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20 September, 2016

Time to move from rhetoric to reality

BRP Bhaskar

The daring cross-border attack on the Indian brigade headquarters at Uri in Kashmir, which left 17 dead and about 30 injured, several of them seriously, poses a severe challenge to the Narendra Modi regime even as it copes with the situation created by more than two months of civil unrest in the valley.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who has emerged as the government’s chief spokesman on Kashmir-related issues, blamed the attack on the “terrorist state” of Pakistan. Modi, in a tweet, assured the nation that those who were behind the despicable attack would not go unpunished.

The social media and television channels were abuzz with the informed and the uninformed offering Modi advice on what punishment to give. Suggestions from former army officers and diplomats ranged from calls for surgical strikes to passionate pleas for well-thought-through responses.

Terror groups have targeted military establishments on more than 10 occasions since the eruption of insurgency in Jammu and Kashmir in the early 1990s. In terms of casualties, the worst attack was the one staged by a gang of three at the Kaluchak cantonment in 2002 in which 31 persons were killed and 47 injured. Of the dead, three were army personnel, 18 were family members of army men and 10 were civilians.

The most audacious of all Kashmir-related terrorist actions was the 2001 attack on the Parliament House in New Delhi. Six police personnel, two Parliament security guards and a gardener were killed but no MP was even hurt. The government, headed by Bharatiya Janata Party leader AB Vajpayee, viewed the event as a proxy attack by Pakistan and drew up plans for a military response but did not go ahead with it.

The Uri attack was the second one this year. In January a group of terrorists had sneaked into the large air force base at Pathankot. The encounter that followed resulted in the death of six defence personnel. It was apparently a calculated attempt to derail the India-Pakistan peace process. Following the attack scheduled official level talks between India and Pakistan were cancelled.

Going by the government’s accounts, the terrorists directly involved in all these attacks were liquidated in the encounters that followed.

Since the Pathankot attack, with one thing leading to another, there has been continuous deterioration in India-Pakistan relations. In his Independence Day address on August 15, Modi, in a marked shift from the position taken by all previous governments, openly voiced support for rebels challenging the authority of Pakistan in Baluchistan.

The ground situation in Kashmir took a turn for the worse when protests erupted after security forces announced the killing of young Hizbul Mujahideen commander Buran Wani in July. Many parts of the valley have been under prolonged curfew, and at least 80 persons have been killed, more than 100 blinded and several thousand injured in firing of supposedly non-lethal pellets by central security personnel.

As Pakistan despatched a large number of special envoys to world capitals to mobilise opinion against human rights violations in Kashmir valley, India decided on a similar effort with the focus on Pakistani rights violations in Baluchistan and Kashmir areas under its control. The flip side of such tit-for-tat manoeuvres is that they put India and Pakistan politically on the same level.

Some observers see in Modi’s toughening stance the influence of National Security Adviser Ajit Doyal, who, since retirement from the police, has attracted a bunch of admirers by recounting his exploits as an intelligence officer and has openly advocated a hawkish line. But he is also believed to be the one who sold to Modi the idea of inviting all South Asian leaders to his swearing-in ceremony in 2014.

For Modi the time has come to move from rhetoric to reality. Recent events have revealed two grave weaknesses which India can ignore only at its peril.

One is the ease with which terrorists have been able to intrude into fortified military establishments. The Uri attack resulted in heavy casualties as it took place when one unit was taking over from another. If the attack was timed with prior knowledge of the changeover, it indicates the terror planners have good intelligence support. Clearly, strengthening of the security environment deserves a higher priority than reprisal.

The other is the alarming degree of alienation in the Kashmir valley. In the past civil unrest manifested itself mainly in the form of demonstrations in Srinagar streets. This time young stone-throwers were out in the streets in the countryside and police personnel abandoned many stations. Restoration of normalcy must come first. All else can wait.

The Centre must not forget the healthy atmosphere that prevailed in the valley during the three armed conflicts with Pakistan. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, September 20, 2016 

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