NEW DELHI: Ajai Sahni, a well recognised counter-insurgency expert, runs the Institute of Conflict Management in New Delhi. His South Asia Terrorism Portal maintains a close watch and record of activities in the regions specified, with Jammu and Kashmir being a focus area. Sahni spoke to The Citizen about the rising deaths of Special Forces personnel, along with those of civilians, although comparatively speaking he hastens to add that the figures are a fraction of the 2000 peak where 638 SF personnel were killed in operations, as against the 67 deaths recorded till September 2, 2018.

Excerpts from the interview:

The Citizen: Your report (South Asia Terrorism Portal) has recorded a sharp hike in the deaths of cops and security forces while tackling militancy in Kashmir. Could you tell us a little more about the findings?

Ajai Sahni:
There has been a rise in overall fatalities in J&K since they bottomed out at 117 in 2012, reaching 358 in 2017 (SATP data). 269 persons have lost their lives in the current year (till September 2). Terrorists and security force (SF) personnel account for the largest proportion of these fatalities. However, the ratio of SF to terrorist fatalities has remained consistently in favour of the SFs, and has been relatively stable, at 1:2.6 in 2017, 1:1.8 in in 2016, 1:2.7 in 2015, 1:2.1 in 2014.

The 2018 ratio currently stands at a comparable 1:2.4. The higher levels of fatalities indicate an intensification of hostilities – which are largely defined by terrorist violence and reaction, factors controlled by circumstances outside the control of the Forces. The most significant of these factors are, of course, Pakistani intention and domestic mischief. The latter has been very visible over the past few years, as polarising politics – Hindutva in the Jammu region and Islamist extremism in the Valley – has dominated the discourse and activities of establishment political parties. This has inevitably created openings for Pakistan to intensify both terrorist violence and street mobilisation.

Nevertheless, it is important to recognise that an overwhelming proportion of this violence is localised. Just five of 82 Tehsils in J&K accounted for 58.42 per cent of fatalities in 2016; 41.89 per cent in 2017; and 60.9 per cent in the first six months of 2018. Overall, the problem has been significantly contained, and violence is now a fraction of what was experience in the high intensity conflict between 1990 and 2006. It is useful to remind ourselves that, at peak in 2000, 638 SF personnel lost their lives, as against 83 in 2017, and 67 in the current year (till September 2).”

Those in power often speak of collateral damage, as part of the exercise to quash militancy altogether. A few security personnel here and there is that collateral damage along with innocent civilians? What do you think?

The deaths of SF personnel are combat losses, not collateral damage. They are unfortunate, but will occur in all conflicts, and the Forces accept this. What is problematic is the degree of indifference with which it is accepted by the political and administrative leadership in this country. While there is much anguish expressed over civilian fatalities, SF fatalities do not receive sufficient attention, and the sacrifices of SF personnel are not given the honour and value they deserve from a grateful nation – except when they are to be paraded about for transient electoral gain.

Worse, political parties have no compunctions about destabilising a relatively calm situation if it serves their political agenda, even if the consequences include rising civilian and SF fatalities. This is India’s enduring tragedy.

As an expert in the field, would you say that military action without dialogue works to subdue an angry populace, and brings in peace? Or is the reverse true, that anger and militancy grows only to erupt at another point, if not immediately?

First, it is necessary to acknowledge that the use of force is a necessity when armed violence confronts the state. The idea that we can talk our way out of every situation is nonsense. That said, the nature of the state’s use of force tends to be decisive in its success or failure. Blunt, indiscriminate use of force escalates the cycles of violence. Narrowly targeted use of lawful force, focusing on the leadership elements of the militancy, even as every effort is made to protect the average citizen and to look to the welfare of the general population, produces the best results. Unfortunately, while there have been tremendous successes recorded in J&K as a result of the partial application of the latter strategy, aberrations, political adventurism and, increasingly, a deliberate strategy of political polarisation, has undermined SF successes.

As for the angry populace, I believe that while there is, of course, a great deal of resentment over a wide range of issues, there is also a high measure of disillusionment with the extremist agenda. This is reflected not only in the increasing localisation of terrorism-linked fatalities, but also in the manifestation of stone pelting incidents. There has long been a false projection that all of Kashmir is burning with popular rage, expressed through such incidents.

The reality according to official data is that, of 206 police stations in the state, of which 103 are in the Valley, the 10 worst affected accounted for 42 percent of incidents in 2016; the 20 worst for 65 percent, and the 30 worst for 78 percent. The 30 least affected districts accounted for just 6 percent of incidents in 2016. Similarly, in 2017 the 10 worst affected police stations accounted for 52 percent of pelting incidents; the 20 worst, 73 percent; and the 30 worst, 84 percent of all incidents.

On the other hand, the 30 least affected police stations recorded just 2.5 percent of the incidents through the year. Official data for 2018 is unavailable. However, SATP’s partial data for pelting incidents across tehsils shows that the five worst tehsils accounted for 67 percent of all incidents.

This has been a region afflicted by high levels of violence for decades, and ‘normalcy’ is not something that is going to appear magically – especially as long as external and internal destabilisers are not neutralised. Instead of harping on the obvious falsehood that the situation in the state is going back to the 1990s, it is important to have a more granular assessment of the scale, nature and distribution of violence in the state, and a better understanding of its sustaining dynamics.

Is Kashmir a flashpoint as Clinton once famously said? Or has it long ceased to be one?

‘Flashpoints’ in the Western lexicon, are areas of strife that affect Western interests. For the worst period of violence in the state, Western powers including the USA were not even willing to acknowledge that J&K was afflicted by terrorism. We heard a great deal of gibberish about one man’s terrorist being another man’s freedom fighter, and Western databases did not even record an overwhelming proportion of fatalities in the state as terrorism-linked.

J&K was never a global flashpoint. At worst, it had regional implications, as a conflict between two nuclear armed South Asian nations. It is no longer projected as a ‘flashpoint’ in Western media because the strategic calculus of the West has shifted, and the Pakistani footprint of terrorism across the world – particularly in Afghanistan where Western Forces are engaged – has become the source of greater concern. India should never have bothered about these ‘famous’ and self-serving assessments, and should focus on its own strategy to deal with the problem.

Would you say that after a period where Kashmir had become anti-Pakistan and militancy and terrorism ebbed remarkably, policies now have turned the clock back to the 1990s?

This whole ‘back to the 1990s’ talk is ignorant garbage, and will appeal only to hysterical or politically motivated folk who have no knowledge of, or respect for, the trends and ground realities of the situation in that decade, and in the early 2000s. You had more than a thousand fatalities every year between 1990 and 2006; more than two thousand fatalities a year between 1993 and 2004; and more than three thousand fatalities per year between 2000 and 2003. At peak in 2001, you had 4,177 fatalities in the state. The total fatalities in 2017 stood at 358, and in the current year stand at 269 (till September 2).

The current trajectories of violence need to be assessed within a rational context, and it is necessary to dispel the ludicrous belief that we are in a situation that, in any manner, resembles the 1990s.

What now?

There has been a constant clamour for a ‘solution’ to the ‘Kashmir issue’. What is obviously missed is the fact that the ‘solution’ is already in play. When a high intensity conflict, with thousands killed each year over the decades is brought to a stage where just 117 lose their lives in a single year, it is not unreasonable to insist that the problem is being ‘resolved’, albeit not abruptly, magically or in the form that some demand.

When fatalities rise again, into the three hundreds, it is a cause for concern, even dismay, and it is necessary to make an effort to understand why this has happened – and the answers would be fairly obvious. It is equally necessary to acknowledge that, even at this level, and despite manifest political mischief and administrative incompetence, the levels of violence are a minuscule fraction of what prevailed through the 1990s and early 2000s.

The Kashmir issue is being resolved gradually; it is being resolved on the ground, in a slow and continuous struggle between the security forces and the terrorists. It is being resolved just as terrorist movements before it have been resolved elsewhere, without – and often despite – the theatrics of high profile political posturing.