Defence minister Manohar Parrikar said on Friday that military commanders had “full freedom” to decide on how to conduct their operations against insurgents and terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir.
Parrikar’s remarks come in the backdrop of a debate over army chief Bipin Rawat’s comments that those who hinder counter-insurgency operations or display flags of Pakistan and the Islamic State in Kashmir will be considered as “anti-national”, and soldiers will not hesitate to use their weapons.
The comments have evoked sharp reactions from opposition politicians and Kashmiri separatists alike, most of who said such an attitude will only further alienate the military among Kashmiris and help fuel insurgency.
But Parrikar defended his army chief.
“Our aim is to neutralise as many Pakistani terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir (as possible) and demoralise the militant ranks before the snow starts melting in the high mountain passes next month,” Parrikar told Hindustan Times.
The defence minister also referred to a shootout between militants and the army in which a major was among four soldiers killed in Handwara on Tuesday. He said an investigation was on to see if any operational intelligence was leaked to the militants.
“The February 14 counter-terrorist operation… was based on specific source intelligence inputs,” he said.
“Our suspicion is that this intelligence got leaked to militants in advance. We are checking the facts. In these circumstances, I have given strict instructions of allowing full operational freedom to the commander on the spot. It is his final call.”
Kashmir remained on the boil for months after government forces killed militant commander Burhan Wani last July. More than 100 people were killed, most of them in police firing, during months-long street protests against Wani’s killing.
Although those protests have tapered, this winter has been one of the most violent in Kashmir with at least two major attacks on army barracks in Uri and Nagrota as well as several fatal shootouts between militants and soldiers. There has also been a spike in militants trying to cross over into India from Pakistan.
Government figures indicate that there are at least 300 “foreign terrorists” in the Valley, with Lashkar-e-Taiba accounting for over 90% of them.
Cross-border “infiltration” bids also stood at about 100 last year, official figures show, but top security officials said the number could be three times higher going by a rise in the number of unknown militants killed this year.
Meanwhile, the BJP on Friday came out in support of Army chief General Bipin Rawat, saying that he was well within his rights to “ask the youth of Kashmir to desist from stone pelting and violence.”
Union minister of the state for the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) Dr Jitendra Singh also asked political parties to desist from politicising the Army. General Rawat had spoken of tough action against stand pellets in the Kashmir Valley who obstructed the work of security forces.
Leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha Ghulam Nabi Azad had said that the Army chief’s remarks were unseemly in the light of the events last year where several protesters had been injured due to the pellet guns used by security forces.
Dr Singh however said that the Congress’ reaction came out of a sense of frustration. “The Congress is collapsing under its own weight and is frustrated. These remarks about the Army chief’s observations are coming out of that sense of frustration.”