I was in Srinagar a few days before the third meeting of the G20 working group on tourism began in that city from May 22-24, 2023. On my return to Delhi, I realised the brief trip had yielded more questions than answers. And even the answers begged further questions. But the fundamental question was sparked by a remark of the shikhara owner who took me for a spin across the lake as I grilled him gently on how things had changed since the abrogation of Article 370 and 35A and the division of the state in August 2019.
Asked whether he was upset over the side-lining of local leaders by the central administration that now governed the Union Territory, he replied: “The lack of militancy has ensured that schools, colleges and offices are no longer plagued by the stone pelting, hartals, strikes and shutdowns enforced by the militants. We have a record number of tourists, and business is booming. Why were the Muftis and the Abdullahs unable to achieve this over the past three decades of their rule?” In other words, how did India crush militancy in Kashmir?
There are many who claim that militancy has not ended, but only paused in the region. But I would argue that each hour of peace and resultant prosperity in Kashmir erodes and undermines the power of the Pakistan-trained swine that terrorised Jammu and Kashmir for 30 years to return to the valley. But let us go back to the question. How did the government achieve this feat?
To start with, this was not something that happened overnight. And it began with a simple policy decision announced by Ajit Doval soon after his appointment as the country’s fifth National Security Adviser in May 2014, which said: “Let us make terror more expensive for Pakistan.”
The nuclear tests of May 1998 by the two nations further emboldened Pakistani generals to believe they had achieved parity with India…
The Indian forces, earlier constrained by political leaders hoping to perhaps win a Nobel peace prize for forging peace with a rogue neighbour, were now authorised to respond to every shell fired across the border with five, or ten or twenty shells targeting both terrorist and military camps and infrastructure on the other side. Because at the end of the day, they were one and the same.
New Delhi also invested heavily in enhancing border management along the LoC and the international border with Pakistan. Measures such as fencing, electronic surveillance, sensors and increased patrolling helped check, if not curb infiltration of militants from across the border. At the same time, Indian security forces, including the army, paramilitary forces and police, launched massive counter insurgency operations to neutralise militant groups operating in Kashmir. These operations focused on identifying, apprehending or eliminating militants, disrupting their networks, and preventing infiltration across the Line of Control (LoC). This was backed by heightened intelligence gathering and surveillance to detect and pre-empt militant activities. The gathering of actionable intelligence plays a crucial role in identifying and tracking militant groups, their leaders, and their support networks, enabling the security forces to carry out targeted operations and prevent militant attacks.
The other major issue was one of perception. Since independence and the subsequent war of attrition with a much smaller neighbour which uses terror as an instrument of state policy, the perception not just in GHQ Rawalpindi but also in Washington, and other major capitals was that despite its bigger size, when push came to shove, New Delhi would always blink first.
The nuclear tests of May 1998 by the two nations further emboldened Pakistani generals to believe they had achieved parity with India, despite the latter’s overwhelming superiority in terms of conventional forces. A senior BJP leader who is no more once explained privately that, “we are well aware that the exchange of four terrorists for the passengers of IC-814, the Indian Airlines aircraft that was hijacked and taken to Kandahar in Afghanistan in late December 1999, was perhaps one of the worst decisions we ever made, even though it was under intense media pressure. Those terrorists who were promptly taken to Pakistan were behind attacks which killed several times the number of Indian passengers on that plane. I will never forget the smug look on the faces of the Taliban and ISI agents on the tarmac when our plane carrying the terrorists landed in Kandahar. More importantly, it reinforced the notion that India was a soft state, which would rage and thump its chest after every attack, but finally extend yet another hand of friendship, or engage in cricket diplomacy.”
According to him, earlier that year, “without discounting the immense bravery of our boys who defied immense odds to eject the Pakistani soldiers perched on the strategically higher reaches of Kargil, the fact remains that if US President Bill Clinton had not read Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif the riot act on July 4th that year, things might have turned out very differently.” Of course, we had warned the Americans that we might open other fronts in the battle, which would have officially turned it into a full-fledged war between two nuclear-weapons states, he added.
New Delhi also launched a major crackdown on terrorist funding, reviving initiatives that had been launched after the Mumbai blasts of 1991…
I still owe a hundred dollars to an American diplomat (who has since retired) who sneered at my belief that Pakistan would finally be taught a lesson it would not forget following the attack on India’s parliament in December 2001, barely three months after 9/11. “I really wish you guys would do that, but I bet you a hundred dollars that barring making a lot of noise and some vacuous sabre-rattling and bluster, New Delhi will do nothing,” he said. Sure enough, after a couple of months mobilising the military and making a lot of empty threats, we did just that. Nothing.
Similarly, following the 26/11 siege of Mumbai by terrorists who entered via boats in November 2008, New Delhi growled and thundered, pledged revenge, but eventually sued for talks. Though my American friend gracefully downgraded the bet to a dinner and a drink whenever we meet, I still propose to pay up when we do, if only to tell him that if we had made the bet today, I would have won.
Which brings me back to Srinagar. Recognising that addressing the root causes of militancy is essential, New Delhi launched various development initiatives in Kashmir, which focus on infrastructure development, education, healthcare, skill development, and economic opportunities. The aim is to improve the socio-economic conditions of the people, promote inclusivity, and address grievances that can fuel militancy. At the same time, it launched a dialogue at various levels to understand and address the concerns of the people there, although with limited success given the long-standing suspicion of efforts as well as the fear of being targeted by militants opposed to such talks.
New Delhi also launched a major crackdown on terrorist funding, reviving initiatives that had been launched after the Mumbai blasts of 1991, which exposed the involvement of not just the Pakistani intelligence services, but also expat Indian smugglers operating out the UAE. Apart from the stringent financial laws introduced then to check money laundering by criminal outfits, it added a few more which restricted charities in India from accepting foreign funds.
The Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA) of 1999 has been invoked several times by investigating agencies to issue show-cause notices to suspected terror operatives and hawala dealers. These include a Kashmiri businessman who was suspected of acting as a conduit for terrorist outfits in 2018, and a suspected LeT operative and two hawala dealers in Delhi in 2017. But as an official explained, it is often difficult to pursue such crimes owing to the involvement of corrupt politicians, who overwhelmingly outnumber the ‘clean’ ones. In Kashmir, the properties of anyone linked to militancy was seized, including a building which once housed Syed Ali Geelani, a prominent separatist leader who died in September 2021.
Of course there were charges, often true, that these laws were misused by the Government to target political opponents. Internationally, the Ministry of External Affairs stepped up its attempts to raise awareness about cross-border terrorism emanating from Pakistan, while repeatedly and publicly asserting that there could be no talks with Islamabad until it took credible and tangible action against militant outfits operating on its soil. It also put pressure on the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the global money laundering and terrorist financing watchdog, to constantly monitor Pakistan, where several terrorist outfits masquerade as charities.
These concerted efforts, along with the growing disenchantment of Kashmiris with the constant threats from both militants and security forces, forced Pakistan to change its stand. Instead of random attacks on civilians, the ISI asked its lapdogs to target security forces.
One message that seems to have gone out loud and clear is that when push comes to shove, India will push back, hard…
The mindless, brainwashed zombies who actually believed they would achieve paradise by killing infidels and dying in the name of their God, complied. Thus came the attacks on Pathankot air base on January 02, 2016, and the Uri army camp, September 18, 2016. On September 29, New Delhi announced that it had conducted cross-border surgical strikes against militant camps and launch pads in occupied Kashmir, causing ‘significant damage.’
But unfazed by this, the terrorist scum attacked an army camp in Nagotra on November 29, 2016, an army camp in Kupwara’s Panzagam, April 27, 2017, a CRPF camp in Bandipora, June 5, 2017, : the Pulwama police line, August 26, 2017. Then came the suicide bombing of a CRPF convoy in Pulwama on the Jammu Srinagar highway on February 14, 2019, killing 40 troopers.
On February 26, New Delhi finally retaliated with an air strike on a Jaish-e-Mohammad camp in Balakot, in Pakistan’s North-Western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, the first such strike across the Line of Control since the 1971 War, which had led to the dismemberment of Pakistan and the birth of Bangladesh. A day later, Pakistani warplanes which crossed into Indian airspace were engaged by Indian fighters, one of which crashed over Pakistan-administered Kashmir and its pilot, Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman, taken prisoner. Although there are various conflicting and confusing reports over the two airstrikes, Wing Commander Varthaman was released on March 01 by Pakistan, ostensibly as a ‘goodwill gesture.’ Indian sources, however, said the release followed threats of a full-fledged attack on Pakistan in case the Indian pilot was not returned.
In September that year, India deployed a huge number of security forces in Jammu and Kashmir, sparking consternation not just in Rawalpindi, but in other world capitals too. This was followed by a massive drive to round up anyone remotely suspected to be linked with militancy, while political leaders were put under house arrest. And then all communications were cut off in the state.
On August 05, the government announced that Article 370, which gave the state a special status, had been revoked. And in October, the state was formally divided into two Union Territories, Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh, both governed by Lt Governors appointed by New Delhi. The COVID pandemic which arrived in India barely months later in February-March 2020, and the subsequent lockdowns served to distract attention from the region. And according to what officials told me during my visit to Srinagar just days before the G20 meeting there, it was turned into an opportunity to launch a major vaccination drive and reach out to the people, particularly those in the tourism industry. They were not only placed at par with frontline workers, but trained in COVID-specific etiquette, and given badges declaring “I’m vaccinated” and “I’m Safe”. At the same time, security forces cleansed the region of any remaining militants or separatists, and stepped up vigil along the border to prevent further infiltration. So when the lockdowns eased later that year, Kashmir was the first to announce that it was open for business. This head start meant 2021 and 2022 saw a record number of tourists.
Obviously rattled by these developments, GHQ Rawalpindi changed tack again, ordering its armed piglets to strike migrant workers from outside the state. But given the security bandobast in place, and the instant reprisal by the Indian forces, this too seems to have fizzled out. Holding the G20 tourism meeting in Srinagar not only underlined the return of normalcy to region, it also sent out a political message to the world that Kashmir was Indian territory.
The preventive arrests and large number of troops sent to secure the city for the meet did evoke memories of the dark days of militancy among many, but the fact that it passed off peacefully and the troops returned to their barracks served to ease some of the fears. Meanwhile, the beautification of the city continues even as it braces for another record number of tourists. The number of flights to Srinagar is expected to go up, while a revamped Jammu Srinagar highway and Vande Bharat train to Srinagar will help connectivity.
And while there might be political concerns over the fact that some nations including China, Turkey and Saudi Arabia refused to attend, 17 of the 20 G20 members did, much to Pakistan’s dismay. But while the multi-faceted, multi-pronged approach by New Delhi to bring about a sense of peace and stability in the valley appears to finally paying off, it is important to note that the situation in Kashmir remains complex, and ongoing challenges and occasional outbreaks of violence by retards from Pakistan, such as the attack in Rajouri in January 2023, are likely to continue. While India’s focused efforts have had some impact in curbing militancy, achieving lasting peace and stability in the region requires a lot more work.
However, one message that seems to have gone out loud and clear is that when push comes to shove, India will push back, hard. GHQ Rawalpindi, already under severe domestic pressure over the attempt to muzzle its former proxy, Imran Khan, is on notice.