The question of security

Published : Jul 08, 2000 00:00 IST

A political process like the grant of autonomy would do little to terminate violence as the terrorist groups draw much of their cadre from the narrow segment of Jammu and Kashmir that opposes the State's accession to India.


AKINGAM, on the road to Verinag, is best known for its folk performers, inheritors of an ancient tradition of singing at Sufi shrines. This artistic temperament has been suppressed by far-Right fiat - one bomb went off on June 17 at the Inayatullah Sahib Ziarat in nearby Kapran. Srinagar residents spend their time discussing whether or not autonomy is an acceptable alternative to azaadi (freedom). Akingam residents talk about paddyfields. They irrigate the fields late at night as that is when ele ctricity is available for pumpsets. Those working in the fields near Army outposts are sometimes beaten up; some in other areas have been shot at. Not surprising, for the sentries on night duty have reason to be nervous.

But it is strange that no one in power - not one of the massed ranks of legislators, parliamentarians and bureaucrats gathered to discuss autonomy - has seen reason to solve the problem. It is not that rural Kashmir is hostile to autonomy or unconcerned about it: the issue simply is not on top of the agenda. With good reason. Although the region is a major producer of fruits, there is not a single cold storage plant to store the harvest, or cooperative to market it. Businessmen from Ludhiana, Amritsar a nd New Delhi thus control the market. Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah frequently complains that his plans for a software technology park in Srinagar is treated with disdain. What is really surprising is that the State does not have any plans to build plan ts to process fruits, a relatively low-cost enterprise that has been demonstrated in Himachal Pradesh to have enormous impacts on the economy. Since State employment has been frozen, programmes for rural change could relieve pressure on rural households. But initiatives like introducing technology for a second crop are not discussed at all.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, most people in Akingam are not particularly impressed with the raging debate in Srinagar. "It'll be good if something happens," says Ghulam Hassan, "but, personally, I think this whole thing is a big drama." "I'm an actor," he add s wryly, "I ought to know."

Funnily enough, the men on the other side of the barbed wire fences seem to agree. Proponents of autonomy have argued that constitutional concessions will reduce the levels of public support for terrorism. Abdullah has repeatedly asserted that the wideni ng of the State's autonomy is the sole option available to avert secession. Senior members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Front (NDA) government have much the same to say, although only in private. The Union government's nasc ent dialogue with the All Party Hurriyat Conference (APHC) and moves towards autonomy, they say, are mirrored by the United States' pressure on Pakistan to restrain terrorist groups operating from its soil. Late in May, U.S. Under Secretary of State Thom as Pickering said in Islamabad that reductions in levels of violence were imperative to facilitate an India-Pakistan dialogue on Kashmir. Some observers say that pronouncement is beginning to reflect itself in reduced infiltration.

But few in the security establishment believe this optimism has any basis in the real world. Frontline has obtained access to estimates of transborder infiltration, put together from the Military Intelligence, Intelligence Bureau and the Jammu and Kashmir State intelligence estimates (see table). While these figures, based on source reports, surveillance and fire contact, are by no means authoritative, they do constitute a useful rough guide and are widely relied upon for planning. The figures sh ow that infiltration has indeed declined in the first five months of 2000. Just 429 terrorists, both of Kashmiri and foreign origin, came in across the Line of Control (LoC) in Jammu and Kashmir. The figure for 1999 was 824, it was 1,031 in 1998, 595 in 1997 and an enormous 1,863 in 1996, the year the first Lok Sabha elections in almost a decade were scheduled to be held in the State.

Many officials believe that the decline in transborder infiltration is not the result of U.S. pressure but the outcome of tactical decisions. More foreign and Kashmiri-origin terrorists have moved across the LoC in Jammu from January to May this year, fo r example, than at any point in the past. Within Kashmir, there has been a sharp decrease in movement, but at least two explanations are there for this phenomenon. For one, approximately two additional brigades have been deployed in counter-infiltration positions along the LoC. That has meant increased levels of fire contact along the LoC, making infiltration more difficult. Secondly, no movement of any foreign terrorists was reported from January to April in Kashmir, which appears consistent with Pakis tan's overall efforts to represent violence in the State as a purely local uprising.

Similar tactical shifts in infiltration have been evident before. The build-up to the contested Lok Sabha elections of 1996 saw unprecedented numbers of terrorists being pushed across the LoC, with a record 740 terrorists of foreign origin entering Kashm ir alone that April. The political marginalisation of the APHC following the return of the National Conference (N.C.) to power and the vigorous counter-terrorist campaigns of winter 1996-1997 saw that figure decline. Again, the coming to power of the BJP saw infiltration levels build up, a phenomenon particularly evident in Jammu, where communal massacres were executed to provoke Hindu retaliation, a tactic that had some success. After the 1998 Pokhran-II nuclear tests, infiltration figures dropped shar ply, generating more than a little complacency in New Delhi; with devastating consequences, statistics show, in the summer of 1999.

If infiltration figures offer no meaningful reason for optimism that international pressure on Pakistan could lead to a reduction in violence, neither do data on the actual ground position. In all, 610 separate attacks on security personnel have been car ried out throughout the State up to May, a substantial rise from 439 during the same period in 1999 (see table). About 153 security force personnel have been killed in these attacks, up from 102 during the corresponding period last year. Many have been v ictims not of frontal engagement but improvised explosives, mines and suicide attacks. Even the number of civilians killed by terrorists has risen, from 289 to 371. These figures suggest that whatever the U.S. pressure on Pakistan to de-escalate conflict in the State, it at best has had a limited effect.

If Srinagar, Jammu and other major cities have been relatively peaceful, at least in the context of public expectations after the recent fidayeen suicide squad attacks, it has little to do with larger political or diplomatic developments. The Stat e Criminal Investigation Department's fortnightly figures suggest that the only plausible explanation lies in the fact that terrorists have been eliminated in numbers unprecedented in recent years. About 576 terrorists, almost equal to the numbers believ ed to have entered, have been reportedly killed in the first five months of 2000, up from 374 between January and May 1999. Even more surprising, the ratio of security personnel killed to terrorists killed, which dipped to an unacceptable 1:1.63 in Augus t 1999, has also risen. These increases are surprising, since Army units are perceived as having been focussing on defence since the fidayeen attacks commenced.

Several factors appear to have led to the turnaround. For one, troops under the command of 16 Corps, headquartered at Udhampur, appear to have performed exceptionally well, along with paramilitary force personnel and the State Police's Special Operations Group. Some 276 terrorists, almost half the number killed this year, have been eliminated in Jammu, a reversal of the usual pattern. In general, both the 15 Corps at Srinagar and 16 Corps appear to have settled into counter-terrorist operations again af ter the enormous disruption caused by the Kargil conflict. Major General J.R. Mukherjee as Chief of Staff of 15 Corps, scheduled to replace Lieutenant-General Kishan Pal as Corps Commander, has also perhaps helped matters. The officer, whose sole vice ap pears to be smoking, maintains a spartan lifestyle and a low profile. "He is one of the few officers who does not play golf," says one colleague, "it means he has time to do his work."

WORK, it would appear, is most certain to be needed. Despite Pickering's warnings in Islamabad, there is no sign of the training camps in Pakistan being closed down or pushed back from the LoC. Indeed, over two dozen new camps are believed to have come u p. Many of these have been put up in the Lipa Valley, where some 19 are already believed to be functioning. There are unsubstantiated reports of terrorists being trained at Peshawar in use of napalm, and there is the worry that the use of shoulder-held m issiles or anti-aircraft guns against Indian helicopters is imminent. Any of these developments could provoke a sharp intensification of conflict and destroy the ongoing efforts to open some kind of political space in the State.

Much appears to depend on just what kind of leverage the U.S. has on the Pakistani government, and that in turn on the far-Right groups on its soil. The early signs are not encouraging. In an interview to The New York Times Magazine, published on May 25, Pakistan's military ruler General Pervez Musharraf defended groups such as the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, responsible for last year's hijacking of Indian Airlines flight IC 814 and a string of communal killings in Jammu and Kashmir. "These people," he said, "are not terrorists, they are fighting a jehad." "There is no question that terrorism and jehad are absolutely different," he continued. "You in the West are allergic to the term jehad but jehad is a tolerant concept." It is u nclear just how far Musharraf believes his own polemic, but its tenor appears to substantiate claims that the General is under enormous pressure from ultra-Right elements within the Pakistan Army.

If Musharraf at least has some vested interests in maintaining good relations with Pakistan's principal sponsor, most terrorist groups appear supremely unconcerned with what the U.S. wants or does not want. The Pakistani magazine Newsline reported last month that Masood Azhar, the cleric released in the IC 814 hostages-for-prisoners swap, had met Saudi billionaire Osama bin Laden and Taliban chief Mullah Omar to secure their continued support in the Kashmir issue. Azhar apparently needed backing for his newly formed Jaish-e-Mohammadi. The Jaish-e-Mohammadi was formed after a split in the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen and has been linked to sectarian killings within Pakistan. As the recent bomb blasts at the Red Fort in Delhi and the subsequent arrests of al-Barq personnel in the capital show, there are no signs of a rollback of the Islamic far-Right's campaign against the Indian state outside Jammu and Kashmir either.

It is also unclear whether even Kashmiri-dominated terrorist groups will respond to the ongoing political process. Six months ago, Minister of State for Home Mushtaq Lone controversially ordered the release of one-time Hizbul Mujahideen commander Ahsan D ar. Dar, a top figure in the organisation, had been arrested from the home of Lone's brother in 1993. The move was viewed widely as part of the N.C.'s efforts to recruit elements from the Islamic Right to its ranks and to undermine the APHC. In the event , it backfired. On June 30, Dar telephoned journalists to inform them that he was rejoining the armed struggle and reviving the organisation he had set up after leaving the Hizbul Mujahideen, the Ansar-ul-Islam. Police officials had opposed the decision to release Dar, predicting correctly that he would again engage in violence.

Evidently, rapprochement with the APHC, desirable as it might be, is unlikely to have much impact on the ground-level workings of violence in the State. As the data on transborder infiltration illustrates, the majority of terrorists entering the State ha ve been of foreign origin, from at least the middle of 1997. Secondly, while the grant of autonomy will vest democratic politics in the State with some legitimacy, this indisputable gain will do little to terminate violence. Jammu and Kashmir-based terro rist groups such as the Hizbul Mujahideen draw much of their cadre from the narrow segment of the State's people who oppose its accession to India. This category is unlikely to be moved by any political progress. Most ordinary citizens, for their part, w ill continue to be reluctant to confront armed terrorists, for the good reason that they value their lives.

One impact of the intemperate polemic directed at security forces in the course of the autonomy debate could be that the gains secured this year might evaporate. Shortly after the debate began, two N.C. legislators visited a senior Indian Police Service (IPS) official in Srinagar to complain that the bullet-proof cars allotted to them were not working. "Once you pass the resolution," the officer replied, referring to the N.C. demand for the removal of Central services personnel, "you can have mine." Man y officers complain that the Abdullah regime is already too autonomous for its own good. The unaudited secret service fund intended for counter-intelligence operations is held in all States by the Additional Director-General of Police in charge of intell igence. Control of the fund in Jammu and Kashmir was transferred last month to Principal Secretary B.R. Singh, along with the staff who handled it. The unprecedented decision took place after Additional Director-General of Police Rajinder Tickoo, perceiv ed as close to the Chief Minister, was transferred under Central pressure.

In late May, Director-General of Police Gurbachan Jagat conducted a recruitment drive in downtown Srinagar. It was the first of its kind in the area, long considered an impregnable fortress of anti-India organisations. Over a thousand youth queued up for jobs. About 206 were eventually hired. An incensed Hizbul Mujahideen shot dead four policemen the next day, a signal to the youth of downtown Srinagar of the risks of taking up the new profession. Incredibly, all the 206 recruits showed up the following morning to collect their appointment letters. The story helps at least in part explain why many youngsters get involved in terrorism. Economic change would not solve the problem of violence in the State any more than the restoration of autonomy would. I t might just, however, be more effective in breaking the power of far-Right terrorists than any constitutional change.

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