Jammu & Kashmir

Fuelling fear

Print edition : October 14, 2016

Army jawans carrying the coffins of their colleagues who were killed in the Uri attack, at a ceremony in Srinagar on September 19. Photo: PTI

A view of the Army base which was attacked in Uri, west of Srinagar, on September 17. Photo: Nissar Ahmad

The terrorist attack in Uri which killed 18 Indian soldiers has generated fears about a resumption of hostilities across the border and added new dimensions to security concerns and political and diplomatic initiatives.

THE terrorist attack at Uri in Jammu and Kashmir on September 17 in which 18 Indian Army jawans were killed has sent shock waves through the country. The repercussions of the attack at the regional, national and international levels have added a new dimension in terms of security concerns, political discourse and diplomatic initiatives. The attack and the loss of soldiers’ lives have caused social anguish and anger. The perception that the heavily armed terrorists had infiltrated the Indian side from Pakistan after being trained in the neighbouring country has aggravated the anti-Pakistan sentiment. At the same time, the situation has also helped unravel, rather forcefully, the huge gap between mindless and jingoistic political rhetoric and realistic administrative and governance possibilities. At the level of international diplomacy, the repercussions have signalled the emergence of new and nuanced measures not only by India and Pakistan, the two countries directly affected by the attack and its fallout, but also by other major international players, including the United States and China.

Reports from Uri suggest that the local population has slipped back into fervent security anxieties reminiscent of the situation that existed in the region in the late 1990s. The region witnessed a number of attacks and counter-attacks involving alleged terrorist infiltrators from Pakistan and the Indian security forces in the days following the September 17 attack. The cumulative effect of this on the residents of Uri is one that has heightened their fear and anxiety.

Media reports as well as field assessment by security agencies underline the palpable fear in Uri and its adjoining areas that the situation in the region would return to the one that prevailed in the late 1990s, which was marked by incessant cross-border shelling and widespread destruction. The shelling was so regular and ferocious that the local population built bunkers at homes with the assistance of the government. The situation was addressed in a concrete manner in 2003 when India and Pakistan announced cessation of hostilities in the region. For the past 12 years, Uri had been peaceful compared with the rest of the Kashmir Valley. The normalcy had a positive effect on the economic welfare of the local population. However, the developments in mid September have generated such strong apprehensions about a resumption of hostilities across the border that the local administration has started receiving appeals from the people to help reconstruct bunkers.

The jawans who were killed in the attack hailed from different parts of India, and the arrival of their bodies in their respective States and their funerals triggered a huge outpouring of popular anger and grief. Four jawans were from Uttar Pradesh, three each from Bihar and Maharashtra, and two each from Jammu and Kashmir, West Bengal and Jharkhand, and one was from Rajasthan. Two sentiments were visible strongly at all the places where the bodies of the jawans arrived. First was the anti-Pakistan sentiment demanding immediate retaliation for the deadly attack.

The other was forceful expressions highlighting the disillusionment with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government in general and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in particular, over his government’s repeated failure on the national security front. In State after State questions were raised by relatives and associates of the killed jawans about the systematic failure of the Modi government in preventing attacks such as the one on Uri and earlier on Pathankot and Dinanagar in Punjab.

Along with this criticism, lampooning of the jingoistic rhetoric of Modi and his associates in the BJP and the larger Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh-led Sangh Parivar assumed enormous proportions in several public discourse platforms, particularly in social media. Modi’s trenchant criticism of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government immediately after the November 26, 2008, terror attack on Mumbai and his exhortation that the government must speak to Pakistan in the language that it understood, meaning aggression and violence, came up prominently as part of this discourse. BJP president Amit Shah’s famous statement in the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections asserting that “terrorists would not dare cross the border if Narendra Modi is Prime Minister” also came in for a fair bit of ridiculing.

There were also references to the abject surrender of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government before terrorists belonging to the Harkat-ul-Mujahideen, who hijacked an Indian Airlines flight to Kandahar in Afghanistan in December 1999. The government at the time paid a ransom to the hijackers for the release of the passengers they had held hostage. The comments that accompanied the recounting of these incidents were sarcastic, implying that the Sangh Parivar’s version of patriotism is jingoism along with surrender before terrorists.

Even as such comments were doing the rounds, Ram Madhav, the BJP’s Jammu and Kashmir in charge, came up with yet another rhetorical statement, immediately after the attack. He called for taking the whole of jaw (apparently of Pakistan) for a tooth. His advice was obviously in favour of retaliatory aggression, including “deep strike” inside Pakistan as advocated by some Sangh Parivar leaders such as Pravin Togadiya of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad.

Another aspect that came up as part of the discourse emphasised the mature and responsible response to the situation from the opposition parties, including the Congress. It was pointed out that unlike the BJP and Modi, the opposition parties had rallied around the security forces and the government in facing the challenge from external attackers.

In the days that followed, it became increasingly evident that the Modi government would not be able to embark on an adventurist course. High-level meetings involving senior defence officers, including service chiefs, and other experts with the Prime Minister and other Ministers called for a cautious approach and retaliation at a later stage. The understanding that Pakistan would be in a state of high alert and preparedness after the Uri incursion was also an important factor in arriving at this approach. In this context, the direction charted out was one of diplomatic offensive. The 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly, which was held on September 21, turned out to be a handy venue for this. India presented its case forcefully before the international community, winning indirect support from the U.S.

Bilateral outrage

At the same time, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif addressed the U.N. session raising the issue of Kashmir. His speech highlighted “Indian atrocities” in Kashmir, with references to the killing of Burhan Wani. He also called for the implementation of the Security Council resolutions on Kashmir.

The diplomatic thrust and manoeuvres of India and Pakistan in the General Assembly were perceived by long-time India-Pakistan watchers as yet another effort at fuelling bilateral outrage. The majority of them also believe that this is not going to dramatically alter the state of play in Kashmir. They point out that the balance of power is such that while the U.S. is increasingly accepting India’s positions on the security threat in Kashmir and in India as a whole, Pakistan has the resolute support of China, given its massive trade interests in Pakistan. Still, these experts opine, the primary option needs to be that of negotiation and diplomatic engagement rather than military aggression.

Even as this point of view is iterated, it is widely pointed out that the overall message given out by the Modi dispensation in relation to Pakistan is erratic and muddled. Modi started his innings as Prime Minister by inviting all heads of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries, including the Pakistan Prime Minister, for his swearing-in ceremony in 2014. This was followed by the cancellation of official-level talks, which again was followed by the “impulsive” visit to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s residence in Islamabad during his granddaughter's wedding.

Subsequently, Modi made the reference to Balochistan in his Independence Day speech this year with clear hints about supporting and promoting the separatist movement there.

A long-standing international affairs observer pointed out: “A doctrine of pursuing multiple options at the same time seems to be guiding this dispensation. It is evident in relation to all neighbouring countries, but more conspicuous in the case of Pakistan and Nepal.

“Happenings like Uri and its diplomatic repercussions point to the inadequacies of this sort of mixed-up pursuits. At the end of it all, you are left giving out the impression that you have no options, either diplomatic or military.”