January 17, 2021
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Demilitarisation Dilemmas

By pulling out the BSF, Prime Minister Singh has demonstrated that he is willing to take chances, even where failure will involve political costs for his government.

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Demilitarisation Dilemmas

Over the weekend, March 9-12, 2007, a hundred-odd trucks will have started driving some 11,000 Border Security Force (BSF) troops, so far committed to counter-terrorism duties in five Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) towns, to their peace time locations.

Although the troop withdrawal is a part of a phased programme to remove the BSF from counter-terrorism duties, New Delhi’s decision to persist with the pullout plan comes in the midst of an intense political debate on the next steps in the J&K peace process. The People’s Democratic Party (PDP), notably, has threatened to pull out of the state’s coalition government unless its demands for complete demilitarisation are accepted.

Eight of the 10 departing battalions are being pulled out from the Kashmir valley—two each from Tral, Sopore, Pulwama and Chrar-e-Sharif. Two more battalions will leave the mountain town of Doda, north-east of Jammu. Officials say that the pullout is expected to be complete in a week. It is likely that these units will be relocated along India’s frontiers with Pakistan and Bangladesh after rest and retraining, in line with a 2003 report calling for the BSF to be freed from responsibilities other than guarding the border.

Each departing battalion is being replaced by a newly-raised and trained Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) formation, which, under the plan and in alliance with local police, will become India’s principal counter-terrorism force. Since each CRPF battalion has seven companies to the BSF’s six—the additional manpower is made of personnel receiving on-the-job training—the troop withdrawal will, in practice, mean an increase in the numbers of personnel available to the J&K Police for counter-terrorist operations.

New Delhi’s decision to go ahead with the planned withdrawal of the BSF comes days after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh rejected parallel calls from the PDP and the secessionist All Parties Hurriyat Conference (APHC) for demilitarising J&K. PDP leaders have ceased to attend meetings of the J&K Cabinet after Chief Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad refused to consider calls for removing the Indian Army from parts of its core constituency, southern Kashmir.

While levels of violence have diminished significantly in recent months in southern Kashmir—the district of Kulgam, for example, has not reported a single terrorist outrage of consequence in over three months—officials in New Delhi contend that the continued presence of Lashkar-e-Toiba (LeT) and Hizb-ul-Mujahideen (HM) cadre indicated that the demand was premature. Eleven battalions of the Rashtriya Rifles are currently operating in southern Kashmir and their removal, New Delhi contends, could pave the way for bloodshed.

Barring Chief Minister Azad’s party, the Congress, and its main opposition in New Delhi, the Bharatiya Janata Party—both of which have substantial political equities in the Jammu and Ladakh regions—all of the state’s major political forces, both secessionist and unionist, have supported the demilitarisation idea. If the debate on demilitarisation has acquired such intensity, it is in no small part because of the unfolding politics of the India-Pakistan dialogue process. 

Fearing that the APHC will fight elections after a peace deal—a development some optimists believe is just months away—both the PDP and the National Conference (NC) are seeking to pre-empt the secessionists’ likely platform. Advocates of demilitarisation point to the fact that violence has been in steady decline in J&K since 2002, with the focus of jihadi terror groups instead shifting to major cities across India. 

Politicians like the PDP president Mehbooba Mufti argue that this is good reason to free J&K’s people of the day-to-day harassment that large-scale security force deployment brings in its wake. Earlier this month, former Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Saeed—Mehbooba Mufti’s father—wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, demanding that demilitarisation be seriously considered by New Delhi. Delhi, however, has flatly rejected the calls, despite the prospect that a debilitating political crisis could follow.

Many believe the PDP is preparing to bring down the government sooner rather than later. Responding to Chief Minister Azad’s acid call for politicians supporting demilitarisation to first renounce their own security, Mehbooba Mufti and Mufti Mohammad Saeed announced that they would return their security detail. Mehbooba Mufti has since travelled without a bullet-proof car—although, as her opponents have gleefully noted, she continues to use personal security officers provided to a party colleague, and enjoys a police escort for her public functions.

Underpinning the PDP’s aggression is its belief that demilitarisation will be part of an India-Pakistan peace deal—and a desire to claim that the party’s position led to the breakthrough. In 2005, Pakistan’s President, General Pervez Musharraf, called for the demilitarisation of parts of the Kashmir valley. Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz also suggested "both countries should pull back their troops and the security could still be maintained in the area through police and other organisations."

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has been the subject of not a little critical commentary in Kashmir for his flat rejection of these calls. His concerns, though, need fair examination. While violence has been in steady decline since the India-Pakistan crisis of 2001-2002, Pakistan is yet to deliver on its promises to end cross border terrorism. The infrastructure of major jihadi groups remains intact in Pakistan—and could be used to coerce J&K’s civilian population, if Indian forces retreat.

It is true, of course, that the Indian Army is not the sole instrument through which J&K can be secured. Experience, notably in Punjab and Tripura, shows that terrorism is best fought by well-trained and well-equipped Police forces. Even the Rashtriya Rifles, which is drawn from the ranks of the Indian Army, uses weapons and tactics that closely resemble those of the Police-officered paramilitary forces like the BSF and the CRPF—operating, notably, with its organic air, armour and artillery support.

It is far from clear, though, whether the police and CRPF will in fact be able to hold the ground should the Army be withdrawn. In 1999, some 58,000 Indian Army troops were withdrawn from counter-terrorism duties, to fighting the Kargil war. Terrorists—who had been on the defensive ever since 1995—rapidly capitalised on the disruption of the security grid. It took the best part of two years, and cost hundreds of both civilian and Indian soldiers’ lives, to contain the damage. 

Again, in 2000-2001, a limited cessation of offensive counter-terrorism operations led to the degradation of the intelligence network as well as large-scale atrocities against civilians. During what came to be known as the Ramadan Ceasefire, efforts to secure peace saw the LeT and anti-dialogue factions of HM sharply escalate attacks. As a result, the Ramadan Ceasefire saw an increase in civilian fatalities compared with previous years—a paradoxical outcome for a strategy intended to secure peace.

Signs exist, as the BSF pullout demonstrates, that New Delhi is willing to respond to Pakistani de-escalation of the jihad in J&K by experimenting with non-Army counter-terrorism forces at a local level. For example, a new CRPF battalion is due to be inducted later this month in Kokernag, a sensitive area of southern J&K often used by terrorists to transit from mountain hideouts in Kishtwar. If terrorist violence does not escalate in these areas, officials say, a larger withdrawal of troops could be considered.

New Delhi had decided to hand over urban counter-terrorist operations to the CRPF in 2003, as a consequence of a Group of Ministers report on internal security. BSF troops were gradually withdrawn from urban areas north of the Jhelum river, which broadly marks the divide between north and south Kashmir. However, the withdrawal plan bogged down amidst concerns about CRPF’s ability to deal with the operational challenges with which it was confronted.

Prime Minister Singh overrode these concerns in 2005, in an effort to consolidate his dialogue with the APHC. In September that year, soon after the Prime Minister met with the APHC chairman Mirwaiz Umar Farooq, the CRPF took charge of Srinagar, ending the BSF’s fifteen-year presence in the city. While violence in Srinagar has not escalated, the city has seen regular terrorist strikes—a cause of some concern, which has meant that BSF components remain in place to guard key locations like the Governor’s residence.

While the CRPF is confident that it will be able to discharge its new responsibilities in Sopore, Tral, Pulwama, Chrar-e-Sharif and Doda, sceptics argue that the organisation has a poor record of independent counter-terrorism operations. Unlike the BSF, notably, the CRPF does not have a dedicated intelligence organisation capable of intercepting terrorist communications and running networks of sources. Raising such resources could take years, critics note.

If Prime Minister Singh’s advisors have now chosen caution, it is not the least because of Pakistan’s failure to dismantle jihadi infrastructure and the steady growth of Islamist forces in that country. Both together mean that the decline in cross-border terrorism is by no means irreversible. Does this mean the death of the demilitarisation idea? No. By pulling out the BSF, Prime Minister Singh has demonstrated that he is willing to take chances, even where failure will involve political costs for his government. 

By most scholarly indexes, J&K—which continues to witness over 1,000 conflict-related fatalities a year, despite the recent de-escalation in violence—is still the site of a war, even if both India and Pakistan are loath to call it that. Phased demilitarisation is necessary if the peace process is to have meaning to J&K’s residents. But this experiment involves human lives, and its timing and execution must be driven by calm professionalism, not political passion.

Praveen Swami is Deputy Editor and Chief of Bureau, Frontline, New Delhi  Courtesy, the South Asia Intelligence Review of the South Asia Terrorism Portal

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