General J J Singh ('JJ'), India's Army chief, wrote recently that the inspiration for his humane doctrine on counter insurgency has been the ailing Field Marshal Manekshaw - affectionately known as Sam Bahadur. When JJ was a live wire subaltern, he served the inevitable tenure in the Eastern Command, which looks after India's troubled North East and was then under the tutelage of Manekshaw from Calcutta.

There is enough evidence that humane-ness isn't exactly a new policy for the Indian Army, only it has never had the decided imprimatur of the Chief. With JJ being so closely identified with it, he would do well to push it through in the forthcoming year to ensure his place in history. The hard-line school is presently claiming to have done its bit in pushing back the militancy to low levels. It is therefore time for the 'healing touch' to make itself more evident on the ground. With the right alignment of attitudes and stars, such a change in the manner of interface between the security forces and the citizens in Kashmir could even hold the potential to wrap up the militancy in the near term.

The main impact of the softer approach would be to remove the rationale for jihadis to make their presence felt in the Valley under the guise of fighting to protect an oppressed Muslim minority. If the acts labeled 'oppression' were to noticeably diminish, the host Kashmiri society would cease to be as welcoming as it has hitherto been to jihadis, since the disaffection with the Indian State too would parallely diminish. With Pakistan playing ball to a considerable extent in keeping Kashmir from boiling over, and due to the positive fallout from the unfortunate earthquake in the region, the changes in the militancy both warrant and reinforce the Indian Army's full hearted make over to the publicly aired policy of its Chief. Since security forces comprise the BSF and the CRPF also, the effort should permeate these as well.

While political alienation has been redressed to some extent by the democratic changeovers up to Mufti Sayeed on to now Ghulam Nabi Azad, the presence of the Army can be reduced more boldly now. So far the Army has played a cautious hand, worried about a dramatic change of gears for the worse. However, as the ground situation improves, we must not lose the opportune moment. To push things further, the proximity of Mr. Azad to the power center in Delhi must be taken advantage of. The resulting improvement can prove to be political capital later.

The changes so far have been restricted to indulging in less of the same. It is time now for more of the new.

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Information coming out of Kashmir has always carried with it the underside of manipulation by interested forces. Reliance on credible sources is therefore warranted in gauging the ground situation. One such is the doughty Praveen Swami, who has consistently and courageously reported on Kashmir. His latest insight, carried in Frontline is on changed terrorist modus operandi. Tactically, the terrorists have emulated the Al Qaeda in their cellular structure, with a higher social and technical profile of recruits and resort to an Iraq-style stand-off bombing campaign. It is apparent that militancy has withered from the public sphere with people's participation having receded.

In the words of the new commander of India's Northern Army, Lt. Gen. Deepak Kapoor, terrorists were 'frightened by the alienation' of the civilian population and that 'they have been have been carrying out attacks in desperation, using grenades and IEDs (explosive devices) to show their presence'. This has echoes of the declining Punjab militancy in which spectacular strikes punctuated the return to normalcy. Therefore, there is a case for meaningful change in security operations in Kashmir.

The changes so far have been restricted to indulging in 'less of the same'. It is time now for 'more of the new'. A humane approach coupled with downsizing is the key. While the former is already, hopefully, a primary component of India's security strategy, the latter has not been broached so far. There are two aspects to the latter – one short term and Kashmir-centric, and the second of long term import for India's national aims. In the near term, downsizing the Army's presence in Kashmir would help Musharraf, since demilitarisation has been one of his publicly stated objectives of late. It would buttress the composite dialogue process that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has made the keystone of his Pakistan strategy. The term 'demilitarisation' has also been bandied by Kathwari's Kashmir Study Group, a US-based lobby led by a non-resident Kashmiri, thinking up pragmatic solutions to the problem and having access to power centers both in New Delhi and Islamabad, more so the former.

In case India ignores Musharraf on Kashmir in the comforting belief that its present day upper hand in Kashmir enables it to do so, it could face regressive consequences in the fore-grounding once again of the military option. On the other hand, with the Army selectively and partially back in barracks, the effect would be to serve public perception of serious Indian intent, undercut the jihadis, and appear a concession to Pakistan while still choosing the terms ourselves. The characterisation of talks as 'constructive and fruitful' may be adequate on marginal issues such as the recently concluded one between the two nations' respective Surveyors over Sir Creek, but on the substantial, if not 'core' issue, there has to be more to show, including some 'give and take'.

What transpires in 2006 may prove historic on this score, for the importance of the year lies in it being the run up to 2007. In that year, we will witness the next hustings in J&K, Musharraf's bid for the Presidency out of uniform, and parliamentary and provincial elections in Pakistan. The situation in J&K would be crucial to the several interests at stake in all these polls. Therefore there is much to be gained by moving towards a solution in Kashmir. In case the various stakes are not taken on board, such as, say, that of Musharraf and Pakistan, then their adverse reaction will have to be needlessly contended with. Being seen as making a positive difference in Kashmir makes sense for all players. Mutual accommodation therefore makes practical and strategic sense.

With the provincial elections in India's own pivotal state of Uttar Pradesh slated for February 2007 additionally, the Congress' showing could well hold the future to rebuilding its independent strength nationally, and emerging from the UPA coalition's shadow. Also, if the BJP - currently in the midst of a change of guard - begins to set its house in order under new leadership, then 2007 may be as late as the Congress can wait for such a positive development.

Treating winter as a traditional waiting period for operations in the summer may prove too late. The incentive for Pakistan to play its usual summer game on the Line of Control requires to be diminished while the passes remain snow-shut. A revival of the Hurriyat-Centre talks, a rethink on the density of the security forces deployment, a few workshops for the forces on 'firm but friendly' behaviour, are all fresh ideas for the new year. With the PM - known for privileging the economy as a means to engaging with India's intertwined problems of development and security - acting as his own foreign minister presently, the momentum of interfacing with Pakistan should not be allowed to lag by default in the absence of a full time foreign minister. Also even though the present Governor, Lt Gen SK Sinha (Retd), once led the India delegation to Italy in 1972 for the Conference on Application of Human Rights During Warfare, it may be timely to bring in a fresh dynamism by a change of guard at Raj Bhawan; its occupant since mid 2003 will turn an octogenarian in Year 2006.

A word now on the as-yet-unarticulated long term implication of the advocated downsizing for India's army. Merely holding the surplus military manpower in reserve within the forces would not help the prospects of resolution in Kashmir. Similarly, retrenching this manpower in, for instance India's North East or the Red Crescent apparently forming from Nepal to Telangana may only serve to militarise these areas. Thus, what is needed is a partial and phased demobilisation of India's surplus military force strength in tandem with the draw-down in Kashmiri militancy that led up to its expansion in first place.

The New Year has significance beyond the apparent. One hopes, as often in the past, that it will mark the beginning of the end of the Kashmir problem. After a long time, the possibility seems imaginable, and this may still be an end-game that both India and Pakistan can win.