Army must withdraw from CI ops in a phased manner; CRPF, state police must beef up capabilities for the role
Come winter and Kashmir is transformed into a wonderland—silver and magical with snow-clad mountains and valleys, frozen rivers, icy wind in the conifers, frosty mornings and sipping of hot kahwah while warming around kangris in the mellowed apricot light of the afternoon. The ethereal beauty has stood the test of time despite the pain suffered by people from militant violence, killings of innocents and persistent attempts from across the border to destabilise the idyllic environs.
Each year has a macabre end. The tally of the dead among civilians, brave jawans and terrorists is compared with previous years in a heartless statistical exercise. And every new year is welcomed with trepidation by gauging infiltration numbers from across the border with the melting of snow and by counting the number of militants, overground workers and radicalised youth in the valley.
Since the army moved in 1989-90 to stem the sudden onslaught of terrorism, the state has never remained the same. A constant threat kept the forces on their toes and the people on the edge with internet shutdowns, mobile phone restrictions and circumscribed movements from time to time. The advent of terrorism in 1989-90 has scarred the landscape and the psyche of the people. The state has also been embroiled in various controversies—with an ineptitude local administration, ever increasing footprint of the security forces, opposition to the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, alleged human rights violations and curbs on freedom.
A recurring theme of the protests from opposition leaders, activists, civil society has been withdrawal of the army from the Kashmir hinterland. With the government, army, central armed police forces (CAPF) and the state police publicising the consistent downward slide of violence, the rationale of maintaining its large size in the valley does need an explanation. As early as in December 2013, a prominent national daily had set off the debate by pitching strongly for the army’s withdrawal from Kashmir. Today the argument appears strengthened, after fears of an upsurge of violence following the creation of the union territories of J&K and Ladakh, and the abrogation of Article 370 have been allayed.
The army moved in to shore up the capabilities of the local police and the CAPFs to fight terrorism. It took a while for the tide to turn. The year 2001 was the bloodiest year with 4,522 militancy-related incidents. About 2,020 militants were gunned down, 996 civilians killed and 536 security personnel were martyred. The year 2002 was even worse as far as civilian casualties are concerned with 1,008 dead.
Since then, the graph of violence has been coming down as a result of better intelligence, greater coordination between the security forces as well as a better grip over the internal administration in the hinterland. Both the army and police sources put the strength of militants below 200, the lowest over the years, along with minimal infiltration figures in 2021. The call for recalling the army to the line of control/line of actual control (LoC/LAC) has also become louder after the ratcheting up of border tension with China, the latest being in the Tawang sector where resolute action by our army jawans pushed back PLA attempts to cross over and stay put.
Serving army generals and veterans maintain that the army needs to be in constant preparedness for war and the deployment for anti-insurgency dilutes its capability and focus. But Kashmir being a sensitive border state, its withdrawal has never been considered favourably, citing inability of the central and state forces to take over counter insurgency (COIN) tasks on their own. The proven experience of the Rashtriya Rifles (RR) and synergy between younger RR officers with state police officers have led to great successes in containing insurgency.
Can the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the state police match the RR in manpower, weaponry and intelligence for the takeover? The CRPF took over the mantle of fighting insurgency from the Border Security Force in 2004. As of now, it is engaged in an array of other duties too, from road opening, VIP/critical installations security and law and order. It is quite familiar with the lay of the land and the people. Currently 61 battalions are deployed in Kashmir along with 109 splinter companies (the RR had engaged around 45 battalions). Moreover, roughly 17 battalions which were earlier deployed exclusively for law and order duties (stone pelting, protest marches etc.) are free today. Its counter intelligence capabilities have been boosted by reenergising its intelligence wing, which is now getting useful tactical information because of its large spread on the ground. The state police has also geared up its intelligence efforts and has a better grip over towns.
COIN forces need a judicious mix of experience and youth. Insurgencies all over the world have seen this mix being used with success. The CRPF will have to ensure this. The army has a rigorous training programme at all levels which the CRPF must emulate in the form of junior and senior command training. In Assam, the army has given commando training to state policemen in batches, which can be experimented in Kashmir too. Unit cohesion is a critical factor. To track militants and smoke them out, the CRPF will need small tactical units with light weaponry and accurate intelligence. Finally, the CRPF will need a much larger budget and access to decision making levels. The Special DG CRPF Kashmir should be made adviser to the chief minister/governor and sit in unified command meetings.
COIN operations are not conducted by wielding guns alone but by several outreach programmes run by the army. From schools to cricket matches, career advancement courses to involvement in civic actions, such myriad activities initiated by the army have played a significant role. Operation Sadbhavna granting scholarships, a day with a company commander and visits by state children to other parts of India have been a great success. Such outreach programmes can be conducted by the CRPF, which has the resources, capability and experience from the Maoist belt.
Terrorism is also changing colour. Today’s militant is internet savvy, radicalised and spouting rehearsed extremist propaganda from Salafi/Wahabi literature. Overground workers and first timers are employed for various tasks at the bidding of militants. The biggest task is counter radicalisation and tracking of overground workers. Local intelligence is the key. The CRPF will fit into this role with better acceptability from the public.
Above all, the most important reason for the new takeover is the call of democracy. How long can you have states/UTs under the army umbrella to do a job which should logically be done by the police? Ideally in conflict resolution, once the army has done its job, civil institutions should take over. By keeping the army for more than three decades, a message goes out that the Kashmir conflict is intractable with no signs of resolution in the future. Such conflict zones are all over the world and need time to resolve. In the process civilian or forces casualties will have to be braved.
In the transition period, there may be a rise in terror activities but it will subsequently stabilise. The army has a good knowledge and database of the various terror modules and networks. The CRPF will have to go through the process again and even if the database of the army is handed over, the team will have to familiarise itself with each network and modus operandi. The process of transition can be in two or three stages starting with three districts, at a time, making it smooth and without upheaval.
In the Northeast, there is a strong case for the Assam Rifles to be withdrawn from COIN duties and deployed along the 1,645km-long India-Myanmar border, which is highly porous and vulnerable to drug smuggling, arms trafficking and crossing over of militants.
In April 2022, the Centre, citing drastic improvement in internal security scenario, withdrew the AFSPA fully from 23 districts of Assam and partially from seven districts in Nagaland, six in Manipur and one in Assam. As a result, the AFSPA remains only in 31 districts of the north-eastern states fully and in four partially. The figures of violence have been the lowest. The union home minister is confident that Assam will be soon totally free from AFSPA.
The situation in Manipur and Nagaland remains the key to decision for the withdrawal of the army from the Northeast totally. Low figures of engagements between security forces and insurgents are matched by equally low numbers of clashes between the various factions. However, the extortion figures remain high and the actual amount is difficult to ascertain. Replacement of the army, whose presence has been opposed by all groups in these states by the CAPF, would be the right move at this juncture. Insurgency in Nagaland and Manipur, where ethnic loyalties play a major role, is a major political challenge. Conviction for insurgency related and other crimes is very low and most cases fail after National Security Act detentions.
In 2020, Nagaland governor R N Ravi conveyed to chief minister Neiphiu Rio his anger and frustration over the rising extortion activities and intimidation of people by armed gangs and syndicates. He severely indicted the state government for its feeble attempts to control the same. While Ravi was shifted to Tamil Nadu as the governor, the situation remains the same on the ground. In Manipur, rampant extortion has devastated business establishments. In this situation it is more a question of political sagaciousness and the will to fight insurgency than which force to use for COIN.
India has assumed G-20 presidency at a delicate time. It is expected to deliver on its international obligations. These range from initiating peace talks between Russia and Ukraine to arriving at a consensus at COP meetings. With the onset of a new variant of Covid from China and border tensions, internal security management will come under greater strain. The greatest obligation for India as the fifth largest economy and the largest democracy in the world is to give a clear message to its countrymen and the world that it is firmly committed to democratic ideals.
Elections should be called in J&K at the earliest. It should also get back its identity of a proud Indian state. The army should be withdrawn and the CRPF should take over COIN duties. Similarly, in the Northeast, the CRPF should helm COIN operations with the state police. Let the army patrol the LOC/LAC while the CRPF bolsters the internal security set-up.
(The writer is chairman Deepstrat, a former Central Information Commissioner and a retired IPS officer who has served as secretary, security, and special director, Intelligence Bureau)