Transition from the environment of a Public Order situation to one of Law & Order is never easy, especially in a twenty five year long proxy war. How the intervening period of transition affects civil military relations and the challenges military commanders face on ground in J&K in the pursuance of their tasks, is the theme of this essay
Most followers of events in J&K would be unaware of the existence of the term Public Order. It is a situation worse than law and order with which most are familiar. In 1990, after a few months of the initiation of proxy war by Pakistan in the state of J&K the Indian Government decided that it was facing a serious public order problem which needed the empowerment of the Army to conduct operations on its own without the constitutional requirement of reference to civil authority. AFSPA (J&K 1990) was enacted and that is how the Army came to be the lead force in charge of counter insurgency/counter terror (CI/CT) operations. Over the last twenty five years it has weathered many a storm and seen the ups and downs of a dynamic internal conflict sponsored as a proxy war by Pakistan. CI/CT operations have their own dynamics of relations between the Army and the Civil Authorities. The civil administration which had nearly collapsed was given a boost by the Army’s presence, especially its valiant Rashtriya Rifles (RR), deployed in the grid to fight terror and simultaneously aid the administration in its responsibilities. This was an environment where civil officials could hardly step out without escort, especially in the high risk areas near the LoC, remote villages and urban centres where large bands of terrorists ruled the roost. Under such circumstances the Army personnel were the most wanted, their presence produced some semblance of order and local villagers valued their encampments. However, as it always happens, the Army sacrificed much to progress the situation from the Conflict Initiation stage through the Conflict Progression to Conflict Stabilisation, witnessing the return of democracy, order and stability.
Classically, this involves the transition from public order towards law and order, where the civil police can assume more responsibility even as the civil administration regains confidence and normalcy returns. The greatest challenge in such situations is the determination of the point at which the Army can stand back and withdraw. That is not an easy one and the process of such identification may take a couple of years. In this intervening period the space is vied for, both by the Army, which perceives that premature withdrawal may be counterproductive and the civil authorities who feel that the Army is transgressing on its space.
Sadbhavana, the Army’s military civic action program, explains this predicament. To the Army, this is its operational responsibility based on universal doctrines of CI/CT operations. To the civil officials and politicians, it is interference in civil administration. Under Sadbhavana, the Army undertakes low level schemes in a few streams such as infrastructure, medical support, women empowerment, education and national integration. The professional dedication and powers of organisation of the Army can hardly be matched by any civil administration effort. This creates antipathy. The civil administration’s outreach even in a situation of conflict stabilisation is marginal compared to the Army which can move at will with full security and commitment, bringing a positive perception among the local people at the cost of the image of the civil officials. The case of Army Goodwill Schools will illustrate this, a little better. One of the flagship projects of Sadbhavana was the setting up of education facilities in areas where quality education was nonexistent. Excellent schools with slick aesthetics were set up and succeeded in imparting high quality education; all of them became selfsustaining through good financial management. The rule position demanded that on completion of these projects they be handed over to the local administration. However, the pride that Army formations felt for these schools and the inevitable perception of the locals that these would deteriorate to abysmal standards of government schools, forced the Army to retain them all these years, even against rules. Parents and children want the arrangement to continue while the local education authorities place obstacles in the way. This would never have happened in the nineties when the administration depended on the support of the Army to a larger extent.
Take the case of land occupied by the Army for its billets. Undoubtedly, the Army was tardy in payment of rentals and documentation but largely due to the inefficiency of its follow up department – the Defence Estates Organisation (DEO). While it carried the flag more aggressively, the Army could ward off criticism but today has to be far more accountable in land management. There are issues here which can be extremely tricky. Take the Gulmarg land case; the Army occupies prime land right in the middle of Gulmarg and maintains it in its typically efficient way. With severe crunch on buildable land, the civil administration has its eyes on this prime land which was granted to the Army many years ago. As compensation, it wishes to give land far away in the path of many avalanches. The issue remains without resolution. In the case of Toshe Maidan field firing ranges an RTI activist forced the ultimate vacation of the ranges with the civil administration actively supporting that under political pressure. This has resulted in the loss of the only live training area for the Army in Kashmir with telling effect. The increase in the functioning space for the civil administration has given it the power to compromise with national security. This is likely to be a continuing trend. On the face of it there can be no better situation for a state which has been afflicted by severe violence for long and where the civil administration was at one stage virtually nonfunctional; the return of an effective administration can only be viewed positively. However, the principle of ‘No Absolutism’ is far more applicable in a period of transition than ever before. It is national interest which is at stake. While the Army has to yield space, and without grudge, the civil administration too has to perceive that J&K is not yet in a state of normalcy. There are enough triggers and manipulated ones at that, which await the authorities. The debate over who needs to yield and in what time frame will go on for long but that should be in closed door sessions.
A few other aspects need to be mentioned. Firstly, the social empowerment of the public too is a positive sign but that should not be at the cost of vilification and targeting of the last resort the nation will always need. There are instances where hit and run traffic accidents caused by others are blamed on the Army forcing impounding of vehicles and extraction of compensation through Motor Accidents Compensation Tribunal, with the Army being under pressure to legally defend its men. Secondly, it is time that the Central Armed Police Forces (CAPFs) are forced to change their uniforms back to the khakis so as to stop the confusion between soldiers and policemen. This is something the Central Government has not been able to do for all these years. Thirdly, the State Government can learn a lesson or two from the Army on the whole gamut of perception management (PM) and stop vilifying Sadbhavana. If anything the latter is a supplementary and very efficient form of succour for a population which is increasingly demanding. Perhaps, an unchartered area is a joint PM campaign promoting integration and patriotism. It is very much evident on various national days all over J&K; it only needs to be institutionalised.
It should be remembered that we are as yet far from a Conflict Termination stage in J&K. The current situation should be treated as something temporary with potential to slide rapidly. The necessity of identifying the mutual space is the need. No one has to yield space, at least in the foreseeable future and therein lays the mantra for effective return of the civil administration’s complete hold.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain is a former General Officer Commanding of the Srinagar based 15 Corps and retired as Military Secretary. He is associated with the Vivekanand International Foundation and Delhi Policy Group, two prominent Delhi based think tanks.