Government initiatives will help shrink the public support for armed militancy, and pressurise the militants to lay down their arms and return to normal life.
In the past three months Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made two overtures to Pakistan, leaving little room for doubt that he wants to reverse the deterioration in bilateral relations. First he “dropped by” Lahore to meet Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on his way back from Kabul, Afghanistan, in December. The second was his telephone call to Sharif wishing the Pakistan team good luck in the World Cup match at Calcutta.
Pakistan has responded by providing intelligence on the Pathankot terrorist attack and warning India of a possible terrorist attack on the Somnath temple in Gujarat, which the government was able to foil. But how will the countries build upon these initiatives if the situation in Kashmir continues to worsen at the rate it is doing today?
Kashmir appears to be moving in a different direction at present. With the continued reluctance of Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) president Mehbooba Mufti to form a government and the BJP’s inability to do so, Jammu and Kashmir has been left without a representative government. Meanwhile, the slow burning anger that has been growing in south Kashmir is approaching a boiling point.
South Kashmir on the boil
In the past two months every killing of a militant in south Kashmir has been followed by shutdowns of business and funeral processions that have grown ever larger, followed by ugly confrontations with the police and paramilitary forces. The first two months of the year saw 20 days of shutdowns in the the Pulwama, Kulgam and Anantnag districts. Besides, the intervention of civilians to foil the armed forces in their fight against the militants has led to the injury and deaths of several civilians, and a further rise in public anger.
The security agencies in Delhi and Srinagar are, as usual, blaming Pakistan: unable to send terrorists across the Line of Control (LOC), they claim Pakistan is training local youth to carry out violent acts within Kashmir itself. This explanation is self-serving, to say the least, as it is entirely possible that Pakistan is not sending infiltrators into India simply because it no longer needs to. But such an explanation also evades the real questions: why are the youth in south Kashmir, a PDP stronghold for 15 years, taking to armed insurgency again? And why is popular support for insurgency growing in an area where there was virtually none before?
The answers lie in Delhi’s failure to understand the causes of the Kashmiri insurgency and thus its inability to end the conflict despite many opportunities. The failure has risen out of a belief embedded in the psyche of most Indians – as Muslims, Kashmiris find it hard to resist the blandishments of Pakistan. This was and continues to be very far from the truth.
Denial of political space
The insurgency in the 1990s was born not out of religious separatism, but a complete denial of room for democratic dissent in the valley after the arrest of Sheikh Abdullah in 1953. From 1957 till 1972, every election in the valley was rigged to ensure a sweeping National Conference victory.
As Pakistan found out in 1965 when its infiltrators found no support in the valley, the National Conference’s victories were not altogether unpopular as the party’s main purpose was to ensure the domination of the valley over the politics of the entire state. But as a consequence, two successive generations of Kashmiri youth were denied the political space in which to express their growing frustration and anger with an increasingly corrupt and predatory state government that was being backed uncritically by Delhi.
In 1987, when the National Conference entered into an electoral alliance with the Congress, the Muslim United Front (MUF) emerged as a political voice for the youth. But when the MUF was denied a reasonable presence in the state assembly through vote manipulation, a large section of the youth became convinced that they would never be allowed to secure the right to dissent, let alone govern, through the Indian democratic system. This led them into the arms of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF) and thus, Pakistan.
Although initially sheltered and armed by Pakistan, the JKLF’s goal was Kashmiri independence and not a merger with Pakistan. Its leaders knew that neither Ladakh nor Jammu would go along with secession. Had religion been their main driving force, JKLF leaders could have espoused the Dixon Plan, proposed by the British in 1947, to hand over the Kashmir valley to Pakistan. But not once in the 39 years of its existence has the JKLF advocated this “solution”.
On the contrary the JKLF has consistently demanded azadi (freedom) for Kashmir as it had existed before 1947, in the full knowledge that this would increase its heterogeneity and drag it further away from a purely religious identity. Over the years the Hurriyat conference, with the sole exception of Ali Shah Geelani, has also come around to a similar position.
In hindsight it is clear that no matter what they professed in public, what the militants wanted in the 1990s was to be the architects of a peace settlement along the lines of the Framework Agreement signed by General Musharraf and Manmohan Singh in 2005.
It is not surprising then that between the Islamabad declaration of 2004 and the attempted Amarnath land scam in 2008, domestic militancy all but died out in Kashmir. The Lashkar-e-Tayyiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammad repeatedly sent terrorists across the LOC, but lacking local support they were soon rounded up or killed. For this four-year period, Kashmiris lived in the expectation that a lasting peace was around the corner.
That hope has since died. The UPA’s ill-advised crackdown in the valley in August 2008, the deaths of more than a hundred stone pelters in 2010 and the hanging of Afzal Guru in 2013 convinced Kashmiris that a harder, more merciless Indian State had emerged over the years.
Paradoxically, this new State was a product of the unexpectedly high turnout in the valley in the assembly elections in December 2008; it enabled the architects of the crackdown to trumpet that the Kashmiri militancy had ended, that the Hurriyat and other separatists had never enjoyed significant support, and that what the Kashmiris really wanted was jobs and a better future.
The corollary of this was that there was no more need for a political dialogue with the ‘separatists’. As a result, the dialogue between government and the Hurriyat, which had been an important part of the peace process till then, came to an end. On the ground in Kashmir this erased the distinction between crime and political violence. All subsequent militant attacks became criminal acts to be dealt with by the police with the help, where necessary, of the paramilitary forces.
Police methods invariably include the interrogation of all those whom they consider likely to have information that will lead to the arrest of the “criminals.” Treating the nationalist movement in the Kashmir valley as a law and order problem thus made the nearly 31,000 militants who remained on the police’s history sheets and the thousands of stone pelters who were added to their number after 2010, the prime targets for interrogation.
For them, and their families, life became an uncertain, nerve-wracking hell. Add to this the never-ending trickle of deaths of local Kashmiri youth in encounters and crossfires, and one begins to understand the mixture of anger, despair and desire for revenge out of which the new militancy in south Kashmir has been born and is gathering support.
Unlike the militants of the 1990s, the current crop of militants in south Kashmir have no political agenda, because they have no hope. They know from the experience of their predecessors that Pakistan will help, perhaps even provide shelter, but will ultimately enslave them. And the pointless, brutal hanging of Guru has shown them that there is no mercy in the Indian State. Their only desire now is to hit the Indian State repeatedly and invite retaliation that will rekindle a general uprising again as it did in the 1990s.
So far their tactics have met with unqualified success. The disaffection in south Kashmir today is not far short of what it was in Srinagar and north Kashmir in the 1990s. If Delhi continues to deal with it through repressive police measures alone, the tension and anger that is building up will inevitably boil over into a more general uprising. The only way to reverse this spiral is to rekindle the militants’ desire for peace, their desire to live. But so great is the accumulation of anger and mistrust that weaning them, and the tens of thousands who are openly supporting them, away from violence will not be easy.
The starting point should be for Delhi to recognise and concede publicly that the struggle in Kashmir needs to be dealt with through negotiation and accommodation, not through repression. To do this the Modi government could take a page from Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s book and declare a unilateral cessation of anti-terrorist action by security forces, coupling this with the offer of a general amnesty to all those who forsake armed struggle, and restart a political dialogue with the Hurriyat and back-channel talks with Pakistan on Kashmir.
Such initiatives will gain credibility if it is accompanied by a promise to repeal the Public Safety Act that gives the Kashmir police its extraordinary powers, and limit the scope of AFSPA as peace is restored. These initiatives may not lead to an immediate cessation of violence in south Kashmir as Pakistan may continue to stir the pot to strengthen its hands in negotiations with India. But if the government persists with these initiatives, it will shrink the base of public support for armed militancy that is building up in south Kashmir, and pressurise the new militants to lay down their arms and return to normal life once again.
Prem Shankar Jha is the Managing Editor of Financial World and a senior journalist.