Get it right in J&K: Correct security perceptions

Syed Ata Hasnain

With Pakistan on the backfoot in the economic and diplomatic domains and the FATF (Financial Action Task Force) verdict hanging over its head, the relative stability in the Kashmir Valley this summer was being ascribed to it having taken a step back in its support to the proxy war. However, over the past fortnight or so, the security situation in South Kashmir has deteriorated sharply once again, bringing to the fore a series of media commentaries and social media posts on the need for a policy review. While some of the suggestions are useful reminders, there are some outlandish views on the issues at hand, flagging how poorly understood is the entire gamut of security handling in the troubled zone. Before anything else, India’s security forces need to be complimented for their achievements and the continuity of professionalism, despite several attempts at manipulating opinion against them.
One media commentary suggests it would be better if the Army keeps focus on the borders and stops cross-border terror incursions, as the paramilitary forces and the state police tackle the internal turmoil, particularly in South Kashmir. It can’t get more flawed than this and recalls another commentary six years ago when a well-known media personality suggested that the Army must give back a part of the then peace dividend to the people of Kashmir by moving back to the Line of Control and leaving the hinterland to policing for security. If someone had accepted that idea, the fate of Kashmir in 2016 after Burhan Wani’s killing may have been quite awkward. Obviously, even India’s intellectual community knows little about how J&K has been and is being handled from a security angle. A little recall would be in order.
In 1989-90, when J&K was all but lost, the Army was deployed at the LoC in the primary role of ensuring its sanctity. The internal upsurge in the hinterland, which had full support from Pakistan, understandably proved too much for the police forces to handle. Since it was close to a near-warlike situation, the Army was rushed in to handle the hinterland and at the same time plug the infiltration from the LoC. Given the Army’s authorised strength, to fight a proxy war within would mean a near permanent deployment of those elements that otherwise would do service at the border and enhance our capability to take the fight beyond when necessary. That’s when the Army came out with one of its boldest and most successful military experiments, the raising of the Rashtriya Rifles (RR). The RR now has 63 units of six companies each. The units are each 1,150 strong, almost one and a half times the strength of individual infantry units which man the LoC or are designed to fight across the border. RR units are organised for giving the maximum bang for the buck, with minimal logistics elements and manned on a rotational basis with affiliation to infantry regiments and other units of the Army. They remain deployed in the hinterland in a near permanent grid, overcoming the problem faced due to frequent turnover of infantry units from the peace to field profile; the latter is a necessity to keep the conventional fighting capability of the infantry and other arms units intact outside their secondary role of counter-terror (CT) operations. The secondary role of other Army units is the primary role of RR, which keeps it ever geared for operations in the No War-No Peace CT grid. India could not have done it more brilliantly. Progressively, over time, with some bold measures, the adoption of refined concepts of CT operations, excellent synchronisation, coordination and cooperation with the J&K police and the CRPF, a winning formula has emerged. The sabre element of this combine remains the RR, which is essentially the strike element.
In Kashmir alone over 40 units are deployed in a grid system. This grid holds the fort and prevents freedom of action to terrorists. There is tremendous intelligence and liaison support from the J&K police, with add-on value of local knowledge. The CRPF does a thankless and most difficult task of containing civil strife and adding its weight to anti-terror operations, besides holding and dominating the urban areas. It’s a well-oiled machine with the right concept and mix. This is the concept which has helped reduce the overall strength of terrorists from the high of 5,000 to just around 350 today. This is best gauged by the quantum of terrorist neutralisation in 2001, 2018 and 2019. In 2001, the Army neutralised 2,100 terrorists, the highest number in the 30-year proxy war. In 2018, the figure was 253, and in 2019 it is 115, at the halfway mark. Yet, the numbers do not always tell the full story.
What’s important for the public and the media to know are a couple of truisms about CT operations. First, the residual strength of 350 terrorists does not mean that the job is almost done. Remember the age-old adage — “absence of violence is never normality”. The scope for surge always exists in CT operations; it happens when you take your eyes off the grid under a mistaken perception that the troop presence is no longer required when violent incidents have reduced. Second, in a CT operational environment experienced hands will tell you that terrorists may be neutralised in a zone, but networks of overground workers (OGWs) remain intact. These are the basis of surge when the eyes are off. This is exactly the mistake made in South Kashmir, which at one time in 2013 appeared absolutely normal. Third, the nation feels rightly dismayed when casualties occur in a sudden spurt of operational activity. Terror is all about unpredictability. Inevitably there will be phases of high and low. What is little realised is that own casualty figures inevitably rise in proportion when the terrorist strength reduces. This is caused by two things. There is the urge to seek and destroy the rump strength, leading to some haste and reduction of the guard. In addition, with the terrorists concentrated in a few sub-zones like Shopian and Pulwama, the units deployed there face the brunt. Units such as 44 and 55 RR of the Army have been prolific in their areas, but have also faced casualties, which are sometimes avoidable but not always. The terrorists do not sit on their haunches and are always on the lookout for innovations. Recently, steel bullets which can penetrate Kevlar bulletproof jackets have been acquired by them as has IED material for more car bombs.
The misnomer that this situation can be handled without the RR is a dangerous thought, replete with scope for a disastrous surge which can occur if a mistake is made. In addition, remember that the RR units are also additional forces for manning the LoC in wartime, relieving regular infantry units for offensive tasks. With their blooded experience, these RR units have the potential to perform creditably in conventional battle, at least in a defensive role.
Let the leadership listen to the experience of military commanders, who will surely not recommend something that will be counterproductive for national security.