Syed Ata Hasnain
Army personnel stand guard at Bandipora in Jammu and Kashmir. (Express Photo: Shuaib Masoodi)
Given the developing regional geopolitical environment at the end of 2018, the feasibility of any movement towards “meaningful” engagement with Pakistan in 2019 appears remote. This hypothesis will have the maximum impact on the situation in J&K, where we can currently boast of military achievements through 2018 but little else. These achievements have resulted in neutralising a large number of terrorists, mostly local. But, they have created an almost similar number of terrorists through recruitment and infiltration, leaving us in sheer quantified terms, where we began in 2018. Politically, the state transited to Governor’s and then President’s rule. It witnessed the successful conduct of the municipal and panchayat polls; but the true proof of success will emerge only when a degree of empowerment of the local bodies occurs. There can be little doubt that the stabilisation of the security situation is necessary for the emergence of initiatives in political, social and economic spheres. While the governor’s administration gamely attempts transformational governance without the baggage of politics, what it could be missing out on are the much-needed and oft-demanded initiatives of public outreach.
Surprisingly, the one community of professionals who vouch for the effectiveness of non-military initiatives are military commanders, past and present. Experienced police officers too are of the same opinion. While the army’s Operation Sadbhavna (a military civic action initiative of 20 years) has helped in extending marginal outreach, the lack of mass engagement has prevented the development of any perception change and the creation of alternative narratives to counter the propaganda from Pakistan and the separatists. The army’s initiatives are personality and formation based; the J&K Police is far too embroiled in policing issues. The CRPF, deployed in strength in the urban areas, has been insufficiently used. The political community is largely marginalised in the Valley heartland due to personal security issues and the local administration, despite having some experienced officials, cannot initiate social outreach measures.
Thus, while every well-meaning person in the rest of India decries the insufficiency of outreach and inability to counter propaganda from Pakistan and the separatists, what has been severely lacking, in fact, is the institutional will to follow a doctrine which has existed for long, but without detail on the execution element. It would be sacrilege to not point out one organisation which has the understanding and has been making efforts towards counter-radicalisation: The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). However, isolated efforts by different organisations prevent the emergence of a cogent strategy. This needs to be overcome in 2019. There are four areas in this “outreach strategy” that need refinement and coordination by all stakeholder organisations. The intelligence agencies need to provide their support.
The first involves direct outreach. A model for that exists from 2010-12 when the army successfully undertook the conduct of public meetings or “awami sunwais” in the field in areas where the reach of the administration had become marginal. In a short while, there were political leaders and administrators clambering on to the bandwagon under the security cover and characteristic “bandobast” of the army. Local problems that were languishing over time were corrected by officials through direct contact with the people. It gave an opportunity to the leaders and the administrators to listen to the people. A deliberate effort was made to engage with the youth through meetings at universities and schools, something that is difficult to imagine today. The recruiting rallies for different central and state institutions must be exploited for such windows of engagement, as the youth is usually in a different frame of mind while seeking employment opportunities. The idea here must be to give maximum opportunity to the common citizens to speak, criticise and complain, so they can realise that there are enough people willing to listen rather than talk down to the common Kashmiri.
The second element is to engage the clergy and, through that route, seek its cooperation in messaging the youth and others on the uniqueness of the Indian system. The clergy has a powerful hold over the public in any Islamic society — to the less informed, this need not necessarily give the perception that it is an unnecessary boost to the position of the clergy that might prove counterproductive later.
The third aspect of the strategy is the exploitation of social media, as much as the countering of online propaganda. Surprisingly, intelligence agencies, the MHA itself and the army’s public information directorate, have all understood the concept but are hesitant to join forces due to lack of trust and the potential loss of individual space. This was the problem with the domain of intelligence 15 years ago until the Multi Agency Centre (MAC) and the State MAC came into existence, and organisations put their minds and efforts together. The army’s focused information warfare at the Corps and Command level is simply outstanding, but exists in isolation. In the recent military literature festival at Chandigarh, I strongly recommended the need for 5,000 young civilian “information warriors” under the aegis of a joint organisation under the Unified Command in J&K. It will give the requisite continuity, technology and content support to the campaign.
The fourth, and final domain, recommended for activation in 2019, is the setting aside of the mutual fears of the people of Jammu and of Kashmir and bringing the people of Ladakh into this ambit as well. If the people of these regions have to live together as an entity of one state, they need to stop suspecting each other. Through the ambit of the central and other universities in the state, we need to create a platform for the “meeting of minds” from all three regions and from different professions and callings.
Operation All Out will no doubt continue successfully through 2019, but it should become a supporting campaign to the four initiatives outlined above instead of the other way around.