General maladies and General remedies

Generals shouldn’t get angry. That’s the general rule. And if Generals do get angry, they should try to not speak. Angry words from an angry General can do more harm than the guns under the General’s command. We saw that happening recently.

When Generals say things in public, they obviously are interpreted as matters of policy. Or at least, as indicators of future intent. More troubling than this is when Generals let their mind known publicly, it isn’t just their personal take on the issue. It represents the State’s outlook and its tactical and strategic calculations.

Perhaps more troubling than all this is when a General speaks out in anger, he may also be spilling some beans.

Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat’s recent statements on how to deal with protestors in Kashmir who try to rescue trapped militants was widely reported, widely commented upon, widely appreciated and widely condemned.

Gen B spoke his mind out when he had the coffins of his fallen men in front of him. The men had died a few days ago in a gunfight with Kashmiri militants whom the soldiers had gone to take down. Any General would feel incensed at the sight of his men in coffins. That much anger the General is justified in having. What the General meant in simple terms was the protestors are now in the line of direct fire just as the militants they try to help flee. And the subtext of the General’s statement was — revenge from civilians for any such future killings of his men.

The General’s outburst also revealed his leadership style and gave some strong indications of his possible response in the face of hard times. Keeping this mind is of critical importance as far as the emerging situation in Kashmir and the army’s aggressive approach (and of the BJP government as well) towards Pakistan go.

A crucial part of the story is why the General’s men are dying at the hands of Kashmiri militants. And why common unarmed Kashmiris are so supportive of their armed brethren in their war of attrition against a seemingly invincible military machine.

If the General sets his own anger aside and flips the coin, he will see another kind of anger — the mass outrage of seven million people. The relentless military battering they are continuously going through resulting in killings, torture, rape, blindings, incarcerations at an industrial scale is one major reason why the General’s men are dying in Kashmir. The arms and guerrilla tactic inputs may come from across the border — the General’s avowed enemy. But when you occupy a territory and pin down its people with your guns and jackboots, the arms and the training and even the men will be sought from anywhere by the oppressed populace. At least, this is the lesson from all territories where people are resisting occupation. The example of the erstwhile East Pakistan and Mukti Bhani are all too well to the General to not draw any lessons from it.

The men under the General’s command may not be directly responsible for all these repressive acts against Kashmiris as other security agencies operate here, but the General’s country is. The war-time laws in place in Kashmir and the immunity enjoyed by the soldiers for their outrages against civilians multiplies the people’s anger and angst several times over. This vexation of the oppressed then pours out on anything and everything which represent that country. That is how a common Kashmiri in the militarised villages, towns and cities of Kashmiri imagines his world. When he puts the historical and political context to it, and adds to this equation his systematic disenfranchisement by the State, he sees himself as colonised and the General’s men as instruments of this colonisation. It is not just the mere presence of the General’s men that incessantly reminds this man of the colonisation. It is the ceaseless cycle of repressive acts by men in uniform that push him further — emotionally and physically — to break out of this cycle. He, therefore, deploys all fair and foul means he can muster to overturn this colonisation which is devouring him and progressively eroding his capacity of what he can be.

It is easy to put a condemnatory and dismissive label of ‘terrorism’ on happenings in Kashmir. But it is just that much difficult to acknowledge the cycle of serial azadi uprisings here and reasons behind them. What is even more morally demanding for the State and its actors is to engage with these realities at a political level. There is a clear consensus across the Indian political spectrum to crush Kashmiris through unabated use of repressive military force. Occasional voices that question this policy of military retribution, like the recent one by P Chindambaram, are made in the vain quest of one’s own ten-minute glory to be seen as a liberal. They lack the necessary sincerity or sense of outrage or continuity to be read as a genuine concern for Kashmiris and their political aspirations. 

Over the decades, the resistance in Kashmir has survived severe military repression and political subterfuge. But that is not the astonishing part. The unnerving bit for the Indian state and the encouraging part for Kashmiris is their unremitting resilience and capacity to keep the State permanently staring down the precipice.

Gen B’s background 

When General B was appointed army chief in December last, two other Generals ahead of him in the queue for the top post were ignored. This happened only the second time in the Indian army’s 70-year-old  history where otherwise the top slot goes to the senior-most General. Reasons for this were General B’s hard-nosed approach — well-aligned with the hawkishness of present Indian BJP government, his expertise in counter-insurgency and field experience in Jammu and Kashmir. General B had been a company commander, battalion commander, brigade commander and division commander in Uri and Sopore at different times. As brigade commander he had led the 5 Sector Rashtriya Rifles in Sopore —  the Rashtriya Rifles is an exclusive and core counter-insurgency army formation. Most importantly, General B has headed the  Dimapur-based 3rd Corps of the Indian army which has been deeply involved in counter-insurgency warfare in the north-east. He had also overseen what was officially claimed, and for the first time, as cross-border surgical strikes in Myanmar in 2015 against Naga rebels after they had ambushed and killed 18 Indian soldiers in Manipur. The strikes, conducted by 21 Para Special Forces, were at that time overwhelmingly pitched as a warning to Pakistan and a precursor to similar strikes against it.

That background just makes General B a fit candidate to handle Kashmir and to hector a recalcitrant population with some tough talking. So no surprise if he has chosen to speak the way he has. There may be more coming both from his mouth as well as on the ground in Kashmir. There may also be active military plans to handle Pakistan. In fact, Pakistan’s recent crackdown on Hafiz Saeed and his Lashkar-e-Toiba cannot be seen apart from General B’s and his government’s hardline approach towards Pakistan where tough signals may have been relayed through third parties. This is not to say there weren’t other factors at play in Pakistan’s actions and stern statements against Hafiz Saeed.

Going back to the “harsh action” the General warned civilians of for helping militants and rebranding them from militant sympathisers to “over-ground workers”, is probably more bluster than anything else. It is because what the General was putting his finger on is already happening here.

In Kashmir, the General’s statement has been seen as a renewed declaration of war on civilians and as another threat of a new cycle of killings. This has only energised Kashmiris and galvanised their sentiment for azadi. It has also given Kashmiris a powerful way of telling the world that behind the false show of democracy, it is actually the Indian army that decides how Kashmiris are to be dealt with. The General’s warning to Pakistani flag-wavers that his soldiers would “get them” indicates of how even routine policing in Kashmir is done by the General’s soldiers. Needless to say, with the barrels of their guns. Don’t forget that General B is the chief of the Indian army, not some battalion commander stationed in a far-off Kashmiri village or some ragtag Hindutva-zealot politician. So his words are indicative of a war scenario where his men are permanently pitted against the local people who are upwardly recalibrating their defiance as they encounter more and more military power. The General’s words are also pointers to a certain doctrine where military targets are being redefined and dog-whistled to the soldiers on the ground.

In the first place, if the situation at all warranted such stern warnings to protestors in Kashmir, they should have come from the Indian Home Minister or the NSA. When an Army Chief makes such blunt, on the nose statements, it only proves the only and final arbiter in dealing with Kashmir is the army. Thus, those who say India is increasingly pushing for a military solution in Kashmir have a strong argument.

Seen in the context of recent happenings, this line of argument becomes all the more credible. After the July 2016 uprising two army brigades have been inducted into Kashmir — one in south Kashmir another in north — resulting in a significant surge in troop levels in Kashmir. Along with enlarging its footprint, the army has also made itself more visible particularly in south Kashmir. To quell the July uprising, the army’s operation in the south, where the rebellion was most intense, was called “Operation Calm Down” — a name with a heavy subtextual language of suppression.

Interestingly, the Unified Command, UC, set up in 1993 as a nodal point for coordinating counter-insurgency operations between all security agencies and the civilian government under the headship of the State Chief Minister has not met after the July rebellion. It last met in May 2016. Happenings of the past nine months clearly warranted a meeting of the UC. But with the army increasingly taking things in its own hands in Kashmir to the exclusion of the wishlist of the civilian government, the UC has become a redundant agency. People in the know of things believe the army isn’t at all enthusiastic about meeting under the headship of the local government, let alone take any instructions from it on how to deal with the situation in Kashmir.

After the July uprising, top military commanders including then Army Chief and GOC-in-C Udhampur-based Northern Command came to Srinagar several times to assess the situation. They hardly met with the Chief Minister but chose to discuss the situation with the Governor instead in almost all their visits. 

REJIGGING  RESISTANCE

What triggered the General’s harsh words in the first place has largely gone amiss. Research any resistance movement, you will not find even one instance where thousands march to encounter sites, throw stones at soldiers to keep them at bay till the trapped militants make good, or where women sing choral songs in praise of militants outside fighting sites knowing fully well that a hail of bullets or pellets can be unleashed anytime This is unprecedented. This is a stage of Kashmir’s resistance where fear of death is history. And this is unnerving for the Indian State in more ways than one. It redefines the relationship between the occupier and the occupied in a way that the occupier suddenly finds the situation hard to handle despite the absolute asymmetry in military power and its unbridled use.

When General B spoke about his proposed “harsh action”, “will-get-them” policy and other things, he also let some mewing cats out of his well-guarded bag. “As we are conducting operations against militants, we find that the local population is somehow not supportive of the actions of the security forces,” the General was quoted as saying.

For Kashmiris, this line doesn’t need any translation. But for outsiders in India and elsewhere, the General has openly admitted several things. One, that Kashmiris are not with the Indian state and its soldiers. Two, that the support base for the freedom movement encompasses an entire sweep of the local population. That, by deduction, means the movement or the azadi tehreek can’t be neutralised by open military aggression against civilians, or deceptive Sadhbhavana campaigns or by foisting political proxies on the population in the name of electoral democracy. An important observation is that military power and its retributive application are becoming increasingly redundant in Kashmir as the resistance is becoming progressively people-based.

A significant development that got only cursory media attention was General B’s recent visit to Kashmir to pay last respects to the three soldiers killed in Shopian on 23 February. It is not unusual, but seen in the backdrop of the General’s aggressive statements, it would be a safe speculation that he must have given directions to his commanders for sterner measures to arrest the increasing fatalities of his soldiers at the hands of Kashmiri militants. What it means is that we are likely to see a more caustic approach towards militants and civilians alike in days ahead as the situation heats up. 

Coming back to the “harsh action” statement, maybe General B was doing some honest talking between bursts of anger. Or maybe, he was peddling a general remedy for conquering a defiant populace and quelling a resistance that is in an upward spiral. Or maybe, he was preparing ground for a new bloodbath in Kashmir. But what his words have certainly hinted at is this: there is a limit to which the State and its military power can go in suppressing an occupied populace. Beyond that, there is a bloody stalemate with no clear victors or vanquished. Taking the General’s words with his government’s show-no-mercy policy towards Kashmir, it seems this the grim scenario we are heading towards. The General’s words have already cast a long menacing shadow.

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