The Union government is considering a phased withdrawal of Indian Army from the hinterland of the Kashmir Valley, according to a report.
The Indian Express on Monday reported that the Narendra Modi government is considering a plan to withdraw the Army from the interior of Kashmir in a phased manner and replace it with Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel.
The report says the plan has been in the making for around two years and the Union Ministries of Defence and Home Affairs along with the military and J&K Police are part of the deliberations.
What does the report say?
The Modi government's plan is in "advanced stage" and it is a matter of when rather than if, reported The Express.
However, the final call is yet to be taken on the plans and it's still in the deliberative phase for now.
The Express reports that the withdrawal is not just a sign of normalcy in Kashmir Valley but it's a way to make the normalcy visible as the Modi government believes the security situation has improved since August 2019 when the J&K's special status was scrapped.
On August 5, 2019, the Modi government scrapped the special status of J&K, converted it from a state into a Union Territory (UT), and bifurcated it into two UTs of J&K and Ladakh. Since then, the Modi government has claimed that the security situation has improved and stone-pelting has reduced.
A Union Home Ministry official told The Express, "Since the August 5, 2019 decisions, violence in the Valley has steadily reduced. Stone pelting has almost vanished and the law-and-order situation is largely under control. However, a large presence of the Indian Army in the hinterland would sit oddly with claims of normalcy."
If the plan is implemented, then the Army would only be deployed in forward areas of Kashmir along the Line of Control (LoC), the de-fecto India-Pakistan border.
What are plans to withdraw Indian Army from Kashmir?
If the Modi government approves the plan, then the Army would first be removed from two districts and then further action would be taken based on the resultant security situation, according to The Express.
The stand of the Indian Army is to reduce the numbers of Rashtriya Rifles (RR) personnel in Kashmir. The RR battalions were formed in the 1990s specifically for counter-terrorism purposes and have since been at the helm of tackling terrorism in Kashmir.
The Express reports, "The official said that one proposal discussed is to remove the Rashtriya Rifles (RR) of the Indian Army in three phases and replace them with CRPF...Another official, privy to details of the discussions, said as of now the Army is only talking about decreasing the strength and not removing RR completely. The Army, according to defence sources, is already planning a resizing."
As per the report, first companies in existing battalions would be reduced and this way around 15,000 personnel could be freed from interior regions.
Notably, several thousand additional security personnel were deployed in Kashmir region around the time J&K's special status was scrapped. Over 10,000 of those personnel have since been withdrawn.
Not the first withdrawal from Kashmir
Though it is the first time in recent years that such a plan has surfaced under the Modi government, this would not be the first withdrawal from Kashmir.
Personnel have been withdrawn from Kashmir multiple times in the past three decades and calls for withdrawals have also been made repeatedly, both from the political as well as strategic quarters.
In 2009, the then-UPA government withdrew 10 battalions of central armed police forces (CAPFs) from Kashmir.
In 2000s, the Border Security Force (BSF) was withdrawn from internal security duties in the Kashmir Valley.
In 2004, the Indian Army presence —particularly of RR personnel— was reduced in Kashmir Valley.
"According to reports, troop strength amounting to two-and-half regiments is scheduled to be withdrawn from Sharifabad in Srinagar and Awantipura in Pulwama district on Wednesday," reported Rediff News on November 17, 2004.
The Indian Army at the time said it was a re-adjustment of the security strategy.
Army PRO Colonel RK Sen told Rediff, "We are moving out the troops from the interiors of Kashmir. This exercise is a re-adjustment of the Counter Insurgency Grid. We are not lowering our guard. We will be in position to take charge if necessary."
In 1997, the Indian Army personnel were withdrawn from Kashmir Valley in consultation with the then-Farooq Abdullah's government of J&K. Rediff reported at the time that Army personnel were being withdrawn at the time from five towns including Anantnag, Baramullah, and Srinagar.
Demands and challenges of Kashmir withdrawal
Jammu and Kashmir-based leaders have long demanded the withdrawal of military personnel from the region.
Strategic experts have also made such demands. They have highlighted that while the Indian Army can definitely aid police or other state elements in law and order or internal security issues, the main mandate of the Army is the country's external security and preparation for larger tactical and strategic challenges such as battles and wars. Experts have said that the increased focus on internal security is misplaced.
Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab in their book Dragon On Our Doorstep called Army a "better police force" because of years of internal security focus in Kashmir Valley. Reviewing their book, Outlook's Naseer Ganai noted, "Counter-insurgency operations, they say, have become bread and butter for the Army and preparedness for a conventional war has been given short shirft."
Establishing this point, the book says, "The army has been in the counter-insurgency role in J&K for such a long time that it has developed a stake or, crudely put, a vested interest in it.
"As has been noted, an entire generation of army officers, now in the ranks of generals, has known nothing but CI [counter-insurgency] operations in Kashmir...Their gallantry awards, perks, promotions and personal tales of heroism all come from Kashmir. In fact a large number of recently retired officers have built a new career as security experts based on their experiences in Kashmir and frequently travel within India and abroad to give talks on the subject."
Despite instances of withdrawal in the past as listed above, there have been concerns over the adverse effect of such a withdrawal.
Even though the Union government claims the situation has improved in the Kashmir Valley, there have been multiple episodes of targeting killings in Jammu and Kashmir over the past two years in which police personnel, government employees, and minority Hindus have been killed.
Earlier this year, the Jammu region was also rocked by terrorist violence which had remained relatively peaceful in recent years in contrast to the restive Kashmir Valley. On January 1, terrorists fired at houses in Rajouri's Dhangri, killing five people. The next morning, within 14 hours of firing, an IED exploded near the house of one of the victims of the previous day's attack. The IED explosion killed two children, taking the death toll to seven.