Soft measures in Kashmir won’t work; recall how militancy was crushed in Punjab


A few days ago, the Jammu and Kashmir administration replaced the State police chief. The idea was to tone up the police system in the wake of terrorism instances in the State, especially Kashmir valley. A few months, the Bharatiya Janata Party pulled out of the Mehbooba Mufti Government, leading to the Chief Minister tendering her resignation and the imposition of Central rule. The BJP believed that the Mehbooba regime had not just failed to contain terrorism but had tacitly backed separatist elements. A couple of years ago, Indian forces conducted a surgical strike by crossing the India-Pakistan border. It was meant to deter Pakistani elements from continuing to promote terror on Indian soil. The Congress-led UPA regime adopted a soft approach to militancy in the region in the hope that separatist and terror elements would see reason and resolve issues across the table. Earlier to that, Prime Minister AB Vajpayee’s Government had extended and olive branch to separatists in the valley to resolve differences.

The list of outreach from the Indian state is endless. Yet, it has made not the slightest difference to the situation in Kashmir. Terrorists continue to spread mayhem, killing and abducting people. Stone-pelters, backed by separatists and the like, continue to target Indian security forces. Groups of people continue to spill on the streets of the valley, waving Pakistani and Islamic State flags. From the other side of the border, Pakistan Army chief vows to “teach India a lesson”, and terror outfit chiefs thunder to destroy India. It’s true that Indian security forces have been successful in neutralising several high-profile terrorists, and in sabotaging various other attempts to destabilise India. But the short truth is that terrorism is alive and kicking in Kashmir.

Overtures of peace have been made in the past, both to the separatists and their handlers in Pakistan. Bus services were introduced connecting towns in the two countries, informal meetings were held between Prime Ministers of India and Pakistan — the most recent being Narendra Modi paying a sudden visit to Pakistan to greet his then Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif on the latter’s birthday. Gifts were exchanged. Nothing has worked. Pakistan continues to provoke and play its bloody game. Not even the fact that Pakistan has been isolated in the world for its role in fomenting terror, with the US discontinuing monetary aid, has made Islamabad see reason.

This brings us to the core question: What more should we do? It clear that more needs to be done, and that the more cannot be a mere repetition of what has already been done — because that has failed to work. By all means, we can tackle Pakistan, militarily of the need arises, and diplomatically, which we are already successfully doing. The real challenge is nearer home. Pakistan may be fomenting unrest in Kashmir valley, but what are we doing to tackle the ‘insiders’? There have been a few crackdowns on separatists of the Hurriyat Conference — house arrests, investigations into terror fundings etc. But even the given situation, these are soft measures.

One answer to the solution lies in the manner the Indian state combated terrorism in Punjab from the mid-eighties to the early nineties. The comparison cannot be dismissed — as it will sought to be, by pacifists — because there are similarities. The pro-Khalistan movement in Punjab was fuelled by Pakistan; the Kashmir unrest too, is. A handful of terrorists led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale wreaked havoc in the State, while the vast majority was disgusted with their campaign; In Kashmir too, a clutch of militants and their backers have held the majority of peace-loving Kashmiris to ransom. The separatist movement in Punjab had a religious angle to it; in Kashmir too, there have been voices in favour of establishing Islamic rule. The pro-Khalistan militancy sought to dismember India by creating separate Khalistan nation out of Punjab; the Kashmir militancy too aims to ‘liberate’ the valley from India.

In Punjab, the response of the Indian state too was similar in the initial stages to that we are witness to, today in Kashmir. Attempts were made by Government authorities to placate Bhindranwale, and concessions were promised in lieu of the separatist leader giving up militancy. But that only emboldened him and his fellow-travellers. A similar strategy has been employed in Kashmir too, until now, and the fatal results are there for all to see. So, what brought about a decisive turn of events in Punjab, by which militancy was crushed?

It began with then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi giving orders to the Armed Forces to storm the venerated Golden Temple in Amritsar, where Bhindranwale had taken refuge along with his men — armed with lethal weapons. The military onslaught was massive; it caused extensive damage to the temple (including its sanctum sanctorum), but it also eliminated Bhindranwale and his group. The use of force had been necessary — indeed, it was the only option the Government had been left with, to contain the terrorist leader and his outfit. Indira Gandhi paid the price for her courage — she was gunned down by her own Sikh bodyguards at her home.

But that didn’t end terrorism in Punjab. Neither did the accord which Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi signed with moderate Sikh leader Harchand Singh Longowal. Militancy was stamped out by the use of brute force, when PV Narasimha Rao became Prime Minister, Darbara Singh was Chief Minister of Punjab and KPS Gill was the State police chief. Fully backed by Rao and Singh, the legendary police chief launched a massive crackdown on militants — both overt and covert. Human rights violations were reported, extra-constitutional short-cuts were hinted at, and Gill was criticised and condemned for his lack of sensitivity. But he couldn’t care less; he was determined to root out terrorism from the State. He backed his men completely whenever they came under attack from human rights activists or the political system. Eventually, it didn’t require the Army to finish off militancy in the State; the police led by Gill completed that task. Terrorism was not brought to an end by Indian authorities sitting across the table with militants and discussing niceties; it was done by tough and unprecedented action on the ground.

Perhaps it’s time for the Indian state to adopt similar hands-on and unapologetically harsh measures to teach anti-India elements in Kashmir a lesson. There could be consequences, but the consequences of being soft as at present, pose a greater danger to the integrity and sovereignty of India.

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The writer is senior political commentator and public affairs analyst

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