was said to have checked infiltration from Pakistan and led to the dismantling of terrorist camps there. What is the situation since then?
You could say there are three stages in infiltration. One is the training area. Immediately after recruitment of a terrorist, he is taken to a training area. That has undergone some changes. I will come to that in a minute. He is then dropped into a holding area, which is close to a launch pad. And then finally he is brought to a launch pad.
Now coming to the training camps, yes, post-9/11 a large number of camps were closed down in Pakistan and shifted to PoK. Similarly, there were a large number of camps on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Some of them continue, though we are not sure of the numbers, because they constantly keep shifting. Just prior to 9/11 we knew the existence of 12 such camps, confirmed.
Along the LoC, the number was in the 60s and 70s and overall there were about a hundred camps. Today we are not sure how many of these camps remain on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
In the other camps, which have shifted from mainland Pakistan to PoK, there have been two or three major changes. Number one is, whereas the numbers of the camps have reduced, the population in each camp has increased -- in some cases, more than doubled.
The second major thing, the camps are now being depicted as settlements. As if they are displaced people, like a refugee camp. There is a semblance of day-to-day routines being observed there, including a little bit of agricultural activity around these settlements in PoK. Now there is no board announcing to the whole world this is a Lashkar [Lashkar-e-Tayiba] camp or Jaish [Jaish-e-Mohammad] camp.
Training, the actual firing and military part, is conducted away from such camps. Families are present.
The holding areas keep shifting, depending on the season, depending on the success they get on particular routes. So the launch pads also change. It is a sort of dynamic thing.
So, by and large, as far as he is concerned, his business is as usual. There are training camps, there are launch pads, there are holding areas.
How many training camps exist now?
Overall, there are 50 to 60 even now. Earlier those were spread all over Pakistan. Now most of them are in PoK.
What's your estimate of the number of terrorists in the valley?
One could put the number at around 3,000. About 2,000 terrorists in the valley. Another 1,000 to 1,500 in the Jammu region.
Last year too wasn't that the same figure the army had given out?
Yeah. That's exactly how it seems to work. You maintain a certain number to carry out activity at a sub-critical level so that at no point the threshold of tolerance of India or the international community is crossed to put it in a different bracket of violence, as terrorist activity per se. Give or take a few 100s up or down, [3,000] is the number they would like to maintain.
Should that number deplete because of greater success by security forces, it has to be made up. It is generally done by infiltrating. So that's where it starts getting calibrated.
Now, to get people to infiltrate, you have to recruit so many. So it sorts of goes back... Since the local recruitment is dwindling, and the local population is no longer supportive of this terrorist activity, they have to find people elsewhere. Mostly from Pakistan and PoK -- I think 80 per cent of the foreign terrorists who come into our country are from Pakistan and PoK. That's why the percentage of foreign terrorists has gone up dramatically.
What is that percentage now?
If you take only the valley, it would be about 60 per cent. But if you take the Jammu region too, there the local support is even less. There the numbers have to be made up by foreign terrorists even more. It would be in the region of 80 to 85 per cent there. So overall we are looking at a foreign terrorist content of something like 70 per cent.
The election and is seen as a landmark event in Kashmir. What effect has it had on the security situation?
Frankly, the security forces have their work cut out, no matter which party is in power. But there has been a very positive impact of the election on the population. The mood among the people is very upbeat. They feel, yes, this is a government they would like to see.
It gets translated into our own function in this way: firstly, we get far better information because people do not wish to see these chaps around. Oh, yes, the intelligence has been better in the last three months. We got a feedback about this from the terrorists themselves. What they keep saying and keep writing in the little notebooks they carry with themselves -- I am sure life in the jungles gets terribly lonely from time to time and a man is apt to put down his thoughts in a diary he is bound to carry -- from that we find they are saying these guys don't support us. One chap in fact says: Khana to yeh khilate hai abhi bhi, lekin aise khilate hai jaise kutto ke khilate hai. Bahar rakhte hai, darwaze se bolte hai, khake chal [They give us food even now, but they give it as if to dogs. They keep it outside and say from behind the door, eat and go].
Now that's a sea-change for a man who used to be given shelter and food and everything. Today, purely on humanitarian basis, he is given food, but it is given in this manner. This is a direct reflection of the mood of the people.
The second part is, we have gone out of our way to make sure we conduct only people-friendly operations. We will try and make sure the people are inconvenienced to the least. I have even gone to the extent of telling my commanders in the field, doesn't matter if a terrorist or two get away, do not involve yourself in collateral damage or inconvenience the people beyond a point.
They also understand. Today that is the other part -- people are able to appreciate that, well, if there is an operation against a terrorist, a certain amount of inconvenience is bound to be. There is greater appreciation, far lesser number of complaints on that account. That shows an attitudinal change. This is again another manifestation of the upbeat mood.
Mufti Mohammad Sayeed's regime is pro-people. Counter-insurgency/counter-terrorist operations, on the other hand, are perceived to be anti-people. Is there a clash of ideals here? On the ground, is it possible to be, as the chief minister put it, 'hard on terrorism and soft on people'?
See, military operations by their very nature have a degree of inconvenience. That's one of its byproducts. The question of perception, like, let's say, the police does their own enquiry to catch a thief or eve-teaser, and they do a little bit of rough-handling, people accept that, because people perceive it to be in the nature of police work, as long as it remains within a certain limit.
But it is all a matter of perception -- that this thief or eve-teaser is a social evil, and therefore he has to be dealt with and so the police have to do what they have to do. If the same perception is extrapolated to action against the terrorist, there will be no ripples. They will understand the scope of violence being larger the action is also larger. I am very happy to tell you this is the perception that is spreading today. And to that extent, people don't perceive the operations to be against them. They take them more often as the compulsion of the security forces.
It is not only the election that has brought about this. It is the attitude of the security forces also. We have been striving to improve ourselves constantly. Because we all understand we are doing these operations amongst our own people. We do not wish to inconvenience our own people. That's the bottom line. But like I said, in the nature of things, it is a violent operation. But now the whole aim is to minimise the collateral damage. Even then there is collateral damage.
Whenever an operation is being carried out, two things we do almost simultaneously: One, a small kitchen is set up to feed the people who have had to vacate their houses and are out for four hours, five hours, 10 hours. The security forces take into account that these guys are not going to be able to go and cook a meal for the evening. So that is catered too.
Similarly there is a medical camp set up. Not only to take care of any injured, but because we are in the area, let's see what we can do for the population. These are measures which are now not being lost on the population. They are appreciative, they see that we mean well.
But Kashmiris still look upon counter-insurgents as the face of evil. To quote one of them: 'To us, they symbolise everything that is wrong with Kashmir.' What is the army doing to combat this feeling?
I will tell you one thing. This again is a matter of perception. If you don't mind my saying so, the media tends to concentrate its contact in areas with higher population -- in cities. There the people are very media savvy. But let that be. For the bulk of the population that live in the interior, in the corners, you will find things are very positive. So for every such tag of evil face or whatever, there are twice the number of positive perceptions.
I agree with you the perception about the army is positive near the border. But it definitely is not in, say, rural Kupwara or Baramulla or Anantnag.
Yeah... It depends on who you talk to. But if you took a larger sample, things won't look as bad as that. Because, like I said, some people get very media savvy and they sing the tune you want to hear.
Okay, nobody need believe us. But that is the ground truth. And, you see, calling someone evil and oppressors and all is entirely a matter of perception. It is like the good old saying, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. It depends on where you are coming from. You wear red glasses and you can see the world in red.
Do you expect the army to be relieved of its counter-terrorist role in the near future -- say, in the next two or three years?
I don't know how near is near... I think it will happen one day but I cannot right now say it will happen in six months or one year. It will happen, certainly, because of the trend I see now. I don't think it is possible for anyone to give you that date.
All professionals usually have a personal goal too, a personal deadline to meet. What is yours?
Return to normalcy. There are three dimensions to these words. You see, the army can kill terrorists, it cannot kill terrorism. Terrorism has to be defeated by society. That is why whenever we talk of normalcy, the first dimension has to be societal.
In that, the security forces can definitely play a very positive role. They can bring certain facts to society as they are, more out of conviction than coercion.
The second part flows from the societal part: economic activity. People want their economic lot to improve. If we help to bring greater economic activity, normalcy would come that much more rapidly.
The third thing would be that as an institution all security forces could take it upon themselves to help the indicators of normalcy. We have already done something and I am talking out of the experience we have had. Like, our decision to launch Op Ujala.
It aims to bring into light a dimension of the army which people had not seen earlier. The perception of the army in the border belts is different from what it is inside. Why can't that perception percolate to all sections right across the valley?
The second principle we wanted with Ujala was to help people help themselves: don't give them fish, give them fishing tackle. In that, we have taken four areas -- healthcare, cooperatives, education and culture.
I put culture last because, what is the soul of the Kashmir valley? It is Kashmiriyat [the composite culture of Kashmir] . Let that Kashmiriyat not go away. As long as it is alive and thriving, it will take care of all. It is like a healthy body. What illness the body has, eventually it will overcome.
So when you ask me what would be my personal goal, I would answer: bring back normalcy through Kashmiriyat. Everything else will fall into place.
Photograph: Abdul Qayoom; Design: Dominic Xavier