By Syed Ata Hasnain
Pakistan’s most well-known strategic weapon is denial. For many years, the neighbouring country has been planting this strategy in the minds of its surrogates in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). The most recent tactic has been to either execute an act or set it up, in order to trigger violence, by taking the situation to its tipping point.
Soon after, unbridled violence is unleashed, which is countered by retaliation from the security forces, civilian casualties are exhibited, and it is ensured that there are enough voices against the security forces, calling out their ‘overreaction’ and denying the extreme provocation that led to their actions.
This is accompanied by painting a bad picture of the actions taken by security forces against the supposedly innocent perpetrators of acts such as stone throwing, lynching and also vandalising service vehicles.
‘Burden of Proof’ Lies With Army
The purpose is clear. Put the burden of proof on the security forces since the democratic values of India allow sufficient freedom to differently aligned interest groups to politicise the issue. Let the locals be the martyrs and the security forces (mainly the Army) be the villains, and put immense pressure on the soldiers to defend themselves against an FIR, notwithstanding the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (1990) or AFSPA (1990), which many in Kashmir assume is a legislation to allow the Army to act unchecked.
All this needs clarification, and it’s best done using the 27 January 2018 case of the killing of two alleged stone throwers, who were part of an allegedly murderous mob in a village in South Kashmir’s Shopian district, by soldiers who were attempting to protect a convoy of empty vehicles being driven to the unit.
A convoy of 10 vehicles, commanded by a young Army Major and guarded by a small protection party, was being driven from Srinagar to Balapur, near Shopian town. A week prior to this, a militant had been killed in a village near Balapur. When the convoy entered the village, a stone-pelting mob of about 250-500 young men attacked it. The Major kept his cool and managed to get six vehicles out of the village. However, four straggler vehicles under a Junior Commissioned Officer (JCO) took a wrong turn and got stuck in the village.
The mob took out its wrath on this group, almost lynching the JCO and another Jawan, even as they tried reasoning with them. When guns firing into the air did not disperse the mob, an accompanying Havaldar was compelled to open fire to extricate the damaged vehicles.
Coming in the line of fire, two young men lost their lives, while a few others escaped with injuries. Seven Army men were injured in the process too.
Taking Stock of the Situation
Separatists have been attempting to instigate Army & security forces to retaliate disproportionately
This act allows locals to emerge as martyrs & security forces to look like villains
While FIRs against stone pelters are being revoked, new FIRs continue to be filed against Army personnel
By coming close to 20 m of firing range, leaderless frenzied mobs in J&K are virtually signing a suicide pact
But the Army has so far responded professionally
Army’s actions in certain incidents like the one on 27 January 2018 (killing of 2 ‘stone-pelters) is justified
Politicians remain ignorant of ‘new Kashmir narrative’ which aims to antagonise the Army
Earlier, mobs were often dispersed by the sheer charisma of officers, which is no more the case
‘New Kashmir Narrative’ Against Security Forces & Army
An FIR was lodged against the Army unit and a magisterial inquiry was ordered. Consequently, the J&K Assembly witnessed pandemonium with the Opposition demanding arrest of the 'killers' while the perturbed Chief Minister, telephoned the Raksha Mantri to express her anguish against the Army's inability to hold its fire.
This is not the first time an incident of this nature has occurred. I remember the burning of an 18 Kumaon Regiment truck in August 2008 and of a 319 Field Hospital’s ambulance the following year. In both incidents, the Jawans managed to escape harm by deft handling, but lost their vehicles.
The targeting of uniformed people to cause greater instigation in the hope of an out of proportion retaliation is a ploy that is being increasingly played out in the ‘new Kashmir narrative’ by separatists and Pakistan's Deep State. Ayub Pandit’s (of the J&K Police) lynching outside the Jamia mosque in Srinagar is still fresh in our collective memory.
The response of the Army and police forces so far has been professional, and even the incident near Balapur falls within the realm of ‘controlled response’, otherwise a score of young people may have suffered fatally.
Unfortunately there is little understanding of this ‘new narrative’ in Kashmir among politicians, and the security forces have done insufficient sensitisation with regard to this.
In a television debate, a well-meaning political personality inquired of me as to why soldiers cannot fire at such mobs, targeting them below the knees. But experience tells me that soldiers invariably attempt to reason with mobs.
Sensitisation among Politicos Needed on New J&K Narrative
In the past, mobs were often dispersed by the sheer power of the personas and persuasiveness of officers. However, this sort of diplomatic negotiation seems to be a thing of the past, and lynching appears to be the intended trigger to attract a stronger response.
In internal security situations, the Army teaches soldiers to identify a mob leader/instigator and fire a single round below the knees. However, some of these are not standard internal security situations. The mobs are increasingly leaderless, frantic and driven to frenzy, by well camouflaged instigators.
The mistake which soldiers often commit is to allow mobs to close in as near as 20 metres and then attempt action. The only option then is to fire in self defence in virtual panic. Yet, each situation has its own dynamics and it’s impossible to dictate rules of engagement.
Political parties must rise above narrow interests to prevent actions by soldiers being repeatedly questioned. In the current scenario, in which FIRs against stone pelters (both first time and second time offenders) are being withdrawn, while the Army continues to have fresh FIRs lodged against its personnel, there is enough reason to be irked. The narrative thus, sounds awkward and unappealing.
Need to Revise AFSPA
Lastly, those favouring no inquiry against the Army may recall that the AFSPA does not actually offer immunity to soldiers with the exception of the authority to sanction a prosecution being solely with the Central Government (making it thus, very difficult to sanction such a prosecution).
An inquiry report is a must if the Central Government has to give protection to soldiers for such inadvertent acts. But perhaps the provisions of the AFSPA are still weak, and there is need for the experiences of the Kashmir insurgency (of 28 years) to be better incorporated in the law through revision and amendment.
Whatever actions are taken by different stakeholders, the most important needs to be the sensitisation of all towards the negative narratives being mooted by Pakistan and the separatists.
Syed Ata Hasnain is a retired Lieutenant General in the Indian Army. He is now associated with the Vivekanand International Foundation and Delhi Policy Group.