LAST week, Srinagar saw its first cinema hall opening for business in nine years. But rather than spread cheer, in the surrounding theatre of violence, it only made for the blackest of ironies. For, the week also saw the most disturbing episodes yet in Pakistan's proxy war in Jammu and Kashmir. The frontiers were on the boil like never before and the civilian death toll since March, when the BJP came to power, stood at 157. At least eight major strikes by militants belied the government's electoral pledge to bring peace to Kashmir. The May 11 nuclear tests and the "proactive" policy spelt out by Union home minister L.K. Advani seemed only to have provoked a deliberate, taunting escalation in violence, with the post-nuclear toll itself at 102.
But the most worrisome event in this string of setbacks came not in Kashmir, but in neighbouring Himachal Pradesh, as foreign mercenaries massacred 35 innocent labourers in Chamba, abutting the new trouble zone of Doda, on August 3. This marked the first time insurgents had struck on such a large scale outside the state, and naturally raised questions about the efficacy of the government's anti-militancy strategy. Add to this the 100-plus civilian deaths caused by the latest spurt of firing along the Line of Control (LOC) and the picture that emerges is that Pakistan is trying, successfully, to keep the Kashmir issue alive and project it as a flashpoint.
Army officers stationed along the LOC say tension has heightened ever since Pakistan went nuclear on May 28. That day, over-zealous Pakistani gunners fired at Aroosa village in Uri to celebrate the event. The shelling continued unabated for four days, forcing the 300-odd villagers to seek shelter behind boulders and trees. After a month's lull, the firing was renewed in end-July.
Firing along the LOC is routine, but the latest exchange of artillery fire has perhaps been the worst in peace-time. Many say this eruption was timed so as to torpedo the talks between the prime ministers of India and Pakistan in Colombo. One strand of thought in Pakistan is that every time there is a whiff of a dialogue, vested interests on both sides do their bit to derail the peace. Says Lt Gen. Sardar F.S. Lodi (retd): "Nawaz Sharif started the peace process after coming to power. Vajpayee doesn't also seem to be a hawk, like some others in his government. So there is a desire for peace but somehow the hawks manage to sabotage these opportunities."
Indian policy-makers and military strategists see the flareup as a logical outcome of Pakistan's drive to seek third party mediation on Kashmir, a demand India has rejected. Since the N-tests and after world attention zoomed back on Kashmir, Pakistan has been playing on the fears of the international community that India or Pakistan could exercise the nuclear option if the region continues to simmer.
While Pakistan wants Kashmir to be the core issue in Indo-Pak ties, India seeks a composite dialogue, a stand which many foreign affairs experts in the country feel is the right one. Says former Indian foreign secretary Muchkund Dubey: "The Indian stand is right. We can't accept Kashmir as a core problem. There are other concerns which Pakistan dismisses as peripheral issues." He feels India should agree to discuss Kashmir by setting up a separate working group. As of now, no progress has been made, and with the NAM summit in early September and the Jaswant Singh-Talbott talks in August-end, it suits Islamabad if the region is tense.
So, where has the government strategy gone wrong? According to former home secretary N.N. Vohra, the ISI's style of operating is well-known to Indian authorities, and what is required is the will to initiate steps and crush the ISI. "The pattern of ISI operations is known to the unified command set up by the J&K government.Considering the high stakes on their side, the ISI would have no reason to start easing unless most of their existing networks are destroyed and new ones not allowed to come up. We cannot expect a resolution of the problem in weeks. A well-planned counter-action will have to be accompanied by continued diplomatic effort to make Pakistan realise it would not achieve its objective through the means adopted."
With its proactive policy proving ineffective, the home ministry, according to sources, is putting into action a plan which will target foreign mercenaries, who have set up a solid network in the state. Since they are infiltrators, the human rights question will not crop up even if they are singled out.
The home ministry also believes that the army must be more involved in counterinsurgency operations. It points to the fact that a larger presence of the army in the Himachal Pradesh districts adjoining Doda may have prevented the Chamba killings. The need to step up intelligence in the militancy-hit areas has also been identified as a priority area.
But police officials point out that despite the additional troops promised after each of the recent killings, the number of forces in Doda is dwindling. According to Devendar Nargotra, Doda DC, there were 20 battalions of BSF and army in 1997—now there are 14. Similarly, last year there were 33 companies of the CRPF, which has been reduced to 23 units. As for the J&K Police, the five battalions present in 1997 were reduced to four—now all four have been sent to the sapphire mines in the Paddar valley.
Army officers point out that Doda's difficult terrain and the inadequate security presence are hampering the anti-militancy drive. Mercenaries from across the border have been able to strike terror from their mountain hideouts. The absence of the J&K Armed Police is also seen as a major handicap since its members know the local language and could have helped the army in combing operations, and also in establishing a better rapport with the villagers.
One major grouse of army officers is that politicians make tall promises on Kashmir which are usually never fulfilled. Points out a senior army officer: "Those areas where the administration has failed to look into the basic needs of the people are the most vulnerable. It is crucial that politicians visit the villages and try to address the problems of the people." Just opening up a movie hall to convey a semblance of normalcy will not do.