The current round of ‘national security’ breast-beating is distressing. The suggestion to reduce troops in Kashmir comes from an elected leader of a major partner in Srinagar’s coalition government. India’s Constitution makes it incumbent on his coalition partner, the Centre and the Governor to hear Mufti Mohammed Sayeed with respect. He has a legally unimpeachable position and his credentials as an Indian are beyond doubt. As India’s Home Minister in 1989, he forced that redoubtable officer, Ashok Patel, to go to Kashmir as Inspector-General, Border Security Force (BSF). The name Ashok Patel still excites fear — and grudging respect — in Kashmir. His men broke the back of the JKLF on August 6, 1990, and put paid to most of the militant groups by the end of 1992. The catch-and-kill methods Patel used in 1992 (Operation Eagle, Operation Tiger) were extra-legal, but those operations were sharply targeted and he did not arm indisciplined mercenaries with State authority.
But what a long way we have come since 1993. Then J&K Governor, General Krishna Rao, had asked for more battalions of the army and the BSF to fight militancy. Chief of Army Staff, General BC Joshi, at the time, told him the army was meant to fight external aggressors, not insurgents. He even recalled the troops his predecessor had sent. In retrospect, General Krishna Rao’s strategy was a tragic mistake.
It was a critical time in Kashmir. By the end of 1992, the top commanders of most of Kashmir’s militant groups had been killed or arrested. Only the Hizbul Mujahideen, mainly in rural areas, remained strong. And, unknown to General Rao, the army or intelligence agencies, the ISI had just cleared Lashkar-e-Tayyeba and the Harkat-ul Jihad Islami (and its various nomenclatural variations) to operate in Kashmir. Kashmiris were sick by then of the militants’ excesses.
Disillusionment with militancy and Pakistan was on track to gradually overtake the alienation from India. But as it turned out, the army succeeded in alienating Kashmir from India all over again during the mid-1990s. Many officers and troops did outstanding work and made many sacrifices. However, the army inculcates an abrasive style, is trained to operate against an ‘enemy’, and has adopted several counter-productive tactics in Kashmir. One, it outsourced a substantial part of the battle against the Hizbul to former militants, who used their power to extort, rape, murder and harass. Two, a few bad apples in uniform joined in some or all of this. Three, the post-rath yatra environment in the mid-1990s had turned a large part of the army subliminally communal: every Muslim was too easily seen as an anti-national element. So much so that a DIG in the state CID (the officer was a Hindu from Karnataka) reported that a Major with Military Intelligence had inquired about General MA Zaki’s pro-Pakistan inclinations. The bullet holes in General Zaki’s balaclava were then on display at the Maratha Regiment’s museum — holes that came about when, as Corps Commander, he crawled up a hillock and lobbed a grenade into a militant hideout.
By the time elections were held in 1996, General Joshi had been forgotten. The army had got used to power. General Krishna Rao had made the state Chief Secretary call on the Corps Chief of Staff for meetings. Some among the army brass were convinced that Kuka Parray, the pioneer of the militant-turned-mercenaries, would be the next chief minister. Medals and promotions were almost part of a posting in Kashmir. Large budgetary allocations and equipment purchases could be swung in the name of Kashmir. There was corruption even at the Line of Control.
Now, it is easy to cite intelligence assessments regarding threat perception to counter the Mufti’s view, but fact is that intelligence men, with a few rare exceptions, have rarely known what was happening under their noses. For instance, the army was told of incursions in Kargil in 1999 when local people rushed to the then Chief Minister, Farooq Abdullah, with the news. Then, when General Zaki took over as Corps Commander in Srinagar in October 1989, he found not a single Military Intelligence note on his desk. He heard how bad the situation was when a group of Maharashtrian boys, cycling around the place, peddled up to the gate demanding to meet the commander. That winter, General Zaki took a helicopter to survey the Line of Control after a retired officer working on a Srinagar reconstruction project told Zaki that he had discovered while ordering supplies that Kashmiri boys were buying an extraordinary number of fur-lined boots.
Intelligence brains everywhere have excelled at four things: covering themselves on paper against all possibilities, manipulating public opinion, causing the sort of mayhem that bolsters fear, and increasing promotion opportunities in their bureaucracies.
Since the National Security Advisor is a former Director of the Intelligence Bureau and the Governor a retired general, one might have expected the Union government’s response to take such a hard line. However, the way much of the media have reported Mufti’s stand (Can we afford to in the national interest? vote Y or N) is discouraging. They might as well demand that political processes in Kashmir be ended, the Constitution be suspended and the place permanently handed to the army. That would be more honest.