Gen. (retd.) V.K. Singh’s claims that the Army was paying money to ‘win hearts and minds’ in Kashmir has needlessly cast aspersions on Sadbhavana, its well-appreciated outreach scheme in the Valley

The furore over General (retd.) V.K. Singh’s remarks over money being paid to politicians and non-governmental organisations in Jammu and Kashmir has stirred up a hornet’s nest. Besides their political impact, his words have turned the spotlight on Sadbhavana, a goodwill initiative by the Indian Army that began in 1997 aimed at winning the hearts and minds of people in the State.

Here is what the former Army Chief said: “When I had said that some politicians were given money, it was not meant for their personal purpose or political purpose. It was not for lining their pockets or for bribe. If somebody says that any Minister was given a bribe, it is totally wrong. The payment was meant solely for stability. To win hearts and minds of people; to wean people away from separatist activities under the overall umbrella of sadbhavna (harmony).”

Initiatives

A flurry of indignant reactions from several retired generals, some of whom served in Jammu & Kashmir, asserting that no money was ever paid from Sadbhavana funds to politicians, countered his words.

The general was talking about the activities of the Technical Support Division (TSD), a covert intelligence outfit of the Indian Army seen as his pet project and whose role in the State from 2010 to 2012 is under the scanner. But his attempt to pass off the TSD’s activities under the overall umbrella of Sadbhavana, has raised hackles within the army too, as it threatens to undo much of the recent work done to integrate Kashmiris with the rest of India, besides giving a handle to separatists to step up demands to scale down Sadbhavna.

Separatists have always been insecure and critical about Sadbhavana initiatives such as building roads, bridges, schools and orphanages in inaccessible insurgency-affected areas where it is difficult for the civilian administration to reach.

Funding

Intelligence funds are not subjected to audits. Sadbhavana funds on the other hand are subjected to a full-scale audit by the Principal Controller of Defence Accounts (PCDA) and has a sanctioning process that includes bidding. Work done under Sadbhavana is documented and more importantly, no money is ever given directly to the units. Money is routed through the PCDA office in Jammu to the civilian contractors executing projects. There is no way that the TSD could have used Sadbhavana funds to pay off politicians.

Between 2010 and 2012, roughly the same period as the TSD was active, Sadbhavana in the State took on a whole new meaning when the army’s 15 Corps under Lt.Gen. Ata Hasnain, now retired, reached out to the people like no other army officer had done before. From Ji Janaab — a doctrine formulated to make the army troops aware of local forms of address and cultural sensitivities and to put them into practice while dealing with the civilian population — to the hugely popular awami sunwais, public hearings at which people were encouraged to vent their angst about everything that bothered them, including the army, initiatives implemented under the umbrella of Sadbhavana, drew widespread praise from the Centre and State.

Cricket matches

Soon, Lt.Gen. Hasnain began to be called “people’s general.” Earlier this month, he was awarded by the Vice- President of India for military leadership. It was Lt.Gen. Hasnain’s brainwave to start the Kashmir Premier League (KPL) in the summer of 2011. As many as 350 T20 cricket matches were organised across all 10 districts of Kashmir. The idea was to use sport to prevent youngsters from taking to violence. A sum of Rs.1.4 crore from Sadbhavana funds was spent on organising KPL.

But it was not always like this. In the initial years after it was launched, Sadbhavana was seen by the local population as another intelligence gathering tool of the army. That many of the benefits distributed through it were cornered by Ikhwanis or surrendered militants, also had something to do with this thinking. Significantly, many of those reservations vanished during Lt.Gen. Hasnain’s tenure. This correspondent had the opportunity to meet enthusiastic villagers appreciative of the 15 Corps’ new approach to winning hearts and minds that even included the army hosting iftaars for local people during Ramzan.

A recent study by the Centre for Land Warfare Studies noted: “If the locals view Sadbhavana activities as a means employed by the army to gather intelligence, it loses its value.”

The former chief’s recent statements may well do just that. Whatever covert operations the TSD was engaged in are presently in the realm of speculation. Those in the know say that the money that Gen. Singh claims was paid to politicians to stabilise the State was most likely related to the period of 2010 during the stone throwing agitation, when the army was tasked to prevent people from coming on to the roads in large numbers. At many places, crowds were persuaded to disperse with no use of force, and much of this was done by reaching out to the local leaders who had some influence in specific pockets. In the complex political environment of Kashmir, the current turn of events is likely to have caused many more fault lines that may not be immediately visible.

chander.dogra@thehindu.co.in

More In: Comment | Opinion