A Peopleâ€™s General: Indian Express Assalamualikum. Mera naam Ata Hasnain hai.â€ This is how Lt General Syed Ata Hasnain, General Officer Commanding of the Armyâ€™s 15 Corps, begins his interaction with villagers in the Valley. The first Muslim officer to command the Army in Kashmir after Lt General M K Zaki, who led the force at the outset of militancy two decades ago, Hasnain took over in December 2010. He plays down his background, insisting he wants to be seen as nothing more than an officer of the Indian Army. But his name itself has set the tone for his new and challenging agenda in Kashmir, where religion and the scars of Partition form a compulsory backdrop of the political narrative. â€œMy heart is my weapon,â€™â€™ says Hasnain as he travels across the Valley to interact with villagers. â€œTimes have changed and the Army cannot limit its role to military operations. We have to look at security in much more comprehensive terms.â€ Laying out his agenda at a public interaction, Hasnain says his objective is to practise â€œan entirely humaneâ€™â€™ approach with a long-term perspective. â€œI think my force should not be seen as one with arms everywhere. Our main weapon is our heart. And that is the weapon we will carry around in our efforts to bring stability to the state all over again,â€™â€™ he says. His aim, he emphasises, is â€œto look at how the Army can assist the state government in reaching out to the people and putting a balm on the many wounds that may have occurred over a period of timeâ€™â€™. Hasnainâ€™s new â€œheart as weaponâ€ doctrine and style of functioning have, in fact, changed the very contours of Armyâ€™s rules of engagement in Kashmir, a place where the uniform has generally been viewed with fear. Hasnain is trying to erase this psychological barrier and begin a conversation with the â€œawam (people)â€: a difficult and arduous journey in a landscape where spools of barbed wire divide the troops and the people in both physical as well as psychological terms. Hasnainâ€™s understanding of the intricacies of Kashmiri culture, and religious and political sensitivities, and the willingness to look beyond the statistics of â€œkillsâ€™â€™ and success of encounters, has provided the top military commander in Kashmir with the essential ammunition to launch a successful public relations exercise. The challenge, however, lies in the manner in which he will deal with larger and contentious issues, like the speedy investigation into allegations of serious human rights abuses, demands of withdrawal from civilian areas, and the repeal of controversial laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. At a recent public interaction programme in north Kashmirâ€™s Handwara town, Hasnain, whose family originally belongs to Lucknow, further demystifies his new doctrine. â€œThere is no solution for any problem by military means,â€ he says. â€œThe Army in the Valley is carrying out the job of stabilising the situation. We are here to create a stable environment. We are ensuring that the local population remains with us. This can only be done through reaching out and engaging with the people.â€ He insisted that the Army was maintaining utmost restraint while conducting its counter insurgency operations in the Valley. â€œWe have carried out all our recent operations in Sopore, Shopian and Tral areas without any collateral damage. We are making sure that even the houses where militants are hiding are not destroyed. People have started reposing their confidence in the army.â€ Reaching out in Handwara The Handwara meeting was important because Manzoor Ahmad Magray, a 21-year-old student from adjoining Chowgul village, was killed by troops who had laid a night ambush for militants on February 4 this year. Since this was the first such incident after Hasnain took charge, it became a litmus test on the ground for his new approach. Hasnain had reacted immediately, expressing regret for the loss of life and then ordering a court of inquiry. â€œIt was an unfortunate case of mistaken identity,â€™â€™ he says at the awami sunwai (public hearing. â€œWe have publicly regretted this death and the Army has already completed its court of inquiry. I think the State administration too has completed its inquiry. We will make it public soon.â€™â€™ He said he ordered a modification in the Armyâ€™s standard operating procedure soon after the incident. â€œWe are making sure that our troops never fire without sufficient warning,â€™â€™ he says. Hasnain had invited Magrayâ€™s father for the meeting too. â€œWe cannot bring back your child but I promise, we will ensure that justice is done,â€™â€™ he told him. Magrayâ€™s younger brother Dawood Ahmad Magray has already been adopted by the Army and admitted to its Pahalgam Boarding School. Though Hasnainâ€™s approach did calm the situation from taking a volatile turn, it is yet to be seen as to how the promise of justice is served. During his tenure as the Armyâ€™s top commander in Kashmir, Hasnainâ€™s â€œheart is my weaponâ€™â€™ doctrine will be always pitted against the scepticism that has pervaded civilian engagement with the Army in Kashmir for the last two decades. Hasnain has inherited a legacy of public mistrust, unaddressed issues, and unanswered questions, which will confront him as he attempts to go beyond military victories. Even the fate of inquiries into major incidents of fake encounters is yet to be known: Pathribal in 2000, Handwara in 2007, and an incident of fake surrender in 2005, when more than 50 villagers from Budgam district were kept illegally confined for six months before being made to â€˜surrenderâ€™. Though he stresses that a Kashmir solution cannot be achieved through military means alone, it is yet to be seen as to how the army will react to any forward movement towards a political resolution. Putting â€˜awamâ€™ first Hasnain, however, has made some important beginnings. His intent was known when he changed the Armyâ€™s main slogan from â€œJawan aur awaam, aman hai muqamâ€ (jawan and people, peace is the destination) to â€œAwam aur jawan, aman hai muqamâ€™â€™, thus putting people first. Hasnain also deleted â€˜Operationâ€™ from Operation Sadbhavana so that the â€œpeople donâ€™t look at Armyâ€™s developmental works as part of their military operationsâ€. This symbolic beginning was followed by a string of new measures with an emphasis on better public relations. He started the â€œJi Jinabâ€™â€™ campaign, which aims at making jawans more courteous towards people. â€œI talk to the troops and explain the importance of showing respect to the people,â€™â€™ he says at the tea after the public interaction. â€œWe have to be firm but respectful. Ji Jinab means exactly that.â€ The Army has also launched a programme to teach Kashmiri to officers. â€œWe want better communication with the people. We are here for the service of the people and we want that sentiment to reach the people,â€™â€™ he said. Hasnain began his public interaction tours from volatile neighbourhoods and has already visited Shopian in south Kashmir, and Palhalan and Sopore in north Kashmir to â€œdirectly talk to the peopleâ€. The response has been interesting, especially as villagers come with a bagful of complaints that primarily revolve around problems with local governance. Aware of the sensitive relationship between the Army and the civilian administration, Hasnain is always accompanied by senior officials of the District Administration. In Handwara, the public meeting was held at the conference hall of the J&K Governmentâ€™s Environment and Forest Department and Hasnain was accompanied by local MP Sharief-ud-Din Shariq, deputy commissioner of Kupwara, and senior army and police officers. Ajaz Ahmad Sofi, president of Handwaraâ€™s Tradersâ€™ Federation, told Hasnain that it was for the first time in two decades that a corps commander had visited the town and held a public interaction. He sought Hasnainâ€™s intervention to ease the Armyâ€™s night blockade of the road connecting the town with the Rajwar area. Hasnain responded by issuing orders to lift the barricade immediately. Advocate Nazir Ahmad too has a complaint. â€œSince 1947, our village is without road and electricity.â€™â€™ Ghulam Mohammad Mir, who introduces himself as a local People's Democratic Party leader, highlights the issues of misgovernance in Handwara. Mir also requests Hasnain to absorb more Kashmiri youth, especially from Kupwara and Handwara, in the Army. Hasnain responds by saying that the Army has sent 30 youths from north Kashmir to Chandigarh for coaching. Mushtaq Ahmad, a government school teacher, has come from Sarmarg village with a complaint about the construction of a road link in his area under the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana in 2005. â€œThe contractor used substandard material. We informed government officials several times but they never took our complaints seriously. Please help usâ€™â€™. Hasnainâ€™s reaction to complaints against administrative problems is guarded. He has a good rapport with the state government and he seems cautious to avoid stepping into their domain. Asked to comment on the recent statement of J&K DGP Kuldeep Khoda that militancy was down by 45 percent in the state, he says, â€œYes, there is a drop in militancy. But we never see a decline through the prism of statistics. We look at the overall atmosphere.â€ Hasnain, however, doesnâ€™t think militancy is over yet. â€œAs long as there are camps, there is a threat. The camps are still intact and filled with militants. The next two weeks will be important for us,â€™â€™ he says. â€œBut the Army is strong enough to prevent the infiltration as we have developed a good mechanism to stop the infiltration from across the LoC.â€ On the question of why the Army hesitates to operate in Maoist-hit states while it was keen to â€˜stabiliseâ€™ Kashmir, he says there is no comparison between the two situations. â€œThe Maoist problem is totally an internal problem and Kashmir is an existential threat,â€™â€™ he says. â€œIt (Kashmir), however, needs to be tackled carefullyâ€™â€™. Know The General Born in 1953 in Uttar Pradesh, Syed Ata Hasnain went to Sherwood College, Nainital, and St Stephenâ€™s College, Delhi. He has a BA (Hons) in History, an MSc in Defence Studies and an MPhil in Management Studies. He also has an MA in International Studies from Kingâ€™s College, London. Commissioned in in 1974 in the Garhwal Rifles, Hasnain is a second generation officer. His father, an ex-officer of the Garhwal Rifles, retired as a Major General from the Indian Army. Hasnain commanded the prestigious 21 Strike Corps before being selected to command the most important formation of the Indian Army, 15 Corps, in December 2010. Hasnain participated in Operation PAWAN in Sri Lanka during 1988-90, and took part in counter insurgency operations in Punjab in 1990-91. He has served six frontline tours of duty on the Line of Control and has participated in counter-terrorist operations in Kashmir. He also commanded the Dagger Division, one of the oldest and most recognised fighting formations of the Indian Army, in Baramulla. He is a graduate of the Defence Services Staff College, Wellington. He has had varied exposure abroad, having served with the United Nations Peace Keeping Forces in Mozambique and Rwanda in 1994-95. He is married and has two daughters. Among his interests are travelling and trekking. His wife Sabiha is a top executive with a multi-national corporate house.