By Abhinav Pandya
It wasn’t far back when we all jubilated over the peace process in Kashmir within the framework of kashmiriyat (Kashmir’s cultural and political values), jamhooriyat (democracy) and insaniyat (humanity). Atal Bihari Vajpayee had declared a unilateral ceasefire for the holy month of Ramadan, and it seemed that some sort of breakthrough would be achieved soon. The breakthrough did not come, but at least there was fresh hope of change and peace. It seemed as if, even when a stable solution wasn’t achieved, then at least the peace process would continue and Kashmir would retain an emotional connection and hope for New Delhi.
However, the Kashmir of 2017 looks very different. Ikram Ullah writes in Foreign Policy: “India is losing whatever support it had among the general Kashmiri public, and this trend will continue unless it brings about a radical change in its Kashmir policy.” He says the Indian government has been dishonest in dealing with Kashmir. It has continued with economic packages, but there is not even a distant hope of any breakthrough in the security situation.
Further, Kashmiri youth are joining militant groups, and this feeling of alienation among Kashmiris can be seen in the large number of civilians attending the funerals of Hizbul and Lashkar militants with jihadi credentials like Burhan Wani, Shariq Ahmad Butt and Abu Qasim. This is an alarming development as it presents the twin challenge of radicalization and separatism. Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes that New Delhi’s “strategy of containment by force has failed,” and “Kashmir is more in the grip of militancy and radicalization at any point in the last 15 years.”
Fomenting public interest
The whole issue has its moorings in the stone-pelting of Indian soldiers by civilians in the Kashmir Valley and the response of security forces to such unrest. Recent incidents where a civilian was used as a human shield and the use of pellet guns have been portrayed as the odious examples of state atrocity and ruthlessness at its peak.
In addition, the image of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as Hindutva — an ideology seeking to establish the hegemony of Hindus and the Hindu way of life — hardliners has also blown the unreasonable fears out of proportion and created an atmosphere of suspicion, alienation, disconnect and fear. The jingoistic and hyper-nationalistic media frenzy, the brigade of Hindutva Twitter trolls, the rapaciousness of cow-protection thugs and the sporadic incidents of violence against Kashmiri students have added fuel to the fire and deepened the sense of alienation.However, the issue is not as simple as it looks. The way it is being seen, in terms of the binaries of nationalism and anti-nationalism, is a fallacious approach to looking at such a critical development from the policy perspective. The international media have not been able to produce a nuanced analysis of the entire issue. They have downplayed the role of intense Wahhabi radicalization and that of Pakistan in sponsoring the stone-throwers. Recently, The Times of India brought forward substantial evidence of Pakistan’s envoy playing a crucial role in sponsoring the unrest, with the active involvement of separatist leaders like Shabbir Shah.
There are several layers to this issue. It could be an element of the psy-ops warfare by Pakistan, with its own strategic dividends. Although the policy has been in existence since 2008-09, its utility has increased manifold as of late. After a series of fedayeen attacks and Indian countermeasures in the form of surgical strikes, there is a possibility that in Pakistani strategic circles the fear of minor or major offensive action — overt or covert — at the behest of India has increased. The direct or indirect sponsoring of terrorist attacks as an option already exhausted its utility after the 2008 Mumbai attacks and the discovery of Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil in 2011. In the global strategic and popular consciousness, Pakistan emerged as a country providing safe havens to terrorists.
Hence, it could be a new tactic to keep Kashmir restive. First, it is cost-effective and safe as there is no need to execute large-scale infiltration, sabotage activities and terrorist attacks. Second, there is no risk of being caught as with the Mumbai attacks. And as far as the reasons for keeping the Kashmir issue alive are concerned, a lot of them have to do with the internal dynamics of the Pakistani state, its raison d’être and the civil-military conflict. It might not be easy to engage India through conventional military and insurgency methods, but to psychologically demoralize a democratic state and disprove its credentials in front of the international community, fomenting public unrest can be a highly effective strategy.
As an old adage goes, one should hurt where it pinches the most, so the case of discrediting India and its robust democracy through pictures of schoolchildren throwing stones at security forces could convey a strong message about their faith in the Indian state and their willingness to remain as part of it. For Pakistan, it is easier and more rewarding for The New York Times to publish an opinion piece lambasting India for its perceived ruthlessness, with footage of civilians injured with pellet guns and humans being used as shields by the army, than organize a fedayeen attack on an Indian army base.
It could also be a blackmailing tool to compel the Indian state to negotiate with the extremist hardliners, thereby giving them more legitimacy, clout and appeal to such proxy popular agent provocateurs. There is an attempt to bring the Indian state to its knees. However, it seems unlikely that Kashmir’s political parties, separatists leaders or the Pakistani state (meaning the army) have any genuine interest in finding a lasting solution to the Kashmir issue, as all of them want to keep their utility intact for obvious reasons. Everyone wants a share of the pie that is already rotten.
Further, it leads to hyper-nationalistic sentiments across the nation. Added to this is the media frenzy and biased reporting of the entire issue where the only motive is to garner higher TV ratings by pitting the Kashmiris against India and fomenting such fanatic nationalism across the country. Then, the whole issue gets compounded by the perception of the BJP government as following a Hindutva agenda. The anti-minority bias of the present government could be a reality or a perception of something or both. However, the incidents of Muslims being killed by thugs of cow-protection vigilantes are definitely giving much-needed fodder to such perceptions and giving rise to fears among minorities.
Another dimension to the entire conflict is unnoticed fact of Wahhabi radicalization in Kashmir and the damage being done to its syncretic culture that has historically thrived on the harmonious Sufi traditions. A large number of madrasas and Wahhabi preachers have mushroomed in the hinterlands of Kashmir, and the youth are coming under their influence.
This process is happening very smoothly because of its overlapping with the separatist sentiment. The intense religious radicalization has enabled strong mobilization of the youth around separatist sentiment, but its long-term repercussions are largely being ignored or unnoticed. Ultimately, the religious extremism will discredit the Kashmiri cause and contribute to further worsening of the situation, making the prospects of a political solution within the framework of the Indian constitution even more difficult.
The government’s response so far has been ad-hoc, knee-jerk reactionary and emotional. Firstly, there is no strategy that reflects a nuanced understanding on the part of the Indian government of the classic strategic games of the Pakistani establishment. The response seems to be shuttling between a hardline approach and playing soft ball, at random or in response to the media coverage and public outcry. Such instances like the use of pellet guns and human shields are presented out of context, projecting only one side of the story. In turn, they add to the sentiment of separatism and the sense of alienation among Kashmiris. Thus, something that might have begun purely as a strategic move by the unfriendly neighbor starts gaining legitimacy and appeal among the people.
Playing the game
The policymakers need to understand these games and craft a well-calibrated strategy in response. The response has to be multi-pronged. First of all, it needs to be recognized that it is a political problem that needs a political solution. The law-and-order mindset can be the most atrocious blunder in such a delicate situation. Unless the government does not come up with fresh ideas for political solutions that are sensitive to the Kashmiri aspirations, the frustration among the youth will not subside.
New Delhi needs to show its sincerity and honesty in providing a framework for a political solution. It cannot keep doling out economic packages to mask the real problem. The government needs to see beyond the coterie of separatist leaders and engage the student leaders, business representatives and civil society working at the ground level.
Further, by not talking to separatist leaders, if New Delhi thinks that it has sidelined them then it’s a misconception. By doing this, the government is giving them a free rein to engage Pakistan through hidden and open channels, thus opening the floodgates of sympathy for such provocateurs.
New Delhi needs to come out of these self-imposed mental barriers and engage the separatists not only to show its generosity to accommodate their sentiments, but also for the obvious reasons of statecraft. It does not befit the world’s largest democracy with the ambitions of global leadership to make an amateurish display of its deep-rooted insecurities and rigidities.
However, the term of engagement with separatists is a field where India needs sharp analytical minds that can break the ice, if not make a perfect deal. The people who are assigned to such policymaking must be experts in intelligence, politics, diplomacy, negotiation and military affairs. Entrusting such a crucial task to people with a certain ideological bent may be the worst approach to resolving the Kashmir issue.
The government already has a template.
First, it can begin with Vajpayee’s Kashmir solution. The former Indian prime minister had displayed a statesman-like approach when he went an extra mile in 2001 and extended peace proposals based on democracy, humanity and Kashmir’s cultural and political aspirations. Kashmiriyat and insaniyat are as relevant today as they were in 2001.
Second, media coverage of the issue needs to be taken seriously and appropriate corrective measures must be implemented.
Third, social media with its army of Twitter trolls needs to be kept in check if the state wants to prevent the passions from spiraling out of control.
Fourth, economic development, academic fellowships for Kashmiris and relief packages might work wonders in giving a healing touch.
Fifth, the government needs to condemn all cases of human-rights violations like the use of civilians as shields. There has to be a response mechanism outlining the reasonable use of force while dealing with stone-throwers.
Sixth, India also needs to convey its concerns, interests and sincere intentions to achieve a political breakthrough, in clear and precise terms, to the international community. While doing this, India must ensure the support of the world community, and strong diplomatic activity needs to be undertaken to expose the role of Pakistan in fomenting the unrest.
Finally, New Delhi must keep the seriousness of the issue intact. It cannot just let the entire issue acquire a communal color because of activities of the mobs of Hindu extremists and semi-literate media intellectuals. These are serious national security issues that must be kept out of the purview of such petty stakeholders and their narrow political and economic interests.
Kashmir has been through far worse phases. The present situation is not as disheartening as the valley of the 1990s. But if the genie is not tamed now, then it could spin out of control at any moment.
Abhinav Pandya is a policy analyst who specializes in counterterrorism, Indian foreign policy and Af-Pak geopolitics.
Featured image source: Wiki commons
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