GOC 15 corps Gen Syed Ata Hasnain says that he is working towards reaching out to the people and putting a balm on their many wounds. Will he be able to reach out to the masses in a place badly needing justice, P A Mushtaq reports.
On February 4 evening, Army killed a 21-year youth Manzoor Ahmad Khanday at Chowgul village in north Kashmir’s Handwara area. For the common people, it was not an unusual incident and their routine reaction was to stage protest demonstrations for “impartial probe” and “punishment to killers”. However, the incident turned out to be extraordinary when none less than the top military man in Kashmir tendered apology on the killing. The apology diluted the debate whether Magray was tortured and killed in custody as alleged by his relatives or he died for ignoring Army’s signal for halt after entering into an ambushed area.
The top military man who apologized for Magray’s killing and vowed to follow Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) in letter and spirit is Lieutenant General Syed Atta Hasnain who after two earlier stints in Kashmir has become a new face of strategically-important 15 Corps in Kashmir, also known as Chinar Corps. Gen. Hasnain has a family legacy with the Army to boast of– his father retired as Major General.
The change of guard in the strategically important Chinar Corps took place in the first week of December, 2010. It was a time when Army’s image was under scanner for two reasons. First, the Kashmir Valley witnessed a spate of protests partly fuelled by a fake encounter in Machil area near the Line of Control (LoC) in north Kashmir involving army officers in a prize-for-kill case. Second, the Wikileaks exposed diplomatic cables referring to phenomenon of torture in Kashmir with fingers pointing towards the Army. General Hasnain was at the right spot in 2005 when the Indian Army found first opportunity to narrow down the wedge between the masses and the army.
When devastating earthquake shuddered Uri, more than 100 km north of Srinagar, on October 8, 2005, Hasnain fanned out columns of troopers to help people in higher reaches and inaccessible areas. He was then the Commander of the Uri Brigade. The people in the Line of Control region live with the Army since the partition, but it was first time the army won faith of the people to the extent that quake-hit people demanded distribution of relief through the army only, instead of the local administration.
Hasnain, then a Brigadier, had already set another example by holding a rare General Court Martial against a ‘rogue’ soldier to dissuade troopers from crossing the line. In 2004, as Commander of 12 Brigade, he was appointed to conduct a court martial against a Major, accused of rape and molestation in the infamous Handwara case. The accused officer, Major Rehman Hussain of the Rashtriya Rifles, was found guilty and was ordered to be dismissed from the Army.
Hasnain, one of the five Muslim Lt Generals the Indian Army has had, believes in more-carrot-and-less-stick approach. He commanded Baramulla’s ‘Dagger Division’ in 2008 when street protests, triggered by the Amarnath land row, engulfed Kashmir. He held meetings with alleged stone-throwers and protesters in Baramulla town.
The General openly advocates for the army role in improving administration and is of the view such moves are not interference. “No, we supplement civil administration where they are not able to cater. There is no conflict,” said Hasnain recently.
Hasnain got a transformer installed in protesters’ bastion in north Kashmir’s Palhalan area recently. “We got them a transformer as civil administration had told them they had no funds,” said Hasnain.
The electric transformer was damaged when, residents allege, security forces fired on it.
Hasnain is second Muslim officer after Lt General Muhammad Ahmad Zaki (1989-1991) to head the army’s 15 Corps. Immediately after taking charge, he issued a statement: declaring 2011 as year of ‘Kashmiri Awam’ and reaffirming “respect and dignity of every member of the Awam (common man) will be its slogan and philosophy to achieve an environment where the mind is without fear and the head is held high”.
“I think my force should not been seen as a force with arms everywhere. Our main weapon is our heart. And that is the weapon we will carry around in all our efforts to bring stability to the state,” said Hasnain. “I am looking at the long-term perspective as to how the army can assist the government in reaching out to the people and putting a balm on the many wounds that may have occurred over a period of time.”
The Lieutenant General’s first move to normalize relation between the masses and the army in urban centres was on December 25 when he ordered that no convoy should move on Srinagar-Baramulla highway. “This was a beginning and we are trying to adopt this for important days in Islamic calendar,” said the 15 Corps General Officer in Command (GOC) Hasnain.
Underscoring that the army understands the inconvenience the masses go through because of movement of soldiers, Hasnain said there were many issues involved, like size and timing of the convoy. “We are planning to look at all these areas. Efforts are afoot to bring drastic changes in it. It cannot be achieved overnight as my objective is to institutionalize it so that any change we bring is permanent. I want that discomfort to general public should end,” he said.
Hasnain admitted there was “problem of attitude, which is more irritating”.
“Since 50 percent of our men move out of valley during a year and are replaced by others it certainly places them in a different culture but they need to understand the rich cultural ethos Kashmir has and tune themselves with that, that is why I want to institutionalize these changes and I think it will bring lot of relief to public. It may take time as the word has to go down below to lowest level. We are always willing to listen and any resident can come to us give his/her suggestion” he said.
Hasnain, who is also security advisor to Chief Minister Omar Abdullah, heading Unified Command Headquarters, took many security experts by surprise when he described “local militants as not being real enemy”.
“We invite the local militants for open talks; they are our not enemies but those who lure them and provide them arms are the real culprits. Army wants to listen to the alienated people and efforts in this regard are on,” said Hasnain after interacting with a group of elders in north Kashmir’s Barmaulla district in January this year.
Though he has a clear position on infiltration and troops cut as he believes militant training camps are still active across the LoC. “We do not want the ceasefire to go up in smoke and we cannot allow militants to breach the Line of Control; we have to keep balancing our tasks,” said Hasnain.
There was fraying of relation between the army and the state government over troop cuts and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) within the valley. Hasnain was quick to launch damage control while being tough on troops cut.
“Kashmir is a political issue and has to be resolved politically. The decision regarding revocation of the AFSPA is to be taken at the political level and the army has no role to play in the decision,” Hasnain said, immediately after state’s political class expressed displeasure over the army defending the AFSPA.
“The army can only give advices to the government with regard to the revocation of AFSPA,” Hasnain said.
From expressing concern over the social networking site, Facebook, being a tool to mobilize people and scanning local newspapers on daily basis, Hasnain has the ability to mix politico-military initiative.
Killing of Magray in Handwara was Hasnain’s first challenge. Shedding the army’s ego, he decided to follow the political authority by seconding the desire of Chief Minister Omar Abdullah to change ground rules in operation against militancy.
Abdullah had claimed that the killing could have been avoided, had the army listened to his suggestions. “The Handwara incident is most regrettable. We will fully try that rules of engagement are modified as desired by Chief Minister Omar Abdullah,” said Hasnain while visiting Baramulla district to assess the situation after the killing.
“I want to clarify that Chief Minister has expressed his desire that rules of engagement should be changed and made as friendly as possible so that civilian causalities are avoided and I do promise that we will try and modify the rules of engagement,” said Hasnain.
But Hasnain was also quick to defend his troopers at the same time over Standard Operating Procedure not being followed by them. “There are certain occasions and times when the army need to operate independently”.
The real test for General Hasnain has just begun. Kashmir observers and the common masses are keenly watching the proceeding into the Machil encounter and the investigation into the Handwara incident. Can the army be able to punish its men involved in these killings?
This year will be a year for the army to improve its image dented by a spate of allegations of rights violations as the militancy shows downward trend and infiltration a dip. Will the General’s weapon of heart work?