Don’t be afraid of the dark
The intensity of stone-pelting by violent mobs in Kashmir valley, which started in June this year, has abated substantially due to firmer policing and bold political outreach by the government. Although violence has largely been suppressed, the situation is not yet fully under control. In this tinder-box scenario, there is a real danger that the situation may flare up again at the slightest provocation. Many analysts, have asked the Union government to assume a more proactive and accommodating approach towards the Islamist separatists. Without some complaisant overtures from New Delhi, they warn, stone-throwing protesters may give way to Kalashnikov-wielding terrorists, from within the valley and from across the border. This, they argue, will take the situation back to full-blown militancy.
Such fears are unwarranted. The armed insurgency has seen a steady decline in Kashmir since 2004 neither because of a change of heart in the Pakistani military-jihadi complex nor due to a wilful choice made by the Kashmiri populace. It followed the declaration of a ceasefire between India and Pakistan on the Line of Control (LoC) in 2003. Pakistani posts could no longer provide covering fire to facilitate infiltration. Border fencing along the LoC in 2004 created a formidable physical barrier making infiltration much more difficult. For its part, the Indian army acquired better surveillance and detection equipment. In addition, the three-tier deployment of the army and Rashtriya Rifles, which evolved from the institutional experience of the preceding 15 years thwarted infiltrators’ plans.
Let us not forget that by the mid-1990s, the insurgency in Kashmir was conducted predominantly (almost 85 percent) by jihadis from Pakistan, with a sprinkling of militants of other nationalities. The small percentage of indigenous Kashmiri youth who were picking up guns had to exfiltrate across the LoC for training and logistics before infiltrating into the valley again. While the security forces eliminated militants in the rural and semi-urban areas of Kashmir, the supply line to replenish declining numbers had turned into a trickle over the years. Consequently, the number of terrorists inside Jammu & Kashmir came down from an estimated high of 3500 in 2004 to about 500 this year.
Two points merit attention here. First, stone-pelting in the Kashmir valley is mainly an urban phenomenon whereas the insurgency was—and whatever remains of it, is—a rural enterprise. It will not be easy for the urban stone-pelter to morph into an AK-wielding terrorist.
Second, post-9/11, Islamist or jihadi terror stands completely discredited as an expression of political grievance the world over. A reversion to full-blown insurgency by Pakistan in Kashmir would only further strengthen India’s case. Moreover, while the Indian state is struggling with handling the current mode of violent protests, it easily has the resources, experience and the capability to take on militancy in a far more effective manner.
Some western analysts contend that since Pakistan has fought three wars with India over Kashmir, it could again be the flashpoint for a fresh conflict between the two nuclear-armed neighbours. However, going by the evidence of last twenty years, India has demonstrated an ability to absorb serious terrorist attacks in Kashmir without getting overly provoked.
Instead, it is a new 26/11 Mumbai-like attack on an Indian urban centre outside Jammu and Kashmir that has the potential of forcing the Indian political leadership to choose a punitive military option against Pakistan. Even there, Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal deters India from pursuing a conventional military option. There can be no better gauge of India’s military restraint in Kashmir than the existing ceasefire on the LoC, which has held in good measure for the last six years. India has persevered with the ceasefire despite frequent violations by the Pakistan army to facilitate infiltration attempts into the state. The decrepit economic condition of Pakistan and the fact that almost 45 percent of its troops are now deployed for internal security duties further precludes the probability of another war over Kashmir.
Many Indian commentators, by contrast, express fears that a continuing situation in Kashmir could be an invitation for US meddling in the dispute. Ever since President Barack Obama took office, Pakistan has been persistently demanding US intervention on Kashmir but to little avail. After his initial attempts as a presidential candidate, when he floated the idea of a special envoy for Kashmir, President Obama now seems to realise that the issue is a red herring in India-Pakistan relations. As Lisa Curtis, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation, has noted, “Kashmir represents Pakistani paranoia about an emerging India. At the heart of the issue is convincing Pakistan that building up its economy is the best way for it to protect its regional interests, not trying to wreak havoc on its neighbours. I think there’s a growing understanding within the Obama administration on this point, so we won’t see the president trying to seek a high profile role on Kashmir.” If India could successfully stave off international pressure on Kashmir in the 1990s, when it was less influential geopolitically, it is now even more unlikely to be rolled over by Washington.
These enduring throw-away lines about India’s inability to tackle stone-pelters leading to a reboot of the jihadi militancy in Kashmir, an India-Pakistan nuclear conflagration, an unwarranted US intervention, or all three eventualities, do not hold good under closer scrutiny. However, this cannot be an excuse to disregard or play down the fact that the governments in New Delhi and Srinagar need to restore peace and normalcy to Kashmir. This cannot be an event; it has to be a process.
The nuances of the process and the nature of its starting point have already been enunciated in the eight-point plan announced by the Indian government. The extant task is to implement this plan with determination. This must be done not because of some unfounded fears, but for the right reason. And that reason is simple: because it is the primary constitutional duty of the Indian state to establish the rule of law and ensure security of all its citizens, including in the state of Jammu & Kashmir.
Sushant K Singh is editor of Pragati and manages the national security programme at the Takshashila Institution.