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Pullout a big step, say Kashmiris
Sheela Bhatt in Srinagar |
November 17, 2004 18:22 IST
Last Updated: November 17, 2004 20:35 IST
Kashmiris said the troop cuts, which began on Wednesday, was an important step towards peace, even if it was only a symbolic one.
People lining the roads and embedded journalists were witnessing something that would have been unimaginable just a few months ago.
"It's a big step by India," said a resident of Khanabal, in Anantnag district, watching the convoy of a few hundred soldiers of the Rashtriya Rifles trooping out.
Locals outside the Khanabal army camp smiled and waved at the troops, many of whom were wearing vermilion tilaks on their foreheads.
An army officer, overseeing last moment arrangements for the withdrawal, said, "It's an important step for the Indian army. One of the best battalions of the Indian army is leaving Kashmir today. Even terrorists are afraid of them."
On Tuesday evening, on the eve of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to the state, Kashmir's core-commandant Lt Gen Nirbhay Sharma told the media that he was following orders to cut troop levels in Jammu & Kashmir because of a decline in separatist violence and cross-border incursions by Pakistan-backed militants.
Political reasons and strategic calculations apart, the locals were appreciative of the troop cuts simply because it would make life easier for them.
"We believe the Indian army has changed its attitude in the last two years. Now they are less strict and use much less force," said Mohammed Geelani, a resident of Batwara. He said, "We believed that the Indian army was jhalim (tormentor), but now we think that they have orders to be nice to us. Now, they are helping our women and children. We want them to give us more employment."
He said that Operation Sadbhavna, Operation Ujala, Operation Deewar and other such 'social work' projects of the army had changed his perception of the Indian army.
Another Kashmiri opined that the troops were welcome to live in Kashmir as long as they were confined inside their camps.
"Most Kashmiris know that there are more than 4 lakh Indian soldiers in our land. We want them to guard the border but they should not harass us."
Geelani said, "Kashmiris believe that half of the territory of J&K is physically occupied by the Indian army, Border Security Force and Central Reserve Police force. If they move out, more land will be available to us."
Colonel R K Sen, an army public relations officer, was tight-lipped about the partial troop withdrawal. He refused to even quote the number of troops leaving the state. He told rediff.com, "We are moving out the troops from the interiors of Kashmir. This exercise is a re-adjustment of the Counter Insurgency Grid."
He hastened to add, "We are not lowering our guard. We will be in position to take charge if necessary."
According to reports, troop strength amounting to two-and-half regiments is scheduled to be withdrawn from Sharifabad in Srinagar and Awantipura in Pulwama district on Wednesday.
The army's reluctance to quote specific figures is understandable. The matter has been a bone of contention in the state. Ask any Kashmiri and s/he will tell you that there are around 4 to 7 lakh troops in Kashmir.
The "exaggerated" figure is partly fueled by Pakistan and partly due to the Indian government's reluctance to give correct figures for "operational reasons."
But in a rare gesture, three days back defence minister Pranab Mukherjee announced that one lakh troops were positioned in Kashmir.
The troop reduction issue has been at the core of the Kashmir talks issue. When the former Narsimha Rao government wanted to talk about unsettled disputes with Pakistan, his counterpart Benazir Bhutto had responded saying that troop reduction would be a pre-requisite for talks.
According to a national security expert, "Reduction of troops in the state is seen as a message to Kashmris as well as Pakistan and America."
General Pervez Musharraf changed Pakistan's fundamental position on Kashmir by saying that plebiscite was not the only solution to Kashmir. The pullout is India's gesture to match the general's new position. It may also serve to silence Musharraf's critics in Pakistan.
Also, for the first time, warriors on both sides of the Kashmir battlefield will find mutual advantage in peace.