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In G20 year, India plans to showcase a much-improved Kashmir

Media reports suggest that the Modi government is planning to pull back the Indian army from the Kashmir Valley to demonstrate normalcy, a changed state after abrogation of Article 370; experts play down two-front threat.

February 28, 2023 / 12:13 PM IST

Is the Union government planning to withdraw the army from the Kashmir Valley, or is it merely floating a balloon?

Three-and-a-half years after the Modi government revoked the special status granted to Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) amid the large deployment of additional troops, it is discussing a proposal to withdraw the Indian Army completely from the Valley hinterland. If approved, the army will have a presence only on the Line of Control (LoC), The Indian Express reported recently.

The paper quoted officials in the security establishment as saying that the proposal to withdraw the army from Kashmir’s hinterland has been under discussion for about two years and is at an “advanced stage” now with the involvement of the union ministry of defence, union ministry of home affairs, armed forces and the J&K police. It is proposed that the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and the Jammu and Kashmir Police fill in for the army personnel removed from the Valley to meet the challenges of both law and order and counter-terror operations.

“The matter is under serious discussion at the inter-ministerial level and it is understood to be feasible. In a way, the decision has been taken and it is a matter of when it will be done. Ultimately, however, it will be a political call,” a senior security establishment officer told The Indian Express.

Officials said that the first part of the phased withdrawal would be the pullback from Anantnag and Kulgam. The situation would be assessed after withdrawal, and depending on the results, further withdrawals would be undertaken.

Many boots on the ground

The army maintains a strength of around 1.3 lakh personnel in Jammu and Kashmir, of which around 80,000 are deployed on the border. About 40,000-45,000 personnel from the Rashtriya Rifles (RR) have the mantle of conducting counter-terror operations in Kashmir’s hinterland.

The Rashtriya Rifles, the brainchild of former army chief General BC Joshi, was established in 1990 and specialises in counter-terrorist operations. Raised as a paramilitary force, it includes army regulars from all units. It assists the Indian Army during conflicts, as it did during the Kargil war in 1999.

Sources said one of the proposals under discussion is the removal of the RR in three phases and replacing it with the CRPF. However, the army may also be planning a resizing as deployment for long periods in internal security duties is also seen as counter-productive.

The CRPF has an estimated strength of close to 60,000 personnel in J&K, of which more than 45,000 are deployed in the Kashmir Valley.

In addition, the J&K Police is 83,000 strong. Apart from this, a few companies from other Central Armed Police Forces (CAPF) remain deployed in the Valley. The figures for CAPF fluctuate depending on the security situation in the Valley.

Good thinking

“If the government is thinking along those lines, then it is a good idea. It shows that the threat perception from Pakistan has lowered. In any case, the army was over-represented in J&K, and has been present there for a very long time. Its presence in such numbers was never justified. I can tell you that the overbearing visibility of the paramilitary forces in the late 1980s really worsened the situation in the Kashmir Valley. The job of containing militancy should have been left with the Jammu and Kashmir Police,” Wajahat Habibullah, former chairperson of the National Commission for Minorities and a civil servant who was divisional commissioner of eight districts in the state, told Moneycontrol.

There are pragmatic considerations prompting deliberations for a pullout. The removal of security from the contentious Kashmir Valley would make India’s case of growing normalcy stronger, not just internally but in the eyes of the world. In a year, when India has acquired the G20 presidency, Kashmir as a normalized destination needs to be showcased to international delegates, whose visits would be regular affairs in 2023.

The idea behind deliberations (to withdraw the army) is to not just to claim normalcy but also to make it visible.

The reality on the ground supports such a decision. Terrorist violence has gone down by 50 percent, stone pelting has almost vanished and the law-and-order situation is largely under control. Therefore, a large presence of the Indian Army in the hinterland will sit oddly with the claims of normalcy.

Says ex-Territorial Army chief, Maj Gen Siwach: “Elections are going to be held in Kashmir; the delimitation process is underway in J&K, and terrorism, except for the hybrid variety, has been all but put down. The CRPF and J&K Police would suffice. Of course, the phasing out needs to be gradual, just in case terror rears its head.”

Ground reality and the China factor

Ideally, officials said, the job of counter-terrorism should be left to the J&K police, but at the moment, the force is not seen as being fully prepared to replace the army on its own.

“It can never be a total withdrawal of the army in the state; but even a partial removal from Srinagar and Budgam would be a good idea, if they are thinking on those lines. There is no doubt that the situation in the Kashmir Valley has improved, as has the law-and-order situation; but let us also not forget that both in Kashmir and in Pakistan, no situation remains static,” former RAW chief AS Dulat told Moneycontrol. “I doubt if Pakistanis themselves are in control of their situation, what with serious threats from the Tehreek-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan, (TTP). So, who knows what the situation will be tomorrow.”

Dulat also pointed out that the demand for an army pullback is not new and chief ministers in the past, including Omar Abdullah, have raised the demand from time to time.

The second reason is the China factor. During the 32-month-long border crisis with the Chinese military which began with the deadly clash in Ladakh in 2020, a resolution of the disputed border is even farther away from when the tension began.

Despite intermittent dialogue between the two militaries, Indian Army Chief, General Manoj Pande, recently confirmed that China has not reduced its forces at the Line of Actual Control (LAC). Both the armies have about 50,000 troops stationed on the border.

But that, says Major General Siwach, is not the main factor, as India needs 50,000 men for the job, something it can rustle up without much difficulty, thereby ruling out a two-front confrontation.

Ranjit Bhushan is an independent journalist and former Nehru Fellow at Jamia Millia University. In a career spanning more than three decades, he has worked with Outlook, The Times of India, The Indian Express, the Press Trust of India, Associated Press, Financial Chronicle, and DNA.
first published: Feb 28, 2023 11:17 am