An Interview With Lt. Gen.Baljit Singh Jaswal
After two decades of militancy, the Kashmir Valley has been relatively calm during the past two years. Tourists from India and around the world flooded into the scenic valley last summer, and the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, has called for troop reductions and a repeal of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act.
But military officials say the peace remains fragile and that the infiltration of militants from Pakistan continues, albeit in smaller numbers. The army has said that Kashmir isnt ready for any drastic dilution of security.
Bitwa Sharma recently interviewed Lt. Gen.Baljit Singh Jaswal, who from October 2009 to December 2010 led the Northern Command, which currently controls more than 300,000 troops in the state. General Jaswal was in charge the last time violent protests swept the valley, in 2010.
Q. How much infiltration of militants from Pakistan is happening now?
A. Infiltration has come down a hell of a lot. This year, it has come down to just about 50-odd people. Earlier, it used to be 700 to 800 people. In 2010, there were 110.
But you see, its extremely, extremely difficult to stop. You have to be on ground to see how difficult it is. To say that you can hermetically seal the borders sorry, you cant. People sitting in Delhi say, Why cant the army stop this? You go and sit there, night after night, and see the psyche of a soldier. I mean, he is doing his best. But the strain is there. There is so much pressure on him. He will not like even the wind to go past him. It is very, very difficult.
We have now improved the fences, but you see what happens in the Gulmarg sector. There is 30 feet of snow. The fence gets covered. How do you then protect?
So the first thing we do is aerial rekkies [reconnaissance], or we see from the post if there are any footprints. We know that if someone has crossed at night, the travel time would have been this much, so we carry out an assessment that he will be in an area. So we cordon off that area and take appropriate action. Its very difficult.
If you want to feel the heat, be in it. Then you will realize.
Q. What threat do these militants still pose in Kashmir?
A. Even if there are five terrorists, well, they can do something kill the chief minister, kill a cabinet minister. That itself is hell of a lot.
They have the potential. There are about 450 to 500 terrorists in the whole of Jammu and Kashmir, and a group of five, they can do anything. A fedayeen [militant] attack can take place anywhere. It could be a fedayeen attack on the Jammu and Kashmir assembly.
Q. What is your assessment of the recent murders of the sarpanches, or village heads, in Kashmir?
A. The assembly elections were held in 2007 and about 56 percent of voters turned out. In the 2008 general elections, 66 percent turned out. And now the Jammu and Kashmir government has decided to empower the panchayats [village councils] so that people have more power. In 2011 elections, 73 percent of people voted.
Now this does not auger well to Pakistan. For Pakistan, if governance is coming back again, well, their whole aim has been defeated. The sarpanches who were trying to once again to revamp the state and make it surge forward, the best way to stop this is to go and kill them or threaten them so that the Panchayati Raj endeavor of the state is totally decimated. Thats why the killings took place.
There are about 30,000 sarpanches in the whole of Jammu and Kashmir. You cant provide security to everyone. So the answer is that we should have village defense committees, which have been formed in a number of villages, and arm them.
There are ex-servicemen all over in Jammu and Kashmir. Otherwise, there are villagers train them. They will provide protection to the sarpanches.
Q. When you say Pakistan do you mean the government or the Inter Services Intelligence, the I.S.I.?
A. If Im a general and something goes wrong in the Northern Command, Im responsible. Similarly, if something is wrong in Pakistan, the government is to be blamed.
Its tools are the I.S.I. Whether they are all-pervasive over the Pakistan government or otherwise they call the shots, we all know it. But the ultimate responsibility is that of the Pakistan government.
Why are they not being able to rein in the I.S.I? Why are they so scared of the army? Democracies dont get scared of the army. Why are they so scared? Its a democratic country. You cant have the army dictating terms to the government.
Q. What do you see happening after the U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan? Will Pakistan turn its attention to Kashmir again?
A. The first thing for Pakistan is to be able to have a major role to play in Afghanistan and thats the reason they are not keen for India to come in, except for commercial ventures. And that too they object.
At one point in time, people were saying that Pakistan will turn Al Qaeda and some of these people from that area towards Kashmir. There were views that Al Qaeda people were operating in Srinagar and the valley. To my knowledge, there are none.
Initially, a lot of Afghans came in to Kashmir. The majority were Pakistanis who were trained in Afghanistan and they used to call themselves Afghans. That has died down for the time being.
But should Pakistan, in the long term, be able to have a hold on Afghanistan, theyre going to ready a kitty of insurgents available to them who can come down to Kashmir and carry on the job of fifth columnist in times of war.
Q. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah is calling for a phased withdrawal of troops from Kashmir as well as the repealing the A.F.S.P.A. [the Armed Forces Special Powers Act]. But the army says its too early. Is Kashmir ready for these changes?
A. Im the first proponent of saying that A.F.S.P.A. should not be removed. Firstly, why are the terrorists not being able to operate? Because weve been able to provide ideal troop-to-ground density and restricted their space of operations.
Why did A.F.S.P.A. come in? It was because of the intent of Pakistan. Has the intent of Pakistan changed? If it has not changed, why change the provision?
Let the military realize where the situation is slightly improving, we could thin out troops from there, but a certain amount of troops will be there. The demonstration of the troops on the roads, that can be reduced and can be taken over slowly by the police and the paramilitary forces.
If you repeal A.F.S.P.A., for it to come back you know, its an act of Parliament. You know the kind of difficulty which is there to pass in Parliament.
I have a lot of respect for Mr. Omar. He is a personal friend and we have a lot of professional respect for each other. I mean in his wisdom he has to make political statements, but I do hope he sees the ramifications.
Q. The state government has made its position quite clear about the removal of A.F.S.P.A. and reduction in troops. Are the central government and the army divided on this?
A. No way. The Ministry of Defense is totally with us.
I remember a discussion with Mr. Chidambaram [the former home minister]. I said that if you remove troops from here, you are creating voids. It will provide space for terrorists to be able to regroup once again.
And wisdom did prevail. And the Ministry of Defense just put its foot down.
Q. Can militancy be eliminated entirely?
A. We are confusing the situation in Jammu and Kashmir. My wisdom as an army commander is to always say the situation in J. and K. is due to the non-resolution of the Kashmir issue. If the Kashmir issue is resolved at the diplomatic level and political level, insurgency will automatically come down.
Like I said, even if five terrorists are operating, well, they can create any strife anywhere. It happened in Bombay [Mumbai, in 2008]. The nation almost went to war. So the intent of Pakistan has to be decimated. And that can only be decimated when the Kashmir resolution takes place.
It has to be at the government level. We are just tools. We are controlling the situation, we are managing the situation, but to ultimately decimate the situation it has to be dealt with at the government level.
Q. Has the number of troops in Kashmir decreased?
A. I wouldnt like to give the figure because they are outside the public domain. Some troops have moved out. It is not a continuous process.
Q. In Srinagar, a lot of people express resentment when they see security forces posted on almost every street corner. How do you think the army has done in terms of winning the hearts and minds of the people?
A. We have an operation called Sadbhavna, and the Americans have copied us in Afghanistan. They are doing the same. It is empowerment of the women, providing education, integration of the population with India, providing goodwill schools.
I, in Northern Command, started a new venture providing free Service Selection Board coaching to anyone and everyone who wanted to join the army. In the first packet, 23 people got through. Its a great achievement. In the valley some girls also wanted to come. There is a girl from Ladakh who is becoming an officer. So we are integrating them.
We have 51 goodwill schools there, providing free education. You go and ask any parents of these students, they will swear by the Indian Army.
Q. Is it easier for a soldier to serve in Kashmir now that the situation is relatively peaceful?
A. No, the operations are still on. He still goes for his ambushes. He still goes for his convoys. He still guards the fence. Operationally, he actually in a week gets two nights to sleep on his bed. He still gets two nights of full sleep. And he has to go out with patrols.
Youre patrolling not just for the sake of measuring the length and breadth of the ground but you should be expecting an encounter. So the whole drill is the same.
(This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.)
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