COVER STORY

Force and fears

With Centre’s decision to scale up operations in J&K, armed forces fear more unrest

Call of duty: Army personnel during an encounter with militants in Keran sector in Kashmir | PTI Call of duty: Army personnel during an encounter with militants in Keran sector in Kashmir | PTI

The Centre’s ceasefire announcement during the holy month of Ramzan in Jammu and Kashmir was part of a “blow hot, blow cold” policy, but the chain of events eventually led to the collapse of the BJP-PDP coalition government. The policy came with collateral damage—civilians, officers and jawans were caught in the middle as violence escalated in the valley.

With the imposition of governor’s rule on June 20, the biggest worry of the security establishment is the loss of more lives and continued unrest as the Centre scales up operations in the valley. Intelligence reports reveal that while 18 incidents of grenade attacks, weapons snatching and other violence took place during the month preceding Ramzan, the ceasefire period saw as many as 50 such incidents. The violence culminated with the assassination of senior journalist Shujaat Bukhari and the abduction and killing of Rifleman Aurangzeb Khan on the eve of Eid.

With the soft face of the PDP now missing, sharp instructions have gone out to the Army, the Jammu and Kashmir police and the Central armed police forces. “There will be all out offensive operations against militants in the valley, who have the ostensible backing of Pakistan-based terror groups like Jaish-e-Mohammad and Hizbul Mujahideen,” said an officer involved in anti-militancy operations in the valley. “The forces will come down hard on terrorists as expected, but we are aware that supporters in the public will try their best to disrupt the operations.”

Former Central Reserve Police Force chief Dilip Trivedi said that the state has traditionally seen an increase in violence during governor’s rule. “The mandate of the security forces is law enforcement. The chances of excesses taking place increase when the security forces are given a free hand,” he said. The biggest problem in imposing governor’s rule, according to him, is the huge collateral damage that happens in the valley each time. “In the hinterland [elsewhere in India], it is a different scenario, where even a small incident of firing during president’s rule can precipitate huge protests,” he said. “But, in the valley, the voices of protest get constrained and do not affect New Delhi as much. This is the bane of a state that has a small population.”

An Indian Police Service officer, Trivedi has served in the state for several years. He was also part of the counterintelligence wing, handling Pakistan in the Intelligence Bureau. “First, there is a buildup of security forces,” he explained. “Then, the government realises that the hardline approach cannot continue for too long, and the security forces are asked to exercise restraint. Sometimes there is an announcement of a thaw in India-Pakistan relations, and another time there is a surgical strike. We must realise that the ultimate casualty are the people and the security personnel who go to the valley with great spirit and enthusiasm to serve the nation.”

Sources in the security establishment said that there are inputs of Pakistan trying to escalate violence ahead of its July elections. Also, the 60-day long Amarnath Yatra begins on June 28. Meanwhile, the Centre is yet to find a replacement for Governor N.N. Vohra, whose tenure was to end on June 27. The names of retired Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, Comptroller and Auditor General of India Rajiv Mehrishi and Centre’s representative in Jammu and Kashmir Dineshwar Sharma are doing the rounds. Sources in the government, however, said that Vohra may not be replaced till the end of the annual pilgrimage. Former state chief secretary B.B. Vyas and retired IPS officer Vijay Kumar have been appointed as advisers to Vohra.

The NDA government cannot afford a repeat of the Gurdaspur or Pathankot attacks ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. This is why it became important for the BJP-PDP alliance to end, said Arun Chaudhary, former special director of the Intelligence Bureau. He said that former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti had not allowed security agencies to function freely. She was miffed with them over the 2016 Burhan Wani encounter, and reportedly prevailed upon the Centre to transfer S.M. Sahai, who was additional director general of police (intelligence) during the president’s rule after Mufti Mohammad Sayeed’s death, out to New Delhi. Sahai had been credited with successful intelligence gathering, and knew the dynamics of the terror groups active in the valley.

“When there is political interference in the security strategy, the militants get emboldened, which is why 2016 saw a wave of violence,” said Chaudhary. “It is towards the end of 2017 that a cohesive security strategy started taking shape.” Chaudhary warned that as the security agencies up the ante once again, Pakistan-backed terror outfits will be watching closely. But, by now, they may have created enough ground support in the form of sympathisers and observers, he said, who would tell them about the plans and new deployment strategies of the security forces.