The Centre Is Defeating Itself in Kashmir

The government's retaliatory approach in the region has been ineffective, which warrants a reassessment of its strategy.

The Centre recently announced a conditional ceasefire in Jammu and Kashmir during Ramzan, agreeing not to launch counter-insurgency operations in the Muslim-majority state throughout the holy month. The offer provides a needed respite for the region, which has seen the army’s use of force rise in both frequency and intensity since 2016.

In the first four months of 2018, India and Pakistan exchanged fire along the Line of Control (LoC) at a pace that has set the year on course to be the most violent for the ceasefire line in 15 years. Similarly, the post-2016 Kashmir Valley has also seen elevated death tolls for militants and even civilians because of the army’s forceful approach. With this use of force, India hopes to punish both Pakistan and Kashmiri civilians to draw support away from the rejuvenated militancy and separatist political movement. However, the Centre’s retaliatory approach has been ineffective, and this failure warrants a reassessment of its strategy.

Upping the ante

Pakistan’s support for the infiltration of militants across the LoC has historically been India’s most cited reason for violations of the ceasefire informally arranged in 2003. Islamabad’s backing of separatist militant groups since the insurgency in the 1990s is well-documented, and it continues to reap the strategic gains of keeping the Indian Army preoccupied with militants attempting to infiltrate and the activity of armed groups within the Muslim-majority areas of Kashmir.

Of late, New Delhi has confronted this dilemma with increased firepower to retaliate against Pakistan. Articulated in March by army chief Bipin Rawat, India’s position is that it will continue up the intensity of punishment on the LoC until Pakistan curbs its support for infiltration.

In what Happymon Jacob, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University who heads the Indo-Pak Conflict Monitor, deems India’s strategy of “disproportionate bombardment,” ceasefire violations began to heighten in 2016 as a response to two major attacks by Pakistan-backed militants – on the Pathankot airbase and the one in Uri.

While official estimates on both sides differ significantly due to the informality of the ceasefire agreement, Pakistan recently claimed that India has carried out more than 1,000 ceasefire violations since the new year, while the Indian side cited 747 violations in late April. Compared to the 860 and 1,970 violations India and Pakistan reported last year and the meagre 449 and 382 claimed in 2016, today the ceasefire line is on fire.

The view from the Valley

The Central government’s strategy in the Kashmir Valley after 2016 has been similarly rooted in disproportionate punishment. After the death of Burhan Wani, a Hizbul Mujahideen commander, in July 2016, the once-abated militancy began to show signs of new life. Consequently, the security apparatus in Kashmir and the Central government in New Delhi began to take a hard line towards the revived insurgency. Through ‘Operation All Out’, they targeted leaders of Pakistan-backed groups like Lashkar-e-Tayyabba with renewed vigour. Security agencies reinstated the use of cordon and search operations, a token of India’s counter-insurgency strategy in the 1990s, and killed 213 militants in 2017 alone in a pronounced rise compared to previous years.

Though the stated aim of this strategy is to quell the Pakistan-supported militancy, the government has also been using disproportionate force to signal to Kashmiri civilians that there will be retaliation if they support the anti-state movement or join militant groups themselves. Those who fill the streets to protect militants during search-and-kill encounters or to protest civilian deaths are often met with violence.

Earlier this year, six Kashmiris were killed by the security forces in Shopian district in south Kashmir. In response to public outcry over the deaths, which many in Kashmir contended were unjustified as four of the boys killed were not militants, director general of police S.P. Vaid did not break from the narrative, stating “joining terrorism only [leads] to loss of life and nothing can be achieved.”

Earlier this year, six Kashmiris were killed by the security forces in Shopian district in south Kashmir. Credit: Reuters

The limits of punishment

The Centre’s strategy of disproportionate punishment has proven unproductive. In the Kashmir Valley, the graph above demonstrates that although militant deaths have gone up between 2015 and 2017, incidents of terrorism have increased slightly over the same time. These fatalities also haven’t affected violence in 2018, since the number of terror attacks in the first three months of this year outpaced the rate of attacks in the same period last year.

More importantly, civilians are continuing to sympathise with the insurgency, as signified by the funeral processions of slain fighters that attract crowds of hundreds. The trend of young Kashmiri men joining the militancy has been capturing the attention of the media, with chief minister Mehbooba Mufti admitting that over 100 joined militant groups in 2017.

Meanwhile, the growing number of infiltration attempts suggests Pakistan has far from abandoned its approach to Kashmir. Moreover, security officials have confirmed that Jaish-e-Mohammed – who not long ago was thought to be nearly absent from the Valley – is one of its strongest groups, with intelligence officials warning that it is planning to conduct joint operations with the struggling Hizbul Mujahideen. These suspicions are corroborated by the deadly assault carried out by Pakistani nationals belonging to the group at the Sunjuwan military station near Jammu in February in which five security personnel and one civilian were killed.

The Ramzan ceasefire indicates that New Delhi has already begun sensing the failure of its strategy in the Kashmir Valley. Recently, The Hindu reported that security agencies recently conceded that their heavy-handed approach was “not yielding the desired results”. This has led security forces to plan for a change in strategy in which newly recruited militants would be arrested – rather than killed – to avoid aiding militant recruitment efforts. However, India’s disproportionate response to Pakistan remains unchanged.

Punishment is a tactic, not a strategy. What New Delhi lacks is a workable strategy to deal with the growing militancy problem in Kashmir, which is strengthened by Pakistan’s support for infiltration as well as the sympathies of Kashmiri civilians. To confront the militancy in the short-term, India can concentrate on making it more difficult for militants to infiltrate and carry out attacks by investing in border security and bridging shortcomings in intelligence.

However, if the government wishes to evoke long-term behavioural changes from those in Pakistan and Kashmir, political dialogue is imperative. Towards Pakistan, steps should be made towards a peace process in the same vein as the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-era composite dialogue.

In the Kashmir Valley, the Centre already has existing avenues for dialogue, but the challenge is in conveying that it is serious about responding to the grievances of Kashmiris. In both cases, lowering both the frequency and intensity of violence is a necessary component of a dialogue-centred strategy, as a continuation of a disproportionate punishment approach towards Pakistan on the LoC and civilians in Kashmir will only lead to dead ends.

Emily Tallo is a researcher at the Stimson Center’s South Asia Program in Washington, DC.