Peace along the border is not a one-way process, says Lt. Gen. D.S. Hooda

The face of the Indian Army during last year’s surgical strikes offers first-hand impressions on the Kashmir imbroglio

Updated - May 17, 2017 08:02 pm IST

Published - May 17, 2017 12:02 am IST

Former Northern  Army Commander Lieutenant General D.S. Hooda during an interview in Panchkula on Monday.

Former Northern Army Commander Lieutenant General D.S. Hooda during an interview in Panchkula on Monday.

Lieutenant General Deependra Singh Hooda has had a unique ringside view of Kashmir affairs in recent times, both as chief of the Udhampur-based Northern Army Command and prior to that as General Officer Commanding of the Nagrota-based 16 Corps.

As the situation in the Kashmir Valley takes a turn for the worse and shrill rhetoric from various stakeholders grows louder, Lt. Gen. Hooda — who retired as the Northern Army Commander on November 30, 2016 — calls on the government to initiate steps for "visible outreach and engagement” in Kashmir.

Excerpts from the interview:

Is this the worst Kashmir situation you have seen as a professional soldier?

It depends on the perspective from which you are looking. From a purely security perspective, the situation during the ’90s and the early 2000s was much worse. In 2001, there were more than 4,500 deaths in Kashmir. Security forces’ casualties alone were over 600.

However, what is worrisome today is the participation of people who are coming out on the streets either for protests, stone-pelting or to interfere with operations. Some form of interference by locals had started in 2015. In my view, it was triggered by a rise in local recruitment. These boys were not trained, and sometimes killed in encounters within weeks of joining terrorist ranks. Therefore you had the locals trying to impede operations to help them escape. Of course, we are seeing more of it now.

The protracted imbroglio this time… is it just interference by locals or is there more to it?

There is definite interference. In many cases the locals try and break the cordon during encounters or try to stop security forces from coming into an area for operations. However, I don’t think it is as bad as it looks. The media today is much more active, beaming visuals of people out on the streets, stone-pelting, flag-waving, etc. This sometimes gives an impression that everything is out of control. I am not playing down the situation but I think some of these images tend to portray an exaggerated picture.

On Sunday, the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of Victor Force gave an interview and said that there are only 4-5 schools and colleges in South Kashmir where you find students coming out in protest. In a majority of schools, things are completely normal.

What does the killing of the young Lt. Ummer Fayaz tell you?

I think it is a manifestation of the spread of extremist ideologies. Frankly, it has not happened in the past. Thousands of soldiers are on leave at any time, in Kashmir Valley alone. Many years back some soldiers of the Territorial Army were killed while on leave but it quickly stopped. I think it is a negative turn and will only vitiate the atmosphere. I only wish there had been a stronger reaction from the Kashmiri society about the killing of one of their own.

What about the action of the young Major tying a civilian in front of a jeep?

It is an image which can evoke strong sentiments but we have to look at all perspectives. Decisions have to be taken on [the] ground. I really don’t know the circumstances and motives and whether there was a better way to handle the situation. Let the Army deal with it. Honestly, this one incident is not a definition of how [the] Army conducts its operations. We have [a] population-sensitive approach and that is the reason why even today, there is [a] fair amount of respect among the locals for the Army.

Is it advisable, then, for politicians to keep away and let the Army decide what is to be done with this particular case?

I think so. We should not overplay what has happened and let the Army deal with it in the appropriate manner.

The jingoistic national media seems to be playing a very key role in shaping the narrative and as you pointed out, sometimes exaggerating it. Is that something you worry about, something you would caution against?

I definitely worry about it. It is not only the mainstream media, but you also see this in the social media discourse and the local media. I think positions are only getting hardened and the divide is growing. Surely, some of this will impact on how decisions are taken. And therefore my suggestion is that people in authority need to sit down calmly, divorced from the media chatter, and take well-thought-out decisions on what is to be done.

Somehow the military is also getting dragged into this discourse — you are either pro-military or anti-military. This is not good for us. The Army has always quietly gone about its job in a very professional manner. We need to find a way around this jingoism.

You always had strong support from the State government even though there may have been differences. Is that something missing right now?

No, there was neither any lack of support from the PDP-BJP government to the Army and nor was there any interference. We must not forget that Chief Minister Mehbooba [Mufti]’s tenure has not been easy. After she took over, there were the NIT protests [after clashes between local and non-Kashmiri students, March 31, 2016], the Sainik Colony issue [land for ex-servicemen’s colony], the Handwara incident [where the Army was falsely accused of molesting a girl] and finally the Burhan Wani killing [July 8, 2016], all within months. Such law and order issues are obviously a serious hindrance to the government’s efforts to bring in good practices.

Was the killing of Wani the right step, or could it have been avoided?

When the operation was launched, we were not aware that Burhan Wani was in the house. There was an exchange of fire, one policeman got injured, three terrorists attempted to run away and were killed. It was only after the operation was over that identification could be done.

Would the Army have behaved differently if we knew Wani was present in the house? I really don’t think so. How can you ask soldiers to distinguish between two terrorists who are firing an AK - 47 at you?

Of course, there has always been an ongoing effort to see if some of the local youth can be encouraged to surrender. The Army has promised to assist in the return and rehabilitation of such youth into the mainstream.

Did you expect the killing to be such a turning point?

We were already seeing the unrest which had started in 2015. A certain amount of anger and alienation had been building up. I think it would have boiled over in 2016 with any major trigger. The trigger happened to be Wani, who had acquired a larger-than-life image, and therefore the scale of the protests was fairly large.

We keep going back to 2015. Was it something to do with the Indian political situation — we had a new Central government which was talking in a more muscular language — or was it because ofa long period of radicalisation?

There were many factors and among these we should not discount the Pakistani hand. In 2015, the infiltration was bare minimum with only about 31 successful infiltrations and therefore there was a deliberate attempt to mobilise the locals. There were social media campaigns emanating from Pakistan aimed at vitiating the atmosphere. We were also seeing signs of growing radicalisation.

As far as the political situation is concerned, when the PDP-BJP coalition was formed, we were all very hopeful because it was very representative of all sections of the people of the State. However, it is also true that there was some dissatisfaction among certain groups in the Valley with this coalition.

Do you think Pakistan’s role in fomenting violence has gone down or does it continue to be influential?

I closely saw the situation in J&K from 2012 till the end of 2016. 2012 is considered the most peaceful year in the insurgency. This changed in 2013 and the Pakistan Army became more directly involved. 2013 was also the year of Pakistan elections, and it was clear that Nawaz Sharif was likely to win. He was making all kinds of conciliatory statements and talking of growing economic cooperation with India.

That somehow spooked [the] Pak[istan] Army. Things on the border heated up almost simultaneously with the announcement of Pakistan’s election results. There was a spike in ceasefire violations in Jammu, the killing of five soldiers in Poonch sector in August and a series of infiltrations and attacks across the IB sector in Jammu. This has continued with terrorist teams being sent from Pakistan to target military garrisons. These are clear and direct indicators of Pakistan’s involvement in the proxy war in J&K. And we don’t see any change in attitude.

We are going back to the old days. Over 1,000 people were evacuated on Sunday along the Line of Control. How do we bring down the temperature?

In our local flag meetings with the Pakistan Army, we have always made it clear that the major step to calming things down on the border is for Pakistan to stop sending terrorists from their territory. I don’t think a unilateral approach by India to cool things is going to help. Frankly, if you are going to have terrorists coming from across the Line of Control targeting patrols, mutilating bodies and attacking garrisons, I honestly can’t see how things can improve.

The Indian Army has to respond to these provocations and they should exercise all their options. The recent beheading of two soldiers was a huge escalation. Coming a day after the Pakistan Army chief had visited the same sector, there are only two plausible explanations. First, the orders to carry out this gruesome act were given by the chief. Second, the Pak. Army is so incompetent that they were unable to prevent an action that they knew would be directly linked to the chief’s visit. Either way they are culpable.

Peace along the border is not a one-way process and the ball is firmly in [the] Pakistan Army’s court.

Do you fear a potential all-out flare-up?

I don’t think so. In the current context, an all-out flare-up is a far-fetched scenario. And we should not let these fears restrict our options to respond to acts of terrorism.

How does one cool tempers in the Kashmir Valley?

Frankly, there are no easy answers, and no silver bullet which will give us an immediate solution. Let us start with a comprehensive look at the problem. There are many perspectives to be looked at. Somehow, there is excessive focus on the political issue. While this is not unimportant, there are also other key areas to be addressed — radicalisation, unemployment, development, youth engagement, the sense of alienation and the battle for the narrative. Along with this, law and order has to be restored and terrorism neutralised.

Today the narrative in the Valley is centred around the theme that the government is unconcerned about their genuine grievances. This may or may not be true, but this is the perception. This narrative can only be countered by a visible outreach and engagement to show that the government is concerned. This engagement does not have to be with the separatists but with a cross-section of society — youth, student leaders, teachers, traders and prominent members of the civil society.

Economic and development schemes targeted at employment generation and improving infrastructure in tourism, education and roads will benefit all three regions. Countering radicalisation and strengthening the government narrative are two other important areas.

Internal conflicts are often the result of fear of being marginalised or the loss of identity. These are exacerbated by a breakdown in credible communications. The government must send a clear signal to the people of J&K that it cares.

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