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Handwara and its Aftermath: The Mood of the Nation

Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain

Updated: April 18, 2016, 9:59 PM IST
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Handwara and its Aftermath: The Mood of the Nation
The more I read social media the more educated I become on the mood of the nation. National mood is never static, it moves with the times and social media in today's world shapes it. If the intelligence agencies and the leadership of the nation and the state of J&K is not analysing social media they would be missing the mood at each end of the problem. Handwara has triggered passions not only in the Valley but also in the nation at large. While there is a decidedly greater cockiness among many in the Valley, there is greater frustration in the nation. Videos are in circulation, of troops at receiving ends of mobs and responding in a benign way except in circumstances where they have been completely cornered as in the bunker related event at Handwara.

India Kashmir Protest

(Kashmiri youth have turned stone throwing into an art akin to the Intifada of the Palestinians with the intent of projecting the difference between helpless people under pressure and the armed might of the State. It is all a battle of perception.)

The Separatists hope, as before, to draw the sympathy of not only the Kashmiri people but also activists and the international community. The attempt to project the stone thrower as a non-violent activist against the bullying might of armed troops succeeded to a great extent the last time in 2008-10. There was then too, little attempt by the establishment to alter perceptions that the use of targeted violence in the street was externally sponsored and terrorist led. I think the Separatists are getting it all wrong this time. But the Center's perception management machinery has once again yet to get its act together. The international community is fed up with terrorism and with radicalism. Activists will attempt to paint the situation as one of freedom fighters against oppression but the Central Government needs to seize the moment of international concern. The Palestinian attempts on similar lines also failed a few years ago. Hamas could not draw sufficient sympathy. On the national front, people no longer want their Army to respond benignly and be at the receiving end of such contrived and sponsored strife. It's a challenge for the military leadership and no doubt for the new government which could not have had a worst situation to handle right at the outset. As tempers flare the State Government and the Army must remain on the same page. That is the surest way to quell the Separatist intent.

The CM is absolutely right in calling for restraint but probably also needs to send a message to the Separatists to stop playing with innocent lives. It's not always that only stone throwers die but also bystanders. In the heat of mob violence bullets fly without much aim. Why there isn't enough riot control gear yet again is something unfathomable. It is almost akin to the proverbial Truck Scanner; the process for acquiring it began in 1999 and has not fructified to date. Someone needs to answer this.



(The Separatists perceived an opportune moment as that of the swearing in of the new Government led by Ms Mehbooba Mufti.)

I recall the agitation in Baramula in 2008-10, much of which I had to face. It was an experience of growing up on the job. The mobs tested my nerve and that of my outstanding officers and troops every day. It is also a fact that it kept me from my prime responsibility of defence of the LoC and prevention of infiltration. Thanks to some great Army practitioners of all ranks who served with me we always found solutions for the moment, none permanent of course. It was realised that stone throwing was instigated by a few from Pattan and the dependence was on a group of drug addicts and pavement hawkers to form the mob. The drug addicts were happy to receive Rs 300 to buy their daily dose and the hawkers earned more than their daily profits. All were happy, except the parents. That is the segment which needed to be targeted by us.

Two experiences need to be described. In the first instance a direct outreach was made to parents and elders at the Old Town. Commencing with a middle of the night tea and pakora get together with them the engagement continued almost every day. Old Town had the maximum stone throwers of 'repute'. The parents would go back and work on the boys. Simultaneously, the curfew in the town was diluted to allow milk and vegetables to flow in. The Army's medical teams were on standby to attend to anyone ill as clinics were all closed. The District Collector's continuous requests to deploy Army teams to quell mobs were resisted and only in some cases QRTs moved only as a show of force. There was no direct attempt to target the Army. In the meetings with parents no effort was spared to convey that Army does not shoot in the air and meddling with it will only lead to death on the streets and nothing else. That was local perception management.

The second time I was dealing with Baramula was from Srinagar. The town once again was creating turbulence, the same youth, the same drug addicts and hawkers and anyone who wished to make a quick buck. Some of those arrested had been lodged in Central Jail Srinagar. There they received home cooked food, mobile SIM cards and daily visits by parents and friends making them heroes in society. Efforts to convince the jail authorities to stop this did not succeed.

It is then that a novel idea came up from some officers. The Army's 46 RR, one of the finest units involved in handling civil strife, formed video camera teams, allowed the mobs to cross the cement bridge over the Jhelum and continued video graphing of the youth involved, over a couple of days. When sufficient footage was available and most of boys identified the videos were screened at the community centre located at the Sherwani Hall, also an Army Sadbhavna facility. The outstanding JK Police was always at hand to identify and assist. Parents were shown the video recording of their sons in stone throwing mode so that none could deny that their boys were involved. The message was conveyed without holding back anything. It stated the Army's and JK Police's intent that arrested youth would no longer be housed in the Central Jail Srinagar but would be transported to Jammu. There would be no home cooked food there, no daily visits and no mobiles. It would cost parents Rs 5000 by Sumo taxis to pay a single visit. What the treatment by the jail staff would be like was left to the imagination of the parents. To its credit the JK Police executed this action plan in a few cases to great psychological effect. It was again effective perception management. Baramula was quiet for at least six months that summer.

However, that is old wine and will not work under the circumstances when clearly the Separatists are spoiling for a fight with the Army, their postponed intent of Sep 2010 when Geelani announced his intent to gherao Army camps. Then too the Army sent a veiled message that it would not hold back in breaking such attempts. This time, an effort to storm an RR camp has been made at Nutnus, a notorious town with a radical past. The RR troops fired and there is a reported casualty. Perhaps the Separatists are making one major error, they are not reading the mood of the nation and the world at large. You can't take for granted that a response will always be the same. There are other ways of showing their relevance than by spillage of blood on the roads. The local media too must introspect because instigation in such situations only worsens strife. Is it their intent to worsen or improve the environment for the coming season. Clearly they are not reading the situation around the globe.

Efforts are also being made to draw a schism between the Army and the political leadership by describing the Army as an entity by itself. This is great psychological warfare beyond even the benign notion of perception management. It's for the political leaderships at the Centre and the State not to be drawn into this. The Army and other SF have an unenviable job and they should be allowed to execute that lest the authority of the state dilutes. Agreeing to Separatist demands under duress is not going to help. To the credit of the Omar government, no demand was met then either although the AFSPA issue became a sticky one later.

There are only two ways that the situation can move on. First, that the Separatists get the message and stand down. Second that they perceive that the new government may wilt under pressure and therefore the campaign is taken further. The Separatists may just be surprised by the resilience of the new government in which I have much hope. Either way this is not the last time we have witnessed street turbulence in Kashmir. The important thing is to ensure that the Separatists do not succeed in winning the street with any concessions granted. What is even more important is for the governments at the Centre and State, for the Army, Police and CAPF to realise that Perception Management through social media will be the order of the day. A professional approach towards this will ensure that the Separatist campaign comes a cropper this time again with no international sympathy.
First Published: April 18, 2016, 8:50 PM IST

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