A fairly severe winter of 2019-20 was followed by the Covid-19 pandemic and thereafter by a higher-than-expected active operational environment in Jammu and Kashmir in 2020. The year ended on a positive note with the successful conduct of the District Development Council (DDC) elections.
Assessing the situation in J&K and predicting anything for the period beyond has to take into consideration a number of domains. Each of these can be a spoiler, while success is only gained by the cumulative whole achieved by them. One domain which can exclusively claim to be a factor of success or failure is the degree to which Pakistan’s capability to sponsor the proxy hybrid conflict moves up or down on the scale.
2020 was a work in progress to provide continuity to the decisions taken on August 5, 2019 involving the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution and the creation of the new administrative units. While no one can claim that Kashmiris wholeheartedly accepted the decisions no one can also claim that turbulence of the 2009-10 kind hit Kashmir. The pandemic may have helped the authorities to some extent, but the control of the state was effective. There were no bandhs or separatist calls, and the overground worker networks could be effectively tackled and largely neutralised.
With clandestine finances in circulation at a comparative low (but by no means down and out), the wherewithal to conduct terror operations and attract passion-driven youth certainly took a hit. The Nagrota encounter towards the end of the year had recoveries of 10 rifles from four terrorists, proving it was an attempt to beat the strict vigil of the counter-infiltration grid at the Kashmir LoC and the non-availability of military wherewithal. There was an upsurge of drug-related activity; due to the absence of finances drugs appeared to have become the new currency. Intelligence in counter-terror operations improved to a great extent due to the Covid-linked lockdown; there was no imposed curfew except under local conditions brought on by terrorist presence. Safe houses were reduced in numbers, forcing terrorist groups to be larger and less frequent in movement, thus aiding intelligence sources. Success in the security domain was gained in many other sub-domains. The efforts to activate and expand the footprint of terrorist activity from South to North Kashmir failed. This was largely due to the absence of leadership and the inability to infiltrate potential leaders from Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. With successful infiltration at an all-time low, North Kashmir had minimum encounters. The quantum of recruitment of fresh terrorists also came down. A contributing factor for this was the decision to prevent public funerals of even local terrorists; the decision on foreign terrorists had been taken in 2017. In the absence of experienced leadership, the terror groups could not launch campaign-style programmes such as those executed earlier, which involved the abduction and killing of policemen, soldiers on leave and their families, as was done in 2018-19.
When a proxy conflict has been quite effectively neutralized, the sponsors usually plan an action which can deliver an out of proportion effect, locally, regionally and internationally. That happened with Pulwama on February 14, 2019. The terror groups have probably been under pressure for such an action, but the effectiveness of the counter-terror grid has prevented this. It is just one or two failings on the part of the intelligence services or security forces which can facilitate such success for the terrorists. This is a feasibility which cannot be ruled out. An Indian strategic response to such an act can be expected. It need not be anything conventional or in the same mould as the surgical strikes of 2016 and Balakot 2019. In light of the altered LAC situation in Ladakh, a more holistic response catering for conflict progression on different fronts will have to be catered for, and no doubt has already been wargamed.
What have the DDC elections really achieved? They have created hope and an opportunity for political empowerment at the grassroots level. However, with a mandate fractured on religious and regional lines, there is yet much more work to be done if the true benefits have to be reaped. With the People’s Alliance for Gupkar Declaration (PAGD) hankering on the rollback of Article 370 and having won nine of the 10 DDCs in the Valley, not much may change politically. The Assembly elections are likely to be held after the delimitation exercise, in about two years. If the BJP seriously wishes to make inroads into the Valley, it has this two-year window in which the services of Jammu can be utilised far more positively. The Jammu to Srinagar connect is more intense than is usually presumed. Second, the PAGD is popular by default and if it remains united it will be difficult to wrest Kashmir from it unless the BJP can get its act together and reach out to the people in a more energetic way, and with a more acceptable agenda. Intense political activity is likely in 2021, as opposed to 2020. It is in such situations that the security domain gets compromised and adversaries can find a chink.
I foresee a splurge of resources being deployed in J&K, but the real challenge remains corruption, planning and the ability to execute. One of the smartest things to do at this time will be to bring bureaucrats of proven credentials from different cadres and states and let them run Kashmir’s administration under the lieutenant governor's directions. The return of normality in the post-pandemic period will be the greatest facilitator for a change in mindsets; past symbols of perceived coercion such as the Internet and mobile connectivity must return in ample measure, with the counters to security also well established.
The suggestions made in certain quarters from time to time to begin the withdrawal of the Army from the counter-terror grid must be shelved. We must remember that situations like the present one are temporary. We have made such mistakes in the past too. It’s an old adage that the absence of violence is not normalcy. If we are in a hurry to strengthen the conventional capability at the Line of Actual Control and the LoC with Pakistan, let’s not weaken ourselves everywhere. The Army’s presence acts as a glue all across Kashmir. With its people-friendly capability being very high, its proactive involvement in the integration strategy must be more formally factored in.