Long-term deployment of soldiers inevitably leads to friction with local communities. In Kashmir, the tensions have been heightened by the failure of the government to sanction the prosecution of military personnel involved even in egregious human rights violations

In 1947, as Pakistani forces raced east in an audacious effort to take Srinagar, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru outlined the strategic challenge that has haunted every Indian Prime Minister since. “The invasion of Kashmir,” he observed pithily, “is not an accidental affair resulting from the fanaticism or exuberance of the tribesmen, but a well-organised business with the backing of the State […] We have in effect to deal with a State carrying out an informal war, but nevertheless a war.”

Earlier this month, the lawyer and Aam Aadmi Party leader Prashant Bhushan issued a radical proposal for the troops that Mr. Nehru despatched into Kashmir’s towns and villages.

“People should be asked whether they want the Army to handle the internal security of Kashmir,” Mr. Bhushan told the television station Aaj Tak. “If people feel that the Army is violating human rights and they say they don’t want the Army to be deployed for their security then the Army should be withdrawn from the hinterland”. The proposal was assailed by political rivals, and mocked by critics. The AAP itself was soon scrambling to disassociate itself from the idea.

Mr. Bhushan’s idea of law-enforcement-by-referendum might be eccentric, even dangerous — but the idea of phasing out the Army from its counter-terrorism commitments in Kashmir deserves serious debate. Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah has also long advocated a drawdown of troops from the State’s populated areas, a demand New Delhi has summarily rejected.

The war Mr. Nehru so evocatively described is now entering a new and dangerous phase, fuelled by the meltdown of Pakistan and the looming crisis in Afghanistan. Yet, having fewer troops in Kashmir, rather than more, might just be the right thing to do.

Even while maintaining a robust presence on the Line of Control (LoC) and retaliating hard against Pakistani military provocation, pulling out troops from counter-terrorism duties in inhabited areas could help address the resentments that long-term deployment of troops inevitably engenders. It could also breathe energy into J&K’s democratic system.

Insurgency at a low

The principal reason to consider scaling back the Army’s counter-insurgency presence in Kashmir is simple: there isn’t an insurgency to be fought. Ever since the 2001-2002 near-war between India and Pakistan, levels of violence in the State have fallen steadily. In 2001, as many as 1,067 civilians, 590 security forces personnel, and 2,850 terrorists were killed in fighting. The numbers fell in 2003 to 658 civilians, 338 security forces and 1,546 terrorists. Last year’s numbers, the authoritative South Asia Terrorism Portal records, were 20 civilians, 61 security forces and 100 terrorists.

In population-adjusted terms, the insurgency in J&K cost 1.51 lives per 100,000 persons of its population, lower than the homicide rate in Delhi or Haryana. The State’s total firearms fatalities were well below those in Uttar Pradesh (1,575 in 2012) or Bihar (681) or even West Bengal (269).

Even as violence levels have diminished, though, Indian force levels have actually risen. In 1996, when the then Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah took power after the first elections in a decade, the State government began an ambitious programme of police modernisation and expansion. National Crime Records Bureau data shows that the J&K police had 41,322 police officers on its rolls in 1997: 446 for every 100,000 residents, and 40.8 per 100 square kilometres of territory, over twice as high as the levels reached in insurgency-hit States like, for instance, Punjab.

These already-high figures have, according to Union Government figures for 2012, expanded to 76,980 — an addition, in personnel terms, of some three Army divisions. J&K now has 646 police officers per 100,000 population, the highest in the country outside the north-east States.

The Centre does not make public the Army’s force levels in the J&K. In 2007, then-Northern Army commander, Lieutenant-General H.S. Panag, said a total of 3,37,000 troops were present in the State, about a third of these committed to counter-terrorism. There are five division-strength formations engaged in the task, Kilo in Kupwara, Victor in Awantipora, Romeo in Rajouri, Delta in Doda and Uniform in Udhampur — the same as in the 2000s, even though violence levels have clearly come down.

In the last two years, the Central Reserve Police Force moved out some of its forces from the State, scaling back from an estimated 78 battalions, each with about 1,000 personnel, to 60 battalions. This limited drawdown, though, has been more than compensated for by the enhanced police numbers.

This isn’t, of course, to say that all is well in J&K. Last year saw the first uptick in violence ever since a ceasefire was put in place along the LoC a decade ago. Force fatalities rose sharply, from just 17 in 2012. The killings of civilians and terrorists, too, rose. In some cases, the wounds were self-inflicted: internal military investigations into the killings of troops in Srinagar’s Hyderpora and at Tral showed that men died because of basic errors in combat procedures and preparedness. Nonetheless, terrorist groups are clearly sharpening their swords.

Yet, augmenting the size of the troops won’t fix this problem: the uptick in violence last year came about, after all, despite high troop levels.

There are two fallacious arguments now used to justify continued force-saturation in J&K. First, proponents argue, the State remains vulnerable to large-scale street violence. In 2010, over 100 protestors were killed in pitched battles between mobs and the police; dozens died in communally-charged strife in 2008. Yet, the fact is the Army’s counter-insurgency formations weren’t used to contain the violence in either case — its presence is thus rendered irrelevant.

The second argument for force-saturation is that the crisis in Pakistan is strengthening jihadist groups, with dangerous consequences for Kashmir. In 2011, XV corps commander Lieutenant-General Syed Ata Hasnain even warned that secession might become inevitable if the Armed Forces Special Powers Act were withdrawn and troops pulled back. This prospect of regional crisis destabilising Kashmir isn’t unreal; but keeping the State flooded with troops isn’t the solution.

From Northern Ireland to Vietnam, and from Iraq to Afghanistan, governments have learned that the long-term deployment of soldiers inevitably leads to friction with local communities. In Kashmir, the tensions has been heightened by the failure of the government to sanction the prosecution of military personnel involved even in egregious human rights violations — an abuse of the AFSPA that successive governments have failed to redress.

France’s military in Algeria, the special forces officer Roger Trinquier wrote, “reminds one of a pile driver attempting to crush a fly, indefatigably persisting in repeating its efforts”. That’s just what India needs to stop doing — and turn to politics instead.

The challenge ahead

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh put his all behind a secret diplomatic engagement on Kashmir — a policy, he admitted at a rare press conference earlier this year, that came within a hair’s breadth of succeeding. In 2003, military ruler General Pervez Musharraf famously dropped Pakistan’s calls for a plebiscite in Kashmir. “If we want to resolve this issue”, he said “both sides need to talk to each other with flexibility, coming beyond stated positions, meeting halfway somewhere”. Later, President Asif Ali Zardari said a solution to Kashmir could be left to “coming generations”.

From unsigned notes The Hindu unearthed in 2009, it is known the two governments were contemplating a four-point deal: the transformation of the LoC into a border, free movement across the LoC, greater federal autonomy for both sides of J&K, and gradually-phased cutbacks of troops as jihadist violence declined.

The Centre has since chosen to avoid ceding demands unilaterally, seeing them as parts of a final-status deal on J&K. It’s becoming clear, though, that no deal will be forthcoming. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has reversed course on Kashmir, wary of pressure from both his adversaries in the military and his Islamist political allies.

This makes it important for New Delhi to engage J&K’s elected politicians on these issues, instead of chasing a Pakistan pipe-dream. For years now, New Delhi has focussed on doing deals — with Islamabad, or secessionist conflict-entrepreneurs inside Kashmir — instead of addressing the demands of elected leaders. Engaging with J&K’s government on a programme for replacing troops with police in built-up areas could be a first step forward.

praveen.swami@thehindu.co.in

More In: Lead | Opinion