SUSHANT SINGH: There have been many developments in Jammu and Kashmir over the past two-and-a-half years, both political and in terms of internal security. Where and why, in your opinion, did things go wrong during this period?
In 2014-15, internal recruitment began increasing. More and more locals were joining (militancy). The numbers were not very large, 50-70, but as compared to 2011-12, where the figure was in single digits and most of the recruits were from across the Line of Control, it was high. These local recruits had family and friends in the region and when they got killed, there was more anger. Through 2015, for example, when there would be a search operation, locals would turn up in large numbers. During the attack on the Entrepreneur Development Institute (at Sempore-Pampore in south Kashmir’s Pulwama district in 2016), even women came out to stop military operations. So the frustration had been building for some time and it all finally boiled over in 2016.
The way in which the new political dispensation came into the state also contributed to the dissatisfaction. And Pakistan had a very large role to play. We often see the insurgency in Kashmir as an internal one, but it has a huge transnational character—arms, terrorists, funds, support, all of it comes from Pakistan.
They (Pakistan) were seeing a steady improvement in the situation; 2012, in fact, was the best year as far as controlling insurgency and violence was concerned. In 2016, Pakistan made an even bigger attempt to increase infiltration. All of these issues led to what happened in July 2016.
SUSHANT SINGH: Last year, when things were getting out of hand in J&K, you said politicians should step up and do more. Can you elaborate?
Militarily, I think, the situation has largely come under control. We hear of attacks such as the one in Pathankot and tend to think that the situation is getting bad. That is not true. Let me give you some data. I think 2001 was the worst year, and I am not talking purely from a security perspective, when the total casualties—civilians, military and terrorists—exceeded 4,500. In 2012, it was around 120-130, which is about 2.5% of the peak levels. For 2016, which is now being considered to be the worst year in the Valley, data shows that (the total number of casualties) is about 5-6% of peak levels. So, yes, we need to ensure that incidents such as Uri and Nagrota don’t happen, but from a security perspective, the situation has been contained to some extent. This, however, does not mean that things are completely under control and nothing more needs to be done. You now need a political approach to deal with the situation.
SUSHANT SINGH: How bad was the September 2016 attack on the Army base in Uri?
It was bad. I was sitting there and getting feedback and the number of casualties kept on increasing—10,12, 18—it was quite horrible to hear. One way of dealing with such a situation is to get completely defensive and make sure that the men of your garrison are okay. The other option is payback and that is what happened 20 days later.
SUSHANT SINGH: So the surgical strikes happened 20 days later. Can you tell us about that?
I cannot go into the details of what exactly happened. The government was clear that they wanted to put out a strong statement. That was the intent. There shouldn’t be a feeling that just because you are sitting on your (Pakistan’s) side of the LoC, you can’t be touched. That was the message that the government wanted to send out and it was a good one. I think in some ways it will dominate how we look at security in the future.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: So have surgical strikes never been conducted in the past?
I think it (the surgical strikes) was different in two ways. Firstly, in scale and scope, it was much larger than what had been done in the past, and I think the second thing was that the government stepped out and said, ‘yes, we did it’. That is how it was different from what happened in the past.
MUZAMIL JALEEL: You mentioned an increase in local recruitment. How does the military conduct operations in an area where a major chunk of the population does not want to be with the country?
As far as the issue of the majority of the population not wanting to be with India is concerned, I am not sure that is true, unless you are only referring to the Kashmir Valley and some elements there. It definitely doesn’t hold true for Jammu, Ladakh, Poonch, Rajouri districts etc. Yes, there is anger and a certain amount of angst among the youth. See, the answers are not difficult and it is not rocket science to understand what needs to be done. There is need for engagement, particularly with the youth. I think 70% of the population there is below 30 years of age. They don’t have opportunities. They are also reluctant to come out of the state. There is enough scope for generating employment. There is scope for talking to these guys, understanding what they need. We need to talk to the traders, taxi owners, people in the tourism industry, students, we need to talk to everyone.
I think there is a little lack of confidence in terms of what can be done. If you ask me, there are many opportunities within J&K. There is a huge tourism industry, there is horticulture, local handicrafts, but how do we utilise it? Ultimately, everyone wants a peaceful life. I don’t think anyone wants this turmoil.
MUZAMIL JALEEL: Now there is a complete freeze as far as engagement is concerned. Do you think there is a need for some kind of a political discussion?
There is a feeling that there is a complete freeze in engagement, but it has to be done. Political issues have to be addressed. As far as the question of the presence of the military forces on the ground is concerned, well, it is like the chicken and egg story. See, when things are peaceful, the guys (security forces) will move out. Though there is a feeling that the Army is not pulling out forces… Look at the Jammu region. Over a period of time, the region cooled down and forces were pulled out. Today the security cover is very thin. But what do you do when you have a situation like last year (in the Valley)? The state can’t abdicate its responsibility to establish law and order. So, we were forced to push in some additional troops to keep the situation under control. There are no immediate answers. There are no easy solutions. We need to sit down, put our heads together and find a solution.
SUSHANT SINGH: What is your view on the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act? Should it be done away with and if not, why?
Again we are looking at the situation from the wrong angle. Do we want the military to be in J&K or not, that is the basic issue. And if we think the military needs to be there, then there is no option but to have AFSPA. Otherwise, legally, the Army is not supposed to intervene in internal situations. Has the situation improved, and can we say that the military can be pulled out and things can be left entirely to the police and para-military forces? I don’t think we have reached that situation, although the Army has always held the view that internal security situations are best handled by the police.
SUSHANT SINGH: Should the Army find an alternative to AFSPA which is more palatable to the people?
There has been a fair amount of internal debate on whether some of the provisions can be done away with or can be diluted. We have not come to a consensus on that yet.
MUZAMIL JALEEL: The grievance in Kashmir is not just about AFSPA, it is also about the Army’s misuse of it. People cannot take the Army to civilian courts. Now, if the Army doesn’t trust civilian courts, then why will the people?
The fact that the military has its own justice system is not unique to India. Secondly, let me just clarify the legal provisions of AFSPA: It says if you want to prosecute somebody, you need sanction from the Central government. And again, the system of seeking sanctions from the Central government is not unique to the Army; it is there for government officials across the board.
There was a time, 10-15 years ago, when things were really looking bad but over the past five years, the Army has cleaned up its human rights record. People have been punished, they have been given life imprisonment. Now, we can’t explain why the civil court has acquitted somebody, that is the Indian justice system. We punish somebody, that person goes to court, the court acquits him, what is there for us to say?
MUZAMIL JALEEL: There is a feeling that the Army by not trusting any agency and by exonerating its people in court martials, has a free hand.
The issue is that the state has not been able to counter this kind of narrative. You keep hearing of things such as the Army is responsible for rapes and human rights violations, particularly in the international media. If you ask anyone when was the last time somebody was convicted for such a crime, there are no answers.
There is also a feeling in the military that sometimes we are being unfairly targeted. So many allegations of human rights violations have been proven false. An officer was charged with rape and he fought the case for 15 years in a civil court. Finally, he was acquitted. Consider the trauma that he went through. There is also a feeling that we should not subject our people to such an environment. Your promotions are stopped for 10-15 years, you keep fighting a case and then finally the charges are proven false. It is better then to take over the case and deal with it faster in our own military courts.
SHEELA BHATT: The PDP and BJP are parties with very different ideologies. Has the alliance made it difficult for security forces to handle the situation on the ground?
There hasn’t been any significant impact as far as military operations are concerned. We have remained independent and there has been no pressure from the political side to conduct operations in a certain way. I don’t think there was another option but for these two parties to join hands. That was the mandate.
P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: As far as the surgical strikes are concerned, was it a political call or more of a military consideration? Were the goals of the surgical strikes, in your assessment, met? There was also no independent assessment of, say, the extent of the damage?
The decision to make the strikes public was a political one. They decided that we want to make an announcement. They (the government) were fairly closely involved in the planning process, and decided that this is how we want to deal with the situation. The assessment of the damage, what exactly happened, the information is there but it is not in the public domain. That again is the decision of the government.
I don’t think we should look at it as one huge battle campaign and whether its objectives were met. People went, they came back, there were no casualties; for us, we couldn’t have asked for more. The primary difference between the past (operations) and this one was in terms of scale and scope, which was much larger and, the fact that the government decided to go public with this one.
PRAVEEN SWAMI: Are surgical strikes the only way to respond to big attacks conceptually or should we be considering other ways of dealing with the situation?
I think we need to have a whole range of responses, both overt and covert, depending on what we want to do. We should not rule out any option.
SUSHANT SINGH: So why did we not respond with surgical strikes after the November 2016 attack on the Army base in Nagrota, J&K?
We should not look at it like that. Also, not every operation is made public. How else do you deal with the threat from Pakistan?
PRAVEEN SWAMI: What, in your view, would be the benchmarks that would allow for a phased withdrawal of the Indian Army from a counter-insurgency situation?
It is very difficult to say. There has to be an assessment over a period of time. We have de-inducted two divisions from the Jammu region. In the past, we have pulled out troops from Kashmir and moved them into the Ladakh region. Actually, if you see, there has been a fairly steady reduction (of security forces). You don’t see it in the Kashmir Valley because everyone wears the same uniform. The CRPF and the Army are sort of wearing the same uniform and standing on the streets. Road protection is largely the responsibility of the CRPF, and you see so many of their men on the road that it appears like a huge militarised society. We have thinned out a lot but some minimum presence is required.
MANEESH CHHIBBER: When the Army goes into an operational situation such as the one in Kashmir, there is always a withdrawal plan. And if that happens, will it be a political decision or a call that the Army will take?
I think it can’t be a purely military or political decision; it will be a joint call.
SEEMA CHISHTI: How is the insurgency in Kashmir different from that in the Northeast?
I commanded my division in Manipur and I have seen things fairly closely there. The basic principles while handling insurgencies is the same — a people-friendly approach, operations have to be conducted in small teams, locals shouldn’t be arrested etc. Having said that, the insurgency in the Northeast is completely different from J&K. In the Northeast, each state has a different dynamic. Also, the media doesn’t cover much of it.
ANANT GOENKA: On Kashmir, where does the relationship between the Army and the government stand as of today?
I think as far as our ability to advise the government is concerned, there are no problems there. Obviously the government gets advice from various agencies, the primary source being the Ministry of Home Affairs, which is actually supposed to deal with such a situation (Kashmir).
SUSHANT SINGH: Lieutenant General Praveen Bakshi served under you as Chief of Staff in the Northern Command. General Bipin Rawat was your colleague as an Army commander. What do you make of the fact that the government of the day superseded two senior officers and selected General Rawat as the Army chief?
The government had the power to take a decision and they have taken it. My suggestion is that time has passed and we need to put this behind us. I am saying this for two reasons: One, you have General Rawat as the chief and he needs all our support. As for Lt General Bakshi, I have known him personally, he is an outstanding professional and one of the most honourable men I have met. There was some chatter in the media, but we must put this behind us now.
SUSHANT SINGH: You have served in the Army for close to 40 years. Any regrets, or anything you would have done differently?
I don’t think so. Yes, there were times when I didn’t see certain things coming. For instance, when the Uri attacks took place, I went on record to say that it will all be over in 10 days. Things carried on for four months… One can sometimes misread the situation. Everything was not perfect, there are incidents you regret, that you wish hadn’t happened. Uri, beheading of somebody… but you know you have to take the good with the bad. Overall, the experience has been extremely satisfying.
This session was held on February 10