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The Soldier's Homecoming

The chief of army staff believes that armed forces can only hold insurgency, not resolve it

The Soldier's Homecoming
A visit to Kashmir was one of the first things the new army chief did on taking over in October, but Gen S. Padmanabhan is no stray novice in the Valley. It was in 1993, during his first months in charge of the highly sensitive 15 Corps, that he was baptised by fire. Militants had taken over the Hazratbal mosque in Srinagar and the stand-off continued for over a month—it was the first and biggest crisis since militancy took root. In large part owing to his persuasive negotiating skills, the militants who were holed up 'outed', without getting any concessions.

The general realises that much water has flown down the Jhelum since 1993. Kashmir is one of the army's messiest, and most important, engagements—it is also the place with the biggest deployment. He also realises that there is no magical solution to the problem and the issue has to be tackled politically. In the history of mankind, no insurgency, he remarks, had been solved by an army. "The army's duty is hold insurgency within acceptable levels so that the government here continues to function," he has said.

Within a span of seven years, the character of militancy has changed. Likewise, the security forces too have adopted a dynamic stance towards insurgency. "Actually, the militants today are increasingly a different variety from what we faced when I was in charge," he told Outlook. For instance, most of the militants currently operating are of foreign extraction.

But it's the shift in the Kashmiri's attitudes towards the figure of the "guest" militant that offers the army a new strategic opening, according to him. "Local support is waning and thus we have been able to plug the tenuous supply lines," he says. Anti-insurgency operations in the Valley are now tapping into this growing fatigue with the cult of violence.

According to Padmanabhan, the army has been able to carry out a large number of anti-cache operations in remote areas and dhoks (makeshift structures) which have met with dividends. "Sure, some if it still seeps through but we've had our hits."

What seems to have also happened as a consequence is that exfiltration has come down enormously. "There are not many volunteers, though it may be that a fair amount of training goes on within the Valley," he says.

The general says infiltration has also declined perceptibly of late. In the ongoing ceasefire period, the general says only 30-odd militants are reported to have got through. "That's a significant departure from the earlier trend."

Padmanabhan sets no time-frame for weeding out militancy. "Nobody can set a deadline. In many countries, insurgencies have continued for 50 to 100 years," he stated in Kashmir. But what's certain is that he'll be paying attention to preparing the Indian soldier for any long-drawn conflict he is likely to encounter.
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