Let’s start with a disclosure. I’m sympathetic to the fauj and to all men in fatigues who serve in conflict zones. It is far from easy to work in Kashmir where you are alienated from your own people; where you are seen as an oppressor and are constantly told that you’re an ‘Indian dog’.
But even for me – and I have fauji blood in my veins – the words used by the army chief jarred. They should, actually, make most of us cringe. General Bipin Rawat, while speaking to the media after saluting the dead bodies of his own men, said that stone pelters in Kashmir would be treated as ‘aides of the jihadis.’ He said a lot more: That those who try to disrupt terror operations in the state would be treated as ‘over ground workers of terrorists’ and would be fired on.
It is understandable that no General likes to see his men in coffins and he may, therefore, have been overwrought. It is also completely understandable that as the leader of one of the largest armies, he was trying to motivate his men, who have taken two quick knocks in the Valley in the past week.
What is difficult to stomach, however, is the fact that Rawat – as the senior- most army officer – did not think of what impact his words would have on the people of Kashmir, particularly after last year’s uprising that followed the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen militant commander, Burhan Wani.
The stone pelting youth brought the Valley to a complete standstill. Boys aged nine to 15 took over the streets and were unafraid of walking up to armed garrisons that dot the landscape of a Valley.
The Valley limped back to a semblance of tenuous normalcy after an intense phase of stone pelting in the summer of 2016 but the signs of another ‘hot’ summer are visible even before the snows have melted.
Neither Rawat nor anyone from his organisation have tried to soften or even clarify the tough words that had almost the same lethal force as the pellet guns.
The General, in so many ways, articulated a policy that was being practised in the Valley, particularly during the summer of 2016, when hundreds were maimed, blinded and killed. Were they all ‘aides of the jihadis’ and ‘overground workers of terrorists’?
Rawat is partially right when he says that locals sometimes prevent the army from conducting their operations. There are several instances of a large group of Kashmiri women shouting slogans while the troops are out on operations. Is Rawat now going to shoot at women who dare to vent their frustration because they are tired of living wretched lives in a militarised zone?
The army has been a part of the protracted Kashmir problem for over two decades. As the head of an organisation that has lost ranks and officers at the hands of terrorists – and sometimes because jawans have turned their guns on their own colleagues – Rawat should be asking some basic questions.
Rawat, who superseded two competent officers, to don the mantle of the chief mainly because of his experience in dealing with counter-insurgency operations (so we were told) should be asking these questions in particular.
Why are the youth so enraged?
Why are they unafraid of dying?
Why are the women unafraid?
Why is the Valley back in a phase where local Kashmiri militants outnumber the foreign terrorists?
Why is an entire population alienated?
The answers are obvious.
Rawat, for the sake of his own men – who don’t deserve to be in coffins – should be gently nudging the government towards a political resolution of the problem. There is already a report, painstakingly put together by interlocutors, available with the home ministry.
The unfortunate bit is that Rawat sounds like the government in Delhi. Rajnath Singh promised to review the use of the pellet guns but stopped short of banning them and now his deputy, Kiren Rijiju has endorsed the General’s stance saying, “There should be action against the stone pelters and whoever works against national interest as national interest is supreme.”
The national interest would be better served in engaging with the Valley’s youth. For the sake of the Kashmiris, our nation and of course, our soldiers, I fervently hope the General does not carry through with the threat of opening fire.
The author tweets as @shammybaweja