Indian Army guard a street in Srinagar on April 16, 2016

Source: PTI

There are many prisms of looking at Kashmir, it depends entirely on which side of the political divide one stands. However, the fact is this month has seen the return of the classic game of smoke and mirrors in Kashmir Valley. Once again, the very kernel of civil disobedience and mob fury is the Indian Army. As always, there are a zillion reasons emanating from the rumour factory, so wildly imaginative in the Valley. The fragment of truth is lost in a blizzard of half truths, lies and deceit. Flashpoint this time round was the April 12 Handwara killings, followed closely by the Kupwara killings. The 'mysterious' incident involving a 16–year old girl has seen five people shot dead in the following violence. North Kashmir has emerged as the new centrifuge of infiltration in the Valley with its vast jungles, treacherous terrain, quarries and high mountain passes. The counter terrorism grid shuts out the 'visitors from the across the border.

In a clear change of strategy, the terror factory has decided to up the ante on North Kashmir instead of being active in South Kashmir. The casualties have been high on both sides. It is pertinent to understand the art of war in Kashmir. The Brookings Institute encapsulates it best: "The Pakistani military has relied on "asymmetric warfare" — using jihadi fighters for its own ends. This strategy goes back to over 30 years. Since the early 1980s, the ISI has consciously and consistently funded and incubated a variety of Islamic extremist groups. For the Pakistani military, the existential threat posed by India has taken precedence over all other geopolitical and economic goals." The brutal manifestation of this doctrine is a place called Kashmir.

Why is the Indian Army important in Kashmir? More so over the last 26 years. Its strong visual reference in everyday life is deep rooted in the psyche of the common Kashmiri. More often than not, it gets tarred for the sins of the para militia and the J & K Armed Police, though even its own record is not completely unblemished. When you are facing a proxy war for over two decades, there will always be excesses and violations. Running a security grid, which operates on the principle of a concentric circle, Army apparatus runs deep and wide. As former Chief of Army Staff Gen. Bikram Singh once explained, the importance of keeping the Army presence in Kashmir Valley is a necessity and not a luxury.

A September 15, 2010 unified command meeting altered the contours when an urban-rural division was outlined for the Army and the para military. Counter insurgency and counter infiltration became the edifice of the Army's operational theatre while crowd control became the duty of the para military and J & K Armed Police. The sheer granularity of the counter terrorism matrix runs all the way from the LoC and IB (International Border) right into the innards of Srinagar city and other towns. Mind you, the role of the Army and the para military/J & K Armed Police cannot be divorced completely for intelligence gathering and relaying from ground zero up going into integrated chain of commands. So, let us say, Kashmir is complex, though actually that would be a gross understatement.

There are over 300,000 Army soldiers both along the border and for counter insurgency operations in Kashmir Valley. While the Northern army command is based in Udhampur, there are three Corps — 14 (Leh), 15 (Srinagar), 16 (Nagrota), with around 60,000 troops each. They are on the outer periphery of the concentric circle as it winds inwards. Add to this the counter terrorist force — Rashtriya Rifles, drawn from the 'ghatak' platoons of the Army which has 62 batallions (all told around 70,000 soldiers).

This is the dangerous and most ruthless element of the Army, which is involved in combing and search–and–destroy operations against insurgents. Lately, it has been extremely successful in North Kashmir (Handwara and Kupwara). The Rashtriya Rifles itself has five division–like headquarters — Delta force: Doda, Kilo force: Kupwara and Baramulla, Romeo force: Rajouri and Poonch, Victor force: Anantnag, Pulwama, Badgam and Uniform Force: Udhampur. Over and above this, the 26 Infantry division (approximately strength 20,000) is based in Jammu which comes under the Western army command headquarters in Chandimandir. It is the Indian Army which is playing sentinel on the borders and fighting back the might of the proxy war. A high price has been extracted from these jawans and officers who have fought hard to keep Kashmir safe from Pakistani designs for close to 26 years.

Now let us come to the most dreaded man in Kashmir, Masrat Alam Bhatneo — radical and ideological heir to Hurriyat boss Syed Ali Shah Geelani, who is ageing and ailing. Representing the ultra-separatists, Alam has been involved in every serious skirmish over the last 10 years. In and out of prison, he showed his rising might when, in 2007, he organised a shut down of Mirwaiz's strong hold of downtown Srinagar and followed up by displaying his clout again at an Idgah rally for Geelani soon after. Charged and arrested under the Public Safety Act, he returned once again at the right time, when Kashmir was on the boil over the Amarnath Shrine Board land row. Jumping straight into it, he organised massive protests which saw as many as 60 people dead and the Government forced to cancel its decision. Once again taken into custody, he was lodged in Kot Bhalwal jail. Released in 2010, he architected the most dangerous uprising intifada — which saw 117 youth killed in a summer of deep discontent. As the security agencies tried tracking down Alam, he used the motorbike and safe houses to evade the dragnet. On June 24, he launched the Quit Kashmir movement, as violence spread across the Valley — Srinagar, Sopore, Pattan, Budgam, Tral, Shopian, Pulwama and Anantnag. Marat Alam was here, there and everywhere and his legend is growing by the day. The Kashmiri intifada was a copycat of the Palestinian movement to tackle Israeli security forces in the late 1980s. Its threat was real and dangerous. Secession was back in the hearts and minds of Kashmiris, courtesy Alam. When he was finally caught again, relative peace and calm once again settled in Kashmir Valley.

When the PDP came to power in alliance with the BJP, travesty saw Masrat Alam being released once again in March 2015. In the days he was free, he embarked on a mass contact programme, visiting the houses of the 117 youth who were killed across the Valley. Marat Alam has emerged as a rallying point for the restive youth in Kashmir who at one level are fed up of the tainted, compromised fat cat Hurriyat leaders. Many people believe that Masrat Alam is a fire spitting hardliner, pure of the taint of corruption and amassing wealth and his continuing incarceration helps not just the security forces, but equally the entire separatist vector. What, however, cannot be discounted is his popularity among the youth. The entry of a new government and onset of summer normally sees the United Jehad Council and their separatist brethren pump up the volume in Kashmir. And so has been the case this year too. The vacuum left behind by Mufti's death and the prolonged indecision over returning to power in alliance with the ideologically opposite BJP has been exploited well by the perception management team of the terror factory inside and outside Kashmir. The target has been the Army. Years of Sadhbhavna and Army and Awam programmes have come to nought in the process in the dynamic and fluid state of Kashmir. The pathetic plight of the same Kashmiris during the floods was forgotten in a trice by the populace. In those trying days, it was the Indian Army which came forward to apply salve to the hapless. Army's outreach in Kashmir has been commendable.

Kashmir is like an elastic that all the players constantly test. Will it break is the hope of the subversive elements in the Valley and their handlers across the border? The Army's vigil may have dropped in the face of the repeated onslaught, but the keys to the Kashmir cannot be handed over posers. It is for Mehbooba Mufti to show statesmanship and act in variance with her pro separatist image at this delicate time. One wonders whether she and the PDP have the stomach for this kind of turmoil given their moorings? The clear division once again accentuated by the alliance between Hindu Jammu and Muslim Kashmir remains at the core of the problem. The Valley remains part of sovereign India and this cannot be compromised. AFSPA revocation given the grim situation along the LoC and IB is out of the question.

The PDP's tentpoles are to involve the separatists and Pakistan along with the people of Kashmir in a four way dialogue. This is a road to perdition.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s).

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