New Delhi, Nov. 11: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh tonight unveiled a Diwali gift ahead of his visit to Jammu and Kashmir next week, ordering a reduction of troops and signalling that New Delhi is sincerely contemplating a peace offensive.
The decision to reduce troops immediately addresses international concerns 'both the US and the European bloc (and, of course, Pakistan) have time and again raised questions on the military presence in Jammu and Kashmir.
But a statement issued by the Prime Minister's Office said instructions to reduce troops have been issued against the background of successful security operations.
Pakistan welcomed the 'wise' step, saying the 'decision on the eve of Id-ul-Fitr will have a salutary impact'.
Kashmir is one of the most militarised regions in the world. Estimates of the number of troops on the Line of Control and for internal security range from 3.5 lakh to 6 lakh and the security establishment does not put out a figure officially.
Reducing troops in Jammu and Kashmir is also the biggest confidence-building measure (CBM) since the ceasefire along the LoC took off on Id (November 25) last year.
Next week, when Id will be celebrated again, it will be a year since the guns have fallen silent on the LoC, an achievement that India and Pakistan can claim for the first time since Partition.
By choosing a day before Diwali to make the announcement, the Singh government appears to have taken a leaf out of the A.B. Vajpayee regime's book of festival diplomacy. Last year, the previous government had picked the same occasion to announce 12 initiatives that came to be known as the 'Diwali Dozen'.
If the CBM of reducing troops is a signal to the international community, it is also equally a message to the people of Kashmir before the Prime Minister's scheduled visit on November 17 and 18.
Another step was taken to pacify the Valley, which has been rocked by protests after a double rape case in which a major is the accused. The army tonight suspended the officer and placed him under arrest.
High-level sources in the security establishment say more peace measures are likely ahead of Pakistan Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz's visit to Delhi this month.
The statement on troop reduction followed a meeting of the cabinet committee on security. 'In recognition of the improvement in the situation in the state, the government has decided to reduce the deployment of troops this winter,' Singh said. Earlier this week, he had reacted indignantly to a question on troop levels in Jammu and Kashmir.
Today's statement said the improvement in the situation is 'reflected in the increased tempo of economic activity, continuing increase in tourist arrivals, and a general sense of security among the people'.
But it added that the decision to cut troops would be revised if threat perceptions increased.