Lt Gen (Retd) Ata Hasnain: Difficult to return to pre-2014 days in Kashmir now

General Hasnain laments that the situation is now so bad that there can be no return to the days of 2013. But Hasnain doesn’t blame the Army for this failure

Lt Gen (Retd) Ata Hasnain: Difficult to return to  pre-2014 days in Kashmir now

Dhairya Maheshwari

“We haven’t been able to keep up the momentum of reaching out to the Kashmiri people,” concedes Lt Gen (Retd) SYED ATA HASNAIN. The former commander of the XV Corps of the Indian Army, a strike force stationed in Srinagar, the retired three-star General is remembered for initiatives to improve relations between Kashmiri civilians and the Army. The former Military Secretary, General Hasnain laments that the situation is now so bad that there can be no return to the days of 2013. But Hasnain doesn’t blame the Army for this failure. He spoke to DHAIRYA MAHESHWARI

Kashmir is one of the most heavily militarised zones in the world. The militants, on the other hand, are a fraction of our security forces. As a military scholar and a former Army man, what is going wrong?

This is the best form of Pakistani propaganda - that Kashmir is one of the most heavily militarised zones in the world. The figure which is touted around by people in Kashmir- based on Pakistani estimates- is that there are around seven lakh Indian troops in Kashmir.

This is a fabrication. We need to be more pragmatic about it, in terms of total Indian Army formations inside Kashmir and what exactly their footprint is. I am only telling you that this aspect that there are seven lakh Indian troops in Kashmir has to be thoroughly questioned.

What we also have to understand is that there are seventy lakh people living in the Kashmir Valley. The Valley has got some of the most densely built-up areas I have seen anywhere in the world. There are choc-o-bloc villages wherever one goes, besides large tracts of jungles and mountains which can be used for hideouts. The Line of Control (LoC) is almost 300 km long here and is also manned densely to prevent infiltration.

There is a need of carrying out surveillance from time to time and field intelligence work to keep the area secure, for which you need to have a reasonable strength. Terrorists may be 5,000 or 300 in number; it still entails domination by the Army, in order to prevent areas that have been cleared up from re-emerging.

We have experience of this in south Kashmir, where areas that have been cleared up in early part of the millennium started re-emerging. Why? Because our troops started withdrawing from these cleared-up zones. These were the areas where Burhan Wani and company went back, and these are the areas that we see burning up today.

So, the strength of terrorists doesn’t matter. What matters in counter-terrorism is the strength of networks. The networks are all there, their over ground workers (OGWs) are all there. They might not be manifesting as terrorists, but these networks have the capability of emerging any time and throwing up terrorists. This is why you have to be particularly careful about this, in the overall security management.

This is something that people don’t understand when they claim by eliminating terrorists, you have eliminated the threat and therefore you should withdraw the Army. These things don’t work in that matter. It is not a black and white thing.

Security cover has been withdrawn to separatist leaders in the Valley? How sane is the political move? What if something happens to them?

I think it is a great psychological message sent out by the government. These people had become virtual guests of the Indian government, who had been living on Indian taxpayer money. Approximately ₹10.5 crore was spent on their security last year. What are we getting in return? Nothing but negativity. There are no dividends to be reaped, which is exactly the question that the Indian taxpayer is asking.

Many people perceive that having Hurriyat as an option is a good thing, since you can contemplate a scenario in the future which is somewhat on the lines of a Mizoram scenario (where separatist leaders eventually joined the government). But that hasn’t happened in Kashmir in the last 30 years. These separatists have given no indicators that they want to come overboard and be within the Indian political system. So, what is their relevance? Had I had my way, I would remove them from Jammu and Kashmir and settle them in some other part of the country, just so that their nuisance value is reduced.

Car bombs entered the Indian scene in 2001. You say they have had massive implications for India. Are they linked to specific terror organisations?

Well, the first car bomb was at the Badami Bagh gate in 2001, which is where the Army’s Corps headquarters of Kashmir is located . The second car bomb exploded the same year at the state assembly. The third went off in 2004 on a bus of the Army in Pattan, Kashmir.

Yes, car bombs are linked to specific terror in Kashmir organisations. The overall IED culture of south Kashmir is the very creation of Hizbul Mujahideen, the local terror outfit. So yes, they are certainly linked to specific outfits. One must also understand that it is not a very simple thing to fabricate a car bomb or an IED. It takes a fair amount of expertise because this kind of explosive is not very stable. The RDX mixed with another chemical could be a deadly and uncertain combination which needs very careful handling. And emplacing an IED is a rather challenging task, which needs both time and skill. A lot of time and money is invested by terror regimes in these things. They use their OGWs.

Afghanistan has warned India that the Taliban is backing groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM).

Well, there is a trans-national terrorist groups’ nexus that’s emerged, linked irrespective of their ideology. For instance, the LTTE in Sri Lanka was networked with many of the Naxal outfits in central India. We had some reports that the LTTE also had linkages to Pakistani-backed groups, but that was never really established.

But there is no doubt about it that there is a lot of inter-linking between these organisations. Though sometimes there are reports of internecine conflicts between these terror groups, say how the Islamic State and the Taliban are these days vying for influence in Afghanistan. Even in Pakistan, the ISIS, the Tehreek-e-Taliban and the Lashkar-e-Taiba don’t see eye-to-eye on many issues. But overall, these outfits certainly back each other, when facing a broader ideological enemy.

Should that worry India?

If the Taliban is backing Jaish-e-Mohammad, then certainly yes. What should worry India more are the networks. The Taliban and the JeM coming together is definitely a warning signal.

What happened in the 1990s was that when local militancy started dying out, we found the entry of foreign groups from Afghanistan. It’s that which could also happen this time around. It is something we must be concerned about. Because the war in Afghanistan may be all but over in the next two years, even as the Kashmir problem continues. So, in all likelihood, there might be some fighters from the Taliban who may come and join militancy in Kashmir at the behest of Pakistan.

During your time as GOC at XV Corps, your Hearts Doctrine won wide praise. Now you are writing articles advising the government on redressing the problem of alienation of Kashmiri youth? What has gone wrong between 2013 and now?

One needs to understand that the type of war we face in Kashmir is a sub-conventional one, also called hybrid warfare. The full spectrum of conflict is not being used. It is only irregular warfare with some non-state actors or some state-owned non-state actors. And then there are many sideshows supporting the action happening in the region, like the drug and narcotics networks, the financial (hawala) networks, transnational ideological networks and there is also an element of psychological warfare involved.

It is a mismatch of many domains which has made the situation very tenuous from a security point of view. Countering this kind of hybrid conflict requires what is called an all-out government approach. It needs to be understood that every department of the government is at war.

A misconception doing the rounds is that this conflict is just the job of Army. People think that terrorists will be killed and order will be restored, which is not the case. The Army will bring the situation to a point of stability, which it has done in Kashmir three or four times before. It will reduce the strength of terrorists to a lower number, etc, but the last mile must be crossed by the political leadership.

For that, the government has to use each and every department- to fight the ideology, the mind games, to fight the misinformation campaign among the youth populace and all. The problem in Kashmir is that many people think that it is a military conflict, and not a hybrid conflict. The Army can’t alone win the conflict for us. Unless, every department of the government is involved and knows its role in contributing to restoring normalcy, we won’t be able to go forward and win this conflict.

That exactly is what my realisation was in 2010. Alongside our hard operations that resulted in deaths of many militants, we also conducted what’s called outreach operations. Outreach operations must not be confused with Operation Sadbhavna. Our outreach programme went much beyond Sadbhavna and involved going to the ground and being in conversations with people without awaiting outcomes. We wanted to take every stakeholder, including the politicians, civil administration and villagers, along. The aim was to make them feel secure so that they could freely express their concerns to the Army and the local administration.

The outreach programme created a tremendous goodwill in the eyes of the Kashmiri public and appealed to one and all in the Valley. Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to really keep up the tempo since 2013, although a very brave effort was made in 2014 by Lt General Subrata Saha. The situation, however, has been bad since 2015.

While the Army still recognises that it is a necessity, but because of its involvement in intense operations after the Burhan Wani killing, the Army has been unable to do this. On the other hand, the people and politicians haven’t really had to courage to take this up. Today, it is very difficult to revive the outreach programmes that we had started.

What’s the role of internet in influencing young Kashmiri minds? An NIA investigation said that WhatsApp was being widely employed, along with social media networks, to galvanise stone-pelters. What would your observations be, considering that you are now the Chancellor of Central University of Kashmir and may be in contact with a lot of students?

Well, let me demonstrate this by comparing the aftermath of the Pulwama attack with the aftermath of 26/11 Mumbai attacks. The reactions after Pulwama are much severe and vocal, when you consider the outrage generated after 26/11, which was mostly confined to newsrooms.

A big difference between then and now is that there was no social media at the time. Today, almost everyone can express their personal opinion through social media. With the help of social media today, it has become so much easier to galvanise support in Kashmir. It has become so easy to send out messages to sympathisers, collect people together and collect what you would call flash mobs.

Half your ideological war and partially your non-military side of it is fought through social media. It is not easy to fight this, though we can counter this by physical means like shutting down the internet. But that helps little.

The social media war has to be fought the same way it is being fought by them. You have to fight them with content, lots and lots of it. If people are talking about Islam, we should know more about Islam. We should have a pool of researchers. Every question of theirs should have ten answers from our side. If they talk about Islam, we should have a pool of researchers on Islam who are able to counter them tooth-and-nail.

These types of counter-influencing things cannot be done by the Army. This needs the effort of what I call the information warriors- young boys and girls who are social media savvy, supported by tremendous amount of academic research. The system needs to be set-up in Delhi or Srinagar, or wherever else. so that we can take on this radical digital propaganda.

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