The Army’s Sadbhavana drive is an informal approach mechanism for the officers and soldiers to interact with and show genuine concern and interest in the welfare of the local population. “Winning Hearts and Minds” (WHAM) activities have had an impact in influencing a hostile populace to a more neutral position. The concept emerged during the early years of the insurgency in the Northeast, when units deployed in those areas undertook small scale civic action programmes such as holding medical camps and providing basic goods in remote areas. The small gains soon started to manifest into bigger employment of resources by the Army as the protracted insurgency had led to a complete breakdown of government machinery and people were denied basic facilities in terms of health care and education. The Army’s presence and assistance thus had a positive impact on the minds of the local population.
With the deployment of Army units in the early 1990s to combat insurgency in Kashmir, the Army’s Northern Command launched Operation Sadbhavana in 1998 to extend a helping hand in rebuilding the socio-economic life of the people. The aim was two-folds: to wrest the initiative from the terrorists and to reintegrate the population with the national mainstream. It was envisaged that these developmental activities would provide the healing touch during conflict and win over the alienated sections of people in the conflict zone. As a general principle, Sadbhavana activities were to be sustainable and based on popular demand. They were to be executed in time and it was hoped that such activities would also lead to empowering of the local people. From simple actions in the early days by the units, the scope of work has now increased to construction of model villages, mini hydro projects, small bridges, computer centres, classrooms, football fields, and so on. The organisation of sports tournaments and excursions by children and elders for ‘Bharat Darshan’ has helped further thaw the hostility towards the Army. Numerous other community development and health care projects have helped in mitigating the hardships of the common citizen.
Operation Sadbhavana is being carried out in all the three divisions of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The Army’s focus has been on women & youth empowerment, providing quality education, infrastructure development, health, veterinary care, and educational tours to various parts of the country. In addition basic needs like water supply schemes, electrification and animal husbandry in far flung areas is given a priority with projects based on participation of the local people, elected representatives and civil administration.
In the last seventeen years, the Army has succeeded in providing basic essentials thereby winning the affection of the local populace.
Education has been a prime intervention, with the Indian Army establishing about 55 modern English medium Goodwill Schools under the State Board and Central Board of Secondary Education. These well endowed schools are heavily subscribed and at places hostel facilities have also been provided. Further the locals are employed as teachers and administrative staff which augur well for their family income. In an effort to reach out to the poor children, assistance has been provided to 2700 State Government Schools in terms of renovations, construction of additional class rooms, toilets, play grounds, sports facilities, provision of computers, educational soft ware packages, books, uniforms, libraries and laboratories. Subsidised education at nominal fees is provided to children of Gujjar and Bakarwal communities. Large number of children are also provided scholarships to study in public schools within and outside the state. In addition, Computer Literacy Centres have been established at number of places to educate children, youth and ladies to ensure they are able to attain the skill of operating computers. These Centres provide education in basic concepts, use of Windows Operating System and Internet.
Another major intervention by the Army is in the field of infrastructure development. In the nineties the terrorists had destroyed culverts, bridges and power stations to sever linkages with the national mainstream. The Army then stepped in to construct foot bridges, tracks to improve connectivity in rural areas, orphanages, primary health centres, community development centres, vocational training centres, rural mini hydel projects, check dams, bus stop shelters, utility toilets, and water supply schemes to include digging of bore wells. Model villages have also been constructed post the 2005 earthquake, and stress has been laid on installation of transformers, erection of solar lights and provision of generators. In addition, sports stadia have been constructed at Bandipur, Ganderbal, Kulgam, Budgam and Shopian, which have a seating capacity from 5000 to 7000 and facilitate conduct of tournaments.
Medical assistance to people living in remote areas has always been a popular Army initiative, extremely well received. All units carry out such activities wherever they are deployed. This effort has been supplemented by holding medical camps and establishing health centres equipped with ultra sound, ECG machines, oxygen cylinders and nebulisers. Free medicine is also provided. Screening of life style diseases is regularly done and artificial limbs are provided to victims of terrorism. Selected youth are trained to perform duties of a medical assistant and deal with emergencies. Veterinary Camps are also regularly organised by the Army in conjunction with civil authorities. Besides treatment of animals, the locals are given advice on preventive measures.
As part of the empowerment effort, women are taught traditional art and trained in skills in various fields. Youth are trained to be mechanics, machine operators, compounders, tourist guides, mountaineers and sportsmen and are given skills in poultry farming, animal husbandry and the like to enable them to gain employment, thereby restricting their entry into the cadre of militants. Education tours are organised for students and opinion makers to various parts of India with a view to providing them an exposure to the cultural diversity and the economic progress made in various regions under peace and stability. The positive impact of the Army’s Sdabhavana project can be gauged from the fact that in many farflung areas, the people have urged that the Army and not the local administration should get the Planning Commission’s allocation for development activities. The civil administration has been candid in admitting that the Army brought schools, walking tracks/roads, small bridges and doctors in areas where the state government could not reach in the difficult years of the insurgency. However, a common refrain has been that there is scope for improvement in the coordination between the Army and civil administration.
There is also a view that Sadbhavana is producing an unintended and undesirable result, by edging out the civil administration in the state, whereas the key to the government’s J&K policy should be to strengthen the state and local body administration. The Army should ideally serve as nothing more than a facilitator between the people and the civil administration now that a fragile peace prevails. Such views have met with strong resistance from segments of the rural population who have benefitted immensely due to the presence of the Army during the prolonged absence of local government machinery. But there is no denying the underlying truth of the above observation. It must also be remembered that development projects have a temporary effect only. Resources are never adequate to cover all the areas. Those who benefit will view the development as positive but a much larger uncovered majority could retain a grouse against the Army for having been left out. It is, hence, important that the state government undertakes a major part of the development activity and the Army acts as a facilitator.
While Sadbhavana remains a useful tool in building a positive image of the Army, it can in no way replace genuine efforts at improving people-to-people relationships. At times, patronising attitudes, poor language skills and lack of cultural sensitivity portray the Army in a negative light, which no amount of Sadbhavana projects can counter. Perceived inaction in cases of alleged human rights violations further adds to the sense of alienation. This must be guarded against.