Time to Withdraw Army from Counter Insurgency Duties in J&K and North-East
Come winter and Kashmir is transformed into a wonderland – silver and magical, with snow-clad mountains and valleys, frozen rivers, icy wind in the conifers, frosty mornings and sipping of hot kehwah while warming around kangris in the mellowed apricot light of the afternoon. The ethereal beauty has stood the test of time despite the pain suffered by people from militant violence, killings of innocents and persistent attempts from across the border to destabilize the idyllic environs. Each year has a macabre end, comparing the tally of the dead among civilians, brave jawans and terrorists, with previous years – a heartless statistical comparison. And every new year is welcomed with trepidation gauging infiltration numbers from across the border with the melting of snow and the number of militants, overground workers and radicalized youth in the valley.
Since the army moved in 1989-90 to stem the sudden onslaught of terrorism, the state has never remained the same. Constant threat kept the forces on their toes and the people on edge with internet shutdowns, mobile restrictions and circumscribed movements from time to time. The advent of terrorism in 1989-90 has scarred the landscape and the psyche of the people. The state has also been embroiled in various controversies – ineptitude of the local administration, ever increasing footprints of the security forces, opposition to AFSPA, alleged human rights violations and curbs on freedom.
A recurring theme of the protests from opposition leaders, activists, civil society has been withdrawal of Army from the Kashmir hinterland. With the government, Army, CAPF and state police publicizing the consistent downward slide of violence, the rationale of maintaining its large size in the valley does need an explanation. As early as in December 2013, a prominent national daily had set off the debate by pitching strongly for Army withdrawal from Kashmir. Today the argument appears strengthened, after fears of an upsurge of violence ensuing creation of UTs of J&K and Ladakh, and abrogation of Article 370 have been allayed.
The Army moved in to shore up the capabilities of the local police and the Central police Forces (CAPF) to fight terrorism. It took awhile for the tide to turn. 2001 was the bloodiest year with 4522 militancy related incidents. 2020 militants were gunned down, 996 civilians killed, and 536 security personnel martyred. 2002 was even worse with 1008 civilian casualties.
Since then, the graph of violence has been coming down due to better intelligence, greater coordination between the security forces as well as better grip over the internal administration in the hinterland. Both army and police sources put the strength of militants below 200, lowest over the years, along with minimal infiltration figures for the year 2021. The call for recalling army to LOC/LAC has become also louder due to ratcheting up of border tension by China, latest being in the Tawang sector where resolute action by our army jawans pushed back PLA attempts to cross over and stay put.
Serving army generals and veterans maintain that Army needs to be in constant preparedness for war and deployment for anti-insurgency dilutes its capability and focus. But Kashmir being a sensitive border state, its withdrawal has never been considered favourably, citing inability of the central and state forces to take over counter insurgency (COIN) task on their own. The proven experience of Rashtriya Rifles (RR) and good synergy between younger age profile of RR officers with the state police officers has led to great successes in containing insurgency. Besides, temporary withdrawal during Kargil and other times did lead to increase in militancy related violence.
Can CRPF, state police match RR in manpower, weaponry and intelligence for the take over? The CRPF took over the mantle of fighting insurgency from the BSF in 2004. As of now, it is engaged in an array of other duties too, from road opening, VIP/ critical installations security and law & order. It is quite familiar with the lay of land and the people. Presently 61 bns are deployed in Kashmir along with 109 splinter coys (RR had engaged around 45 bns). Moreover, roughly 17 bns which were earlier deployed exclusively for law & order duties (stone pelting, protest marches, etc.) are free today. Its Counter Intelligence (CI) capabilities have been boosted by reenergizing its intelligence wing, which is now getting useful tactical information due to its large spread on ground. The state police has also geared up its intelligence efforts and has a better grip over towns.
COIN forces needs a judicious mix of experience and youth. Insurgencies all over the world have seen this mix being used with success. CRPF will have to ensure this. The army has a rigorous training program at all levels which the CRPF must emulate in the form of junior and senior command training. In Assam, army has given commando training to state policemen in batches, which can well be experimented in Kashmir too. Unit cohesion is a critical factor. To track militants and smoke them out CRPF will need small tactical units with light weaponry and accurate intelligence. Finally, CRPF will need a much larger budget and access to decision making levels. Special DG CRPF Kashmir should be made adviser to CM/Governor and sit in unified command meeting.
COIN operations are not done by wielding guns alone but by several outreach programs run by the Army. From schools to cricket matches, career advancement courses to involvement in civic actions – such myriad activities initiated by the Army, have played a significant role. Operation Sadbhavna granting scholarships, a day with company commander, visits by state children to other parts of India – have been great successes. Such outreach programs can well be conducted by the CRPF which has the resources, capability and experience from the Naxalite belt.
Terrorism is also changing colours. Today’s militant is internet savvy, radicalized and spouting rehearsed extremist propaganda from salafi/wahabi literature. Overground workers and first timers are employed for various tasks at the bidding of militants. The biggest task is counter radicalization and tracking of overground workers. Local intelligence is the key. The CRPF will fit into this role with better acceptability from the public.
Above all, the most important reason for the new takeover is the call of democracy. How long can you have states/UTs under army umbrella to do a job which should logically be done by the police? Ideally, in conflict resolution once the army has done its job, civic institutions should take over. By keeping the army for more than 3 decades, a message goes out that Kashmir conflict is intractable with no signs of resolution in future. Such conflict zones are all over the world and need time to resolve. In the process civilian or forces casualties will have to be braved.
In the transition period, there may be a rise in terror activities but will subsequently stabilize. The army has a good knowledge and database of the various terror modules and networks. The CRPF will have to go through the process again and even if the database of army is handed over, the team will have to familiarize itself with each network and modus operandi. The process of transition can be in 2 or 3 stages starting with 3 districts, at a time, making it smooth and without upheaval.
In the Northeast, there is a strong case for Assam Rifles to be withdrawn from COIN duties and deployed along the 1645 km long Indo Myanmar border which is highly porous and vulnerable to drug smuggling, arms trafficking and crossing over of militants.
In April 2022, the Centre, citing drastic improvement in internal security scenario, withdrew the AFSPA fully from 23 districts of Assam and partially from 7 districts in Nagaland, 6 in Manipur and 1 in Assam. As a result, AFSPA remains only in 31 districts of NE states fully and in 4 partially. The figures of violence have been the lowest. The union Home Minister is confident that Assam will be soon totally free from AFSPA.
Manipur and Nagaland situation remain the key to decision for withdrawal of army from NE totally. Low figures of engagements between the SF and insurgents are matched by equally low numbers of clashes between the various factions. However, the extortion figures remain high and actual amount is difficult to ascertain. Replacement of army, whose presence has been opposed by all groups in these states by the CAPF, would be the right move at this juncture. Insurgency in Nagaland and Manipur, where ethnic loyalties play a major role, is a major political challenge. Conviction for insurgency related and other crimes is very low, and most cases fail after NSA detentions.
In 2020, Governor Nagaland conveyed to CM his anger and frustration over rising extortion activities and intimidation of people by armed gangs and syndicates. He severely indicted the state government for its feeble attempts to control the same. While R N Ravi was shifted to Tamil Nadu as Governor, situation remains the same on ground. In Manipur, rampant extortion has devastated business establishments. In this situation it is more a question of political sagaciousness and will to fight insurgency than which force to use for COIN.
India has assumed G20 presidency at a delicate time. It is expected to deliver on its international obligations from initiating peace talks between Russia and Ukraine to arriving at a consensus at COP meets. With the onset of a new variant of Covid from China and border tensions, internal security management will come under greater strain. The greatest obligation however for India as the fifth largest economy and the largest democracy of the world is to give a clear message to its countrymen and the world that it is firmly committed to its democratic ideals.
Elections should be called in J&K at the earliest. It should also get back its identity of a proud Indian state. Army should be withdrawn & CRPF should take over COIN duties. Similarly, in the Northeast, CRPF should helm COIN operations with the state police. Let the army patrol the LOC/LAC while CRPF bolster the internal security set up.