Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah with political leaders from Kashmir in New Delhi, June 24
IT IS HARD to figure out what Prime Minister Narendra Modi really wanted to achieve with the talks his Government initiated with Kashmiri mainstream leaders late last month. After the meeting, Kashmir’s two main political parties, the National Conference (NC) and the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) put forth their takeaways from the meeting that were best suited to their perception of the political road ahead.
Why did New Delhi initiate the talks? And did it gain something from them? Or is it repeating the same old mistakes in Kashmir? These questions are mired in complexity, which remains a hallmark of any possible roadmap of the Kashmir solution.
But one thing is clear. The talks did not happen because, as some commentators put it, India was under international pressure to forge peace with Pakistan, for which, they said, a forward movement in Kashmir was essential. It is clear because, for Pakistan, the idea of ceasefire, declared in February this year, has only meant cessation of exchange of fire on the Line of Control (LoC). That apart, its activities to spread terror in Kashmir continue from its old playbook.
Two days after the talks, suspected Jaish terrorists barged into the house of a Special Police Officer (SPO) in South Kashmir and killed him and his wife and daughter. Earlier, a police inspector was killed by two men who crept up behind him as he was returning from a mosque, shooting him from close range. A few days prior to that, another unarmed policeman was killed near his home in Srinagar.
Such attacks were executed two decades ago in Kashmir by the Jaish commander Ghazi Baba, the mastermind of the 2001 Parliament attack—recruiting local youth, who would kill policemen all over Srinagar in ones and twos. It is in many ways the infrastructure created by him in Kashmir (he was killed in an encounter with the security forces in 2003) that the Jaish still uses in Kashmir.
The police had started identifying state government employees helping terrorists. The Centre was banking on a simple formula: Create a sense that the administration is functioning with people’s participation while New Delhi controls it through the office of the Lieutenant Governor
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Even as the police in Kashmir were dealing with it, Pakistan resorted to a fresh escalation. Two drones flew into Indian territory, about 14 kilometres from the International Border (IB), dropping explosives over the air force station in Jammu. It did not result in any major damage but could easily have. Since then, several such drone activities have been spotted near the IB. The response to this threat, which experts have been cautioning the Government about for quite some time, was predictable. The Chief of the Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, told a news channel that India had to start preparing for future generation warfare, as if it were something that had begun only with the attack on the air force station. But, finally, the prime minister also chaired a meeting to assess India’s response to such attacks in future. India also raised the matter at the UN General Assembly, calling for “serious attention” towards “use of weaponised drones for terrorist purposes against strategic and commercial assets.”
The immediate terror component apart, it is also clear that the Government’s long-term plan of creating an alternative to both NC and PDP has not taken off. In the run-up to the events of August 5th, 2019, after the abrogation of Article 370, the Modi Government had sent a strong message that it would not repeat its past mistakes and numerous others committed by previous governments. The abrogation had been carried out following the first retaliatory strike in the heart of Pakistan after the Pulwama suicide attack, the biggest terror attack in Kashmir in three decades. On February 14th, 2019, a Kashmiri suicide bomber rammed his explosive-laden car into a convoy of the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF), killing 40 soldiers (see the following book excerpt). The same evening, the decision to strike Balakot would be taken. In many ways, the decision on the abrogation of Article 370 had also been strengthened after the suicide attack.
This was also overruling the colossal mistake of joining hands with PDP in 2015, which had once again bolstered the separatist sentiment in Kashmir Valley. Years of hard work put in by the Jammu and Kashmir Police had come to naught after PDP’s Mufti Mohammad Sayeed ordered the release of separatist elements arrested on various charges. This culminated in the rise of local terrorist commanders like Burhan Wani whose death in July 2016 would push Kashmir into deep chaos.
The abrogation had served two purposes. First: it had given finality to the idea that the accession of Kashmir to India was complete and that no matter how many hot summers of unrest would be programmed by separatists, this would remain non-negotiable. Second: it also created a fear of the law in the minds of separatists who till then saw India as a weak state. It was around this time that terrorists like Yasin Malik and Bitta Karate and separatist leaders like Rashid Engineer were put behind bars on solid evidence put together by the National Investigation Agency (NIA). Many others were taken into preventive custody, based on their past history of mischief-making. One of them was a young man in his twenties, Shakir Bashir. He later turned out to be a Jaish terrorist, one of the key individuals involved in the Pulwama suicide attack, the one who drove the suicide bomber to the spot where he hit the convoy.
Killing terrorists, beyond a point, doesn’t serve any purpose. The real challenge— and this would go a long way in enabling political alternatives in Kashmir — is to hit at the source of radicalisation
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In the political situation unfolding after the abrogation, PDP had become irrelevant. NC had mellowed too. A message had gone across that competitive secessionism no longer paid dividends. No Kashmiri leader who created confusion in the minds of Kashmiris about India would be made part of any solution.
As the troublemakers were pushed against the wall, the police began an all-out operation against terrorists. By the beginning of 2020, the Pulwama attack case had been cracked by NIA. In August, a year after the abrogation, a chargesheet with evidence leading all the way to Jaish in Pakistan and to the Pakistani establishment had been filed. There was no complete ebbing of terrorist activity. In South Kashmir, especially, Jaish had entrenched itself with the help of highly trained Pakistani commanders. Finding sympathisers and overground workers was not a problem. But the situation had not exploded like it did in 2016, as many had expected.
The police and other investigating agencies had also started identifying state government employees who were part of the system but were actually helping terrorist organisations. These included several police constables, a lab technician in one of Kashmir’s premier hospitals, an assistant lineman in the Public Health Engineering department and a bank manager. The viable political alternative which was expected had not been formed, but the Government was banking on a simple formula: create a sense that the administration is functioning with people’s participation at smaller levels while New Delhi controls it all through the office of the Lieutenant Governor. In the meantime, it was supposed to work on building a new breed of politicians whose brief would be clear: work for the betterment of the people, but also be firm on their loyalty to the Indian Constitution.
This was obviously a time-consuming process. But nobody had expected it to be easy in the first place. Even as this was being sought, the Government kept hitting PDP and NC, calling them the “Gupkar Gang”, after a multi-party alliance they and others had formed to resist Modi’s plans in Kashmir.
As anti-terrorist operations continued, targeted killings of those who had reposed trust in the idea of India continued as well.
And in the middle of all this came the Government’s sudden decision to invite PDP and NC, among others, to Delhi to participate in talks chaired by the prime minister himself. Politics is all about flexibility, but in Kashmir it is this flexibility without context that has proven costly to India’s interests.
What was the meaning of these talks? Maybe it was a symbolic gesture to showcase the Government’s willingness to engage with its political adversaries and its commitment to granting statehood back to Kashmir.
But it brings Kashmiris back to square one. If they were made to believe that the “Gupkar Gang” was anti-national, then why were its parties invited to Delhi? If the Government thought it was calling them for symbolic purposes and to disarm them, had it taken into account that these parties would derive the same benefit?
Shortly after the talks were announced, PDP’s Mehbooba Mufti said Pakistan should be made part of the talks. Now, at the meeting with Modi and others, she may not have said that. But it doesn’t matter. A message has gone out to her constituency that she is the one still betting on Pakistan’s involvement in Kashmir. It immediately ups her bet and makes her a player—a chance that had been lost but has now been resurrected. She is now saying her party will not compromise on Article 370.
The abrogation had served two purposes. First: it had given finality to the idea that the accession of Kashmir to India was complete and non-negotiable. Second: it also created a fear of the law in the minds of separatists who saw India as a weak state
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NC’s response to the meeting was along expected lines. It said that while the party would like to contest the abrogation of Article 370, it would do so without taking the law into its hands. NC is clearly hoping that in the face of a belligerent Mehbooba who has played her separatist card, it would win favour with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and at some point be a part of any future political dispensation.
Is that what BJP will do in the end? Or does it have other plans, now that it has set a delimitation process in motion as well? Will that change the number of seats in the legislative Assembly, paving the way for more seats from the Hindu-majority Jammu region and, finally, resulting in a Hindu chief minister? These are long-term questions for which answers or any prediction would be futile at this point.
But as Kashmiris grapple with the new political reality, it is also time to tweak the existing counterinsurgency model in the Valley. The J&K Police along with other security agencies have done a fine job in eliminating terrorists. Barring highly trained operatives from Pakistan, the local terrorists are mostly poorly trained and end up dying holed up in their hideouts as soon as their presence is detected. While the killing of terrorists is important, beyond a point it doesn’t serve any purpose. As long as there is radicalisation, young men like the Pulwama suicide bomber Adil Dar and his accomplice Shakir Bashir will keep on turning to terrorist folds. The real challenge—and this would go a long way in enabling political alternatives in Kashmir—is to hit at the source of radicalisation. In their neighbourhood mosques or madrasas, or even in their localities, there is no dearth of venom that ultimately consumes many young Kashmiris. Later, they turn the gaze of this hatred towards others like the SPO and his family in South Kashmir. In the Pulwama conspiracy case, for example, the Pakistani Jaish terrorists managed to brainwash a boy who would have seemed out of the range of their influence. The boy, Waiz-ul-Islam, studying to become a doctor, instead became a courier for them. At some point in time, there was a chance that the Jaish masterminds would have motivated him to become a suicide bomber like Adil Dar. But the NIA officers investigating the Pulwama case reached him first. He is now in a Jammu jail where he has been provided with books pertaining to medical entrance exams.
The bigger challenge New Delhi has in Kashmir is to reach the likes of Waiz-ul-Islam before Jaish does. For that, it is imperative that no game of smoke and mirrors be played. These games have cost a lot in the past. Not playing them in Kashmir’s context also means Delhi should make up its mind on individuals and groups whose interests run contrary to its interests in Kashmir.