Javaid Trali

“Mission Pehal”: An arduous task, demanding a long-term sustained commitment from Army

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At issue here is not what the Army officer said during the interaction but the fact that such a direct interaction between the army and youth has, sadly, never taken place before. At issue here is not what the Army officer said during the interaction but the fact that such a direct interaction between the army and youth has, sadly, never taken place before.

Some of the questions they asked were tough and very discomforting, but they were answered nevertheless. Certain responses were not very convincing, but it was still interesting to see a rare interaction taking place between the Army and the youth last month at the Town Hall in Pulwama.

The interaction under “Mission Pehal”, in retrospect, should have been held long ago, but better late than never. That said, if this initiative is taken forward with sincerity and seriousness, it has the potential to change the dynamics of the relationship between civilians and soldiers. It can address issues of the lack of trust, replace derision and disrespect with some degree of deference and rebuild the military’s broken bridges with people not only in south Kashmir but elsewhere, too.

“When we cross the Banihal tunnel, we realize what freedom is. The youths in Jammu and elsewhere have life; here the young people live in stressful conditions and a lot of them are suffering heart ailments, and ultimately die of heart-attacks.” Now how does an Army officer frame a response to this curious observation which revolves around the questions of political freedoms and civil liberties?

The young people had all sorts of questions, grievances and complaints. They were grumbling with anger, seething in a rage because the men in olive greens “snatch away their mobile phones” and those arrested on charges of being “over ground workers” or OGWs of the militants are held without trial for years. They also moaned about their absolute helplessness with regard to the nocturnal knocks on the doors of their homes.

“When militants come, and seek shelter, we cannot refuse because they carry guns and it should not be difficult to imagine what our refusal would entail. Then, the Army comes, again holding guns, and targets us for sheltering the militants. Only the lucky ones are spared without their homes destroyed – if there is no encounter while militants are holed up in their homes. We are caught between two guns – both demanding and exacting huge costs on us – and we cannot refuse demands and diktat of neither!”

The use of civilians as “human shields” during the encounters also came up for discussion, and one young man even went to the extent of saying that the Army was operating here with a “colonial” mindset and behavior.

Throughout the interactive session, the GoC Victor Force Major General Rashim Bali, 12 Sector Commander Brigadier Ajay Katoch and other Army officers, who responded to questions of the youths, remained calm and composed. Besides, articulating the Army’s response to the issues flagged by the Kashmiri youth, Major General Bali even told the young people that they should treat him like their father or elder brother. He said his son is also 25 years old, and that he would be there to help and resolve the issues facing young people. He also ordered that mobile phones shouldn’t be retained for more than 20 minutes and that the problems and hassles for the general public during security operations should be minimized to every possible extent.

At issue here is not what the Army officer said during the interaction but the fact that such a direct interaction between the army and youth has, sadly, never taken place before. Also, this dialogue between the Kashmir’s young generation and Army is interesting in the sense that the participating youth were given the confidence to talk about everything they wanted to talk, and talk as forcefully as they wanted to. The process itself is far more important, for here what is seen is that the Army is engaging the youth, reaching out to them directly. This holds the promise of removing the hurdles and barriers and gaps in their communication, which is necessary for buildings trust and confidence between the two sides – which in turn,  and in the long run, will be like the insurance premium for the return of calm and peace here.

“Mission Pehal” is an arduous task, demanding a long-term sustained commitment from the Army, but the potential results are worth an investment. Even when it means putting themselves in very tricky situations as the questions may, at times, be outright disrespectful or simply insensitive, and maybe even foolishly mad, and articulating a polite and decent response without losing nerve is asking for too much from the people who are primarily trained in the language of the gun, but the initiative is still significant for it promises to restore badly needed civil and violence-free communication between the people and an agency which is seen as the representative of the state and its systems.

An ordinary person walking the hill and dale of Kashmir may not know what is there in the mind of the president or the prime Minister of India about Kashmir, or what/how do they think about the people here. For them, it is the army man, central paramilitary personnel or policemen standing guard on a busy road or street, a desolate hill or a paddy field – their interaction with the people and moderation of the state authority including the use of force, its legitimacy or otherwise – which determines how people of Kashmir see the state and the country including its political executive treating them. If the men on the ground operate like blue helmets, the task of rebuilding broken bridges of trust and faith, of winning the hearts and the minds, becomes way too easy.

A good beginning is work half done. This reshaping of the military role from combat to collaboration can open the door to increased civil-military interaction among other key players within the society – a must for building a constituency for peace. “Mission Pehal” is “…just a beginning” which needs to be sustained for reaching the goal of “… and they lived happily ever after”.

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