NEW DELHI: The Indian Army Chief General Bipin Rawat has, in his recent comments to Press Trust of India, spelt out the strategy for Kashmir clearing all doubts, if there were any.

It marks a decisive pull back from the ‘healing touch’ introduced by his predecessors and Army Corps commanders like Lt General Ata Hasnain insofar as the functioning of the Army in the sensitive border state was concerned. And takes away completely from the effort of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to resolve the issue of security and alienation through an internal dialogue mechanism between New Delhi and all stakeholders in Srinagar.

The first response to the cynical use of a Kashmiri Farooq Ahmad Dar as a ‘human shield’ by a Major from the Army itself was one of regret, reflected in the almost immediate decision to order a probe into the incident. This shifted almost overnight, at the instance of the government, to a justification of the act and an award given to the Major for resorting to what most armies in the world would see as an inhuman act. As did several retired officers who wrote of this at the time. And now General Rawat has taken this 3 distinct steps further with his recent remarks.

The most revealing comment by the Army chief was, "In fact, I wish these people, instead of throwing stones at us, were firing weapons at us. Then I would have been happy. Then I could do what I (want to do)," in an indication that he wished the Kashmiris were using weapons. This in itself denotes a major shift in policy, as with these deliberate comments General Rawat makes it clear that in his view Kashmiris with weapons will be easier to handle as then he “could do what I want to do.”

The effort till date has always been by both the political and the military establishment to prevent this from taking place, and somehow ensure that the rebellion within the Valley does not turn into an armed response. General Rawat earns the distinction thus, of being the first Army chief to state this ‘desire’ that will open all roads to a direct armed confrontation between the military and the citizens, a possibility that constitutes a nightmare for most governments.

This statement from the Army chief that has shocked several of his retired colleagues, is reflective of an aggression that the military nurtures for an “enemy”nation, but certainly not for those who are seen as Indian citizens and an ‘integral part of India’.

As further edification the General said, “This is a proxy war and proxy war is a dirty war. It is played in a dirty way. The rules of engagements are there when the adversary comes face-to-face and fights with you. It is a dirty war.... That is where innovation comes in. You fight a dirty war with innovations.” Innovation of course being a positive word for dirty tactics, that go against the grain of military and civil ethics when dealing with citizens from one’s own country. General Rawat thus voiced what is a political argument that insists that the war is being fought by Pakistan, even though fact finding teams of eminent Indian citizens have pointed out repeatedly that the masses are now active part of the protest, and the alienation has spread through the political mishandling of the Valley. The same has been stated by the so called mainstream elected representatives repeatedly but as a senior legislator said, “no one is listening to us.”

And again, "People are throwing stones at us, people are throwing petrol bombs at us. If my men ask me what do we do, should I say, just wait and die? I will come with a nice coffin with a national flag and I will send your bodies home with honour. Is it what I am supposed to tell them as chief? I have to maintain the morale of my troops who are operating there.” The Army is called in to handle situations of such violence, otherwise there would be no need for military presence in a state that is considered part of India. And is called in when the violence reaches levels that the police cannot control. This is a given. And while the Indian Army is expected to follow political directives as it must, it needs to differentiate between the people of India and enemy nations when it prepares its response and its strategy, as do all armies of democracies in the world.

A third comment that was indicative of the new declared policy is that probes are not really of any consequence. As General Rawat has overturned the enquiry with the award and these subsequent remarks to the media. And virtually confirmed the Kashmiri belief that such courts of inquiry are not neutral when he said that as the agency put it, a general idea about what is going on in the Court of Inquiry and that is why he went ahead with awarding the Major. "I know what is happening in the COI. It is being finalised. What do we punish him for," the Army chief said. The Major claimed that Dar was perceived by him as a ringleader and hence the action, Dar had said he was a voter and had nothing to do with the ongoing agitation but was caught between.

Stone pelting seems to be frustrating plans for an all out offensive against the people, as it will be seen as an unacceptable over reaction to the young people, including schoolgirls shouting slogans and throwing stones. The Army chief’s trigger happy comments thus, come as a surprise as the effort even in the worst of times in Kashmir has always been to quell the violence somehow, and prevent the youth from picking up arms.

The Indian Army has a major input into strategy for Kashmir, being a virtual stakeholder in the border areas. Successive governments have acted according to military advice insofar as Kashmir is concerned with now retired Army Corps commanders having made the following points to this reporter earlier:

1. It is imperative for the political parties to move into the areas we ‘sanitise’ and often the delay proves to be very costly. We do not want to stay on in civilian areas when peace is restored, as this brings us into direct conflict with the civilian population that leads to violations at different levels;

2. The worst possible thing that can happen is if the Kashmiris pick up arms. It is a nightmare, even more for us in the Army than for the political rulers;

3. It is important for the governments to diffuse unrest and anger politically as well through talks and dialogue; the Army cannot be a permanent solution.

(Cover Photograph BASIT ZARGAR from the Tral encounter site)