External Affairs

Learning From Kashmir's Summer of 2016

Public anger in Kashmir is unlikely to subside anytime soon, especially until New Delhi accepts that there is, in fact, a dispute.

A policeman pulls concertina wire to lay a barricade on a road in Srinagar. Credit: Reuters/Danish Ismail

A policeman pulls concertina wire to lay a barricade on a road in Srinagar. Credit: Reuters/Danish Ismail

The indefatigable, mostly indefectible and often irascible A.G. Noorani wrote in Frontline that the Kashmir revolt of 2016 constitutes the third major crisis in the dispute over the state of Jammu and Kashmir. The conventional assumption was that the author meant the preceding crises of 2008 and 2010 were the first two. But he was referring to the crises of 1947, when the new states of India and Pakistan fought an 18-month acquisitive war over the territory of Jammu and Kashmir, and 1989, when devious procrastination led to the ongoing armed rebellion in Kashmir. The assessment is now confirmed even by the likes of M.K. Narayanan, the former hardline national security advisor, who has acknowledged the indigeneity of the revolt, confirmed the incompetence of the PDP-BJP government and feared, despite his own contributions to the present state of affairs, the implications of the growing and perilous confrontation.

So what are the takeaways of an autumnal summer, in which Delhi demonstrated its willingness to kill in its holy war for a muscular Hindutva nation-state, and the Kashmiris have again shown their willingness to die to thwart Delhi’s mendacity and procrastination on the Jammu and Kashmir dispute?

The first takeaway is that New Delhi has on its hands a Kashmiri population with symptoms of long-term anger. If the Delhi durbar and the Srinagar secretariat think that the annual migration of the delegitimated local government to Jammu will make people forget the summer of 2016 and that protest fatigue will set in, they should think again. The quantum of artillery expended on civilians by the security forces has decreased with October rolling in, but the fury against the atrocities has not subsided. The Indian security forces have done their bit to keep it aflame with continued sweeping civilian arrests, allegedly setting autumn harvests of wheat and rice ablaze and daylight thefts of apple crates ready for the market, destroying what they cannot take away under the wheels of their trucks. These despicable acts will be fodder for the worst case scenario.

And what is that? Given the limits of pain and loss that civil society can endure, the protests will subside, people will exchange notes on the details of as yet unknown brutalities perpetrated in the countryside and the anger will deepen. In the spring the durbar will return, mistake the quiet for complacency and seek to discredit the Hurriyat and the resistance, a bait with some takers even in Kashmir. The municipal corporation government will continue for a couple of years, the protests will then return with greater ferocity and be put down once again by even greater state violence. The cycle will repeat until the perilous confrontation is sucked into conflagration.

The second takeaway is that the protests have expanded and coalesced on one issue: Protesters in Kargil and Dras, the Pir Panjal and the Chenab Valley have all united in calling for a resolution of the dispute. Only a politically pliant communal core of the PDP-BJP government in Leh and Jammu continue to refuse to see the dangers of procrastination buttressed by state curbs and cruelty against those who disagree. But they constitute a minority and it would be well for the BJP to see the dangers of appeasing that minority. Bizarre as it may sound, the growing call is merely for Delhi to acknowledge the very existence of the dispute. The simple syllogism that Delhi needs to apply here is the call for a resolution of the dispute; ergo, there is a dispute.

This is also the starting-point argument of the Kashmiri resistance, including the factions of the Hurriyat and the JKLF. Not understanding this truth risks growing loss of international credibility for Delhi’s position. That credibility is endangered also, and not least, by the wanton use of raw power by the security forces to ram home its argument, one that is illustrated by the horrific images of dead children, pock-marked bodies of “pelleted” victims and the sheer brutality of the state’s forces against scores of non-protesting Kashmiri bystanders that has shaken the conscience of people well beyond the Kashmir Valley. Sweeping civilian arrests in the thousands, a ban on at least one assertive daily, the Kashmir Reader, and the illegal arrest of Kashmiri human rights activist Khurram Parvez – both acts condemned by the New York Times and the Washington Post – also weaken India. Many lament Delhi’s actions as the result of its denial of the dispute. But, once again, Noorani said it best: the establishment is not motivated by denial but “an arrogant recourse to suppression with the lie as a companion to force.”

The pattern of the emerging global partisanship on the dispute over the state highlights the third message of Kashmir’s summer of 2016: a new internationalisation of the dispute. To wit: in a strange twist, on August 15 Delhi loudly evoked a theory of the right to reciprocal proxy war in Balochistan. Usually silent, Beijing responded swiftly and forcefully as the head of the powerful think-tank, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, warned Delhi to keep its hands off a region in which the Chinese plan to invest $46 billion. The United States made its point by omission: the statement did not rate a mention by its secretary of state during his visit to Delhi a few days later. Even as some analysts were scratching their heads over the remarks, multiply governed Pakistan (by a chorus of civilian government, assertive military and violent non-state actors) responded with an attack on the Uri military base. India retaliated with an ambiguous ‘surgical strike’ across the Line of Control, followed by much chest thumping. It all served to heighten international concern about Kashmir as the world’s tinder box needing but a spark.

While in the short term all this may be seen as sabre rattling, the new internationalisation eerily resembles the Cold War regime that ended in 1991. The US supports bilateralism on Jammu and Kashmir and tacitly backs the status quo so as not to disturb the marketplace that is India. China provides all-weather support for Pakistan to enable its foreign-plus-economic policy as articulated in the CEPC and “Belt and Road” strategy. Together, the two alignments threaten a Cold War II with the US and India on one side and China and Pakistan on the other. The difference this time around is that the theatre of its operation will be South Asia and Central Asia, with Kashmir as its dangerous vortex. It cannot but be cause for global concern. Nor is this a happy development for the peoples of the state, because it was precisely the attachment of the Jammu and Kashmir dispute to the Cold War that led to a half century of deferred resolution of the dispute. The new postponement could crystallise into its non-resolution for another indefinite spell.

In Kashmir in particular, and the state in its entirety, these indigestible takeaways are bound to result in frustration, anger and despair. These are not emotions that the world wants to rouse in a region that has been called “the most dangerous place in the world.”

Siddiq Wahid is a historian and former vice chancellor. He is a native of Leh, now resident in Srinagar.