.: Features

Date: 21 Apr 2011

Ajai Shukla / Srinagar April 19, 2011

Business Standard

His reaching out is getting responses, but it is still a lot of stony ground. The general, five rows of medal ribbons splashing colour on crisp combat fatigues, greeted the 100-odd locals gathered at Zainakot, on the outskirts of this city. Handing his baton to an aide, he quipped, “Haath mein danda pakad kar baat nahin karni chahiye (one shouldn’t talk with a stick in one’s hand).”

Everyone laughed. Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain, the first Muslim officer in two decades to head 15 Corps, which defends the Kashmir valley, had broken the ice in signature style. Four months earlier, Hasnain had been commanding a mechanised strike corps in the desert. At which point, Army chief Gen V K Singh sent him to Kashmir, trusting him to rebrand the army’s image in a valley simmering with discontent.

“Kisi achhe kaam ko dua ke saath shuru karna chahiye (Every good work should begin with a prayer),” Hasnain told the gathering. One of the villagers got up and recited a verse from the Koran, with everyone joining in. Afterwards, Hasnain thanked him, amidst clapping. The locals were interested now. Like all the encounters scripted by the general, this one between the army and the people was very different from the stone-pelting that had consumed this area during the past three summers.

Over the next hour, the general conducted what he calls a ‘jan sunwai’, or public hearing, reminding them that this was not a ‘durbar’, the traditional army term for when a commander addresses a gathering. “Durbar to Mughalon ke zamaane ka tha, angrezon ke zamaane ka. Mein aapko sunne aaya hoon (durbars happened during the Mughal era and the British. I’ve come to listen to you).”

And, Hasnain listened patiently to an outpouring of woes. That army convoys be timed for when civilian traffic was low; a greybeard who complained that intelligence sources were using their army links to settle local scores; a youngster studying in Kerala who begged the general to recreate here that student-friendly culture of libraries and tuitions; a request that militants who had completed their jail sentences not be stigmatised forever with the label ‘released militant’. Finally, one elder, who lived next to the house of absconding Hizbul Mujahideen chief, Syed Salahuddin, demanded a road to his village so that he could send a message to Salahuddin that a development project had actually come good.

Hasnain reacted immediately, promising him that road. “You will be able to write to your former neighbour that the corps commander drove to your house on the new road and had a cup of tea with you.” The audience burst out laughing.

During the past two decades, an insurgency-fatigued populace has seen army units and generals come and go, and many promises made and broken. But this new corps commander’s approach of careful listening, and then following up with action are capturing the attention of a growing local audience.

Whether this has “won hearts and minds”, that elusive counter-insurgency objective, is too early to tell. But it has obviously reduced the security presence, especially in Srinagar, for two decades a city of bunkers and guns, carpeted by helmeted security men.

As he bids farewell and shakes outstretched hands, Hasnain is careful not to over-promise: “So many of you have lost hope after the last 20 years. Look into your hearts and pull yourselves out of your depression. Always judge carefully who is lying to you and who is telling the truth; things will surely change.” With that upbeat message, the general is off.

Hasnain’s message resonates across swathes of rural Kashmir. But amongst Srinagar’s disillusioned, politically sophisticated activists, students and lawyers, bitter anger still simmers over last year’s estimated 120 civilian deaths in street protests. It is this urban community that sets the agenda and makes the headlines.

During a day spent talking to students at Kashmir University, Business Standard heard multiple accounts of how every youngster who had been involved in last year’s stone pelting (the police had video-filmed all the protests) was being arrested by the J&K Police and sent off to jail in Jammu under the dreaded Public Security Act, which allows preventive detention for up to a year.

The police say only hardened stone pelters (this phrase is now an established part of Kashmir’s lexicon) are being arrested and in small numbers. The establishment sees stone-pelting as only a change of militant tactics, orchestrated street protests replacing the failed gun. The Kashmiri narrative of unarmed civilians being cut down by bullets is flatly rejected.

Says S M Sahai, inspector-general of police for Kashmir: “Stone pelting became an alternative method for the militants after the gun had failed. They began looking at other means of creating disturbance… The police ensure that action against people who are instigating stone pelting continues, hence the arrests under the PSA… For about 1,200 incidents of violence (according to police cases registered last year), our arrests are less than 5,000, around four-five per FIR (first information report). Is that a lot for the kind of violence seen?”

Sahai says the police had detained 180 people under the PSA, of which 114 remain in custody.

Gen Hasnain’s challenges are evident — reconciling his intention to treat the Kashmiri people compassionately, with the government’s tough approach towards law and order. Two, sustaining the Army’s well-intentioned engagement of a politically mobilised populace without a credible dialogue between the separatists and the Centre.

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