June 06, 2020
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Hot Pursuit

Advani's utterances on Kashmir have only alerted the enemy, and defeated the very strategy, say senior army officers

Hot Pursuit

SILENCE might have been better—the enemy has now been warned. That's how senior army officers who do the daily grind in Kashmir view home minister L.K. Advani's much-quoted "hot pursuit" strategy vis-avis Pakistan. The BJP, of course, has no dearth of support in the army—given the party's hyped-up national security concerns, where it even thought it fit to exercise the nuclear option. But battle tactics follow quite a different logic. "It would have been more appropriate for Advani to talk about hot pursuit and a pro-active strategy for Kashmir at a closed-door briefing of army seniors rather than to the press," rues a senior army officer. "Secrecy is what makes such operations a success."

The spiral of warspeak hit an all-time high after Pokhran. Advani and a number of other BJP leaders, like Pramod Mahajan and Madan Lal Khurana, spat war-mongering rhetoric on Pakistan; defence minister George Fernandes let loose on the China threat. Supplementing this gung-ho BJP talk was the battle-cry sounded by Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abdullah.

The upshot: apart from whipping up nationalistic fervour, and heightening diplomatic tension, all eyes got focused on the border. Soon enough, there was a build-up of Pakistani forces across the LOC and an increase in the exchange of fire. Since May 17, there has been firing at Kargil, Gurez, Machil, Karnah, Keram, Uri in the Valley and at Rajouri, Poonch and RS Pura in the Jammu sector, shattering the peace.

Just what Advani wanted to check by adopting a "pro-active approach"—by which he meant that India would deal firmly with Pakistan's hostile designs on Kashmir. Ruling out talks with militants, Advani had explicitly advocated the "hot pursuit" option. The new policy, he said pointedly, was the direct result of India becoming a nuclear power, which had brought about a "qualitative change in Indo-Pak relations". Rather than react, the army would now "act" against terrorists,pursue them across the LOC.

Fact is, the army's already been following the "hot pursuit" strategy, albeit covertly. It involves sending commando teams across the Line of Control and striking at camps where mercenaries group prior to crossing the border. Since such an operation involves crossing the LOC, the army would rather make it seem like a covert operation; and not one which is perceived as "troops moving across the border". But post-Advanispeak, Pakistan has stepped up vigil on the LOC and, according to a senior officer, the army would now have to exert that much more care, for if Indian troops are found crossing the border, Pakistan will surely retaliate, "triggering off a war."

The army is very upset with the patriotic bombast of BJP leaders—that India can take on Pakistan and China simultaneously and "teach the two a lesson". A sizeable section of army officers is agreed that in military operations, silence is the better part of valour. They point out that a war, particularly with China, should only be a last-case scenario. "It is one thing for the politicians to make tall statements but once they are in government they should show restraint. Unfortunately, our politicians are only interested in political gains."

FAROOQ Abdullah's rantings were seen particularly as out of turn. "The next war will be fought on the soil of Kashmir. But this time modern-day weaponry including the nuclear arsenal will be used," he declared, merely days after the test. Then, he stated that he would advice the Centre to "launch a decisive and very strong battle against Pakistan." He went so far as to dare Pakistan to "detonate a bomb if it possessed one".

Army officers point out that statements made in Srinagar are closely monitored across the border, and are never dismissed lightly. The impression given by the chief minister was that India was all set for war. And such a decision, they argue, should be normally pronounced by the prime minister, and after taking the three services chiefs into confidence. "It is not for a chief minister to say that rockets and missiles will be used and that the war will be over in five minutes."

Opinion about whether "hot pursuit" should be carried on is divided. While the younger crop of officers insist Pakistan must be taught a lesson and militant camps should be destroyed, senior officers are satisfied with the current operations and feel that the tide has turned against militancy. One officer estimates that militancy could be rooted out by maintaining strict vigil on the border, and by cracking down on militants.

According to him, the popular support the militants once enjoyed is on the wane and that the core problem now was infil-tration. But the army claims to have put the brakes on poachers as well. He, however, admitted that the forces in Poonch and Rajouri sector, which are the new areas of infiltration, need to be on the alert.

Just when things were apparently on the bend, India's nuclear tests happened. And Pakistan's response has added to the panic in the Valley. The army anticipates heightened activity on the border. There is allround condemnation of the tests and fear that if war breaks out, the prevailing normalcy in Kashmir would be rolled back. Abdul Gani Lone, executive member of the Hurriyat Conference, described the tests by India and Pakistan as most unfortunate. "India is a poor country. So is Pakistan. What we have is two beggars fighting each other. If you can't feed and clothe your people then what are you fighting for?"

Even within the National Conference there is a view that war is not the answer. P.L. Handoo, law minister and a senior member of Farooq Abdullah's cabinet, told Outlook that "crossing the border in hot pursuit would only invite trouble." He felt that "militancy should be controlled within the state" and that India should not resort to war. "Forget the bomb. With RSS chauvinists on one side and pan-Islamic chauvinists across the border there is enough cause for concern."

 Handoo also said that the Centre should take up the offer of unconditional dialogue with separatist leader Shabir Shah. Said he: "If someone is ready for talks then there is no harm in talking." But this goes against the grain of Advani's stand, publicly endorsed by the chief minister, that the government was not interested in any dialogue till militancy was crushed. Shabir Shah, who has dropped his hardline approach and floated the Democratic Freedom Party, is irked with Delhi's stand. "The Kashmir problem can only be sorted out through dialogue and not through the gun. We appeal to both India and Pakistan to show restraint and not to harden their stands."

 But war is what many people in the Valley see looming on the horizon. The army hopes that their political masters will talk in one voice, and with some level of caution. One senior officer even went so far as to say that the Indian government should have kept quiet after the tests rather than flex its nuclear muscle. "We should have waited for Pakistan to react. There was no point in our boasting and bragging. But politicians have their own way of doing things," he says.

With a section of BJP leaders going overboard in pronouncing to the world India's superpower status, a sharp reaction was expected. Closer home, one of the bitterest critics of the army when he was not in power, Farooq Abdullah has been issuing military threats to Pakistan at random. Surely, an N-bomb cannot solve militancy. The army is crying foul, with good reason.
with Zafar Meraj in Srinagar

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