Guts, Grit and Glory | Dreams of a Paradise

A positive approach and a managed perception can help in restoring normalcy in Kashmir

Maj. Gen. R.S. Mehta (retd)Maj. Gen. Raj Mehta (retd)

It was the summer of 1998 and I was in paradise, jannat… call it what you will… in the unsullied Kashmir that the Mughal emperors, empresses, poets, courtiers, travellers, ideologues went into such raptures about. I was at the fabled Shalimar Gardens that King Praversena II built on the terraced Zabarwan mountain slopes overlooking Dal Lake while founding Srinagar in 2 BCE.

When Emperor Jahangir visited the site of the ancient, long dis-used garden in 1619, almost 400 years ago, he chose to relay the ancient site as his token of love for his beauteous Queen, Nur Jahan, expanding it to 31 acres but retaining its original name – Shalimar which in Sanskrit means ‘abode of love’. This is also the garden where the catchy Persian ‘paradise on earth’ tag-line by Sufi Poet Amir Khusro (1253–1325) became famous after Jahangir had it inscribed in the black marble pavilion atop the terraced gardens: Gar Firdaus bar rōy-e zamin ast, hamin ast-o hamin ast-o hamin ast.

So Near and Yet So Far
A Rashtriya Rifles (RR) Sector Commander who had entered South Kashmir on promotion from Deputy Commander in an RR Sector in adjoining Doda district across the Pir Panjal, it was my fourth tenure in Jammu and Kashmir. Early in the South Kashmir tenure, I had been wounded in an encounter but retained command at my special request. My area of responsibility had encounters taking place by the day.

Yet, for me and my controlling HQ, the core focus remained intense, intelligence-led operations balanced by heartfelt, well-thought-through people-related sadbhavna activities that brought the army and, critically, administration closer to the people. One realised how paradoxically complex and heartbreakingly simple the problem of peace and tranquillity was, and how Kashmir’s continuance as a paradise could be sustained if the people remained our focus. Paradise isn’t only about hills, water, climate, it’s really about people.

I knew I faced a populace of which considerable portions were estranged. How could I reduce that estrangement and yet control terrorism? That was my overwhelming challenge and I unexpectedly found the answer in Kashmir’s gardens; in specific on the verdant lawns of the feisty Pehalgam Club.

Sitting on the club lawns by the banks of the swiftly flowing ice-cold Lidder as it debouches from the high Himalayas, I was planning a student-driven sadbhavna initiative with eager young Kashmiri friends when Eureka happened: A big, picnicking Kashmiri joint family was bursting with infectious happiness; with innocent, cheerful laughter. The elders sat on durries under the regal Chinars enjoying the gentle Chinar-and-fir-scented breeze and children including teenage girls chased each other around the Chinars and shallow crystal-clear water channels with abandon and glee, splashing cold water on each other. It made a pretty sight watching them have fun in delicately etched phirans and rolled up shalwars while their elders looked on indulgently as the wazaa (cook) ladled out traditional Kashmiri non-vegetarian wazwan in shared tramis (plates) and almond-laced kehwa. They were in paradise and were happy even if that happiness was ephemeral. The wistful expressions of the phiran-and-jeans-clad young men with me said it all. They all longed for happiness.

Need for Positivity
A newly emerging branch of study, ‘positive psychology’, has to do with controlling one’s perception of the world. Positive psychology says that in order to be successful, one must perceive the world in a positive light. This means controlling one’s thoughts, feelings, and outlook on life. This, I realised, was clearly missing from Kashmiri lives outside that fleeting slice of happiness that a picnic had brought. More importantly, the army, administration, the Central Police Organisations/Paramilitary Forces (CPO/PMF) also needed to be happy and positive in order to engineer the return of paradise.

A brusque radio message, however, made me return to reality: an encounter was on, one of my men wounded, a terrorist shot. Paradise could wait, I thought, as I returned to reality.

The thought, however, remained with me, guiding that tenure and two later tenures in the Valley; it still dominates my mind even in this season of exceptional angst, loss, frustration and unhappiness. We need to keep focusing on reaching out and not let temporary setbacks cloud our thinking for attaining Eden. At the same time, anti-Indian activity has to be firmly and wisely handled.

The Burhan Wani Effect
Thirty years on from 1987, when it appeared clear that the Indian State had brought the proxy war down to manageable levels and signs of democratic normalcy (high voter turnout; responsive governance) were evident, a sobering realisation has dawned that terror works in ebb-flow cycles controlled by complex internal and external influences.

Since July 2016, a Machiavellian, Pakistan-sponsored largely home-grown upsurge is evident and the Burhan Wani effect is its worrisome face. A social media ‘hero’ who, in popular perception, became a charismatic symbol of young struggle, the man who is not known to have ever entered into combat, has, in death become symbolic of the Kashmiri youth struggle to be heard/appreciated.

Twenty-one-year old Afshan Ashiq, social media’s much-retweeted-girl-in-blue, a second year undergraduate student in Government Women’s College Srinagar and an up-market Bemina resident, is an excellent football player who dreams of making it into the national team. She coaches young female footballers and was accompanying them for practice in Srinagar’s Pratap Park when she was driven to stone throwing; an activity hitherto restricted to boys. Her hero is Burhan Wani and Zakir Musa, she says, even as she abjures Tehriq-e-Sangbaaz (Throwing Stones Movement) as the wrong way ahead. She also states matter-of-factly that though Pakistan covets Kashmir, it will dump its people. And of course, Afshan yearns to play for India! Quite a paradox this young lady, but one who could return to the mainstream if handled with tact, finesse, empathy and firmness. The army has these skill sets.

Link the Army/Border Security Force soldiers’ bestial decapitation on the Line of Control (LC) to such internal incidents including the brutal kidnapping/torture/murder of a young Kashmiri Army officer on leave and the collusion between the Pakistani forces who engineered the decapitation, the HM (local terrorists) who killed Lt Fayaz, the stone throwing, and the torching of dozens of Valley schools is unmistakable.

A recent national news channel expose of how Hurriyat hierarchy is deeply entrenched as surrogate Pakistani hatchet-men to escalate the ‘Burhan Wani factor’ is what is genuinely worrisome. It needs prompt action not just by Central/State investigative agencies but equally by the army which is hands-on with grassroots reality in Kashmir since 1947 and has a critical role to play in ensuring normalcy.

Lt Fayaz Parrey
The son of a subsistence-level apple farmer, Lt Ummer Fayaz Parrey, just commissioned in 2 Rajasthan Rifles and home on leave was abducted from his cousin’s marriage celebrations in Batapora. A class-topper and all-round sportsman, Ummer joined the NDA, excelling in all disciplines. A life of promise was aborted when his tortured, bullet-ridden body was found at Harmen Chowk, Shopian next morning, leaving his parents and sisters Asma and Uzma devastated.

His funeral at Sadsun-Yaripora was attended by 4,000 locals and 250 officers/soldiers invoking muted all-round anger in the people and intense national grief. The supposition that his death is a turning point for the better in the Kashmiri psyche is presumptuous as the terrorists who brutally killed him were men he knew and who are products of the Burhan Wani factor.

War of a ‘Million Cuts’
That Pakistan is complicit since 1947 and more so since it commenced the proxy war in 1989 is well documented. In the rapidly evolving young Kashmiri struggle to be heard, the original war of a ‘thousand cuts’ has, because of social media ingress, become war of a ‘million cuts’ and across gender and social media apps of which there are a confounding number.

Tweets in thousands, videos every four hours, disinformation, propaganda, photo-shopped graphics, ‘live’ coverage as in flash mob mode, GPS coordinates, sms, WhatsApp, Facebook, LinkedIn and so many more apps crowd each other to carry ‘real-time’ information of military operations, ‘excesses’, injuries and deaths. These are programmed to inflame restless minds across gender that are thereafter steered into retaliation by way of blocking military operations, gheraoing (surrounding of) the CPO/CPMF and stone throwing (Kani Jung).

What the Kashmiri youth possess by way of weaponry besides stones arranged/paid for by Pakistan, separatists and external agent provocateurs are lethal: app loaded smartphones and brains to optimise smartphone/social media use to support their ‘struggle’. Denied, they have found loopholes in the lumbering BSNL ‘blocking’ methods. They beat blanket bans on social media sites by using Virtual Private Network (VPN). Thus, their messages rack up thousands of hits across social media, giving this IT ‘proxy war’ awesome power whose negative impact is being felt by the state government and security forces.

As a result, operational space is reducing because of direct interference, crowd-mobbing of encounter sites and non-stop monitoring of security forces in the current, IT fuelled ‘Kashmiri Intefada’ with Pakistan acting as ‘spoiler-in-chief’ abetted by Hurriyat. The local administration is thus up against a wall more so as state and central government opinions on handling the problem do not coincide.

Many Questions, Few Answers
A 26 April 2017 The Tribune editorial on the Panzgam, Kupwara Army Camp terror strike noted with glum accuracy that the attack heralded the ‘start of the 2017 killing season in Kashmir’. The remark was prescient because, in line with the Turkish President’s arrival in India on 1 May 2017, and a Pakistani bid to internationalise Kashmir, a Pakistani BAT team mutilated two soldiers on the LC in KG Sector and five policemen among seven overall were shot dead in a bank heist in Kulgam, their AK’s stolen. India, as of mid-May 2017, has hammered Pakistani posts by missile/RL hits on Pak launch bases. What, however, is clear is that confrontation/ retaliation will continue.

Western media, hardly known for understanding sub-continental nuances, has added to the problem by needlessly bringing in Armageddon. Micheal Kugelman, deputy director of Woodrow Wilson think-tank, did just that on 30 April 2017 by suggesting that ‘Kashmir has never been a bigger nuclear flashpoint than it is today’. That’s agenda-led irresponsible journalism hinting at a US mediation role.

The abysmally low voting percentage in the recent Srinagar Parliamentary by-election adds to a growing feeling of disenchantment in public perception exacerbated by videos purportedly showing uniformed forces excesses. In this connection, the stark image of a young shawl weaver trussed to a military jeep has become an integral part of the current logjam. It became viral, clogging social media apps since 9 April 2017 and led the army to order a Court of Inquiry (CoI). Questions are being asked whether the daily, violent confrontation between CPO/PMF and the civilians will henceforth be the ‘new normal’. Whether India covets Kashmir sans querulous Kashmiris? Perceptions matter and in projecting positive images, there is clearly a need for officialdom to upgrade.

The ‘Banihal Syndrome’
This is an unfortunate but cancerous collation of fixated opinions about Kashmir on the one hand and its denizens on the other, seemingly cast in concrete by those in the uniformed forces, civilians and administration. Affecting some in either fraternity, fortunately not all, the syndrome works both ways and benefits neither protector nor protected, just self-perpetuates negativity and hardens attitudes. In this season of anger, loss and unhappiness, the Banihal Syndrome has adversely impacted on perceptions, bringing them to a knife-edge. For a return to normalcy, Kashmir needs government, forces and people to look beyond fixated opinions and seek common ground to restore that peace and tranquillity without which the Kashmiri youth have nowhere to go. So simple, yet so complex is the way out.

What’s Causing the Disruptions?
There are clearly lots of things that have gone out of kilter but before we examine them, let’s accept Ernest Yeboah’s advice: ‘When distress comes your way, pause and ponder’. Introspection is needed by all and for valid reasons. The reversal of the foreign/local militant ratio from erstwhile 70:30 to 30:70 today; the perception in the words of veteran Lt Gen. DS Hooda, till recently the northern army commander that the stand-off has graduated to a ‘direct fight between the security forces and civilian population’ are issues worth pondering over. Hands-on Lt Gen. Devraj Anbu, the current northern army commander and his equally hands-on valley corps commander, Lt Gen. J.S. Sandhu both subscribe to ‘People-Centric’ operations, making the people their centre of gravity and this strategic imperative is being kept in focus by the army despite all provocation.

In all of this, the image of a placarded, trussed-up Kashmiri man on a military jeep used as a last-resort jugaad solution by experienced ACC-entry ASC Maj. Leetul Gogoi, the RR QRT commander who led the rescue of PMF/CPO/election staff surrounded by a frenzied mob as a ‘human shield’ tactic to avoid casualties seems justified, given his eloquent personal narration to television channels on 23 May 2017 to which award of a Chiefs Commendation Card to Gogoi as reported in media but not commented upon by the Army spokesman has added a new dimension. The veracity of the man being paraded around 20 odd villages as claimed by him post the rescue act also needs to be established.

What Troubles the Youth?
No Jobs: Jammu and Kashmir has a youth bulge with 24.6 per cent population in the 18-29 age bracket unemployed; the highest in North India. The frantic search for jobs in April/May 2017 had almost 19,000 youth applying for army/police recruitment despite limited vacancies.

Poor Education: Out of 96 degree colleges in Jammu and Kashmir, over 30 per cent have grossly inadequate infrastructure and inadequate/absentee teaching staff.

Poor Infrastructure Everywhere: Health, roads, electricity, industry, trade, commerce, trans-border trade, regional disparities all are issues of deep concern in the Valley.

Unkept promises: The 2014 flood mayhem was enormous and many promises were made for rendering assistance. There is deep anger and frustration among affected people for not honouring them.

Demilitarisation: Demanded by sections of the populace, AFSPA imposition is seen as curtailment of citizen rights with Separatists adding fuel to Pakistani-stoked fires. The mandatory filing of an FIR for all terror-related deaths has made the uniformed forces unhappy.

Rising Radicalisation: A global phenomenon, its ugly face since 2016 has become a cause of deep concern.

Development, Tourism, Wellness: All three exist but on the margins of Kashmiri society. Veteran Brig. Anil Gupta says: “Undoubtedly Kashmiri youth is emboldened but also disillusioned. He is seeking direction; wants to be in the national mainstream…” Pakistani Intransigence. It keeps Kashmiri fires stoked.

Kashmiri Pandits’ Marginalisation: Despite promises made, this continues, with thousands languishing outside the State unwilling to return to empty promises of security/resettlement.

Budshah is Being Missed: Kashmir’s tallest leader, Sultan Zain-ul-Abidin (1420-1470) is associated with providing 50 years of peace and tranquillity, tolerance and promotion of Kashmiri artisans in multiple disciplines. Kashmiris have traditionally favoured strong leadership and await a Kashmiri Budshah across gender.

Perception Management 
Even as the army, and, in specific, the northern army quietly and professionally go about their job as key players in the return-to-paradise equation — come stones, bullets, floods, avalanches or body mutilation of army/BSF soldiers by Pakistan on the LC, it has identified a need to strategise perception management changes in keeping with emerging challenges.

There is a need to unlearn, re-learn what ‘strategic corporals’ (young officers/JCO’s/NCO’s) can do when faced with crisis situations on the counter-terror landscape. ‘Trophy’ actions that go beyond the pale of military conduct need to be avoided and messaging made crystal-clear. Perception management per se will need a serious re-look, equipping, skill-sets and be accessible down to unit levels in real time. Its pale extends to all possible activities that are linked with a return to Eden.

Thought leader and author, Philip Kotler calls the four dominant psychological factors that direct perceptions: motivation, perception, learning, and beliefs and attitudes. Corporate trainer Joel Garfinkle describes applying these in a four-step process. First, you need to define how you are perceived. Second, find out through surveys and feedback how the public actually perceives you. Then, determine how you want to be perceived and finally decide how to implement that perception.

As for the disenchanted young who need jobs and security, a sense of achievement and purpose, consider the practice of young children encouraging one another to use new products, like a famous cereal’s tag-line: ‘He likes it! Hey, Mikey!’ The young respond well to peer influence. One can imagine the benefits if wise perception management puts the army back on the ‘Like’ list of youth because it is seen as caring, firm, empathetic and quality job providers/educators.

Legendary ad Guru David Ogilvy famously declared that communication is the primary tool for managing perceptions to ensure desired behaviour in the target audience. The argument is seldom won on its own merits but by creating the perception that the decision-makers’ own constituency is best served by one particular outcome. Perceptions need change such that the expectations of Kashmiri young are met even as national interest remains supreme.

Is a return to paradise possible? Of course, it is. Provided all players; people, army, administration, CPO/PMF put their hearts and minds to it, especially the women. When societal change takes place in troubled societies, invariably, it is the women who drive the change with the men following. Make Kashmir a test-bed.

Budshah created paradise for Kashmiris 600 years ago. We have a precedent that Kashmiris respect and yearn for. All we need to do as key guardians of the idea of India is to help governance in encouraging this magical thought to flourish and become an everyday reality.

(The writer commanded 19 Infantry Division in north Kashmir)


Call us