Despite sporadic incidents of violence and occasional encounters between the security forces and terrorists, the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, militarily, is now better than it has been since the insurgency first reared its ugly head in 1989. A sense of normalcy has returned to the Kashmir valley with schools, colleges and hospitals open, commerce flourishing and tourists thronging the scenic spots.
Over 300,000 pilgrims visited the Hindu cave shrine of Amarnath in 2007. The Hindu festivals of Janmashtami and Dussehra were celebrated with traditional fervor after almost two decades. In the Jammu region too, violence is at a low ebb.
There was a 50 percent decrease in the number of incidents of violence during the summer months of 2007, though there was no let-up in attempts at infiltration across the Line of Control (LoC). However, the levels of militancy in the hinterland are somewhat more enhanced.
The number of trained and armed terrorists has come down to about 1,400, with about 700 to 800 in Kashmir Valley and the remainder in the Jammu region. However, not all of them are now active. Sleeper cells are lying low and waiting to strike at a more opportune time. While conducting counter-infiltration operations, the aim should not be deterrence of infiltration but destruction of the infiltrators.
The Pakistan Army and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), unable to fight simultaneously on three fronts - proxy war against India, the Al Qaeda-Taliban combine in the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and vicious internal instability - have apparently ordered a "tactical freeze" in Jammu and Kashmir. However, the Pakistan Army's grand strategy of trying to wrest Kashmir from India and "bleeding India through a thousand cuts" has not changed; only the tactics have changed as the army is itself bleeding profusely - mainly from self-inflicted wounds.
While infiltration from across the LoC has been reduced to a trickle, the machinery is being kept well oiled so that ISI can raise the ante whenever it chooses to do so in future.
The terrorists remaining in Kashmir no longer have the support of the people and are being increasingly actively resisted. Militant groups are now relying less on violence and more on other means like influencing viewpoints through coercion of the local media, prevailing on bar associations to file human rights abuse cases and nudging some of the political parties to carry forward the agenda of separatism. Besides inadequate socio-economic development, inadequate governance is a major factor that is fuelling conflict as it is readily exploited by the terrorists.
After some loose talk of "demilitarization", Kashmiri political leaders have realized that this term is really applicable only to the LoC. As and when the LoC is accepted as a permanent border between India and Pakistan, it will be up to the negotiating teams of the two countries to plan a phased demilitarization of troops deployed to defend it against aggression.
The term "disengagement" is more appropriate for discussing the force levels of the army and other security forces in the hinterland of Kashmir. The army is conscious of the fact that in case the situation continues to improve, it must gradually reduce the force levels and that it will be counter-productive not to do so. At present the situation is not conducive to any major reduction in the number of army troops.
As the army commences the process of thinning out, the Jammu and Kashmir police and the paramilitary forces must take its place. These forces are still not in a position to take over the responsibility for maintaining security in the hinterland in terms of the number of battalions, adequacy of arms and equipment and the quality of training.
After the process is begun in earnest, it will take two to three years for these state and central government forces to gain the confidence necessary to fight well-armed and well-trained terrorists who enjoy external support. However, army battalions camping in public places like school compounds are being moved out and the premises are being handed over to the civil authorities. Also, cases of inadequate compensation are being examined jointly with the civil authorities and redressal is being given where due.
Perception management is a neglected field that needs to be urgently addressed. The majority in Kashmir is no longer interested in joining Pakistan or even in seeking independence. People will gladly settle for a just and equitable political package that addresses their feelings of alienation.
They are likely to accept political autonomy that gives them the right to self-governance. The continuing lack of the political will to find a solution to the people's problems is a major stumbling block. This is perhaps due to the complexities of coalition politics.
The government must continue to engage with all the political parties that are willing to participate in elections to the state assembly to determine the contours of a political and socio-economic settlement of the complex challenge confronting the nation. It must do everything possible to encourage the constituent members of the Hurriyat Conference to also join the political mainstream and participate in the forthcoming elections.
Clearly, there is a need to evolve a long-term, national-level, inter-departmental, inter-agency strategy that simultaneously addresses political, diplomatic, economic, social and psychological issues.
It must enter into a sustained dialogue with all the parties concerned to resolve the conflict in Kashmir. There is hope on the horizon in Kashmir and losing this opportunity may prove to be an insurmountable setback.
(Gurmeet Kanwal is director, Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)