A retired General from the Indian Army celebrates the wedding of his son by inviting as many of his ex-colleagues as he possibly can, creating an impromptu reunion of men from different divisions and different parts of the country. As the festivities wind down in the chilly November evening, the ex-army men gather around with their glasses of amber-coloured ambrosia, with youngsters crowding around to hear their stories, and talk turns as it inevitably does to Kashmir. Fallen comrades are remembered with affection and regret as their ghosts seem to swell the gathering with their presence. As one gentleman reminisces, “I was a young 2nd Lieutenant in Kashmir in the 1970’s. I remember we met an SHO there for some official work and he genially informed us that he had just visited “India” the previous month with his whole family and absolutely enjoyed the experience”. ‘To say I was shocked is an understatement. I was left speechless as I looked at this man earning his pay packet from the Government of India and living in a house provided by them in, according to him, a foreign land.’ There is a moment of silence as a young woman tentatively asks, “So, the Indian Army had a visible presence in Kashmir before 1990?” There are several very ungentlemanly snorts as the erstwhile army men shake their heads at the younger generation. “The army could never leave Kashmir since 1947”, says a gentleman with a venerable shock of white hair on his head, “Hari Singh and then Nehru took care of that by hedging to take concrete decisions. The constant threat of invasion by the Pakistani forces and the tribal guerillas they were apt to release across the borders made army a necessity in that region”.

The conflict in Jammu and Kashmir is not therefore a situation that arose in the 1990’s, it has been a constant companion for us since independence. Army personnel, however, agree that the situation with the locals was much calmer and friendlier prior to the 1987 elections when the faults of our political leaders led to a sudden and vicious spew of distrust towards India in the local population, which in turn made it easier for Pakistan-funded terrorists to infiltrate, influence and create strongholds in Kashmir.

The threat of terror attacks since 1990 sounded a death knell for the most thriving industry of Kashmir – its lucrative trade in tourism. This in turn led to a sharp increase in unemployment, which increased the feeling of frustration and anger towards the ruling government – a situation that played itself beautifully into the hands of recruiters from across the border.

More than two decades later, the unemployment rates in J&K remain high compared with its neighbouring states. More importantly, out of the 240000 unemployed educated youth in the state, 155000 are from the Kashmir valley, despite Jammu having the higher population. Also, the state holds the dubious distinction of having the highest unemployment ratio for women in India at 20%, whereas the all India average is a mere 3.7%.

Constant security checks while travelling, in markets and even in their homes, the danger of walking into a crowded area where a bomb may go off and lack of stability in the area led to anger that, since it could never be directed at the militants for fear of swift and brutal reprisal, found its release on the heads of the army who were deemed outsiders, incapable of sympathizing with the local people and their problems, and with the power of the AFSPA behind them seen as symbols of persecution. All these factors formed a vicious cycle in which Kashmir has been entangled for decades now.

The Indian Army and other security forces deployed in the area have been waging a constant war against terrorism in this hostile environment since militancy reared its ugly head in the valley. Their major successes occurred in the years of the Vajpayee government between 1998-2004, when emboldened by the unequivocal support of their Chief of Staff, the Indian army notched up 45% of all terrorist fatalities to date – that is, out of 22745 insurgents killed in the 25 years between 1987 and 2013, 10147 deaths occurred in those 6 years. The upper hand that the army gained in these years was the primary reason for a decline in militancy in the area.

In recent years, Pakistan’s growing internal problems and brushes with the deadly Taliban have forced them to concentrate on their other borders and have led to a sliding of fervor for the Kashmir cause. The resources that were formerly dedicated to encouraging dissent and militancy in India have now had to be diverted to actual protection of their local population. Also, the rising economic status of the average Indian in the past decade and a half gave the Kashmiri people hopes of achieving similar increases in their fortunes if only the shadow of militancy were to be removed from their state.

Thus, by the time the 2014 LS elections drew up, Kashmir was primed to take a leap into a new future for itself. When PM Modi took office in May this year, he, following inputs from one of the greatest spymasters in the country, gave a green signal to a visionary policy for this embattled state. One that is based on the age-old ‘carrot, stick and confusion’ maxim, or formally dubbed as ‘appeasement, attack and prevarication’. This new approach combined with the will of the new voter has led to the huge turnout seen in the 2014 state elections taking place in the valley.

In order to curb the inevitable disruption to the poll process caused by mob violence or the threats of retribution after polls on those who dared to cast votes, prior to these elections, the armed forces carried out the systematic targeting of separatist and incendiary elements, even at the village level. For example, members of the Jamaat-e-Islaami, which has pockets of influence in some districts of South and North Kashmir, were systematically put under virtual house arrest during the run up to these elections effectively chopping their wings. Baramulla district, which has been a key stronghold of the Jamaat saw almost 50% higher turnout this time because of these elementary steps taken by the security establishment with great accuracy.

As another retired army Major quoted in a Kashmiri daily, “For the first time the GOI is not placing a premium on Muslim centric politics and has given a free hand to security forces”. This has allowed the army to take an offensive stance against perpetrators of violence in an extremely non-violent manner, instead of remaining hunkered into defensive positions as they were forced to do previously and risking the loss of civilian lives caught in the crossfire.

However, a free hand does not imply a free-for-all for the forces. The verdict in the Machil encounter case, which for the first time saw the army taking such decisive action against its own men, was the preliminary step towards creating a favourable atmosphere in the valley.

When Prime Minister Modi addressed a political rally in Srinagar this month, a major point of contention were his words on the army. Unlike his predecessor politicians who either roundly blamed the army for every failure in a bid to garner popular support and then refused to do more once they moved away from a microphone or simply ignored the problem, PM Modi acknowledged the sacrifices that the army makes both on and off the field in protecting the citizens of this country along with the fact that some mistakes had been made on their part while carrying out their duties in a conflict zone. This was a very important acknowledgement by the PM, for we must realize that the Army is also made up of mere mortals who are capable of making mistakes and could be held responsible under the law of the land.

Backing up this statement was the prompt ruling on the men involved in the Budgam case where two young men lost their lives, which sends the message of a government willing to play fair on both sides – (1) by asking the army to clean up its house publicly in order to foster trust with those who live under the shadow of the guns, instead of sweeping things under the carpet and (2) by not trying to look for ways to milk the public anger for a few votes by inciting the local populace and causing more strife.

It was not just all brazen “security forces only approach” in Kashmir, but for the first time India had a comprehensive plan with multiple layers to it. Prevarication is a difficult game to play at the best of times, and in a conflict-ridden state the stakes are that much higher. For instance, some 150 Imams from different parts of India (mainly UP) were sent to Kashmir under the aegis of Jamaat Ulema-e-Hind (which sounded exactly like the famous organization Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind of Mehmood Madani and confused many Kashmiri Imams into accepting their dictats). These Imams spread the message of “vote for a better life” among ordinary Kashmiris and religious clergy alike. In a state where religion plays a major role in everyday life, an endorsement by religious heads went a long way in swaying the local Kashmiri’s towards voting for a change in their circumstances rather than be swayed by separatism.

The high turnout in the 2014 elections is a nod not only to the efforts of the security forces deployed in the region and the government policies that have deviated sharply from the run-of-the-mill political agendas being followed in the valley for the last decade, but also to the indomitable spirit of the Kashmiri people. What really is heartening to see is that India’s strategic thinking has found a creative edge in this very complex state of Jammu & Kashmir. In fact, the common refrain among people in the security establishment and retired army officers who have served in the Kashmir theatre is, “For the first time in decades, the combination of a no-nonsense former spy master like Ajit Doval as the NSA with that of an equally no-nonsense PM at this crucial juncture of history may finally spell the doom of separatism and militancy in the valley.”