Thursday, September 16, 2010

AFSPA OR TERROR 2?

In 2008, voters came out in large numbers in the Valley, defying calls given by pro-Pakistan separatists to boycott the elections. Why did they do so? Because they felt they safely could: there was a near total absence of terrorist violence and, unlike during previous elections, no threats were issued by either the LeT or the HM. Many believe that both kept mum because their ability to enforce a ban through use of force had been significantly eroded. And the ordinary Kashmiri knew it well enough to muster courage to go out and cast his vote. No wonder pro-Pakistan hardliner Syed Shah Gilani, stung by the surprise, could do no more than than say that voting figures were artificially inflated by bogus voting and invisible pressure of security forces.

It is a no-brainer that Gilani's Pakistani masters would have been even more deeply disturbed by this unacceptable normalisation of the situation that, more than anything, signaled an important shift in public opinion away from a failing Pakistan. Were Pakistan's generals going to just sit back and let Kashmir slip out of their fingers? Were they expected to simply shrug off their defeat and let the blood that runs in their veins just flow out of their body?

A strident Pakistani response to reclaim Kashmir should have been anticipated by India. Perhaps it was too. But, a clever enemy that is driven by a congenital 'junoon', hit where and when few expected it to. The military mind that was strategising the counter offensive yet again achieved what is central to success in any military operation: complete surprise.

Just before the tornado of stones hit an unsuspecting India in May this year, there was much complacency. Absence of violence and influx of a record number of tourists made many analysts who know Kashmir inside-out claim that the tide had turned, that India had almost won the war against Pakistan, that the people of the Valley had turned their backs on that nation. They were as right then as they are now about the anger of tormented youths who have grown up under the shadow of the gun.

It is presumptuous, if not downright unintelligent, of those who fly into the Valley for what are essentially well-protected and by now well rehearsed conducted tours for a couple of days to claim that they understand the dynamics better than those who serve and live there on a full-time basis for years, and professionals who have intelligence and operational inputs that are not available in the public domain. It is because of this Molotov cocktail of arrogance, ignorance and focus on the moment rather than the continuum that the whole debate about Kashmir has got largely deflected from the essentials.

In the last few months, 70 precious lives have been lost due to firing on stone pelters and arsonists in a few towns in the Valley. Deaths of ordinary citizens pain every one, more so soft, emotional Indians who are easily swayed by suffering. The deaths, not surprisingly, have become central to the argument designed to deflect India's attention away from core issues behind the intifada and pressurise what is widely perceived to be weak, confused and vote-bank driven Indian government into making concessions that, on the face of it, appear somewhat justified.

Consider this: all protesters have been killed in firing by the state police and CRPF. Not one has been killed by the Army. Lt Gen HS Panag, former GOC-in-C of Northern Command, under whose watch the whole state was, tells us that the Army has not opened fire on protestors for the last 20 years and that for the last 10 years the Army has not operated in any city. The police are responsible for maintaining law and order in all cities and they have been given additional powers under that Public Safety Act(PSA) and the Disturbed Areas Act(DAA). This means that none of those teenagers who have been pushed into the streets of a few towns including Srinagar have ever seen the Army firing in and around their localities and killing people.

Yet, other than the calls for 'Azadi' that translated, as they had to, into the hoisting of Pakistan's flag in Lal Chowk on Eid in the presence of the 'moderate' separatist leader Umer Farooq, what is the most strident demand being made by protestors and separatists undoubtedly at the behest of their leaders some of whom are no more than couriers delivering fiats received from their masters and handlers in Pakistan? Remove the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) from all of Kashmir. Some mainstream politicians too have jumped onto this bandwagon, if not anything else, out of fear of getting isolated.

Odd isn't it that no one is asking for removal of the PSA and DAA that enables the police to carry out what Pankaj Mishra, in an op-ed in the New York Times, calls "brutal suppression of non-violent protests"? Even more odd isn’t it that an isolated fake encounter by the Army in remote Machchal is being blown out of all proportions by Kashmiri separatists and some Indian analysts who possibly consider it their moral duty to not only believe what separatists say but also amplify it with eloquence -- rather than filter it with elementary commonsense -- to demand from every possible forum that the 'draconian' AFSPA should be withdrawn?

Let us ask two basic questions. Why has terrorism almost disappeared from the Valley? Has the situation really changed as much as we are being led to believe?

Terrorists are on the retreat in the Valley and the LeT and HM no longer pose the combat threat that they once did. This has happened primarily because the Indian Army has relentlessly fought them for 20 years and has all but defeated and demoralised them. The fight has been bloody, with as many as 5962 soldiers killed by terrorists in J&K between 1988 and July 05, 2010. This success, at a heavy price, would not have been possible without the AFSPA. For those who may not know, the AFSPA entitles soldiers to execute military operations against armed insurgents on its own, including carrying out cordon and search of suspected militant hideouts, and opening fire as per their military judgment, without awaiting a written request from or the presence of a magistrate. It also provides legal protection to soldiers carrying out tasks assigned to them by the government which calls them in only when all other instruments available to the state to deal with a situation have failed.

Of course, there are those who are propagating the myth that terrorism has almost evaporated from the Valley because the international climate has turned against the use of violence. Some believe that Pakistan has temporarily eased off the pressure in Kashmir because of the pressure and presence of the US in its backyard. B Raman, a former RAW officer, is of the view that although Pakistan is continuing to infiltrate terrorists into J&K, it has brought down the "level of their acts of terrorism so that any escalation does not come in the way of the confidence-building process going on between the two countries as a result of initiatives taken" by the governments of India and Pakistan. No one in India, it seems, thinks that the Indian Army has anything substantial to do with it!

There can be no better barometer of a situation than the reaction of the enemy, if one can look through the smoke that he always generates to mask it. In my view, Pakistan's generals have paid rich compliments to the Indian Army for the success that it has achieved in the Valley but, in the din created by the pelting of stones, no one in India has noticed.

In response to the success of the elections in 2008 that jolted them -- don’t buy the latest spin that they were for local governance only -- had Pakistan's generals been in a position to re-crank terror, they would have not hesitated to do so. If they can brazenly play what Matt Waldman calls "a double-game of astonishing duplicity" with the US in Afghanistan by appearing to be fighting on its side while using the Taliban to defeat it, if they can tell the US to lay off saying "Kashmir is ours", can anyone believe that they will willingly exercise restraint against India?

It is because Pakistan could not reactivate Kalashnikov bearing fighters in Kashmir in substantial numbers and was convinced that this time they would be put out even faster, that it was forced to change strategy to send a loud message to Indians, including Kashmiris, that it was not throwing in the towel so easily. Developing and fine-tuning it took some time and, at the perfect moment, the stones surfaced and hit a surprised India. Former Army Chief General Shankar Roychowdhury says that the latest protests in the Valley are "too precise and calibrated to be anything but enemy action." Lt Gen HS Panag, who should know a thing or two more than frequent-flyer analysts, tweets: "Intifada is a carefully calibrated strategy of ISI & separatists & not repeat not pent up frustration of "the tormented generation" and that "we have fallen into the trap."

The real trap is perhaps not the intifada; it is what Pakistan hope to achieve through it. I don't believe that Pakistan's generals have the patience -- or trust Kashmiris enough -- to put all their eggs in the intifada basket. Pakistan is not a weak Palestine. For it, intifada is an inferior and temporary tool of necessity. That is why relentless, emotive pressure is being exerted to get the government to lift the AFSPA from the entire Valley. Sections of the government have, as per media reports, already fallen into this trap. Some just want to get rid of the problem of the moment by partially withdrawing it from some districts, including Srinagar, where the maximum fire is raging, and Ganderbal, in the Valley. The logic is that situation is now normal.

Is the situation really normal? Has infiltration stopped? Has Pakistan given up its claim on Kashmir? Has it stopped using the LeT etc as instruments of the state to achieve its objective of liberating Kashmir by force? Are the security forces in the valley operating "with an expansive mandate that is not commensurate with military necessity" as "General" S Varadarajan has concluded?

The situation looks normal because the Army has brought it under control and is working 24/7 to ensure it remains so, with more than 1000 small teams out at any given point of time, and troops guarding the LoC too. As Lt Gen Raghavan brought out in a TV show, the moment AFSPA is lifted in the whole Valley or even any part of it, within weeks terrorists will regroup and reorganise, like it happened in the North East. Pakistan also knows that once they lift AFSPA, India's leaders will not have the guts to reimpose it till the situation gets out of hand. That is what it wants!

Let us not forget that the normalcy that AFSPA has helped restore has benefited Kashmiris the most. This urban stone-pelting generation does not know what it is to sleep with the sound of bullets flying through the night and live with the smell of danger and death at every turn. How can such a generation ask on its own for the removal of an Act which has never impacted their daily lives?

Pakistan wants AFSPA out. Mere talks, it has learnt from experience, won't get it anywhere. Force, it has realised, is not something that India's leaders can either withstand or repel. It wants, therefore, to take terror to a new level, better integrated and in tandem with indigenous uprising, to get India to give more and more till nothing is left to give. For re-building capacity that takes time, a relatively safe sanctuary is required, the kind Kashmir was before AFSPA was imposed. Remember, there are no walls between districts in the Valley and no demographic differences. So, if AFSPA is lifted in even a couple of districts, it will suffice. And, as the intifada has shown, we will not get a whiff of what is happening till terror strikes again, new, improved, lethal.

India has a choice to make: AFSPA or Terror 2?