National Interest: Disarming Kashmir

Written by Shekhar Gupta | New Delhi | Updated: Dec 7 2013, 20:27pm hrs
Shekhar GuptaUse Modi's call for debate on Art 370 for a bold rethink begin with role of the army.
Use Modi's call for debate on Art 370 for a bold rethink begin with role of the army.

First, a disclosure. Narendra Modi's call for a fresh debate on Article 370 is not the provocation for this week's 'National Interest', though it could very well have been so. My inspiration, on the other hand, was more personal. At breakfast in a hotel coffee shop in Mumbai last week, a guest walked up. After saying nice things to me about our paper, he said he had only one complaint: that we had paid no attention to the plight of Kashmiri Pandits, while we go on and on about the Gujarat riots of 2002. I argued it wasn't a zero-sum game and both were terrible contemporary tragedies, and that it wasn't fair to say that the media had underplayed one while exaggerating the other.

But an argumentative Indian doesn't give in so easily, particularly one who is a regular Indian Express reader. So he asked me how exercised anybody had been about the "half a million Pandits exiled" from Kashmir and "2,000 killed in cold blood", while "a thousand Muslims killed in Gujarat" was such a big story. He said he wasn't a Kashmiri Pandit either. He had merely married one.

Now, there is nothing more painful, even infuriating, than the idea that the lives and safety of one set of your countrymen be valued differently from another's, just because they happen to be from different faiths or regions. So I said, at the risk of over-simplification and with some convenient rounding off of numbers, that if you think a half million Pandits were exiled, a half million Indian soldiers armed with the most illiberal of laws have been fighting to "rectify" things in the state. And if you say that 2,000 Pandits have been killed, something like a hundred thousand Kashmiri Muslims have been killed (though not all necessarily by our soldiers) in Kashmir's 24-year maelstrom (remember, the attacks on Pandits started in 1989). So what are you complaining about But if you think that was crude on my part (which it was), listen to his response: "Oh, really, that many Kashmiri Muslims have been killed! Then it's ok. But why isn't the media telling the world that" I realised that this argument was going someplace I did not particularly want to go. Definitely not when a very busy day was just beginning.

It was the very same afternoon that Modi made his statement on Article 370, and it was interesting coming from somebody ranking at the very top of secular demonology. It is early days, but I'll stick my neck out and say it is the first time you have heard a new idea on India's most significant internal and external security challenge from a BJP leader since Atal Bihari Vajpayee's brilliant and statesmanly offer to talk to Kashmiris within the framework of "insaniyat" (humanity) and not limit himself to that cliched parameter, India's Constitution. Vajpayee knew better than most that the deepest, most painful scars are emotional. The healing touch for them has to be emotional too. It can't be a few more leaves out of your chequebook, nor any further tightening of the spiral of curfews and executions.

If you were a strategic affairs analyst, one of your biggest frustrations with the UPA would be that it has wasted 10 years of peace, so rare in India's history. In these 10 years, India could have embarked on an irreversible and visionary modernisation, re-equipping and re-orienting its armed forces. But given the Bapu Nadkarni-style leadership of our defence establishment, we have avoided any change or risk-taking altogether (Nadkarni rarely let anybody score or got him out, he also tried not to get out by not scoring. He holds the one Test cricket world record that will forever remain Indian: 21 consecutive maiden overs, against the usual suspect of the Sixties, England. And had figures of 32 overs, 27 maidens, 5 runs, and most importantly, no wickets). All three wings of our armed forces are doctrinally where they were in 2004 and have the same weaponry, too. But more importantly, this Nadkarni mindset has infiltrated strategic policymaking as well. A government that made such a revolutionary strategic shift by signing the nuclear deal with the US and was rewarded for it by voters in 2009 has not come up with one new idea or initiative on Kashmir. The one political initiative it took, the appointment of a team of interlocutors, was dumped and their report put in cold storage.

Because its politics is frozen, it has introduced an unprecedented new factor in Indian policymaking: a veto for the army. So the government, the prime minister, would want to settle Siachen and even think it is low-hanging fruit. But what to do, the army doesn't agree. Of course, with such relative peace and normalcy on the ground, there is scope for a partial thinning of army presence and at least some symbolic dilution of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. But no, the army vetoes it, and does so in public. So which country are we living in

Nobody wishes to be confused with facts these days, so why blame my outraged new friend at breakfast. Yet, we must state them. At the peak of the Kashmir insurgency, we would lose up to 500 soldiers a year. The graph has declined so dramatically and progressively since 2003 that in all of 2012, only 17 of our uniformed men lost their lives in and around the Kashmir Valley. Civilian casualties have declined accordingly. An armed skirmish now takes place once in a few months. I am conscious of the protests this will bring. As also of the dangers of over-simplification. But I cannot help underlining what one of India's most respected former (and soldierly) generals, with five tenures in Kashmir, tells me. That in the past five years, the army has built more new golf courses and guest houses in Kashmir than the number of encounters it's had to fight.

If you are a student of modern military history, you can see how difficult armies find it to return home in victory. A retreat in defeat leaves you no choice. But a retreat in victory, get your head examined. But leaders, political and military, who are more far-sighted and large-hearted than this turn the course of history. As Indira Gandhi and Sam Manekshaw did after 1971. From the day of the Pakistani surrender, they embarked on a prompt and decisive withdrawal plan. On the other hand, Vajpayee, Brajesh Mishra and L.K. Advani lost their "victory" moment during Operation Parakram. On January 12, 2002, within the first month of the Parliament attack and military build-up, Pervez Musharraf made his most grovelling speech ever, even talking of handing over the 20 on India's most wanted list if they are found in Pakistan, because "we have not given asylum to anyone". That is when the NDA should have declared victory in coercive diplomacy, and without having to fight a war they had never intended to. But they missed it and wasted almost two years searching for face-savers.

In the Valley today, if there was a military objective, it has been achieved. You can't be so stupid as to suggest we declare victory against our own people. But the fact is, the Lashkars have been roundly defeated in the Valley while they play havoc in Pakistan and savour a big forthcoming victory in Afghanistan. Such a significant change on the ground has to reflect in our policy on Kashmir, and towards Kashmiris. If the people of Kashmir have given us back peace and tranquility, they deserve a thank-you note. And because the army has delivered as much as any tough modern army could, it needs a respite too. So strengthen the LoC even more than before, but do de-escalate within the Valley. Let the people of Kashmir also start enjoying the fruits of peace in dignity. And if any Hizb or Lashkar thugs again surface some place, you can easily confront them with overwhelming force within minutes. This war was not against our own Kashmiris, Hindu or Muslim, nor between them. This was a proxy war launched from Pakistan and they have been defeated. Why then should Kashmir remain frozen now Why should the Kashmiris be condemned to even less aspiration than their fellow Indians in Chhattisgarh

That is why the time to think creatively is now. Politics has to build on military success. Armies that stay on too long after fulfilling their immediate task tend to become lazy and complacent, even if not armies of occupation. Just to mention four recent examples: the 16 Cavalry HQ, raided by a Lashkar gang on September 26, had just one sentry at its entrance. The eight Assam Regiment soldiers killed in an ambush near Srinagar were returning from leave, in uniform, but were not carrying any arms. The five-man patrol annihilated on the night of August 5 in the Poonch sector, was probably caught napping, literally. And two soldiers of the 13 Raj Rif Regiment were earlier waylaid and killed in the Mendhar region in January. The lesson is, no army can stay fully at battle-stations even in times of peace. And no democracy can wait till its army can declare victory against its own people.

We have to learn from our own history of settling the Naga and Mizo insurgencies. You prove your military strength, but leave the final solution to open-minded negotiators and politicians. Kashmir is at that inflection point now. That is why Modi asking for a debate on Article 370, while his party has a six-decade-long holy commitment to abrogate it, is a welcome change. Kashmir is crying out for a new set of peacetime and political ideas. You cannot find a Kashmir settlement with Pakistan before embracing your own Kashmiris and restoring trust with them first.