Armed forces

Modi Will Not Get Very Far in Kashmir By Pretending the Problem Doesn’t Exist

Where Chanakyan statecraft recommends a mix of approaches to dealing with a problem, the Modi government’s only response has been “dand”, or punishment.
modi rajnath cropped

The Modi government’s strategy for what are, with some understatement, called “law and order” issues, work on three tracks. The first is of  delivering homilies,the second of being relentlessly tough in all circumstances, sometimes more in words than in deeds. Union home minister Rajnath Singh’s statement blaming Pakistan for the Jammu and Kashmir disturbances appears to have created a third track, where the government holds Islamabad responsible for the ongoing crisis.

So, the prime minister’s response to the “gau rakshak” rampage was the homily on the necessity of differentiating between  fake gau rakshaks and, presumably, the good ones. And in his over-the-top style, Modi made a grandiloquent declaration that “if you have to shoot, shoot me, but not my Dalit brothers.” No one is about to take up Modi at his word, but he knows that. It is another addition to the list of his famous jumlas, or false promises. On Kashmir, he carefully spoke about the national love for Kashmir – not for Kashmiris though – and somewhat unconvincingly repeated the Vajpayee formula for dealing with the issues through “insaniyat, jamurihat and Kashmiriyat.”

The government’s tough track has been visible in dealing with Pakistan, the Patidar agitation in Gujarat and the Maoists of Chattisgarh. And now it is showing up in the handling of Jammu & Kashmir, where over 55 persons have been killed and 1,000 injured and there has been a continuous curfew in many parts of the state for over a month in the face of what are essentially violent civil protests. The only answer the government seems to have is more of the same, and now there is talk of handing over parts of the state to the Army.

The third track was on display on Wednesday when the government got the National Investigation Agency to put out the confession of a captured Lashkar-e-Tayyeba terrorist, Bahadur Ali, in order to suggest that the whole agitation in the Valley is being run out of Pakistan  and that LeT cadres have been asked to throw grenades at security forces while mingling among civil protestors. Actually, till now there has been no recorded instance of a police officer being killed through firing from the mob or grenade attacks. Confessions are not even considered evidence in Indian courts, so the whole purpose of the NIA’s exercise was part of a political theatre to back up the home minister’s performance on Kashmir during the debate in the Lok Sabha.

What’s missing is statecraft

Anyone familiar with Kashmir knows that there are at least 150 hard-core militants – about half the number being Pakistanis, probably belonging to the LeT – in the Valley at any given time. Also, that July, August and September are months of high infiltration when Pakistan sends its replenishments in terms of men and material into Kashmir. A Bahadur Ali by himself means little; there have been scores, if not hundreds before him. We have killed many, caught a few and in that scale he is not particularly significant. Pakistanis do use sleeper assets, but at a time of their own choosing and there are no indications – except claims by the authorities – that the disturbances are being masterminded by Islamabad.

All this is surprising, considering that the government Modi heads traces its DNA to the sages of ancient India, none of whom is more revered than Chanakya,  whose niti (policy), they believe is the cure all for India’s sorry modern-day plight.  Both India’s adversaries and its votaries attribute to the legendary Mauryan adviser, the strategy of handling politically difficult issues by an amalgam of  saam (persuasion), daam (purchase), dand (punishment), bhed (division).

Even a cursory survey of the past 69 years of the history of the republic, most of them under the rule of the Congress party, will show that these have, indeed, been the principal means through which this famously diverse nation has been kept as one.

It was persuasion that ended the separatist threat in Tamil Nadu whose residue is still visible in the state’s opposition to the GST. In the North-east, military means have been combined with generous largesse to the elite and in a region replete with tribal identities, sowing division, based on these identities has not been difficult. New Delhi’s response to the Mizo rebellion was harsh, but it quickly changed tracks and resorted to a successful strategy of purchase and suasion, in an operation that gave current NSA Ajit Doval his reputation.

Separatism in Punjab was scary, if only because it was so close to the heartland. But fortunately it did not have much political support because of its use of terrorist tactics and so a policy of relentless punishment finished off the Khalistani movement.

J&K, being a big headache, has seen all four strategies being liberally employed at all times. The huge dand (punishment) component does not require much elucidation;  suffice to say it numbers hundreds of thousands of soldiers and policemen and it has, in the past, seen the extensive use of torture and extra-judicial executions. The bhed part has been manifested in the successful, if dangerous, strategies of raising counter-militant forces in the mid-1990s to take on the militancy.

Suasion has been forgotten in the mists of time when Pandit Nehru and Sheikh Abdullah signed the Delhi Agreement in 1952, or when Mirza Afzal Beg and G. Parthasarthy worked out an accord in 1974 under the auspices of Indira Gandhi and the Sheikh. Note, both the agreements were not between individuals, but between the Union of India and the putative representatives of the state of Jammu & Kashmir.

Daam has wide currency across the state and was actually confirmed by no less than the minister of state for external affairs,  General V.K. Singh who acknowledged, after an initial “misunderstood” statement, that money was paid to some politicians “to win hearts and minds of people.”  Subsequently, A.S. Dulat, who headed both the R&AW and the Intelligence Bureau,  bluntly disclosed that no one was immune to bribes in J&K, not the militants, not politicians and not the separatists. “Over the years, they have all been paid by intelligence agencies.”

The strategies employed by the first NDA government headed by Atal Bihari Vajpayee, are both instructive and illuminating. Even while seeking to engage with Pakistan, despite obstacles like the Kargil back-stab, Vajpayee remained focused on the need to fix the Kashmir problem. The most dramatic manifestation of this was the 2000 ceasefire negotiated with the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, which could have led to an end of Kashmir’s armed militancy. Unfortunately, here too, there was an element of back-stabbing from within the system and without, and the initiative failed.  Yet, Vajpayee captured hearts and minds in J&K so effectively that today, a decade and a half later, people, including Modi, still swear by his policies – located as they were, within the bounds of insaniyat (humanity).

Terrorists and militants are not the same

What is striking is that the Modi government’s only response  has been “dand”. True, ministers have decried the havoc caused by shot-guns, but police-bureaucrats have opined that there is no alternative to these weapons. More forces have been rushed and there is talk of giving the Army a larger role in policing the Valley. And now we have the NIA suggesting that the whole thing is actually being run by Islamabad. No doubt Pakistan is fishing in troubled waters, but it doesn’t have to do much; the shoddy handling of the issue by New Delhi is doing the needful.

The main way of doing this is to refuse to acknowledge that the issue has local roots. Another is the insistence that Burhan Wani was a “terrorist” and not a “militant”. Clearly,  the government does not want to give any quarter to the sentiment that has caused the state to be in a state of turmoil for the last 30 years. The problem with using emotive  rather than analytical categories is that you usually end up with the wrong answers.

Like it or not, there is a difference between a “terrorist” and a “militant”. The latter fights against the state and its symbols – the police, army etc – while the former targets innocents. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the Mumbai attacks of 2008 where men, women and children were targeted was an act of pure terrorism. Whereas the Pathankot attack, which targeted a military facility comes under the category of militancy. There is no evidence that Wani targeted, or intended to target, non-combatants. Terror is not an “ism” as such but a method – where the perpetrator, by attacking unarmed and helpless people, aims to overawe them, and thus the state.

Both the terrorist and the militant live by the sword, and they must be defeated by the sword, just as Wani was. There is, however,  a difference: You cannot negotiate with a terrorist, but you can with a militant, just as Vajpayee sought to do in 2000.

Indeed, Chankaya niti suggests that the sword alone cannot be the instrumentality. A wise state uses a mix of strategies depending on the situation and common sense suggests that the most drastic is adopted only when there is no option. Unfortunately, in the current situation, daam is not working. You can buy off politicians and militants, but you cannot buy off a mob. Neither will bhed work with the centrists and mainstream politicians scared to speak given the current public mood.

The problem of persuasion, or saam, is more complex. The fact that the BJP as a party believes in closer integration of J&K with the Indian Union makes the use of saam even more complicated. Indeed, a key ideological shibboleth is its belief in the need to delete Article 370 from the constitution – the one that gives J&K a unique relationship with the Indian Union. So there can be no question of addressing the sentiment of the separatists and their supporters that they lack something by way of self-governance. This despite the fact that the same government is willing to address the sentiment of an equally important group – the separatist Nagas led by the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah).

So this leaves dand, then, as the only way out. Home minister Rajnath Singh is in any case always inclined to give a “muh torh jawaab” (‘jaw breaking’ response)  to adversaries. Brilliant tacticians like Doval have no strategy except to declare that India would exercise utmost restraint with  “our own citizens”, even while coming down hard on “terrorists” –  a distinction that does little or no justice to the situation obtaining in Jammu and Kashmir. So we seem destined to live with the self-defeating, self-destructive option of dand, and more dand.

The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi