Villagers in Kashmir, who used to remain aloof from the conflict, are now prepared to die in order to save militants under siege.
Predictions of war are universally unpopular and therefore seldom taken seriously. But there is a real possibility that the country might find itself embroiled in one in Kashmir by the end of this summer. The reason is that instead of using the respite given by winter to cool tempers down after the mass uprising of last summer and restart a political dialogue that could lead to peace, the security forces and Kashmir police have spent the entire winter hunting down militants, mostly in South Kashmir, and killing them when ‘necessary’.
The killing of three local youths and the injuring of at least 18 others who threw themselves upon the police and CRPF in a vain attempt to allow a militant hiding in a village in Budgam district to escape, could ignite the fuse. If that happens, the blame will rest squarely upon Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his shadowy mentors in the RSS.
In November last year, there was a palpable feeling of relief in the Valley. The Hurriyat had gained a modicum of control over the youth, stone pelting had ended, schools had re-opened and buses and taxis had begun to ply once more. This relief was fed by numerous visits from members of Indian civil society, culminating in a delegation led by former BJP foreign minister Yashwant Sinha. This came alongside statements made by former home minister P. Chidambaram and others that the political contract with Kashmir needed to be rewritten within the framework of the Instrument of Accession, and by a seemingly heartfelt commitment from the prime minister to a delegation of Kashmiri opposition parties that he would welcome any initiative for restoring peace within the framework of the Indian constitution.
But since then, Delhi has done absolutely nothing to start a process of dialogue and reconciliation. Instead, it has continued with its six-year-long mindless attempt to control militancy by killing militants one by one, like rats in a granary.
Winter, their counter-terrorism ‘strategists’ have convinced them, is the best time to do so. The severe cold forces militants to move out of their hideouts in the upper ranges of the Pir Panjal and take shelter in the villages. This makes it relatively easy to locate and eliminate them. When informed of the arrival of a militant in a village, security forces mount a cordon-and-search operation to capture or kill him. So far, most of them have ended up dead. This has reinforced the view, among militants, that the Indian state will give them no quarter, so it is better to die fighting. As a result, gun battles have invariably ensued and the militants killed.
What is new today is the reaction of the villagers. In the 1990s, and especially from 1999 till 2008, the villagers stayed aloof from the conflict, with many secretly welcoming the intervention of the security forces. Since the end of 2015, however, they have begun to throw themselves between the security forces and the militants and court death in order to allow the latter to escape.
The significance of this change seems to have escaped Delhi altogether. It means that the villagers, and particularly the youth, now identify with the militants so completely that they are willing to give up their lives to protect them. Since they are unarmed, they are using stones to drive away the security forces. But should they find a source of arms, they will not hesitate to use them in the future. That source lies just across the Line of Control.
Thanks to the fence along the Indo-Pak border, smuggling arms across the LoC is no longer as easy as it used to be. But all that it can do is turn a flood into a trickle. Militants have been crossing the LoC and the international border in small numbers every year. Arms are beginning to appear in the Valley. If the Modi government insists upon relying on force alone to end militancy, the fence will only delay the onset of a full-scale armed rebellion in the Valley.
The difference between this insurrection and the one that began in 1989 is that the latter began against a background of prolonged peace, in a Valley that hardly knew crime, let alone mega-death. The next one will take place against a backdrop of 28 years of incessant violence, repression and violations of human rights. In 1990, Kashmiris, with very few exceptions, respected the Indian constitution, envied other Indians and the freedoms they enjoyed under it and wanted that freedom and empowerment for themselves. Today, they have lost that faith in Indian democracy, no longer consider India a secular country wedded to religious freedom and are convinced that no Indian government will respect Kashmir’s unique ethno-national identity. As a consequence they believe there is, therefore, nothing to be gained from remaining a part of India.
The Budgam deaths have closed down the Valley. But it is too soon to tell whether the anger will be contained or fly out of control as happened after Burhan Wani’s death. Should it die down, New Delhi, indeed India, will get one last chance to offer the Kashmiris what they have always wanted since 1947 – a place of honour within the Indian ethno-federal mosaic. Modi has not shown any inclination towards doing this so far, but even if he has a change of heart now, he will not find it easy because Pakistan’s security apparatus will do its best to thwart a return to peace.
One way it could try to do this would be to allow the Lashkar-e-Tayyaba, the Jaish-e-Muhammad and others to send mujahideen to Kashmir. If they do that, then war will become difficult to avoid. Modi will need to exercise restraint and show sagacity in dealing with the twin threats India will face. These are not qualities that he is famous for.