What Kashmir Has to Do With the India-China Stand-Off in Ladakh

An overture of peace in Kashmir can certainly lessen the pain on India’s frontier with China.

Irrespective of China’s long-term objective and the telling signs on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) for the last few years, one of the provocations for Beijing’s recent assertions in Ladakh was the revocation of Article 370 and Article 35A from the state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) on August 5, 2019.

Apart from the expected response from Pakistan, China had vociferously objected to what it called the government of India’s ‘unilateral’ attempt to change the status quo in Ladakh. The objection came on August 6, just a day after the government’s announcement.

In a written statement, spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry Hua Chunying called J&K an issue with the “legacy of history between India and Pakistan”. Expressing “serious concern”, Hua said, “The parties concerned should exercise restraint and act with caution, especially to avoid actions that unilaterally change the status quo and exacerbate the tension… We call on the two sides to peacefully resolve relevant disputes through dialogue and consultation and safeguard regional peace and stability.”

Three weeks later, in an interview to Press Trust of India (PTI), India’s ambassador to Beijing, Vikram Misri dismissed China’s objections. Calling the revocation of Article 370 India’s “internal administrative reorganisation”, he told his interviewer that it “had no external ramifications whatsoever… no implication for either the external boundaries of India or the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China.” According to him, since India was not raising any territorial claims, “the Chinese concerns in this regard were therefore misplaced.”

Misri was obviously articulating the government position – which had transformed posture into policy – that Kashmir was India’s internal matter. Hence, it did not occur to anyone to consider the geopolitical ramifications of the decision as defining as ending J&K’s special status. Not only did it reflect reneging on old compacts but also complete obliviousness of China’s growing influence (and presence) in South Asia and its strategic objectives.

China’s new approach

The Chinese do not believe in issuing empty threats or indulging in rhetoric. They either speak in parables or diplomatese, failing which they resort to symbolic actions to express their displeasure or future intent. However, post August 5, they spoke directly. And clearly. India chose to ignore it. Thereafter they started sending messages across through calibrated actions on the LAC. According to media reports, Chinese transgressions increased exponentially after August 5.

An article in the Indian Express newspaper on June 28 said, “The change in the Chinese approach, the (Indian) official said, came on September 10 last year when PLA troops vehemently started blocking Indian patrols from proceeding towards Finger 8. This was barely a month after the Bill for abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and creation of Ladakh as a separate Union Territory was passed in Parliament on August 5.”

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However, India ignored these clear signals, determined as it was to delink Article 370 from China’s increasing aggression on the LAC. China then made the next overture. Even more direct this time. During the Chennai Connect informal summit of October 2019, Chinese President Xi Jinping suggested to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi an India-China-Pakistan trilateral “free from the influence of third parties”. This suggestion was also ignored by Modi.

Making this claim, Chinese minister of foreign affairs Wang Yi had told the media, “President Xi Jinping stressed that the Chinese side sincerely expects sound China-India relations, China-Pakistan relations and India-Pakistan relations and expects to see all sides work together to promote regional peace and stability and achieve development and prosperity.”

This was not a sudden proposal and India shouldn’t have been taken by surprise. The idea was first floated during the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in 2018. In an address to a Chinese embassy organised seminar in Delhi in June 2018, Chinese ambassador to India Luo Zhaohui said that India should join a trilateral mechanism with China and Pakistan. Saying that the idea was first mooted by some Indian scholars, Luo, in his address said, “Security cooperation is one of three pillars of the SCO. Some Indian friends suggested that China, India and Pakistan may have some kind of trilateral cooperation under the SCO.” Drawing a parallel between the Russia-Mongolia-China Dialogue, he said that a similar construct between China and the two South Asian nations was a possibility with potential.

Indian experts, while rejecting both the possibility and the potential, threw out the tea leaves with the tea without bothering to read the message. China had very explicitly stated its case for a prominent place on the Kashmir negotiating table. It is not only a party to the dispute, but would like a say, or more, in its resolution, was the message. Instead of realising that time was running out and India needed to start engagement with both Pakistan and China to retain a semblance of initiative on Kashmir, New Delhi went about its business as if it were a fortified island removed from its geography.

Refusing to connect the dots

The end of special status last year was followed by the institution of two Union Territories – Jammu-Kashmir and Ladakh. When China pointed out that this amounted to changing the status quo by unilaterally deciding boundaries, India pooh-poohed it. Then earlier this year, on April 1, the government notified new rules to determine the domicile status of the people in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. The domicile status would make the person almost equivalent to the resident of the state.

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That government meant business was evident when in June 2020, despite tension on the LAC and deadlocked military level talks with China, the Jammu-Kashmir administration granted domicile certificates to 25,000 people, mostly Hindu refugees from Pakistan who had settled in Jammu in the post-Partition decades. One J&K cadre IAS officer from Bihar was also granted the domicile status. In a subsequent statement to a journalist, the officer, with two years to retirement, said that he had applied for it because it was his right after the government changed the rules. He clarified that he had no intentions of either settling down in Kashmir after retirement or seeking benefits in Kashmir for his children. Clearly, the grant of domicile status to him was symbolic, indicating the government’s intent to go ahead with the complete integration of Jammu and Kashmir with India; as well as a veiled warning that it had the power to change the demography.

It also showed New Delhi’s determination to delink its actions in Kashmir from Chinese ministrations on the LAC. Only China was equally determined to not delink the two issues.

On June 4, deputy director of a Chinese ministry of state security-affiliated think tank, Institute of South Asian Studies at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR), Wang Shida wrote, “On the Chinese side, India opened up new territory on the map, incorporated part of the areas under the local jurisdiction of Xinjiang and Tibet into its Ladakh union territory… This forced China into the Kashmir dispute, stimulated China and Pakistan to take counter-actions on the Kashmir issue, and dramatically increased the difficulty in resolving the border issue between China and India.” According to Shida, India’s unilateral move of abrogating Article 370 and 35A from the state of J&K “posed a challenge to the sovereignty of Pakistan and China”.

Hence, to defend their ‘sovereignty’, the two all-weather friends have been playing to their strengths against India. While China began pushing against the LAC soon after the abrogation of the special status, Pakistan worked the ropes on the proxy war in Kashmir. To a lay person it may seem the ‘same old’ cross-border terrorism, but 2020 has been different. The terrorists who are coming across the Line of Control (LC) are better trained than the earlier ones. They have been able to inflict greater damage and their survival rate is better than until last year.

Also read: India-China Tensions: The Only Sensible Approach Is De-Escalation

A tough year for the security forces

Consequently, the year 2020 has been tough for the Indian security forces. According to South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), in 73 incidents since January 2020, a total of 132 militants and 13 civilians have been killed at the cost of 31 security forces personnel. This number includes at least two officers and five from the Special Forces. Worse, despite COVID-19 and periodic clampdown in the Valley, the practice of civilians converging at the site of the encounter to disrupt the operation continues.

In a throwback to the early days of the insurgency, when Pakistan propped up Jammu & Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), a seemingly non-Islamic insurgent group, a new ‘non-sectarian’ outfit has surfaced in the Valley, called The Resistance Front (TRF). This is to take the focus away from jihad to resistance of ‘military occupation’. Interestingly, all Pakistan-supported/sponsored outfits in Kashmir so far had Arabic names, lending them a veneer of religious sanction, thereby making joining them obligatory on all Muslims.

Local journalists, as well as personnel of the Kashmir police, claim that the TRF cadre comprises Kashmiri boys who are more committed and better trained than the Hizbul Mujahideen, which is why the security forces, including the army, are taking casualties. And it is only half a year gone.

Representative image of a security personnel in the Valley. Photo: Reuters

Yet, the government of India, afflicted by an exaggerated sense of self, has not only refused to press the pause button in Kashmir, it has been going ahead with its integration plans unmindful of the cost of doing so. Such is its determination to not connect the dots that even the senior commanders on the ground are working in a vacuum, not just doing the same things repeatedly, but also saying the same things.

For instance, on May 31, 2020, in an email interview to PTI, GOC 15 Corps Lt Gen. B.S. Raju said, “The back of terrorism is virtually broken. Because of the successes in eliminating terrorists operating in the hinterland, we expect cross-border infiltration to increase in the summer season… I anticipate more and more attempts to replenish the depleting cadres… All the terrorist camps and around 15 launch pads in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir are full.”

Nearly a month later, on June 29, he told Greater Kashmir that social media was being used to ‘propagate radical and false narratives’, both at the ‘local and international level’. “The aim of this propaganda is to instigate violence and instability in J&K… I am sure the people see through this… We have to be united to work against the efforts aiming to radicalise and misguide our future generations.”

This is not normal

If indeed the security forces, and by extension the government, had control over the situation, the political prisoners, including former chief minister Mehbooba Mufti, would have been released by now. The communication networks would have been restored. The government wouldn’t have been worried about the security of internal lines during the movement of army convoys. And there would have been no need to issue a directive to store two months’ supplies for the civilian population. Clearly, the government expects greater movement of sensitive military convoys, which will require frequent closure of the national highway for civilian traffic for extended period.

Also read: The Year of Living Dangerously for India and China

However, since the security forces are operating in a vacuum because of government’s impossible condition of not connecting the dots, they neither look back nor forward to discern a pattern in the happenings in the Valley or foresee the consequences of their actions.

Earlier this year, Kashmir experts figured that public funerals of slain militants act as motivators that inspire others to take to arms. Of course, civilian torture or deaths – wilful or accidental – does not motivate Kashmiri youth to turn to militancy; that only cows them into submission. Hence, to deny the youth the motivation for militancy, the police stopped the practice of handing over the bodies of killed militants to their families. Instead, they were sent to distant places for anonymous burial. Sonamarg, the last Kashmiri town en route Ladakh, is one such place chosen for quiet burial.

According to a poignant article written by two Kashmiri journalists for the Turkish news portal TRT World, Sonamarg was chosen for two reasons. One, being a popular tourist destination, the locals has a stake in peace. Hence, they have been removed from militancy. Two, being almost an outpost given its proximity to Zoji la, the town flanks the national highway on which military convoys ply on a daily basis. Hence, there is a substantial Indian Army presence there which precludes mass gathering, including funerals.

So, early this year, anonymous blood-soaked bodies started to arrive in Sonamarg at regular intervals. They were handed over to the local population for burial. The police had not taken into account the fact that local population was Kashmiri Muslim alright, even if they have traditionally not supported insurgency. Not one body was buried without funeral prayer. As word spread, more and more local men started collecting for funeral prayers. Conscious of what they were being asked to do, people started putting temporary markers on the graves, noting down whatever they knew – date of death, state of the body, possibly name of the dead etc, just in case their family members ever came.

And sure enough, they started coming. In a place like Kashmir, it is difficult to hide these things. As a result, a martyr’s graveyard has come up in Sonamarg, which is tended to by the local people, who not only carry out the last rites of the dead, but also look after the graves, saying the faateha (prayer for deliverance of the soul) every Friday. This is their contribution to the movement. At long last they have embraced the sentiment, without embracing the gun; for now. This cannot portend well for the future.

So, does Kashmir hold the key to honourable resolution of the LAC? Perhaps, given the way China and Pakistan’s interests are converging here. An overture of peace in Kashmir can certainly lessen the pain on India’s frontier with China.

Clearly, August 5 cannot be undone. But a process of engagement can start, which sends out the message that the government has hit the pause button on its integration plans and is open to creative ideas for resolution. It can start by releasing political prisoners and restoring internet. Warming up to the idea of the trilateral may also help.

Ghazala Wahab is executive editor FORCE newsmagazine and co-author of Dragon on our Doorstep: Managing China Through Military Power.