Monday, 1 November 2021

What an Angry General's Unwarranted Admonition of Kashmiris Says About the Army and Politics


Are generals speaking their minds or shooting their mouths off?

At an Army Management Studies Board (AMSB) seminar in Srinagar, the Director General, Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), Lieutenant General KJS Dhillon rhetorically inquired of the Kashmiri muslim community why the silent majority amongst Kashmiri muslims remained silent and did not protests recent killings of minority community members in Kashmir.

He cautioned that the not only will Kashmiris lose their right to freedom of expression for being selective on what they protest about but the term ‘Kashmiri’ might end up as a pejorative, quite like the term, ‘Paki’, used in a racist context.

To him Kashmiri muslims’ absence from the streets in protest against lethal attacks on their fellow Kashmiris of the minority faiths as ‘selective dementia’. Perhaps he meant ‘selective amnesia’, a more familiar phrase. Or - uncharitably – he may have meant ‘collective dementia’, wherein Kashmiri Muslims, maddened by prejudice, did not condole publically enough their wantonly killed fellow Kashmiri Pandits and Sikhs in this month’s spike of violence.  

The general’s plain speak is a departure from the standard in civil-military relations and cannot be allowed to go unremarked. True, precedence has been set by his boss, the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat, who has done so repeatedly over the years since his elevation to army chief. Since that is his trademark by now, it is somewhat normalised, perhaps leading to his subordinates taking cue.

The situation has come to such a pass in public affairs that the first thing that comes to mind in such instances is the question whether the dignitary making the remarks is to retire soon. With Supreme Court judges leading the way, could the military be far behind? Cynicism has it that personages facing a pensioner’s anonymity may be tacitly auditioning for a post-retirement sinecure.  

It is true the general is due to retire soon, commissioned as he was in 1983. Also true is that an earlier incumbent of the appointment he holds now serves as military adviser in the national security council secretariat. Incidentally, a claim to fame of the military adviser was that his view that demonetization would wipe out terrorism in Kashmir by drying up the hawala channels that got stone throwers on to Kashmir’s streets.

However, to give ‘Tiny’ Dhillon (‘Tiny’ alludes to his 6 feet 4 inches height) the benefit of the doubt, he may have been acting in his official capacity. After all, at the apex of the intelligence set up of the military, he may well be playing his part since info war is part of the intelligence domain. That he is practitioner of info war is evident from his twitter account being made operational just about when he took over as corps commander in Badami Bagh, coincidentally right before the Pulwama episode.

The intent appears to be to shame the majority in the Valley, Kashmiri Muslims, to register their disapproval of the change in insurgent tactics to terrorism by targeting innocent members of the minority community. In strategic thinking, this would help with deterring the minders of terrorists sitting across the Line of Control from ordering more such murders since it would set the majority – the sea – against the insurgents – the fish.

Apparently the general has moral authority since his last tenure of five served in Jammu and Kashmir was as commanding general in Badami Bagh. His profile on his twitter handle claims he ‘worked for peace in Kashmir in Chinar Corps,’ going on to state, ‘(N)ation first always and every time.’ The two statements together explain his going voluble on Kashmir, in Kashmir.

However, it bears considering if a principal staff officer of the CDS can make egregious statements in regard to an Indian community. Firstly, must be dispelled any notion of emotional connect between officials and their work with communities empowering them to air their subjective observations. At a stretch, generals in command in counter insurgency theatres can arguably have such a privilege as their mandate includes grappling with insurgency in a multidimensional manner. Others had best hold their opinions till they retire.

Also, in this instance, the notion of seeming entitlement with which the general makes his remarks needs deflating, based as it seems to be on the notion of an affiliation with Kashmiris for having served there and provisioning of security for them.

When the general was commanding in Badami Bagh, Operation All Out was in full swing. The state, rattled by the protests in the aftermath of the killing of Kashmiri icon, Burhan Wani, had set its security forces to go about killing militants with renewed vigour. The figures for years 2018 and 2019 are of zero surrenders. This was when those signing up were at best impressionable youth, not quite hardened jihadis. According to the general, their lifespan as militants was less than a year. Sans training and weaponry they could not have made credible insurgents. So, does a ‘take no prisonersapproach explain the figure of ‘0’ surrenders in years 2018 and 2019, followed by a meager 9 beginning only later in 2020, after the general had departed Srinagar for New Delhi? Though credited with having parents persuade sons to return to the mainstream, resulting in some 50 youth coming back ‘quietly’, this is unverifiable as the security of youth involved is at stake. 

As it turned out, Operation All Out was the preparation of the cake for icing that was to come. He lent his credentials of office and the dignity of uniform for the bit of drama that preceded the launch of the Modi-Shah assault on Article 370. Knowing that the voiding of Article 370 would set off protests, the security establishment needed to have Kashmir vacated off soft targets. The general went on primetime claiming that the army, finding an anti-tank mine with Pakistani marking on the yatra route, had uncovered a Pakistani plot to target the yatra, leading up to it being called off. White lies in way of national security being de rigueur, the general’s performance enabled India to blame Pakistan for the extensive crackdown that followed, even as India went about despoiling the Constitutional provision.

With no reasonable locus standi to make his remarks, the general’s AMSB lecture amounts to victim blaming - Kashmiris have borne the brunt of counter insurgency for some three decades now. Reminders of their ‘duty’ as a majority can willy-nilly be appropriated by interested forces as another stick – gaslighting - to beat them with.

Yet another stick is whatever Kashmiris may do, it would never be taken as enough. Kashmiri leaders have voiced their protest, even though the state has gone out of its way to marginalize mainstream politicians. In the ‘dirty war’, killings cannot all be attributed to terrorists. Of those killed this month, two allegedly innocent Kashmiris have been killed by security forces, who command immunity, and one jailed Pakistani was killed while scouting for - or being used as a human shield by - the army chasing terrorists south of the Pir Panjals.  

Equally, the state has failed Kashmiris by keeping the conflict alive indeterminately, allowing for right wing experimentation with solutions as the dissolution of the state. It bears asking when the measure was at the discussion stage, what was the army input from its operational level commander in Badami Bagh?

Also, now that statehood is to be restored, but only after elections, has the DIA – lead in formulating the threat perception for the military - indicated the security implications of the chronology of the elections: delimitations, elections and only then statehood? The ongoing legislative constituency delimitation exercise is to shift the balance of seats in favour of Jammu region, making it easier for the Jammu belt so advantaged to vote in the Bharatiya Janata Party. Since scenario building is in his Agency’s ambit, General Dhillon needs answering what will happen if this expectation does not materialise. But by then he might perhaps have retired.

Challenging the general’s remarks is important on a more significant count. These were directed at a particularly vulnerable Indian community that also happens to be Muslim, a double whammy in today’s New India. On two prior occasions, the army has had an exchange of words with Muslim politicians, specifically: Asaduddin Owaisi versus northern army commander Devraj Anbu over Muslim ‘martyrs’ and second, Badruddin Ajmal versus Bipin Rawat over the latter’s remarks on the former’s political party. Unless called out, the trend might become a norm, compounding the structural violence against Muslims with cultural violence of this kind. Perpetrators need to be brought down a peg or two, even at the risk of such counters being mischaracterized as ad hominem, lest Muslim bashing becomes a passing fancy for itinerant officials.