The Indian Army has begun withdrawing troops from the Rajouri and Poonch districts of Jammu and Kashmir in a move that will meet a major demand of Kashmiri separatists.
The withdrawal of one division strength, around 15,000 troops, is being seen as a big confidence-building measure to get separatists, especially hardliner, on board for talks.
It is for the first time since militancy erupted in the state that such large numbers of troops are being moved out.
Officially, it is being called “relocation”, but the fact remains that the troops are moving out of the state.
When asked to confirm if soldiers of 39 division, or Dah division, were being withdrawn, Defence spokesman Lt Col Biplab Nath said, “These are operational matters and details cannot be divulged.”
What makes the move all the more significant is that the twin districts of Rajouri and Poonch were brought under the Disturbed Area Act along with the Kashmir Valley in July 1990. Also, the security forces were given special powers under Armed Forces Special Powers Act around the same time.
The twin districts in south of Pir Panchal range of Himalayas are militancy-prone. With a 200-km stretch running along the Line of Control with the Pakistan occupied Kashmir, the area is vulnerable to infiltration as well.
When it was pointed out to Lt Col Nath that convoys were moving out of the mountainous belt of Pir Panchal, he said, “Certain elements of 39 division were being relocated, as per the periodical review of the security situation.”
On November 17, 2004, a week before he visited the state as the prime minister for the first time, Manmohan Singh had announced that the army's presence would be reduced. The troops begun to move out the day — November 24, 2004 — he landed in Srinagar. But, a spurt in terrorist violence and repeated ceasefire violations by Pakistan brought the process to a halt.
Significantly, on Thursday, as the Prime Minister ended his two-day visit to the state, the troops begun to move out.
Two battalions — one each from Qazigund, 80 km from Srinagar in south Kashmir, and Handwara, 100 km from the state capital in north Kashmir, — were moved out of the state early this month.