The Centre has taken the nation by surprise by accepting the Jammu and Kashmir government’s request for a ‘cessation of operations’ for the Ramzan period for 30 days beginning May 17. This is after initial reports had indicated a negative response, especially from the Army. The concept of cessation of operations is not alien to the Indian system but knowledge on it is surprisingly low at almost all levels. As the officer coordinating the non-initiation of combat operations (NICO, as it was then called), in South Kashmir through 2000-01, I was fortunate to gain tremendous experience from the initiative then taken by Prime Minister AB Vajpayee. Hence, the idea of this piece is to put into the right perspective what can be hoped from the current initiative of the state and central governments.
The 2000-01 NICO resulted in an increase in casualties of the security forces (SF) and was called off following no positive response from the terrorists or their sponsors. Those were the days when foreign terrorists (FTs) existed in large numbers. In fact, the LeT even attempted an audacious attack on the Srinagar airport during NICO itself because it had not accepted any overture from the government. At the end of NICO 2000-01, I did feel that it had been a premature effort when terrorist numbers (especially FTs) were still too large and the counter infiltration grid in the vicinity of the LoC was leaking infiltration in the absence of an effective anti-infiltration obstacle.
Many lauded the Army and other SF for the recent successful robust operations under ‘Operation All Out’. Three hundred terrorists neutralised in less than 18 months is not a mean figure in current times with lower figures of terrorist presence. At the same time, local recruitment saw an upsurge, bringing the conclusion that robust operations could continue interminably without reduction in terrorist ranks. The response of the nexus of separatists, proxy sponsors and others also witnessed an increase in street and mosque power, rabble rousing and use of social media to ratchet up the idea that the core aim of azadi was attainable for which some more sacrifice was necessary. The dilemma before the authorities in charge is that robust operations can buy temporary stabilisation but the narratives spelt out by the ‘nexus’ could take the upper hand. With local recruitment now playing a role as significant as infiltration from across the LoC, this dilemma is real and offers few alternatives for the state. The Army and other SF are justified in their perception that the current cessation of operations will give a reprieve to the terrorists and the ‘nexus’. However, in the absence of an effective system of spelling the state’s counter narrative, which in reality is non-existent, the situation appears to be at an impasse.
In light of the above, the Centre has in all probability decided to experiment and grab the high moral ground that it has given peace a chance and it is for the ‘nexus’ to respond. A positive response is unlikely because of the prevailing perception and the LeT for one has already rejected the offer. Yet, in the absence of alternatives and the fact that further neutralisation efforts by the security forces may only add fuel to fire on the streets, and in the minds of the locals in J&K, the experiment has been given a go-ahead. It will act as a kind of balancer for the absence of any major soft power initiatives such as counter narratives. Only time will tell how sensitively the authorities can deal with this and what the final response of the local nexus will be. In the absence of any identified fresh local leadership, the benefits of outreach to the people may come a cropper.
What is important is to have a better public understanding of the execution part of the Centre’s initiative. It appears that the general public perceive cessation of operations as akin to the initiation of ceasefire at the LoC where the guns fall silent from a given time. That is not so in sub-conventional operations. The only difference here from the usual operations is that the Army avoids conducting — what are called — offensive operations, which include cordon and search (CASO) and search and destroy (SADO) operations. The concept of area domination continues robustly and in fact will probably increase manifold with many more patrols and even night ambushes to prevent freedom of movement. Movement without arms is however permitted. The SF will continue to gather intelligence, secure their installations and conduct road security operations. In other words, the counter terror and counter infiltration grids remain completely intact. This is against the understanding that the Army will take a back step into its barracks and halt all operations. The underlying logic is that should the initiative fail at any stage, the Army and other SF return to proactive operations without any loss of time and initiative; the domination having remained intact.
In the same breath, it needs to be stated that while the choice of Ramzan for the initiative is symbolic the Centre could well have lengthened the period to include the Sri Amarnath Yatra, the iconic pilgrimage. It’s the messaging which is also important for acceptance of an initiative; although if successful I have no doubt that the cessation will extend to the Yatra period.
Without adequate efforts at grass-roots level outreach by the political community, at some risk, and the spelling out of counter narratives, the period of cessation of operations will be wasted. It is not going to be easy. Ideally, there should have been considerable homework and preparation for such an initiative. In the absence of that we will have to make the best of the situation, but with an understanding of what really is required to be said and projected.
The centrality of the theme for the main counter narrative must be the neutralisation of the idea that azadi can be attained at will and with only a little more sacrifice. Strongly, and yet softly, the Centre and the state have to convince the people that for India, J&K is a finality and a threat to that arrangement is an existential issue.
This article is written by Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd), The author commanded the 15 Corps in Jammu and Kashmir. This article has been posted with the author’s permission. Views expressed are personal.