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Civilians are soft targets, extremely hard to defend: Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Hooda on Kashmir killings

They point to a change in strategy of militants, but fear of Afghan soldiers flooding Kashmir are overblown

October 12, 2021 / 04:28 PM IST
Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Deependra Singh Hooda had led the strikes into Pakistan following the Uri attack

Lt. Gen. (Retd.) Deependra Singh Hooda had led the strikes into Pakistan following the Uri attack

The rampant killing of civilians in Kashmir Valley by suspected militants has brought down the entire security establishment in Jammu and Kashmir to its knees. At least seven civilians have lost their lives in just one week. 

According to reports, over 900 people affiliated with the banned Jamaat-e-Islami and Tehreek-e-Hurriyat, and people on the suspected list of over-ground workers (OGW) have been detained, and the Union Home Minister Amit Shah has dispatched a special security team to Srinagar to help the local police. Shah is likely to visit the region this month.

The nature of militancy seems to be changing and, against this backdrop, Moneycontrol spoke with Lt. Gen. Deependra Singh Hooda (Retd.). Hooda, who headed Indian Army's Northern Command, had led India's 2016 strikes into Pakistan-administered Kashmir (PaK) after the Uri terror attack. 

He spoke about the changing strategy of militants following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, hybrid militancy in Kashmir, security lapses and the need to address a sense of alienation among sections of the people.



What is your take on the the latest spurt of violence in Kashmir? Where are the security lapses?

The latest violence, particularly the killing of civilians and the minorities, is certainly a mater of concern because it can easily spread fear and panic in the society. Civilians are soft, vulnerable targets and are extremely hard to defend. For example, is it practical to provide security to every street vendor and shopkeeper in Srinagar? The administration has an enormous challenge on its hands.

Despite having a robust internal security grid in Kashmir, how do militants manage to carry out these attacks?

These attacks are being carried out by militants in civilian clothes, armed with pistols that are easy to conceal. Preventing each and every attack is almost impossible. The security forces also have to balance the need for security checks on civil population with the inconvenience these checks cause. Frankly, there are no simple answers.

This year alone, hundreds of militants including top commanders were killed in Kashmir. Why is peace elusive still?

It would not be entirely correct to equate the killing of militants with a return to normalcy. I am not suggesting that militants should not be killed, but that for lasting peace to return to Kashmir, many more steps will have to be taken. These include addressing a sense of alienation among sections of the people, youth engagement, strengthening of the civil society, political empowerment and so on. A holistic approach has to be adopted for long-term conflict resolution.

Do you think militants have changed their strategy? Can there be more civilian killings?

It certainly does appear that the militants have changed their strategy by turning to soft targets such as civilians and the minority population. Whether there will be more such killings will depend on how the civil society of Kashmir reacts. A backlash from the population could force the militants to avoid civil killings.

Has the nature of militancy changed?

Some changes are visible. There has been an ideological shift with some of the terrorist outfits invoking religion and calling for the establishment of a caliphate in Kashmir. Radicalisation and extremism is certainly on the rise. There is also talk of narco-terrorism in Kashmir as hard drugs are being recovered in large quantities, particularly in the border areas. All this will impact on the nature of militancy.

Do you think the latest killings have anything to do with the demographic changenarrative?

It is possible that the militants are playing on the demographic changenarrative. It is often said that the battle of the narratives is the most critical fight between the state and the militants. Our governments have not given due emphasis to the information domain, thus ceding this space to the militants. This needs to change.

The Jammu and Kashmir police maintain that the recent killings were carried out by the local militants of The Resistance Front (TRF) on the instructions of  Pakistani militant Chhota Walid. The militants, according to police, were not on the radar of police or intelligence agencies. Should it be a matter of concern for the security establishment? 

Identification of locals who join militants and overground workers is an important aspect of intelligence gathering. A few years ago, locals who joined terror ranks would put up their photos on social media sites, enabling easy identification. The new lot of militants are shunning the social media and that makes the task on intelligence agencies harder. However, any shortfall in our intelligence gathering must be addressed.

Union Home Minister Amit Shah dispatched a special security team to Srinagar to help the local police. Does that speak about the local force's competence? 

 We all realise that the killing of minorities in Kashmir has serious implications throughout the country. Therefore, the government must do all that it can to ensure that such incidents are minimised. The dispatch of the security team must be seen in this light and not as a lack of confidence on the local police. The J&K police has played a vital role in containing violence, and will continue to do so in the future.

The abrogation of Article 370 hasnt helped the Army in any way to contain militancy. Your comments? 

I dont think the Army ever drew a direct link between abrogationof Article 370 and containment of terrorism. The Army has always emphasised a strategy that is people-centric and follows a hearts and mindsapproach. That is the key to countering terrorism. Having said this, if we look at the security data of the last two years, the Army has been fairly successful in containing violence in Kashmir.

Has militancy in Kashmir received a psychological boost with the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan?

I would certainly believe that the Taliban victory has provided a psychological boost to militants in J&K. They would look at Taliban as the underdogs who have defeated a superpower and use this example to exhort their ranks and attempt to increase recruitment. However, fears that Afghan fighters would flood Kashmir are overblown. The Line of Control is heavily guarded and large-scale infiltration is not possible.

You are also on the Advisory Board of the Cyber Peace Foundation, an NGO dealing with cyber protection and training. What are the cyber threats India faces? What are our strengths and what gaps need to be addressed?

The range of cyber threats is vast, from small crimes to attacks on critical infrastructure such as power and telecommunications. There is also the serious danger of using the social media platforms to spread divisiveness and cause a rupture between communities. Multi-cultural and multi-ethnic societies like India are particularly vulnerable in this regard. While we can adopt methods to protect our critical infrastructure by getting rid of our dependency on foreign hardware, it is extremely important that we find ways to curb fake news and hate-speech on social media.

(The writer is a Srinagar based Journalist and tweets @AuqibJaveed.)

Auqib Javeed is a Srinagar-based journalist, and tweets @AuqibJaveed.
first published: Oct 12, 2021 04:28 pm
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