Entering the beautiful Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir induces feelings of admiration, curiosity and fear, all at the same time. Admiration for the crown jewel of India’s diverse geographical wonders, curiosity looking at the source of one of the world’s longest international conflicts, and fear of the militants and the armed forces alike. When one thinks or reads about the plight of the people of Jammu and Kashmir, the most common thought that comes to mind is of vilifying the Army, and criticizing the soldiers for their lack of sensitivity and concern, or their methods of constraining the citizens. What most people are unaware of, and which has unfortunately been overshadowed in the media by glaring headlines of the political tussles, both local and international and the barrage of bullets the forces and terrorists encounter so often, are the often sighted posters of ‘Jawan aur Awam, Aman hai Muqaam’ (The soldier and the people, peace is the destination) placed all over the UT and what they symbolize.
The aforementioned quote is the essence of Operation Sadbhavana, launched by the Indian Army 23 years ago in 1998, dedicated to improving and building the dilapidated infrastructure of the UT, empowering its citizens, and providing them the healthcare and educational facilities they require. Another underlying theme was that of countering Pakistan’s anti national propaganda in the state, who attempted to manipulate the citizens to perceive the Army of their own country as the enemy. On both these fronts, one can confidently say that the Operation has been successful, with the added benefit of a comfortable and friendly relationship between the Army and the locals. Arpita Anant, an Associate Fellow at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, who observed the people of the UT and interacted with them for months, found that people of all sectors, communities and ages, were at ease with the Army officials, and chose to approach them for help instead of the civil administration, which is a massive improvement from when the citizens, with shattered hopes and dreams, threw stones at the passing troops.
The Operation, originally funded with a meagre ₹4 crore, went on to invest over ₹550 crore in the following years. The word ‘invest’ is used here to resonate with the thoughts of Lt. Col. Mudera P. Cariappa and Maj. Gen. Bikash K. Mohanti, AVSM (Retd.) who stated that “The real return on the investment in the people, as a form of nation building, is in long-term patriotism and regional development”. Although at the beginning the focus of the Operation was to rebuild the infrastructure, provide education and healthcare facilities, it soon expanded to empowering the women of the UT and providing training and professional coaching to the youth for higher education across the country and for their careers.
Apart from providing assistance in the form of rendering equipment, modifications and renovations to over 2000 State Government run schools in the state, the Army has, under Operation Sadbhavana, also established 46 Army Goodwill Schools. More than 1 Lakh children have been given the opportunity of higher secondary level education. Since 2021, the Operation has also brought under its umbrella the sponsoring of education of students at Army residential schools and colleges across the country. There is also the provision of free education in a few areas, such as the Ganderbal Sonamarg district, where the Army Open school gives benefits such as free books, stationery and lunch. Gaining inspiration from the Super 30 Model of Bihar, the Super 30 J&K program was launched in 2014, in partnership with the Centre for Social Responsibility and Leadership, providing professional coaching and training to the youth for admission into globally recognized institutes of higher education. The forgotten nomadic tribes of the area, such as the Bakarwals, are also included in the initiative, wherein special ‘Shepherd Schools’ have been set up to serve their requirements. An added benefit to this was the generation of employment- “The Army, through this effort, not only provided education in areas that were unserviced but also generated employment for trained teachers", Defence spokesperson SD Goswami was reported saying.
Army Goodwill Schools- Pahalgam, Khanabal and Balapur. Source: Indian Army
A large number of National and Integration tours are organized by the Army every year which facilitate the youth of Jammu and Kashmir to experience the diverse culture and traditions that India offers, while also integrating them in the national domain. Approximately 100 such tours comprising 30 people are organized every year. These tours travel across the country, and bring to light the various job opportunities the youth can partake in, which they had been unaware of in their conflict ridden homes.
Another integral role that the Army plays as a part of Operation Sadbhavana is that of providing medical aid. Although it is primarily the medical branch of the Army which handles this, the Army officers also have their responsibilities assigned in launching mobile medical teams which cater to the needs of a population which has been so severely isolated for decades. In the year 2014-15, more than 1.2 Lakh people availed the benefits of these medical camps under Operation Sadbhavana at 283 camps situated across the UT. Further, the Army identifies youth who might be interested and willing to work in para-medical care and first aid, and then trains them at the Army Field Hospitals. Not only are these health centres equipped with modern equipment, but also the camps include routine education and training about topics such as hygiene, sanitation, family planning and child care. These camps are also organized for animals, wherein over 1.7 lakh animals have been treated at about 150 veterinary camps, put together by the combined efforts of the Army and the Government Veterinary Department.
Medical camps. Source: SSB Crack
An initiative which was not originally a part of the Operation is empowering the women of Jammu and Kashmir, which has received tremendous positive response. Various Vocational Training Centres have been established across the UT, wherein skill development training is rendered- such as knitting, weaving, fashion designing, bag making etc. A programme, Siraj-un-Nisa, had been organized, specifically to provide computer and typing skills to the female population. These initiatives have received the most tangible positive responses, wherein the families do not hesitate to send their women to far-off centres for training and learning, and there is an ease with which the women interact with the Army officials, which did not exist earlier.
Left: Source: SSB Crack
Right: Women learning stitching and embroidery at the Vocational Training Centre in Poonch. Source: IDSA
It would be unfair to note the efforts of Operation Sadbhavana if the actions following the repeal of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution are not mentioned. Owing to the obstruction of communication by the Centre in 2019 following the landmark reform, the Indian Army worked markedly overtime than usual to facilitate ease in communication among the citizens, and ensure there was no shortage of basic necessities during the conflict-ridden months.
The Operation, a ‘Winning Hearts and Minds’ initiative, which has been launched by various other countries as well, is one of the integral principles of Counter-Insurgency, which involves one warring side aiming to sway the supporters to their side through the use of emotional or intellectual means, as opposed to brute force. The end goal is building a sense of patriotism and nationhood, countering “the ideological support for extremism, in a manner that promotes regional security” (Lt. Col. Cariappa and Maj. Gen. Mohanti). The intricate amalgamation of welfare activities under Operation Sadbhavana and counter-insurgent operations was termed as the strategy of “iron fist in a velvet glove” by former Chief of Army Staff General J.J. Singh in 2005.
The next time one hears someone criticizing the Army for misusing their power in Jammu and Kashmir and ‘torturing’ the citizens, remember the joy on the face of young Maleeha Faruq from Kashmir, who has been given the opportunity to fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor by receiving admission in the Army Public School, Pithoragrah under Operation Sadbhavana. Remember the relief experienced by thousands of people as they access premium medical care facilities right at their doorstep. Remember the comfort lakhs of girls feel as they now have toilets built for their needs across the UTs. Remember the wonder the youth of Jammu and Kashmir feels as they meet the Honorable President of India, Shri Ram Nath Kovind as a part of the National Tours organized by the Army. Remember the confidence and ease with which people send their women out to learn and work at various centres. Remember the sacrifice the Army Officers make every day, spending time away from their own loved ones for years, fighting at the border, reducing militancy, and also conducting welfare activities for Indians everyday, irrespective of whether the citizens hold their hands in gratitude or throw stones at them. Remember them.