On its third anniversary, the second Modi government has been flaunting its ‘achievements and successes’. It’s a good time therefore to ask if its Kashmir policy is a success, failure, or more of the same. We mean as Indian governments are accused by the BJP of having done in the past: muddling along.
If we let the recent targeted killings, especially of outsiders and Kashmiri Pandits inform our judgement, you’d be inclined to call Modi government’s approach a failure.
We will, however, side-step that temptation for three reasons. One, policy appraisals must never be episodic. Two, violence in Kashmir Valley needs to be seen in its geographical perspective. We aren’t news TV channels to jump at these and declare Apocalypse, the return of 1990 and so on. We hold our fire. And three, if anyone thought Kashmir was resolved with that 5 August, 2019 decision on its constitutional status, they must re-read Kashmir 101.
The constitutional changes were celebrated by the BJP/RSS faithful as the fulfilment of one of their key ideological goals. If you’ve been following my work, you might remind me also that I too hailed that decision as audacious and positive. As this week’s argument unfolds, I will also explain why I remain steadfast. I will also explain to you the limitations of that change.
The numbers from the Valley are available and lend themselves to comfortable both-sidism. If we look at total (mostly targeted) civilian killings, they number 29 until now, taking 5 October, 2021 as the starting date when popular pharmacist M.L. Bindroo was killed. As we explained in this episode of #CutTheClutter this number isn’t at all remarkable either on the high or low side compared to the norm in the Valley.
In fact, if you look at the data on the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), if there is one thing that’s remained stable since 2010 in the Kashmir Valley, it is the number of civilian killings. Even in the four years before Narendra Modi was voted in with a majority, the number had varied between about 19 to 34 per year. That’s how it has continued under the two Modi governments barring in 2018 when it went up to 86. The number of killings has neither risen, nor declined. If the Valley situation was hellish before May 2014, it isn’t heavenly now. Or vice versa.
Hand on your heart, if you are a Modi/BJP supporter, aren’t you disappointed at the continuation of more of the same old in the Valley? When Modi and his party campaigned for 2014, they had promised a much tougher approach on Kashmir, throwing out the waffling of the past.
The plight of the Kashmiri Pandits and how secular parties failed them in 1990 was held out as an example of weak governance. A Modi government would show the terrorists, Indian or Pakistani, that their business was now over. Month after month since then, the terrorists have demonstrated that they do not think so.
If anything, the wide and wild celebration over the film The Kashmir Files has given them a strategic opening. The film, which enjoys such massive patronage from the BJP, establishes that the Kashmiri Pandits suffered killings and the Valley’s version of ethnic cleansing in 1990, because India had a weak, cowardly government. What will you call the current one then if terrorists resume killing the same Kashmiri Pandits, unleashing another flight?
Let’s not be confused by the tourist and Amarnath pilgrimage numbers. There have been many good years on those parameters in the past two decades. The test in the Valley is whether you can make it safe enough for outsiders to work there and the Pandit natives to return. That hasn’t happened.
Again, if you are a Modi government enthusiast and mad at me for daring to tell it as it is, the question you are likely to throw at me is something like: how do you expect Modi to fully normalise a situation messed up over 70 years by Nehru-Gandhi-Abdullah-Mufti dynasties, Pakistan and Islamic radicalism? It will take time. You’ve got to be patient. Which, precisely, is my point.
The problem originates in the belief that somehow independent India’s true history only began in the summer of 2014. That everything that came to pass before that was a compromise on the national interest. Once you make that assumption, you’d expect history to begin afresh everywhere, including in Kashmir. Uri, Balakot, Article 370, The Kashmir Files, you get much to celebrate.
And then you find your daily headlines are more of the same. Killings of Hindus, especially Pandits, TV generals are furious as before. Teach the Pakistanis a lesson, launch a holy war on the unholy jihad mindset and so on.
It is my moment then to turn your question on to you. Did you really expect this chronic issue between two nuclear-armed neighbours with strong armies and total distrust to be resolved just because you had voted in the government you wanted? Kashmir needs patience, realism and, if I may dare say so, some humility. No headline, even another catastrophic terror attack, God forbid, would take Kashmir away from India. No headline, even on the momentous 5 August, 2019 decisions, would end the crisis.
Now we resolve the contradiction of how we hail the decision on Article 370, and yet call the situation unsatisfactory in the Valley. Because that constitutional decision was set in a higher politico-strategic space, not in a tactical one on the ground. To expect that it was going to end terror, violence, alienation and ok, if you so prefer, Islamised jihad in the Valley, was wishful thinking.
You might say that the Modi government and the BJP are to blame for having oversold that as a brave new dawn and the end of darkness, but they are politicians. They will declare victory at the slightest excuse. That’s why now their discomfiture is so great. The Home Minister, National Security Advisor, Lieutenant Governor are all having crisis meetings. This, when the total number of civilians killed in almost half of this year, is 19. It’s 19 too many, but this is Kashmir.
Here is what that decision on Article 370 etc meant politico-strategically. As long as it was on the books and Kashmir had a special status in India, the rest of the world, and especially Pakistan made the presumption that status of all of Jammu and Kashmir was negotiable. So they also lived on that hope.
But 5 August ended that. Here on, the message from India was, J&K is a part of India like any other state and while we are open for negotiations, what’s negotiable is the territory you hold, what we call PoK. Modi government’s success lies in the fact the world, including the UN, by and large accepted this fait accompli. That’s why we called the decision a bold shift.
The Pakistanis, on the other hand, also understood precisely what this meant. This had hit them when they were at their weakest internationally. That showed in Imran Khan government’s sharp reactions. They roused what international support they still had. One reason the Chinese lit up Ladakh was to intercede on Pakistan’s behalf to assert that they were party to the Kashmir dispute too. Second option was the old one, revive terror in the Valley. We’re seeing the results.
The Modi government’s Kashmir policy has been a success in changing the status of the state and in redefining what remains negotiable. But since it oversold it to the faithful, it looks a failure on the ground today. That is the price of re-painting India’s oldest and greatest national security challenge in politically partisan colours. If you call India’s handling of Kashmir until 2014 muddling along, you might also describe the subsequent eight years as more of the same. I prefer to call it continuity with change.