I recently travelled to Kashmir valley in the month of October of 2018. And this must have been the nth time that I was in to this troubled zone. The first journey was way back in the year 1992. And ever since have logged miles and miles moving the length and breadth of this beleaguered geography.
However, this recent travel a few days back was my second, after hanging my uniform. And it is this that makes it different and interesting.
When I had first crossed the Banihal tunnel in January 1992, the valley towns looked very familiar to those seen in the movies and television news of Afghanistan. A general sense of scare and anger prevailed all across.
Indian army troops were all over along the road as I moved up to Srinagar in the convoy. The battle ready positions of the troops narrated the situation prevailing in the valley. Each town and the village we crossed bore marks of the conflict. Burnt houses and destroyed temples, each told the horrific tale of loot rape and plunder at the hands of Islamists. These were the real architects of this deadly narrative. The Jamait backed by Islamic Republic of Pakistan, both financially and militarily. It was part of a larger game-plan.
With the Kafirs driven out of the valley, now the next task at hand of these Islamists was to defeat the infidel army. These Kashmiri separatists encouraged by the turn of events in Afghanistan were so convinced that they would achieve this goal rather simply. The propaganda machine across in Pakistan and their representatives here made believe the local Kashmiris of their immense strength flowing out of Quran and Islam. They propagated this myth by quoting the Afghan war, and how the Mujahedeen brought the world’s super power to its knees in there. And when compared, Kashmir was just a cake walk, a low hanging fruit. After all India was not a super power.
During the nineties what I saw all along from Banihal to Panzgam in Kupwara, was the abject poverty. All clearly visible every where. The common people could largely be seen in dirty clothes. There depleted houses and broken roads with a very few cars told the development story. None of the medium and small villages had any shop other than that of mutton. Being governed by the Ranbir Penal Code, cow slaughtering was banned in the state, thus the shops could only sell mutton. Cows were slaughtered in closed doors with no visible traces outside. Each village had a mosque that blended with the general architecture in these Kashmiri villages. Though the electricity was to each house, however the voltage use to be so low that a candle would appear brighter.
Largely the Kashmiris wore their traditional attire, men could be seen with their conical skull cap, salwar kameez and ferin. The ladies donned the beautifully embroidered ferins and a head scarf that covered their heads, with a knot tied behind. The school going children of course wore the white shirt and khaki trousers or a sky white salwar, sky blue kameez with a white a dupatta. This was in fact a common sight all across the country of government school children during those days. The extent of poverty was such that even during the snow, a very large numbers just wore that cheap plastic and rubber shoes. The Gujjars who often were spotted on the slopes cutting wood wore the handmade jute slippers in that biting cold. During the cordon and searches we had to bear with an intolerable body odour or the Kashmiri stench as we called it. Telling lies and swearing by Allahand Quranat the drop of a hat was another common Kashmiri trait that I realised rather very quickly.
When I finally left the valley in the year 2000, I promised to myself, never to return to this hell on earth ever again. But then it was never to be so. I returned again in the October of year 2017 and this time more as a tourist, rather than, as a veteran soldier in search of some nostalgia. A lots of water and blood had flowed down the Jhelum ever since I first stepped here in January of 1992. The landscape had completely changed and it was unrecognisable many a times.
Now there was a lots of economic activity seen around as compared to the nineties. Almost each village along the National Highway had a mini bazar and noticeably the Mutton shops now were lesser and stood outnumbered by the shops selling beef hanging by the hooks.
The traditional mosques were nowhere to be seen as they had been replaced by the beautiful multi storied Mosques. Society appeared highly radicalised. The schools girls could be spotted in burkas and the hijabs. Gone were the iconic Kashmiri conical skull cap, now replaced by the regular ones, seen in the subcontinent.
Lots of hoardings dotted the road sides, promising affordable higher education at various institutes. Interestingly there were some advertisings for Bangladesh’s medical and engineering colleges at affordable fee promising good Islamic culture.
Fifteen years is a long time since I first saw the valley in 1992. The perspective in 2017 had completely changed. The economic growth and prosperity was visible. It had manifested in all spheres. At public places the horrible body odour from Kashmiri folks was gone. They now wore good deodorants and perfumes. Youngsters were voguish and were captivated by the Mideastern fashion trends.
The common Kashmiri looked more confident and secure. There was a general desire to do well, do well for their next generation and their society.
During those five hectic days, I interacted with people from the border villages to those in the hinterland. From the surrendered militants to stone pelters and the Islamists. From Kashmiri policeman to Kashmiri soldier. From Kashmiri pandit families still living in the rural Kashmir, to those staying in Srinagar.
And above all, the numerous meetings and talks held with junior to very senior military officers. Not surprisingly, they too held an opinion that I hold in this changed paradigm.
This perception is different from what is generally held by the masses; a narrative, driven by our political parties and the private media.
In that series, I had an amazing interaction with Janab Shafiq Mir Sahab. Discussed issues confronting the Kashmiri people ranging from democracy and public participation in present situation, role of main stream political parties, the separatists to changing the perception of locals viz a viz the security forces.
Interestingly the role of national media and issue of internally displaced Kashmiri pandits was also discussed.
I could gather a sense from him, on, how the people at grassroots level view the things.
A perception not so different from what I already had. I feel it is time to re-discover Kashmir away from Abdullahs, Muftis, Geelanis, Gandhis and nationalists. It is time to prod the heart of Aam Kashmiri Awam.
It’s time to discover that division of opinion and isolate the idea of terror and talk about Azadi. Azadi from the proxies of Islamabad and Azadi from the dynasties. It is time for real democracy to percolate down to the grassroots. It’s time to give that tricolour in to the hands of stone pelters.
A herculean task that that can be achieved by simply creating a Nizam, “of the people, by the people and for the people”.
Exactly after one year on the same very dates I visited the Kashmir valley again. This time my visit was not as a tourist but as a military veteran to celebrate my battalion’s 52nd raising day.
Interacting with the commanders on ground right from the company commander to the General Officer Commanding, I got very good insight and sense of the situation prevailing in the Kashmir valley.
Some of my nagging queries got addressed, by those in contact and on ground. I was in search of answers to very basic questions. Like, why has there been a drastic reduction in the stone pelting incidents since the imposition of the Governors rule? Is the Hurriyat leadership our compulsive necessity, why can’t they be neutralised? Once the situation was brought under manageable control during the period of 2007-10, why did it slip out of control, escalating the violence levels to those of the 90s? And so on and so forth. I was keen on the military’s perspective.
The candid and forthcoming replies to each question was largely encouraging. But then the interpretation of some of these answers was a little frustrating as well.
In an interesting story narrated by one of the army officer, on how they had brought an end to the weekly Friday ritual of stone throwing at the army post at Soibugh village. This is the infamous village of Syed Salahudeen, who is the head of the terror outfit, Hizbul Mujahideen.
The officer said that it had become a routine. Come Friday and the crowd gathered around the post, shouted slogans and pelted stones. The exasperated and helpless troops inside their post had no option but to suffer this physical and psychological trauma to no end in sight. This business of stone pelting had developed into a very well-orchestrated affair. It had been rehearsed over the years and months to near perfection. These scenes gave fantastic visuals to the media and prompted fiery debates on the television prime time. It brought in a lot of publicity to the separatist cause. The logic got buried under the rhetoric.
The officer told how the gang of stone pelters would gather at the same time and place every Friday. Their exercise was supported by logistics loaded on a light vehicle. It included food and beverages. Stone throwing was followed by drinks and snacks. There was always an emergency medical assistance dedicated. It was kept handy, should the troops decide to retaliate, causing injury to the gang member.
As the political scenario changed in the valley so did the military hierarchy. This change was merely a coincidence. The new military commanders were now in charge of the situation that was under the Governors rule. This had a bearing. The civil police was more cooperating and forthcoming and so was the civil administration. The commander got on their job that they knew the best, conduct operations more military like.
So, it was decided by the military bosses, “let’s put an end to this weekly ritual and agony once for all”. A plan was drawn. It was decided to go step by step. Step one was to ask the villagers to stop this stone pelting, narrated the army officer, giving an animated account.
He told, how that meeting was organised between the village elders of Soibug village and the local military commander. And how the villagers putting up an innocent front, stuck to their stance, that these stone pelters were not the village boys. On the contrary they were the victims of the siege every Friday by these gangs. As per the villagers, these boys came from outside.
However the army maintained that these boys were from this village itself and the elders must step in to control this menace. No concrete conclusion emerged out of this meeting. The army officer delegation left after giving a stern warning of action, if the stone pelting was repeated on the coming Friday.
The army pulled out some old videos from their archives. The videos recorded each Friday were to come handy,not only in identifying each stone pelter individually, but also their leaders. This exercise completed, revealed that the majority including the ring leader were actually from this notorious village. Then came ‘the’ Friday, that these soldiers of this post were waiting for, for months.
Loud speakers were activated to warn the villagers from pelting stones. Simultaneously a marksman detailed for carrying out action as enunciated by the SOP in aid to civil authority. The stone pelters gathered soon after the prayers at the mosque. And advanced towards the post shouting Azadi slogans and Allah o Akbar.
While the troops in the post warned them over the loud speaker, the gang ignored the warnings and continued throwing stones. With no respite, company commander gave a go ahead to the marks man. By now the stone pelting was in full-spate, the marksman in position had fixed his crosshairs on the identified ring leader.
With an aim to incapacitate and not to kill. One shot was fired that hit the leg of the gang leader, injuring him. As he dropped on the ground, rest of the chicken hearted stone pelting gang ran for their lives leaving behind their leader. They peeped from the sides of the village huts and houses, as the army personnel came out of their post with the stretcher and evacuated this injured miscreant to the nearest hospital.
The village elders were this time called to the post. Next time if stone pelting happened, the fire will be to kill and not injure, warned the company commander. The message was well driven and the stone pelting that had acquired a status as a compulsive ritual, seized forthwith.
This story gives out how exactly the army deals with such situation amply clearly. But then the story also tells about the pressures the soldiers had to endure from the earlier political dispensation and the administration. This always comes in way of carrying out bonafide military tasks.
On the relevance of Hurrriyat, the response of senior army officers disheartened me of sorts. One of them said, “we need them as they are the acceptable political voices in this Proxy War”. Adding that, “if we eliminate them then the insurgency or the proxy war unleashed by Pakistan through various terror outfits could get out of their control into something as amorphous. The scenario could pan out something like the Al-Qaeda after the death of Osama Bin Laden. Or, even the illusive ISIS”.
Was this their personal opinion or assessment or was this the government’s policy? That I can’t really say, but yes they were all unanimous in their assessment. Hurriyat was a necessary evil.
In short one could safely draw a conclusion that the imagination and the desire to put an end to this Proxy War was either non-existent or simply, dead. Status-quo policy by the Indian government and its agencies should be a cause to concern of all. A policy that has clearly failed for near three decades continues to be a guiding term of reference in our war against terror.
Frustrating as it was to see us tread the same failed beaten track. Despite the feeling of hopelessness at the status quoist policy, there was something really delighted me. And that was ‘a one of’ the reason given for the violence spiralling out of control post 2010. This one issue perturbed many a soldiers like me. And that was the flawed policy of “JeeJanab” and “Sadhbhawna”.
As per the assessment of these army officers, a sense of overconfidence and victory in this Proxy War prevailed at large. Since the violence levels had dropped to the normal law and order statistics, there was smugness that had set in.
The elated mood lead the senior military hierarchy to prematurely take the operations into the next level of consolidation phase. One of the senior army officer with whom I was interacting with, said that during this period, the focus intelligence gathering and kinetic operations shifted in to misplaced concept of winning the hearts and minds through Sadhbhavna and JeeJanab.
This premature change in gears made the army loose its huge assets created over decades in human intelligence. Army was convinced that the war was over, it’s time to bring in the Paramilitary and move out. Thus the human intelligence sources were abandoned.
As the terrorism raised its ugly head again, the army was caught unaware and so the administration. The initiative was completely with the Pakistani proxies. There was a complete paradigm shift when compared with pre 2010 period. Army was now fighting the new radicalised phenomenon influenced by the global Islamic terror outfits in the Kashmir valley. A self-sustaining model was in place now. Social media and the internet provided secure platforms for self-radicalisation and recruitment.
Army had lost the art of intelligence gathering at the sabre end. Ironically, during the lull period of 4-5 years, when the army was busy constructing bus stands, community centres, repairing schools and building weaving centres and toilets. The ISI was working overtime along with their proxies in the valley, the Hurriyat and the Jammat. The ISI was preparing for a bigger battles at different levels. They were investing in, by radicalising the youth and replacing the Kashmiriyat by Madudi’s version of Islam.
In the meanwhile our Indian Army Generals were busy appearing on cover pages of lead current affairs magazines, seen appeasing the locals through JeeJanab. And their counterparts in the ISI were busy stitching up their new strategy.
Their strategy was multipronged. Harass the Indian army on the line of Control by insistent cease fire violations and BAT actions. Evolve innovative techniques to infiltrate terrorists and war like stores. Mobilise the youth into intifada like uprising under media glare. Aim at seeking high handed responses from the security forces and publicise. Make local heroes out of Kashmiri terrorists and galvanise the population through funerals and social media activism. Disrupt any political exercise and disrupt the civil administration at all levels. Bring in a sense of hopelessness amongst the security forces by carrying fidayeen attacks. Raise the Kashmir issue at all international forums.
The professional army as ours however regained the initiative soon. And today it is again riding on top of the situation. Thanks to the course correction and renewed vigour. Side-lining the concept of wining the hearts and minds through non-military operations like Sadhbhawna and JeeJanab. Army is in the open, ‘All Out’. Now they stand convienced that you only win the hearts and minds through relentless, precise and surgical intelligence based kinetic operations without collaterals. This convinces the population that their well-being and interest lies with the interest of the state and not by going against it. The point when you achieve this psychological parameter, you have actually won the hearts and minds of the population.
Unfortunately during run up to the state elections in November 2014, all the political parties colluded with the anti-national elements in seeking assurances on votes. Thus patronising those very elements that the Army was fighting all along. This in fact was the biggest factor which contributed to the tumultuous years under the PDP rule. Manifesting in street unrest.
I have realised that Kashmir is probably is the only region in the world where terrorism & insurgency coexists alongside steady development and economic prosperity.
Here there is no big industry as such but such beautiful houses, grand mosques and large number of cars are a real surprise.
A greater surprise is for a person like me who has seen Kashmir valley inside out since 1992 onwards. Despite terrorism and insurgency economic growth has been quiet steep, probably the fastest in the country.
But from where is this money coming from?
Traveling on the Srinagar-Uri road one realises that there are predominantly two types of shops in a sizeable count, cement & construction material shops or the mutton shops.
You will never come across a slum or a beggar anywhere in the Kashmir valley. Proper roads connect all the villages and non you would find without electricity, especially on the valley floor.
Blame it on this time of the year, I could not spot any great tourists activity either. On the airport roughly 80% of the transients were the soldiers traveling into or moving out of the valley and not the tourists.
Maybe the apple economy is flourishing and booming, giving that spin to the economy bringing this prosperity.
Or, is it the terrorism industry which is contributing to this economic boon ????
As I was writing this piece a news came which was out of the templet. It shattered the stereo type but never made the headlines, “an Army vehicle met with an accident in Kralpora of Kupwara district in North Kashmir and local Kashmiri youths helped and saved injured Army soldiers. Many of them even offered their blood to injured”.
The Army continues to eliminate the Pakistani terrorists as the democracy in the state graduates to higher level of empowering the local population at the grass roots level through the municipal and panchayat election. The encouraging voter turnout up to 80 percent at places in these local body elections and simultaneous kinetic operations eliminating the scholar turned terrorists, Manan Bashir Wani, raises hope for peace in this conflicted region of Kashmir.