It’s said that if you have a trusting mind, your ability to handle national security will always be suspect. This applies most aptly to the situation emanating from the Government of India’s historic decision this week on the special status and political and administrative structure of Jammu and Kashmir. Moving over 50,000 armed police personnel into the state, suspending the Amarnath Yatra a fortnight earlier than scheduled, placing former chief ministers under arrest and imposing curfew for an indeterminate period are all measures being questioned by many right-thinking people. Having dealt with such issues extensively, I would have thought it most inappropriate if this did not happen. There is no doubt that if over the past five or 10 years we had been in consultation with J&K’s political community and its people on issues like their special status and rights and had cultivated in them the right thoughts about being a part of India as every other state, none of this may have come to pass. Security has to be catered for, otherwise every bit of strategic advantage gained will be sacrificed at the doorstep of lethargy and inability to appreciate what can happen on the ground. This isn’t a justification for arrests, but often distasteful things are a part of security responsibilities.
Besides the decision to revoke Articles 370 and 35A and introduce administrative changes, the government should be complimented for its depth of research. It was work going on for long and not something done overnight, when negative signals started emanating from across the Line of Control. However, I would have been happier and would have complimented the government even more if a political consensus had been worked on. Perhaps the time was short and the need for secrecy too high. One can recall how a political consensus on no less serious an affair was worked upon in 1994, when India was on the mat in international circles on human rights issues under the marauding attacks of Robin Raphel, then US assistant secretary of state for South Asia. That consensus led to national unity too. To its credit, the government had very few detractors this time. However, what is clear is that while the initial euphoria is fine, the good steps taken are not an end to all problems. In fact, it is just the beginning. It is good that the nation is happy; we now need to work on ensuring that all Kashmiris are happy too at being a part of mainstream India. Security is ultimately linked to this aspect, even more than the sanctity of our borders.
The fallout in the security domain must be examined from the LoC inwards, to the terror grid and ecosystem, the people, polity and governance. There is of course the international fallout as well. The LoC is the best place for Pakistan to play out its messaging. An active LoC keeps the attention focused on J&K. The UN General Assembly begins its annual session on September 17. It will be Pakistan’s effort to keep the focus on J&K till then... We can expect cross-border strikes which can be deterred if we strike back too. We can do these without much noise as the current dynamics need different handling. Not too many may agree with me on this, but it’s good to keep the macho aspects alive, let the Pakistan Army not think this is only their domain. Moral ascendancy at the LoC is vital. Infiltration attempts will increase. We have a strong counter-infiltration grid, but leaks do happen. Preventing a surge in terrorist strength is a must. Pakistan may be desperate in the next few weeks to induct terrorist leaders. The Army must not hesitate to move its reserves to plug the vulnerable areas. There are enough forces to fill the voids in the hinterland. I doubt the hinterland terrorists can achieve much if the campaign of the security agencies against overground workers continues at a successful rate.
The real thrust of security should be on the streets and in rural areas. With the separatists marginalised, its leadership is unavailable. That is what we thought in 2016. But an invisible, low-profile leadership emerged, and ran the show. This can happen again. It must be ensured that mainstream political parties are not treated as separatists. Strong and decisive steps by the government should not create new adversaries. The sentiments of the moment will last some time, but the polity has to re-emerge, and for that we need the local leadership. There will be attempts at psychological targeting of the J&K Police (JKP), just like 2016, but the JKP is our strength, whose men need to be properly motivated. The force has to be proud of its composition and achievements. I hope that the NIA has achieved even more than it had in the past two years by going after financial networks and big fishes. If so, the footprint of agitation may be limited but we should be mentally prepared to handle as much as in 2010 and 2016. The August 11, 2007 Muzaffarabad march was a classic example of underestimating a potential threat. It led to the killing of Hurriyat leader Sheikh Abdul Aziz. The JKP’s CID arm is one of the most effective intelligence outfits, and its reach into rural areas is outstanding; its assessments should be heard.
Psychologically, a lot depends on how the mainstream media in the rest of India handles this. The continued celebratory mode without caring for a return to outreach is a sure way of diluting the effect of such a momentous decision. The intent is not to hand over Kashmir’s population for opinion moulding to Pakistan. If we are looking for a consensus, this is where it must emerge. The political parties across the country could mount a joint effort on this, something that has never been done before. It will be a service to the nation that they will be doing, as I cannot think of anyone else who can undertake this task. It has to be a sustained scientifically planned programme of engagement with different segments of society.
The last major issue is governance. The entire purpose of Kashmir’s shift to Union territory status should be considered a step to effective administration under Central oversight. It is now for the bureaucracy to make this happen, and happen quickly. The effect needs to be felt on the ground as soon as possible.