The Indian Army’s Rs 40 crore fund for social and development projects in Jammu and Kashmir has the stakeholders divided. While the civil administration claims these projects encroach upon their space, local people say such initiatives won’t make them forget the atrocities unleashed by the troops. Besides, there also allegations of misuse of funds.
Army veterans who have served in Kashmir maintain that engaging in civilian duties like Operation Sadbhavana is the only way to win the heart of local population. “Otherwise, the sight of troops checking curfew passes of people, searching and parading women and children, and performing traffic duties had adversely affected the image of the army,” says an officer who commanded troops in the state in the thick of militancy.
“Winning the hearts and minds (WHAM) of people is not the army’s job, but in the absence of a conflict resolution mechanism and credible political initiatives, the prolonged presence of the army makes it imperative for us to strike a chord with the local population,” another former top army commander told dna.
After launching intense operations locally known as “catch and kill”, in 1997, the army incorporated an element of ‘goodwill’ in search operations. Soon after the 1999 Kargil war, Lt Gen Arjun Ray launched Operation Sadbhavana in Ladakh.
“We had 4,000 Pakistani troops sitting in our territory and nobody told us. The opposite of love is not hate and of the life is not death. It is indifference. Alienation is indifference,” he said.
The Indian Army’s 2007 doctrine of sub-conventional warfare has also given a central place to WHAM in counter-insurgency operations, saying that military operations should be supplemented by developmental activities coupled with imaginative public information and perception management initiatives.
According to a register maintained at the 68 Mountain Brigade based in Trehgam town of Kupwara district, 10-15 people visit the camp now everyday to discuss development issues with the senior army officers this was unheard of a few years ago.
However, as per an internal assessment made by an army think-tank a year ago, 46% of people in Kupwara region believe there was still a long way to go in building bridges and trust.
“Building of a few schools and bus stands or for that matter providing ration to the needy does matter, but would certainly not encourage people to forget the unforgettable atrocities,” says Abdul Latif a college student in Kupwara.
“How can we forget what the soldiers of 4 Raj Rifles of 68 Mountain Brigade did in Kunan-Poshpora [several women of the two villages were allegedly raped by the troops during a search operation] in 1991 in the absence of any justice to the victims,” he added.
He also recalls the 2010 fake encounter at Machil in Kupwara, in which three civilians were dubbed as foreign militants and killed by the army — the killings evoked massive protests and ensued the era of stone pelting.
To make matters worse, state government officials say that the army has also frittered away funds by improper utilisation. “At many places like Charkoote in Lolab, bus stops developed cracks within weeks of their construction and the army had to re-build them,” a local officer told dna over phone.
The officer further gave the example of a road in Kalaroose which was rendered non-motorable months after it thrown open for traffic. Around 100 micro hydro-electric projects have also met with similar fate due to faulty designs, the officer claimed.
Former central interlocutor for Jammu and Kashmir MM Ansari maintains that lasting peace can return only by strengthening the state administration and civilian local bodies. According to him, involving the army in civilian duties squeezes the space for the civilian administration.
“The objective was to carve an operating space for the civilian administration, by eliminating militant threats, but they (army) have ended up narrowing the scope of the local bodies by taking up these jobs to themselves,” he told dna.
Commenting on Gen (retd) VK Singh’s revelations about flow of funds to the state, Kashmir University law professor Sheikh Showkat Hussain warns that unaccountable flow of money has harmed more Delhi’s interests, which takes a deceptive calm as return of peace.
“Sincere efforts demand transparent mechanism of execution and such mechanisms can’t be visualized in a situation within which vested interests remain harvesters of everything in the name of defending status quo and branding everyone else as a stone-pelter or a militant,” he says.