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Reducing army footprint in Kashmir: A bold, brave and welcome decision First Post 01 Mar 2023
There have been media reports that the government is considering reducing the involvement of the army in parts of Kashmir. The Rashtriya Rifles (RR), which have been the backbone of anti-militancy operations in the region and are possibly the world’s best counterterrorism force, are to be replaced by the CRPF. It is also reported that though the subject has been under consideration for the past two years, it is finally expected to fructify. The reduction would be done in phases. In the valley the first districts from where the RR will be replaced are Anantnag and Kulgam, alongside a few in the Jammu region.
This is a welcome step and would add credence to the government’s claim that normalcy is on the cards. It would also blunt Pakistan’s continued cry of Kashmir being a military controlled region. The army anyway had no role in maintaining internal law and order. It stepped in because the CAPFs were ill-prepared to handle this threat and then remained deployed. Its continued deployment benefitted all, the centre, state and the army itself. The army’s responsibility is strictly external security.
The government now claims that terrorist violence has reduced by over 50%, stone pelting has almost vanished thus projecting that the situation is near normal, and it is time for the army to move back to barracks. The ultimate aim would be to hand over the responsibility to the J and K police, though this is expected to take time.
The army would remain responsible for the LOC, while paramilitary and police forces would manage the interior. The army was already considering reducing companies of RR battalions as part of its manpower cuts. A few RR battalions have already been moved to Ladakh while some are re-deployed along the LAC in the second tier to check infiltration.
The RR were raised in the early nineties by drawing in troops from regular battalions for counter insurgency operations. Permanent deployment of RR battalions and rotating manpower ensured continuity in operations, intelligence and knowledge of terrain. The concept was a major success which resulted in steadily turning the environment. Political pressures had led to moving out the RR from specific districts, only to be reversed when terrorism re-emerged. However, currently the scenario is different.
The Hurriyat, which funded violence and strife as also supported a pro-Pak ideology is non-existent, Pakistan is unable to sustain infiltration due to being under global scanner for supporting terrorism as also its deteriorating economy and internal security scenario prevents it from actively backing terrorism. Finally, majority of the public has realized that independence is a pipedream and being a part of India the reality and the best option for a secure future.
This is a vast change in the ground scenario from the time RR was created. Terrorism had grown to levels where terrorists had declared ‘liberated zones’ in regions of the valley, targeted the minority Kashmiri Pundit community and created a major national security concern. Locals were forced into supporting terrorists and providing all that was demanded. Stone pelters would actively intervene in operations assisting escape of trapped terrorists. Resultant casualties only built an anti-India image. Funerals of eliminated local terrorists were events which lured youth to pick up the gun. Social media gave terrorists a demigod status.
Most movements were mainly with escort and under road protection. Pakistan flags flew freely across the region. Terrorism was supported by fake narratives being pushed by global media, largely on the backing of Pakistan, criticizing India’s handling of Kashmir, including claims of genocide and fake encounters. India was then not the darling of the west but an ally of the USSR, which finally collapsed in 1992. The Indian army was also redeploying after a bloody tenure in Sri Lanka, where it had suffered high casualties.
Till the RR took shape, battalions were moved to the valley for limited durations to fill the void. None could create desired intelligence networks for successful operations as their tenures were short and they were constantly moved from place to place. With the emergence of RR, slowly and steadily the army regained control and created an environment for the re-emergence of the democratic process. There were periods of tensions as also unsavoury incidents which pushed back efforts of normalization. All these were overcome with time and mature handling.
The RR established its presence in remotest parts of the region and steadily won hearts as it became the central point of contact for the locals in case of difficulties. The setting up of 43 army run goodwill schools through whose portals have passed over 26,000 students, many of whom have becomes professionals in different walks of lives, conduct of medical and veterinary camps, youth events, Sadbhavana tours etc provided the Kashmiris with confidence that the army is with them and will only target terrorists. It broke the myth of the army being occupiers.
Simultaneously, with a strong multi-layered counter-infiltration grid, influx of terrorists reduced. It has taken time, but Kashmir is near normal mainly due to changed perceptions of the local population, which support security forces in their operations. Over 1.62 Lakh tourists visiting Kashmir over the past year indicates the change which has occurred.
This announcement by the government is also an indication that elections are around the bend. Political activity is bound to gain ground. The difference this time would be almost no interference from terrorist supporters and the anti-Pak Hurriyat.
The government in its exuberance to display normalcy and offset Pakistan’s accusations, especially during its presidency of the G 20, must not rush into disbanding the RR. The turnover must be slow and steady. CRPF faces a major shortcoming as compared to the army, the age profile of its force is far higher, reducing its ability to operate in harsh terrain.
Forces engaged in counterinsurgency must be young, agile, well trained and patient as also led by mature commanders who understand implications of errors in operations. They would need to operate alongside the army before being given complete responsibility. It has taken decades for normalcy to return, a year or so more will make no difference. Ideally, RR companies could be reduced as a first stage and few battalions kept in reserve while the CRPF settles in.
Disbanding is easy, recreating difficult. Rushing into a decision is easy, reversing difficult. The government must move ahead and withdraw the army however do it steadily, stage by stage.