Is Kashmir showing signs of return to normalcy?

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SHANTANU MUKHARJI*  @shantanu2818

New Delhi. From recent media reports, it seems that almost daily there are decisive encounters in terrorist-affected areas in Kashmir, especially in Budgam and adjoining areas and the terrorists are on the run.

The intelligence fraternity is now more than proactive, constantly sharing actionable intelligence resulting in tangible outcome targeting the Hizbul Mujahideen (HuM) and their affiliates operating at the behest of Pakistan’s ISI and mostly operating from across the border.

Indian security forces seem energised than before, especially the J&K Police, who are more determined in the aftermath of the killing of their mate Ayub Pandith last month. He was lynched to death in the middle of holy Ramzaan and more lamentably near the grand mosque.

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The state police are on the forefront not only to avenge the death of their fallen comrade but also to square the most undesirable killing of Army officer Ummer Fayaz which shook the Kashmiris as their proud son of the soil are getting slain every now and then.

These fallen Kashmiris are largely seen as the pride of Kashmir, perhaps setting a trail of introspection by homegrown separatists who are being exploited via massive radicalisation and military training to hit targets in the state.

In brief, one can afford to be optimistic as a reasonably large populace and the local police are focused to take on the militants with a robust resolve to eliminate terror. The CRPF and Army columns are there but now the J&K Police being on board means a lot.

Also, in the past few weeks we have not seen any spurt in stone-pelting cases. Nor have we come across any acrimonious rhetoric against the Indian government or the military. Bad blood still exists but it has not surfaced in the fresh cases.

However, National Conference (NC) leader and former CM Farooq Abdullah was more than tactless and, in what may be called unpatriotic, called for mediation by China and Pakistan. The timing of such an irresponsible statement, in the wake of border tension with China and relations with Pakistan at their worst, is damaging and will hit the nation-wide efforts to contain violence in the Valley.

Why did Farooq choose this time? By the theory of elimination, it would appear evident that his “mentors”, albeit temporary, have taken him on board to parrot statements fully suiting Pakistan and China. The same tenor and syntax was noticed in Farooq’s statement during the by-elections.

So here is a spoilsport who, on the face of it, looks nationalist and possibly patriotic but has in reality exposed his Janus-faced persona. Surprisingly, the ruling PDP which is ideologically at loggerheads with the NC, has resonated Farooq’s recent views.

The pattern, therefore, that looks to emerge in the present scene is a concerted attempt to derail any positive move. Fortunately, traitors and opportunists like Farooq are minuscule in number. Through intelligence operations, his links with his mentors must be severed. This will also act as a deterrent.

In the meantime, the Hurriyat and other separatist leaders and their supporters cannot afford to keep losing their young men specially from the Army and police at regular intervals.

The Kashmiri youth, whatsoever angst they have against the Indian establishment, are unlikely to tolerate the killings on a regular basis and such a trend in all likelihood will alienate the “aazadi” plus “jihadi” elements from the mainstream and more importantly help build public opinion against cases of lynching of brave officers – be it from any arm of the security forces.

On an optimistic note, this could be seen by hardliners as an exaggerated assessment. Yet, if public opinion against mindless violence is built, there are hopes of winning half the battle.

If the local populace is in control, then even the best of the subversive designs of the ISI will continue to be foiled. With the US drastically slashing funding recently to Pakistan over terror and terror-related projects, the ISI will face the cash crunch as most of the money received was generally perceived to be channeled to foment terror in Kashmir.

Coincidentally, only few days ago the Pentagon came down heavily on Pakistan when US defence secretary Jim Mattis told the US Congress that since Pakistan didn’t do enough to rein in the Haqqani terror network, the US has decided to not to make military-linked reimbursements to Pakistan.

In effect, Pakistan will be bereft of $50 million out of the $350 million originally planned. There is a visible pall of gloom in the neighbouring country in the aftermath of this disclosure. Face loss apart, with a depleted Kitty, it might find it difficult, though not impossible, to fund terror in the Valley.

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Pakistan’s ambassador in the US Aizaz Ahmad Choudhry recently admitted that “it’s a well-known fact that Pakistan’s counter-terrorism efforts have not helped towards a significant decline in terrorist attacks”.

The Pentagon has just realised that since 2002 (after 9/11), Pakistan had been receiving $14 billion to control terror but there has not been any sign yet on the part of the country to come down heavily on the terrorists.

US president Donald Trump, a hardliner, though unpredictable, must have seen through the game and taken this strong position. Possibly, Indian and American intelligence agencies had this convincing whiff that the money was being abused to foment terror in Kashmir as also for training and supply of arms to the terrorists.

This hefty amount under question is part of the Coalition Support Fund (CSF) under the US defence department programme to reimburse allies that have incurred costs in supporting counter-terror and counter-insurgency operations.

Hopefully, such drying up of funding will see an emaciated terror blitz by ISI and its cohorts in Kashmir. It’s certainly a defeat for the extraneous abettors of terror in the state.

In a separate vein, it would be pertinent to point out in the context of misuse of US funds to control terror. Raymond Davis, whose book The Contractor is so revealing, says: “Pakistan treats America like a limitless ATM and most of the US aid to Pakistan goes to the military kitty.”

Davis was a CIA contractor operating in Pakistan and was charged for killing two Pakistanis in Lahore in January 2011. As a CIA operative, he had access to all sensitive details which find mention in his book. It would be interesting to see now when funding is diluted, will Kashmir see less subversive activities?

Meanwhile, security forces continue to hunt down terrorists who are believed to be on the run. As I sign off, IGP Kashmir in a press conference (July 24) has confirmed the killing of Sajjad Gilkar, responsible for instigating the mob leading to the lynching of DSP Pandith. The cellphone and firearm of the deceased have also been recovered.

If the tempo is maintained like this, intelligence stepped up and strict action taken against politicians coming out with anti-India outbursts, there are chances of gaining an upper hand over the terrorists.

As it is, taking a cut off period of three years, till date nearly 463 terrorists have been killed and the number has to be kept up.

Having said that, it should be taken into account that given the intentions of the ISI, they might resort to another strategy as Pakistan is unlikely to give up its covert operations in Kashmir. So they seem to be contemplating an idea involving ISIS plans to build an Islamic caliphate in the vulnerable Kashmir.

As part of its nefarious design, the ISI will push ISIS veterans into Kashmir. They are on the verge of a rout in Iraq’s Mosul and other areas. They are battle hardened, desperate and radicalised. Their foothold in Kashmir calls for abundant caution.

De-radicalising the hardened elements, replacing it with Sufism and countering Wahhabism and Salafism may be workable. Plus, neutralising the ISIS returnees through robust intelligence gathering, possibly with the help of western intelligence agencies closely monitoring ISIS fighters, will be feasible.

Now that the going in Kashmir seems good with security forces firing from all cylinders, let there be no let-up in result-oriented operations for restoration of some normalcy in the Valley.

*The author is a retired IPS officer who has held key positions in the Government of India handling sensitive security issues within and outside India.

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