Sunday, January 16, 2011

In Kashmir, time to move forward

It is a good sign that the government is thinking of force reduction in Jammu and Kashmir. Speaking at a university seminar in New Delhi on Friday, Union home secretary G.K. Pillai indicated that the presence of the security forces in the state could be pruned by as much as 25 per cent in the course of the year. It will be erroneous to pit this against the observation of the Chief of Army Staff, Gen. V.K. Singh, on the same day that the Army’s strength in the state was not being reduced. For some years the Army has functioned primarily on the Line of Control, although it is also engaged in counter-terrorism operations away from urban centres and has occasionally been used for a show of strength when the situation threatened to get out of hand in the cities, such as during the prolonged agitation last year when stone-pelters had a field day on account of mishandling of the situation by the state police and paramilitary units. (In the latter role, the Army is deployed elsewhere in the country as well.) Clearly then, the government’s thinking is to cut paramilitary deployment in Kashmir in the main. They are the ones who are in the cities along with the state police. They were inserted in the first place as the local police lacked the numbers, training and equipment to deal with the special situation that foreign-fuelled militancy in Kashmir presents. In many instances it was also seen to lack the leadership. Evidently, some of these deficits have been overcome to an extent, permitting the draw-down of the CRPF that Mr Pillai hinted at. Indeed, during the onslaught of the stone-pelters masterminded by some jihadist elements last year, the state police gave a reasonable account of itself. Its performance might have been even better had the state’s political leadership shown greater astuteness.
In spite of what we saw last year, Kashmir’s populace seeks peace and normality, although from time to time it is bullied into acquiescence by jihadist elements, particularly when the authorities are sloppy or sometimes exceed their limits. Reducing force numbers so that cities don’t always wake up to bunkers of armed men in their midst is always a good idea, and is most often practicable. It is now up to the security forces and intelligence agencies to ensure that the Islamists don’t get the upper hand politically. Force reduction is inevitably a goodwill gesture toward our own people, no matter which part of the country we are talking about. It helps lift the siege mentality. Mirwaiz Umar Farooq has reportedly welcomed the government’s thinking. This will bring him closer to the mainstream in the Valley. Recent statements by former Hurriyat chairman Abdul Ghani Bhatt and by Sajjad Lone, who showed the maturity to chance his arm in the last Lok Sabha elections, that the jihadists have killed more people in Kashmir than the security forces is also in accord with the broad thinking in the Valley. But their public articulation of this sentiment is a forward step and is to be appreciated. Given these developments, reducing the deployment of the paramilitary forces is likely to bolster India’s confidence in any serious talks with Pakistan, whenever these are opened. The announcement of a unilateral six-month multiple-entry visa regime for PoK residents to visit Jammu and Kashmir also appears well-timed to go with the overall thrust of the government’s thinking. The Centre has made a positive appreciation of the work done by the three-person team of interlocutors since October. It may now be time to move up a notch and find ways to resume public contact with political elements in the Valley outside of the parties that contest elections.
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