After a long hiatus of over 20 years, Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) appears to be making a slow but steady journey towards peace and normalcy. Even in the past, there were hopeful signs for return to normalcy whenever violence levels declined sharply. However, every time, hope was belied and some incident or the other brought latent tensions to the fore, resulting in renewed violence. Is this time any different? An assessment of the signs could indicate the course for the future.
Three key factors have adversely influenced the return of peace in the state. First, Pakistan’s proxy war kept security and societal harmony hostage to its larger strategic interests. Second, the state and central leadership failed to inspire confidence in the political process and governance. And third, security forces were unable to bring terrorism sustainably under the threshold level. The prevailing conditions indicate a substantial change based on these three parameters, which if pursued, could bring lasting peace to the state.
Pakistan has been the most prominent factor in ensuring that peace remained elusive in the State. It fuelled a bloody proxy war, attempted to replace J&K’s Sufi culture with radicalism and propagated violence as a means of achieving political goals, thereby causing deep fissures in the outlook of the population. Political mishandling and a growing emotional divide between the people and the state compounded the problem. However, this downward spiral was arrested by changing international perceptions and domestic policy. The use of terrorism as an instrument of state policy was rejected internationally. The upheaval in Pakistani society, as a result of the domestic impact of terrorism, brought home the reality of its devastating and destabilising impact. Finally, disillusionment with violence amongst the youth of J&K led to a yearning for peace in the state.
At the Central level, status quo was for long the basis of India’s Kashmir policy. Given the unacceptability of the same to sections in J&K, both courage and vision was needed to break the logjam. One of the most important achievements of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, which is often lost in the cacophony of ceaseless chatter, charges and counter charges, was to shift the focus of the dispute from territory to people centric. The declaration aimed at making borders irrelevant was not only the reflection of a statesman’s vision for J&K, but also for the sub-continent, in the years to come. This was followed up through encouragement for people to freely cast their vote in favour of their chosen representatives. The conduct of free and fair elections gave expression to local voices and opinions, casting away the stigma of electoral rigging in the past.
The internal weaknesses of the State have often been cited as its greatest bane. A number of weaknesses to include a flawed political process, corruption, limited participation of the people in governance and lack of economic opportunities led to people losing faith in the state government. While there is still a lot to be done, for the state to achieve these objectives, however, the signs of a new beginning are evident. The state government conducted successful panchayat elections in 2011, which witnessed a turnout of 82 per cent. It carried forward the process of a three tier system of village and block level panchayats, as well as district panchayat councils. The State RTI and Accountability Commission are in the process of being established. The minimum period of detention was reduced from two years to six months under the J&K Public Safety Act and a number of youth arrested were released. 52 misguided youth, who had crossed the Line of Control (LoC) for arms training in the past, were allowed to return to the state. Udaan, a project aimed at providing skills and job opportunities for the youth of the state, was initiated. 80 CRPF bunkers were removed and approval given for the removal of another 25 in order to thin out the visible security blanket in the state.
From the security perspective, major gains were also made in curbing terrorism. 2011 was undoubtedly the most peaceful year after decades of violence. Militancy related incidents came down to 189, from 488 in 2010. Militancy related casualties were 183, compared to 375 the previous year. The 2011 figures indicate only four districts marked by incidents of violence in the double digits, 13 in single digits and seven were militancy free. These are encouraging signs and point towards the possible return of peace. These results have been achieved in the backdrop of the fact that the US-led coalition forces lost 566 of their soldiers in 2011 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, while Pakistan lost 765 security forces personnel during the same year. Pakistan also lost 2580 civilians in terrorist related violence. On the Human Rights issue, the “Bagram Air Base has ten times more detainees than Guantanamo Bay” and the prisoners do not have the “right to see the evidence being used against them, or the right to a lawyer to represent them.” In contrast, the Chief Minister of J&K, speaking on human rights, indicated a total of “5 complaints of a serious nature” against security forces in 2011. This does not indicate that the conduct of security forces in the past has been above board. It also does not mean that there is no scope for improvement in either laws or operational procedures, although it does indicate a substantial improvement, under undeniably difficult conditions of work.
The nature of operations being conducted by the security forces is also indicative of a substantive shift from the past. Cordon and search, once the most common operation, is practically banned, as is entry into houses at night. Collateral damage is abhorred, as is casualties in crossfire. Cricket has replaced the crackle of firearms; and day long job melas, night and day long crackdowns. The long journey to police stations for the youth has given way to Sadbhavana visits to the Rashtrapati Bhawan. The move of army convoys during peak traffic hours has been replaced by the hustle and bustle of local business, with a change in convoy timings.
Change is certainly evident, even though more needs to be done and more should be demanded. It also needs to be asked: is the glass half full or half empty? It is time, cynicism and scepticism give way to hope and optimism. In order to ensure that this hope changes to reality, policy decisions like RTI, Panchayati Raj, return of youth from across the LoC, employment schemes, changes in security laws and keeping national interest above petty politics, will have to meet the reality test of implementation. The Prime Minister’s vision of people centric, rather than territory centric initiatives, will have to be given space, both in the minds of planners and on the strategic table, for the elusive peace to return. And finally, security forces will have to ensure that their efforts are not sabotaged by Pakistan’s renewed attempts at disturbing peace.
(The Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses)