• Annapurna Menon

Trouble in Paradise: India is losing Kashmir

Often when the Kashmir valley is mentioned to an international audience, there is a discussion around unparalleled beauty, the culture, even the Led Zeppelin song but rarely the brutal reality of the region. While the Kashmir conflict is a long drawn one, the Indian state’s policy in relation to Kashmir has gone through several phases, depending on which party is in power at the centre though they all have one common belief: Kashmir is an integral part of India and shall remain so. Yet, the question of Kashmiris being integral is never really asked.

Jammu and Kashmir, the only Muslim majority state in a Hindu majority country becomes a particularly defining aspect of the BJP (Bhartiya Janata Party) government that has been accused of working consistently to stir communal tensions in different parts of the country. The general elections are scheduled for next year, and the government is fighting on an uncertain plank. The consensus is that it has largely failed to deliver on promises of development and economic progress, as evinced by the common man’s barometer – rising fuel and commodity prices. Thus, the centre-right government appears more keen than in 2014 – the last election cycle – to brand itself as the Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) party seems to have been pushed to cash in sentiments of their vote banks by adopting a hard-line approach to Kashmir.

Over the last few years, it is easy to spot a general trend that indicates the use of Kashmir by the ruling dispensation in Delhi, as a mere tool for consolidating the hawkish base in the rest of the country. Chief among these was the incident involving the tying of a civilian to a jeep and parading him on the streets by an Indian army officer – all caught on camera. The initial reaction of PM Modi’s government was a haphazard mix of cautious adherence to due process with an undertone of appreciation for the Army officer’s actions in “exceptional circumstances”. Soon though, the officer was awarded for valour by the army, without specifically mentioning any incident. Recently, about a year and a half later, the officer concerned was court martialled in a separate offence. While electioneering may have been the intent, the impact of such an atmosphere is rather discernible in motivated crimes against Kashmiris living in different parts of the country, especially students in universities.

After the elections in early 2015, the BJP went to great lengths to form the government in the state of Jammu and Kashmir – it allied with the PDP (People’s Democratic Party), a party at the diametrically opposite end of the ideological spectrum. At the time it was spun as a compromise to achieve lasting peace. The government, however, could not perform well. Within a year, the Chief Minister, a revered leader of the PDP Mufti Muhammad Sayeed passed away. His daughter, equally revered in the state, especially among Kashmiris, took over a few months after her father’s death. However, early this year, the BJP pulled out of the coalition with PDP after months of protracted violence in the state. The state is now being managed by the Central Government through an appointed Governor – as provided under the Constitutional Scheme.

Many believe BJP’s decision to pull out of the coalition was a calculated effort at distancing itself from the PDP before the 2019 elections – another attempt at rallying the base. All this continues amidst the controversial policies of India’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval. A former intelligence officer, Mr. Doval is a policy hawk and strongly supports dissolution of autonomy of the state to bring it at par with other Indian states – the state enjoys special protections under the Indian Constitution’s Art. 370. During his tenure as NSA, and someone who frames the policy on Kashmir, Mr. Doval seems to flirt with a scorched earth policy – dragging out military confrontation and acting with overwhelming force against “militancy”. The last few weeks of August have, however, shown a slight change of tact. However, violence continues and so does the uneasiness in the valley.

The month of August was marked by increased tension in Kashmiri civil society. The BJP government baited the state’s autonomy as petitions were filed by sympathetic members in Constitutional Courts to declare the state’s autonomy provisions invalid. These attempts were met with multiple protests and shutdowns in the Kashmir valley. While the court hearing has now been postponed to January 2019, the growing brigade of militants again pushed Kashmir to the brink. In the recent local body elections held in the state, Kashmir saw abysmal single digit turnouts, as both the National Conference, and PDP – the two regional parties – boycotted the elections in protest of the Governor’s rule. This does not bode well for India’s longstanding aim of bringing democracy to Kashmir.

It is no surprise therefore that militancy against the Indian state has rapidly increased. While several factors can account for the increase, a major reason seems to be the everyday forced policing employed by the Indian state. As warrantless searches in schools, random ID checks other forms of security theatre builds up, so does the frustration of the people. Ironically enough, India is having to continuously quell militancy among the youth of the state.

It also seems that the security forces have adopted a strategy of creating further divisions within the Kashmiri civil society. After the killing of two important militants – Altaf Ahmed Dhar and Umer Wani – on the 29th of August, militants retaliated by killing two police constables, a driver and an SPO in Shopian, South Kashmir. The Indian Army, in a tit for tat move, destroyed known residences of two militants rendering their families homeless, in the middle of the night.

The same night police detained the father of Riyaz Naikoo, a key commander of the terror group Hizbul Mujahideen, along with the rest of his family for “routine interrogation”. Soon after, militants retaliated and abducted the son of a state police officer. The next day, NIA detained the son of Syed Salahuddin, chief of the Hizbul Mujahideen. Soon after reports emerged of the militants abducting 11 people – all of them family members of J&K police personnel. It was only after the police released Naikoo’s father on the 30th of August that the militants released all those abducted. The abductions drew widespread condemnations from all sections of the Kashmiri civil society, while Riyaz Naikoo allegedly released an audio-clip warning civilians of collaborating with Indian forces and demanding that the J&K Police not come in their way.

What is particularly worrying, while at the same time revealing of the layers of the conflict, is the attempt by militants to separate the local police from the army and other Indian forces on the basis of their ethnicity. Burhan Wani, a militant commander whose encounter in July 2016 was the trigger for the present problems, also called for the state police to, in effect disobey the Indian state. While it is true that the police have local contacts which enable them to function better by reaching out, this sort of brazen call to mutiny by the militants, has never been seen.

Unfortunately for the people of Kashmir, the conflict is not at the doorstep, it is in their very homes, sitting in every nook and corner, and an omnipresent disruption for their lives. The conflict is personal and families have to make tough choices, especially for those whose members decide to pick up arms both for and against the Indian state.

It has become clear over the years that there is no easy way out of this situation but it is important to call attention to the Indian government’s hardening policy on Kashmir, and begin a serious discussion on its efficacy. This policy, built on the narrative of ‘national security’, ‘Kashmir as an integral part of India’ and ‘fear of Islamic radicalism in the valley’ has legitimised the use of ‘non-lethal’ pellet guns, human shields, unsolved allegations of rape, rejection of UN reports, and most disturbingly, targeting of families of those accused of militancy as a method of collective punishment for Kashmiri society.

It is important to remember that Human Rights Watch considers detention of militant families to be a war crime – something not allowed even in the case of ISIS members. Further, the use of the draconian AFSPA (Armed Forces Special Powers Act) and Public Safety Act have already resulted in a state of hyper-suspicion where every citizen is treated as a potential militant fertilizing the ground for further discontent and anger.

Beyond the obvious harm this does to the fabric Kashmiri society – the Kashmiriyat that late PM Vajpayee spoke of so eloquently – the blatant disregard of the UN Report and India’s continuing indifference to the allegations of atrocities is highly detrimental to India’s image as the world’s largest democracy. India’s status as a rising economic power combined with its increasing strategic influence has contained the international actors from criticising the India’s actions, further preventing introspection and course correction. Same is true for the international community’s lacklustre response to the rising trend of Hindutva in the country.

India maybe an economic power with a market big enough to silence even the toughest critics, but what it cannot ignore is the fact that the resistance movement in Kashmir only flourishes in an environment of conflict and hostility. A home-grown resistance movement which is feeding India’s own missteps will not be easy to quash. History evinces that the Indian state has rarely, if ever cared for Kashmiris but, if India wants to maintain it’s democratic image in the international arena, a strong reformulation of its policy towards Kashmir is needed. It might be a good time now for the ultra-nationalist Indian call out the atrocities save their country from becoming a fascist and colonizing state.

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About the Author

Annapurna Menon is a history graduate from Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University, India and currently pursuing her masters in International Relations from the University of Westminister, United Kingdom.

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