April 16, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/ Lt Gen John Ranjan Mukherjee

'The Indian Army is not a tired army'
'The Indian Army is not a tired army'
Lieutenant General John Ranjan Mukherjee, PVSM, AVSM, VSM, General Officer Commanding of 15 Corps in J&K, is reputed to be among the finest officers in the Indian Army, to deal with the situation in the Valley. Besides manning a large portion of the Line of Control, the corps is involved in anti-insurgency operations in the state.

A veteran in Kashmir affairs, General Mukherjee has been commanding the corps for the last 10 months. Special Correspondent Josy Joseph met up with the officer, for an exclusive interview, at his highly fortified office in Badami Bagh Cantonment, Srinagar.

In your opinion, what has been the impact of the cease-fire on security agencies, civilians, militants and others?

As far as the entire population along the Line of Control is concerned, they are happy with the non-initiation of combat operations. Because, quite obviously there is no shelling, and very limited firing. They suffer no casualties and are in a position to get on with their lives.

As far as people within the Valley are concerned, all of them want peace, all of them are happy that we are not indulging in offensive operations involving cordon and search. There are very limited checks. Today, for instance, if they want to come from Kupwara to Srinagar, where previously it took as long as 11 hours, they can now get to Srinagar within 4-4.5 hours. They can sleep peacefully at night without being afraid of a certain operation being launched against them.

However, terrorists have been carrying out a series of human rights violations, assassinating political workers, killing anybody who they think is an informer. Killing civilians who they think are not towing their party line, and not supporting them.

There was a case the other day of a man being killed because he refused them food. Simultaneously terrorists have been targeting security forces throughout this period. There are civilian casualties, which have been fairly high during this period. What the civilians do want to see, is the return of total peace. But terrorists supported by Pakistan are not allowing this to happen.

As far as security agencies are concerned, we are clear that once a problem has reached this stage, it takes time to arrive at a solution. It also needs to be understood that no such process can be resolved without some repercussions. Casualties are part of the repercussions, I am afraid. It is something all of us have to bear with. The unfortunate part is that a majority of the casualties are with the local population.

Ever since the cease-fire, the impression is that you have withdrawn back to camps, waiting for Fidayeen (suicide squads) strikes. Is that the scenario?

The government's orders are very clear: It is the non-initiation of combat operations. It does not imply that security forces will sit back in their camps. All it implies is that we will not carry out any operation that would result in the harassment of the local population. We are continuing with extensive area domination in order to prevent terrorists from gaining access to vital areas.

In case we are attacked, all security forces, irrespective of the colour of their uniform, are retaliating and terrorists are being killed. And, we are fully supportive of what is happening.

Doesn't the repeated extension of the cease-fire, have some impact on you?

I don't think the extension has had any major repercussion on us which is contrary to expectations.

How have you fine-tuned your strategy during the cease-fire? Probably, like cutting down on the lethality of your weaponry etc?

No. We have cut down on operations, which are likely to inconvenience or alienate the local population. We are, however, continuing with area domination. In case we are struck at, we strike back.

If one looks at the security forces' casualty figures during the NICO (non-initiation of combat operations) period, contrary to belief, the Army casualty has decreased categorically. It hasn't increased. If you compare with last year, our casualties are fewer. Casualties suffered by other paramilitary forces have also not shown a major increase in comparison to the non-NICO period.

Terrorists have tried to demoralise the J&K police, who are obviously in the forefront of counter-terrorist operations. Therefore, they have taken opportunities to strike at the Special Police Officers. Consequently, casualties among J&K police have undoubtedly increased, but even that has been brought under control.

Isn't the cease-fire giving time to militants to recoup, regroup and get lethal? In fact a senior police official told me that the number of militants in Srinagar has drastically increased during the cease-fire.

I would not put it that way. Traditionally, due to climatic conditions terrorists move out from the rural and forested belts -- which is under a thick blanket of snow during winter -- into the plains. This is repeated each year. This year is no different. And I think during the last one month, we have already succeeded in pushing a very large number of them back out into the difficult areas. And given another month, a month-and-a-half, I will ensure that we have succeeded in pushing back a majority of them.

So, on the factor of consolidation, regrouping etc, I would not like to contradict any agency that has told you so. But there is a certain degree of, again I would not like to use the word exaggerated, but a certain amount of over-playing the issue.

So, you don't fear a real hot summer for security agencies?

Right since Operation Vijay, Pakistanis have changed their pattern. And therefore, we will have as hot a summer as last year. Nothing exceptional.

What is the situation along the LoC?

There is no artillery or mortar firing across the LoC. And there is a very, very, very limited amount of small arm firing when Pakistanis try to push in terrorists.

There have been reports in the past about villagers along the LoC crossing over to the other side. Are there any new noticeable trends?

There have been some reports particularly in the Machchal sector of the Kashmir region where the local population, had earlier migrated from a village called Keran on the LoC. Some people have managed to evade the Pakistani dragnets, swim across the river and get back into our side. And in addition, they have been coming up to the LoC, trying to speak to their old friends across the LoC and have found that the grass is actually green on this side. Not totally burnt out as the Pakistanis would like them to believe. But it is the Pakistanis who are preventing such activities.

You are ready to allow them to come back?

Yes, we are ready to allow them to come back subject to permissions being accorded by the government.

Is there a large number waiting on the other side?

I would say, a fairly large number.

During the cease-fire your number of operations have come down, and there is a definite lull in your activities, at least visibly. Have you developed any new thrust during this period to take full advantage of the cease-fire? Militants are obviously not your main thrust and concern, it is the local population, isn't it?

Absolutely. I think what we have achieved during this period of NICO is putting across to the local population that we are totally with the peace process and that all of us have an equal stake in bringing about peace. It is the hardliner elements who are creating the problems, whether it is from the Hurriyat or terrorists. Therefore, mass protests and demonstrations talked about in the media are not true. Such a phenomenon occurs where hardliners have a following.

You mean these high-voltage demonstrations that one see almost daily are being orchestrated?

They are being orchestrated.

What specific steps are you initiating on the ground to convey to the local population that you are with the peace process?

On the ground there is a daily interaction between my men and the villagers. A lot of local interaction is being done to explain the peace process. But unfortunately the feeling among the locals is that they would like to see things happen faster, without realizing that such processes take time. So what we are trying to put across to the local population is that every effort is being made by the government in order to get the peace process going, but these things take time to come about.

There have been some reports that foreign militants, who usually stay away in forests have been able to take advantage of the cease-fire and merge with the local population. Is that so?

As I have explained, right since 1999 onwards, we have had a change in phenomenon. The number of foreign militants has increased, undoubtedly. I would put their number as high as 55-60 per cent. Therefore, where earlier one could say, that there were a fair percentage of locals, today the majority of the hardliners, even among the terrorists, are foreign terrorists who are all supported by Pakistan.

However, given the phenomenon of winter and heavy snowfall in the upper reaches, we are in the process of pushing them out.

In the early '90s militants would give up to security agencies easily, this then changed with the fidayeen squads. Is there any new trend that you notice now?

You would find that a majority of foreign terrorists, particularly Lashkar-e-Tayiba are better trained, they are more motivated, and therefore definitely the pattern of their functioning is different from the local terrorist. I do not find an increase in the number of fidayeen action. As I said, we began in 1999, we are in 2001. I don't find a change in pattern. There is no abnormal increase in the so-called fidayeen attacks, if anything there is a slight decrease.

One thing that some analysts in New Delhi believe is that there could be some militants here owing allegiance to Osama bin Laden and the Taleban. What is your information?

So far no.

What steps are you taking to directly assist the political initiative to find a lasting solution?

As far as the security forces are concerned, it is quite amply clear they are an instrument of state policy. Every possible effort is being made by all the security agencies to ensure that the government initiative is given every possible chance to progress.

You are on the ground, know the pulse, the daily beat. Do you have any suggestions for a breakthrough in this deadlock?

I don't think I am in a position to comment on that.

What steps do you take to assist the civilian population in their daily life, I mean other than anti-militancy operations?

As far as civilians are concerned, I think the foremost part is trying to ensure that the local population is with us. What that implies is courtesy, good behaviour, getting them to feel that they are very much a part of us. That is step one.

Step two is civic action in various forms, and trying and meeting what the deficiencies and human needs are. Provision of water supply in areas where water supply is difficult, medical treatment, education ... we have opened a large number of schools.

We have built various development centres, veterinary aid posts, in certain cases we are putting TV sets so that they can watch news and know what is happening all over the world, computer education. There are a large number of initiatives, for which we have a separate budget, and a fair amount of funds, which are being used for this purpose.

The Lashkar-e-Tayiba has issued threats to local contractors against working for the Army. Isn't this yet another crisis that you will have to brave?

I will put it differently. I think a lot of people are making a hue and cry about this for no reason. Things are quite okay on the ground, there are no major problems, no crisis at all.

There are a lot of reports from time to time talking about psychological strain that an average soldier in Kashmir suffers. How are you handling it? And how serious is it?

I think that also is being exaggerated. The Indian Army is not a western army, it is an Indian Army. It is an army of the people. There have been a number of reports in the media that the Indian Army is a tired army, that we are under a lot of psychological stress. I think that is hogwash. The Indian soldier, just like an Indian from any rural area, or any part of the country, is extremely resilient. And can go through unlimited hardships. I think Kargil by itself proved what he is capable of. I think there is gross exaggeration, in terms of stress.

You go and speak to my men on the ground, they are carrying on with their job with as much zeal and fervour as is required. And I think they are doing a tremendous job. And we have a system of rotation of troops, they are not here for an endless period of time. If they are serving in very difficult areas, the tenure is shorter and if they are serving in slightly easier areas, it is slightly longer. Consequently, stress doesn't get a chance to set in.

So there is a fair amount of exaggeration. I think it is the local propaganda machine being initiated by the Pakistanis. People tend to try and believe that the Indian Army is a tired army, which is not true.

There are repeated allegations and claims from individuals and international organisations about large-scale human rights violations by the Army. What steps are you initiating to cut down on such violations?

Let us be perfectly clear that the Indian Army is deployed to deal with both the Line of Control, to ensure its sanctity, prevent infiltration, as well as looking after the rural belt of the Kashmir Valley and the Jammu region to counter terrorist actions. Whereas any other army in the world, you take an example of Macedonia and Kosovo -- what happened? The Western world uses tanks, artillery, and everything that they have got in their arsenal to subdue such resistance.

As far as the Indian Army is concerned, it is dealing with its own people, therefore all operations are bound by the rules laid down in the Indian legal system, which is use of minimum force. Use of minimum force means, we are not using artillery, gunships, tanks, and any heavy weapons. Why? To avoid any collateral damage to the innocent population.

The moment we start using heavy weaponry, there will be unnecessary loss of life to the local population. That is the first aspect of human rights -- the use of minimum force. Nobody can use heavy weaponry without my sanction, which I do not give.

The second aspect is in terms of other human rights violations. Like rape, ill-treating acivilian... I don't deny there are a few aberrations. And aberrations could occur in any army faced with such a situation. And these aberrations are reported. I receive reports from all sources, including the media. I don't think there is a single day I don't receive such reports. These are all investigated, and wherever true, are dealt with in accordance with our laws which are extremely prompt and in many ways much more firm and stern than anything you could get on the civil side.

Consequently, this ensures that a minimum human rights violation take place. A lot of reports that do occur in the media are false, propagated as part of the propaganda machine of the other side. As I said, some reports I do not deny are true, and wherever they are true, we take action.

Design: Dominic Xavier

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