With the passage of time and Kashmir under restrictions of different kinds, a lot of people outside it are getting restive. When no news is received from an area which frequently triggers evening conversations, people do start getting fidgety and rumours abound. Young people studying outside the state are unable to speak to their parents, friends to each other and businessmen to their contacts in other parts of the country. Id-ul-Zuha proved to be a damp squib because many students from outside the state could not reach their homes in the Kashmir Valley and without any phone, mobile or Internet links open, no one could even wish Id Mubarak. We must empathise with the Kashmiri community, but we also need to face a few facts.
Kashmir is under a lockdown with curfew-like conditions mainly due to the recent history of strife, support to violent extremism and serious anti-national activity. It has been sponsored and inspired by Pakistan because it feels that bleeding India by the so-called “thousand cuts” will exasperate, frustrate and finally draw India into negotiations for a compromise formula on territory. The realists in Pakistan understand and fully recognise that any territory of J&K in India’s control cannot be secured by Pakistan by force. The Pakistan Army, on the other hand, has a kind of self-belief that India’s hold over J&K can be weakened in perpetuity by promoting alienation bordering on intense hatred, mainly among J&K’s Muslim population, and causing triggers from time to time to draw the focus of the international community. It hopes that eventually the issue will get so internationalised that India will be forced into a mediated deal while being in a position of disadvantage. The Pakistan Army’s partners in this intent are a set of rabid and radical Pakistani extremists, its intelligence agency, the notorious ISI, and a select group of retired diplomats, civil servants, intellectuals and military officers who together form the “Deep State”. The broad strategy is to keep the sub conventional violence going while targeting the population with high-quality information warfare to build alienation against India and instigate street turbulence when required. The last thus incorporates the Inter-Services Public Relations (ISPR) wing as part of the Deep State.
Intense and sound counter-terror operations have achieved for India a marked success in denting the sub conventional capability of Pakistan to interfere in Kashmir. Now through its landmark decision on August 5 it has commenced the process of better integration of J&K with the rest of India in the political, social and economic domains. The missing domain remains the psychological one, which Pakistan has continuously dominated through its information and influence operations for long. The communications lockdown in J&K is a step to counter the information capability of Pakistan since our own has not resonated sufficiently in the absence of any major professional effort. Admittedly, that isn’t the best or even the second best way of doing business in this domain, which has virtually become Pakistan’s specialty and to a large extent that of the separatists. However, it was a necessity because through communications networks and the social media, Pakistan’s ISPR has made extensive inroads into the minds of the population, manipulated opinion, promoted alienation and engineered street turbulence and mob violence; much of it through the “fake news” phenomenon.
Progressively since 2008, when the strength of the terrorists took a dip, Pakistan’s communications strategy has consistently improved while exploiting technology and the fake news networks. Internationally, it has employed a campaign to win favour for its narrative through cultivation of human rights organisations, think tanks and big media houses.
Going by past experience, once the announcement on the decisions were made in Parliament the government in New Delhi anticipated Kashmir would erupt in the streets through mob generation, which Pakistan would further exploit. While efforts towards neutralising many of the other networks such as those in the financial domain, the media, banking sector and even ideology have partially succeeded, there appears to be a need for more time to finally see this ecosystem taken apart, so deep rooted have these networks been. Thus it is only prudent that the needs of security demanded that the lessons learnt in the last few years should be applied in letter and spirit. From the “chalo” (let’s go) calls of the Hurriyat in 2008, to threats to “gherao” (surround) Army camps in 2010 and mass mobilisation of flash mobs at encounter sites witnessed from 2015 onwards, most of the methods of taking to the streets have been based on the ability of the separatists to whip up passions through mobile networks and social media. In 2008, one of the first things which faced the axe were cable television networks, which influenced people during the long curfew hours. The rapid deployment of additional armed police this time ensured that the Army does not have to deploy in the rural areas and is available for reinforcing the counter-infiltration grid and be available for other contingencies at the Line of Control.
Was all this necessary? With frequent allegations against the State for its failure to anticipate violence and appreciate the capability of sponsors of hybrid proxy war in different dimensions, the government was under compulsion to ensure that the situation after its decision remained stable. It is probably the most important decision taken on J&K in the history of the conflict and the meticulous homework done on the legal and constitutional front could not be compromised at the doorstep of indiscretion in the security domain. The government appreciated that the negative impact of the decisions on Pakistan’s collective psyche would be enough for Pakistan to work towards recapture of the security space and place India on the defensive. The lockdown in communications and freedom of movement has ensured that the triggers Pakistan expected it could exploit for its own narrative have been completely denied.
Will progressive dilution give the separatists and their sympathizers the scope to ratchet up turbulence in the streets? That remains doubtful, but it is well known that the sentiments in Kashmir are quite negative. A way of neutralising exploitable sentiments in Kashmir from an Indian standpoint is to first get our response to be more sensitive and less triumphal in projection. This is specially so with regard to the media. The government has thought through this well, but the post-event handling right till the end is what really counts. Second, let us give the least chance to Kashmiris to have any logistics grouse. The security must be supported by the best administrative machinery to ensure there are no shortages of essentials. From experience, I can relate that in 2008 the Army was supporting the day-to-day living of even local government servants. The real challenge will, however, emerge when the lockdown starts diluting, and level-headed preparations for that are an absolute must.
The writer, a retired lieutenant-general, is a former commander of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps. He is also associated with the Vivekananda International Foundation and the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies....