by Shujaat Bukhari
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain is perhaps is the only Commander of Srinagar based 15 Corps in past 21 years whose departure is keenly watched by Kashmir observers. As the General Officer Commanding (GOC) of this prestigious Corps also known as Chinar Corps, he has left the footprints of different kind. While making a determined effort to guard the borders of his country against any misadventure, he cracked into Kashmiri society in such a way that he became known to average Kashmiri for his presence almost everywhere.
He was the second Muslim general to take over the command of 15 Corps after Lt Gen Mohammad Ahmed Zaki, headed it during the most turbulent period of 1990-91. But for Zaki there was nothing to cheer about as the Army was virtually at war with the people at that time. In later years he served as Advisor (Home) to Governor and could not replace confrontation with reconciliation due the breakdown of contact between government and the people.
But for Gen Hasnain, it must be a cherishable time as he splashed all over the electronic and print media due to his extended public outreach. His “popularity” touched a new high as he competed with the politicians to hold public darbars tagged as “Awami Sunwaii”. When his attention is drawn towards his “interference” in civil administration, Gen Hasnain quickly colours it as “Corporate Social Responsibility” saying that “Operation Sadbhavna” is to supplement the government efforts to mitigate the sufferings of the people. At one point of time, it seemed that Gen Hasnain had outsmarted even his superiors in Delhi and Udhampur and was asked to put a break on his unending contact with the people.
He surely did take a break but without getting it noticed. Had he been posted somewhere else, this wind of hierarchical bias would have taken him away. But it was Kashmir where Gen Hasnain was building the bridges of “integration” with people, giving them a feeling that he was leading the Army of “Awaam” in Kashmir and not precisely of India. That was also the reason why he could have distinction of getting extension in his tenure by six months. It is very unusual in the rulebook of Army.
Using “heart as weapon”, Gen Hasnain tried to strike a chord with people by exploiting their hurt psyche. He used cultural ethos as the basis for attracting people’s attention without touching upon crucial thread of politics that has kept people away from Delhi. He tried to build his ambitious project of “converting Kashmiris into Indians” by touching upon the “Kashmiri pride” which he believes could only be done by respecting their rich ethos. By changing the convoy timing at crucial hours, Gen Hasnain made a bid to buy peace with the people who were always at the receiving end of the “lathi wielding” Army men who used to hound the civilians on their right and left when on move on the highways.
But for Gen Hasnain things were not as difficult as his predecessors had faced. With lowest level of violence on the scene it became easier for him to give a new look to Army-people interface. He mostly used his old contacts in Kashmir to re-approach the people’s psyche and used not only politicians but also intellectuals, academicians, journalists and administrators to map out his course of action. From being a Colonel at Awantipore based Victor Force to Command a Brigade in Uri and a division in Baramulla, Hasnain’s list of what he calls “well wishers and friends” had swelled beyond the imagination of an average officer of Indian Army. Known for his judgment against Major Rehman in Handwara rape case, he faced the challenge of dealing with the killing of innocent civilians in Handwara and Rafiabad during his tenure. He immediately swung into damage control though justice is yet to be done in both cases. We may brag about anything but his initiatives like Kashmir Premier League has many takers in Kashmir making it clear that the spaces used by Army are wide open and have not been filled by those who are responsible for better governance.
By any stretch of imagination it is na?ve to expect that a General of Indian Army would announce “Azadi” for Kashmir but he admits that Kashmir is not a military but political problem but which the political establishment has to find a solution. Army’s record in Kashmir has not been so rozy but an individual does make the difference in the chair. Mass graves cannot be forgotten with well caligraphed signposts like the one “Fauj Aur Awwam—Aman Hei Muqam”. Justice has to be delivered but symbolism does make the difference. Gen Hasnain’s 20 months, as GOC cannot be named anything but tenure with difference. It, however, throws a major challenge to his successor to carry forward the legacy of treating people as humans and at the level of Army as an institution allows them to live a life with dignity and honour.
(Syed Shujaat Bukhari is chief editor of the Rising Kashmir.)