politics after COVID-19 pandemic is unlikely to bring about any international restraint on Pakistan. With the economic situation deteriorating, we may not be able to invest sufficiently in increasing the capability gap with Pakistan, in the near future. International attention is likely to remain fixated to the post-pandemic recovery rather than the shenanigans of a rogue state. Public stamina within India too is likely to pressurize the government.
What could, therefore, be a line of strategy which secures our interests? A red line will need to be drawn. With Pakistan in an economic mess more should be done to hurt its economy. Limited military means to do so remains a viable option, with all other unstated options open. In addition, the rapid stabilization of J&K through a clearly enunciated mission and taking the people on board must become a priority. The steps taken by the government to bring back by air stranded people from J&K has evoked great positivity.
More of this, a call to bring more positive messaging for the Kashmiri people on social media, along with relentless military operations in the field will make the difference to usher in a better summer, monsoon and hopefully at the end a good winter.
(The writer is a highly-decorated former Military Secretary of the Indian Army who has commanded the 15 Corps in Jammu & Kashmir. He is currently Member, National Disaster Management Authority. The views expressed are personal) Article also published in South Asia Mirror on 07 May