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The recent killings of non-muslims in Kashmir bespeaks of a new strategy being adopted by Pakistan’s ISI to foment fear and discontent in the Union Territory and to unhinge the return of normalcy in the Valley.
Gen Zia-ul-Haq’s sinister strategy to “bleed India through a thousand cuts” gave form to Bhutto’s promise of a thousand-year war. At that time, provocative statements made by both Bhutto and Zia were not mere rhetoric, but formed the core of a war fighting strategy which sought to use terrorism as an instrument of state policy. Today, this facet of Pakistan’s foreign policy remains a key component of its ideology and the very raison d’être for its existence.[i] Thus began the era of cross-border terrorism in the late 1980s, with Pakistan pushing in armed and well-trained groups of terrorists into India. Pakistan referred to these terrorists as “freedom fighters” and claimed that they were only providing moral support to such groups, but the truth tumbled out when a Director-General of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) told the Pakistan National Assembly that the ISI had been sponsoring such support in Kashmir.[ii]
But even before the onset of terrorism in J&K, a more insidious process to radicalise the people had started in the 1960s, with the introduction of Salafi Islam, which gradually displaced the earlier Sufi school of thought. The Jamaat-e-Islami came onto the Kashmir scene in the late 1960s, and intoxicated the young minds about establishing a Caliphate. The Indian state, in a false sense of secularism, allowed the Jamaat to have its own schools, which over the years indoctrinated the young minds to a toxic jihadist ideology.[iii] In a comedy of errors, in 1992, the state government banned the Jamaat-e-Islami and its Falha-e-Aam trust (educational wing), for indulging in anti-social activity, but at the same time, issued an order for absorption of teachers of the Falah-e-Aam Trust in government schools. In one fell swoop, the Jamaat onslaught on government schools began.[iv]
It took great effort on the part of the Indian Army to bring Pakistan sponsored terrorism to manageable levels. By 1996 the situation had been brought sufficiently under control to permit the holding of state elections. For the next 22 years, elections were held regularly with political parties holding sway, except for a brief interregnum of six months in 2008 when Governor’s rule was imposed. In June 2018, Governor’s rule was once again imposed as no party could form a government.
A fence along the LoC, built in 2003-2004, under the directions of General NC Vij when he was the Army Chief curtailed the movement of terrorist groups.[v] This, in conjunction with effective anti-terrorism hinterland operations, contributed to bringing down terrorist-related violence. This prompted a shift in strategy by the ISI. From 2008 onwards, stone pelting by the youth became the norm to bolster unrest in the state. Dealing with unarmed stone-pelting mobs became a new threat to the security forces, and even the use of non-lethal means raised a hue and cry by human rights activists. Stone pelting mobs were also used to extricate terrorists entrapped in encounters with the security forces, with hundreds of mobsters collecting at the site. The situation was not helped by the fact that the regional political parties often took a soft separatist stand, which further emboldened the terrorists as well as their Pakistani handlers.
The abrogation of the provisions of Article 370 and the splitting of the state into two union territories on 5 August 2019 created a new dynamic. The stone pelting mobs practically disappeared from the streets, the number of such recorded incidents in 2020 reducing by over 90 percent.[vi] A combination of security forces operations against terrorist groups, actions to curb terrorist fundings and a focus on the developmental agenda, helped bring about normalcy. This clearly was not to the liking of the Pakistan military, which has thriven on creating disturbance in the state. And so, a new strategy to promote violence in the state has now been formulated by the Pakistan military establishment.
The new strategy aims to target the non-muslim civilian population in the UT. Killing non-muslim civilians at random throws up huge security challenges for the state. While the targets may be chosen at random, the killings of innocent civilians is not a random act but is part of a well-designed strategy to promote fear through the use of violence.
The killing of Makhan Lal Bindroo, owner of a prominent Srinagar pharmacy on 5 October[vii] was hence carried out to instil fear in the minority Hindu population. Two other civilians were killed that day, one of whom was a labourer from Bihar. The killing of two people on 7 October, Ms Supinder Kaur, the principal of a local government school and Mr Deepak Chand, a school teacher, was part of the same nefarious design. The former belonged to the Sikh faith and the latter was a Hindu.[viii] Such targeted killings will now form part of the larger strategy being used by Pakistan to prevent the return of normalcy to the UT.
Obviously, the new methodology to stoke violence in the state will not be easy to address. A terrorist can simply walk up to a non-muslim, identified earlier, shoot the individual at point-blank range and disappear into the crowds. As mentioned earlier, the targets may be random but the act of killing is planned. This now opens up a totally new security paradigm for the state, which if not effectively handled, will have severe repercussions. At the tactical level, the need of the hour is effective policing and ground intelligence, to eliminate the terrorists. But at the strategic level, it is necessary to make the Pakistan military pay a heavy price for its support to terrorism. The coming winter will be a long cold and dangerous one, with exceptionally high levels of violence, not seen since August 2019.
[i] Anthony Hyman, Muhammed Ghayur and Naresh Kaushik, Pakistan: Zia and After (New Delhi: Abhinav Publications, 1989).
[ii] SK Sinha, “The Thousand Cuts,” The Asian Age, October 13, 2013, available at http:// www.asianage.com/columnists/thousand-cuts-925
[iii] Bashir Assad, The K File, Vitasta, Pages 12 – 41.