Change perceptions in J&K

>“In Kashmir, perceptions have been generated of a government being at war with its people.“ Kashmiri youth clash with paramilitary personnel on the outskirts of Srinagar on June 22

>“In Kashmir, perceptions have been generated of a government being at war with its people.“ Kashmiri youth clash with paramilitary personnel on the outskirts of Srinagar on June 22   | Photo Credit: AFP

Military and political action apart, dealing with the psychological aspects of affected communities is critical.

The suspension of operations in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) has been called off by the government. Its fate was obvious ever since that bloody Thursday when journalist Shujaat Bukhari, and a young soldier, Aurangzeb, were brutally killed. The ceasefire will soon be forgotten and the new set of stories will be about the next phase of ‘Operation All Out’. What will also be forgotten are the reasons that forced the government to announce the truce despite the success that the security forces had been achieving in counterterrorist operations. Anyway, with the State government now having fallen, there will be a fresh look to find a way forward.

Internal and external facets

In seeking answers, we have to consider both the external and internal facets of the conflict. Pakistan plays a key role in keeping the conflict alive; its Army gives unstinted support to terror groups. In the absence of any incentive, and an almost complete breakdown of diplomacy between the two countries, some of us feel that the only option left to deter Pakistan is to keep up military pressure along the Line of Control (LoC). However, it appears that the government has taken the position that the 2003 ceasefire must be respected. The two Director Generals of Military Operations (DGMOs) had talks on May 29 and agreed to “fully implement the Ceasefire Understanding of 2003 in letter and spirit”.

Unfortunately, the 2003 agreement was only verbal, so there is no “letter and spirit” to it. This has kept it fragile. For the ceasefire to succeed, it must be based on some strong principles that promote confidence between the two armies. As long as infiltration continues, forward patrols are attacked by groups from across the border, and soldiers killed, there can be no peace among troops facing off on the LoC. It is essential that the two DGMOs meet and formalise an agreement in which Pakistan agrees to do more to seal off its border to prevent terrorists from entering India. It is obvious that Pakistan will be reluctant to do this, but it must be put on the spot or exposed for the whole world to see.

There must also be greater interaction between the local commanders of the two armies — for instance, flag meetings can be held along the border. Often it is local dynamics that trigger firing, which then escalates and spreads to other areas. If confidence can be built between local officers, it will enhance peace. An example can be taken from Ladakh where regular border meetings with Chinese officers have been instrumental in keeping the border calm.

A multi-pronged approach

Looking at the internal situation in J&K, it is obvious that a multi-pronged approach involving both kinetic and population-centric measures is required. Perhaps the simplest in terms of understanding is the need to target the terrorists who have vitiated the atmosphere in the State. The security forces are confident and capable of dealing with this threat — 250-300 terrorists in the State can carry out a few high-profile terror attacks but are simply incapable of forcing any revolutionary change.

A little more complicated is the law and order situation in dealing with stone-pelting mobs. The injuries and deaths which inevitably follow these clashes lead to a repeated cycle of violence. However, there is no option but to check this with a firm hand. If the writ of the state is seen as weak, the population will distance itself from the government.

Meanwhile, the government must look at meeting the aspirations of the larger population with a view towards long-term conflict resolution. This is the most complex task, with many competing narratives being offered as solutions. When faced with this dilemma, it is sometimes helpful to go back to understanding why ethnic conflicts often defy solutions.

In his article, “Between Past and Future: Persistent Conflicts, Collective Memory, and Reconciliation”, Irit Keynan writes: “Ethnic and national conflicts entail two major aspects — defined by scholars as a socio-political aspect and a socio-psychological aspect — with the latter no less crucial than the former... The socio-psychological aspect pertains to a wide range of issues relating to the community, including a community’s sense of identity and self-perceptions, its fears and sense of collective threats, perceived past, and portrayal of its role in the conflict... The socio-political aspect involves issues such as land, natural resources, economic and political dominance. Despite the complexity of the socio-political matters, in situations of intractable conflict it is the socio-psychological aspect, as well as history, that dominates the relationship between the involved adversaries and plays a central role in interpreting and fuelling persistent animosity.”

Israeli scholar Daniel Bar-Tal writes in his paper, “Overcoming Psychological Barriers to Peace Making: The Influence of Mediating Beliefs about Losses”: “In (prolonged and violent) conflicts the involved societies evolve [a] culture of conflict of which the dominant parts are societal beliefs of collective memories and of ethos of conflict, as well as collective emotional orientation... These narratives are selective, biased and distorted as their major function is to satisfy the societal needs rather than provide [an] objective account of reality.”

A similar situation is evident in J&K. In Kashmir, perceptions have been generated of a government being at war with its people. Given this reality, it should be clear that issues like good governance and development, while important, need to be accompanied by measures that address the socio-psychological aspects of the people of all regions of the State. This has been a key weakness in our approach, and the separatists, along with some politicians, have made the situation worse by continuously exploiting existing societal beliefs and collective memory, rather than pointing to their dangers.

The government also needs to embark on a strong perception-changing programme that challenges the existing narratives, brings out the horrific cost of conflict to the people and the benefits of peace and cooperative relations. Concrete steps by the government are a must. We often think of social media as the answer to all our perception-shaping issues but without follow-up action, the impact of social media can soon fade.

The conflict in J&K defies simple solutions. Among the many actions required to be taken on the military, economic, political and social fronts, dealing with the psychological aspects of affected communities is critical. Memories and perceptions are perhaps the biggest hindrances to reconciliation and must be addressed by showing greater empathy.

Lieutenant General D.S. Hooda (retired) is a former Northern Army Commander

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Printable version | Apr 9, 2020 4:01:43 PM |

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