On 5 August de-operationalization of Article 370 and down gradation of J&K into two union territories will completed one year. Not much has changed in Kashmir. Nor is there any major change visible in Jammu or Ladakh. Kashmir remains on the edge like it was last July. Security operations against militancy continue, often followed by internet shutdowns. Killings of civilians and political workers by militants have not stopped. Coffins of soldiers and policemen still being sent to their homes. People living on borders have not seen any tranquility. Infiltrations and ceasefire violations carry on. Development is only visible in Twitter hashtags and shoddy propaganda films. There is no flood of fresh investments. Politics even though it abhors a void, has remained in a vacuum. Elections are nowhere on the horizon. And yet, the media continues to shout ‘Naya Kashmir’ (new Kashmir).
For the Naya Kashmir project, the only good news is a significant success in tackling the militancy. For the first time since the emergence of the new militancy, the recruitment of local boys has seen a year on year decline. From January to July 2020, local recruitment has witnessed a decline of over 40%. Reports suggest around 90 locals have joined the militant ranks in first seven months of this year – a number significantly low in comparison the figures for the corresponding period in the last few years. Although the decline is good news for security forces, it is too early to declare victory. The number of local recruitments in seven months of 2020 is higher than the figures for the entire year of 2015 and 2016. And may easily match up to the number of the year 2017. The IGP of J&K police in an interview has admitted that the recruitments of locals still remains a challenge.
Even as the recruitment has come down, there has been no let down in the number of infiltrations which have seen an increase in comparison to last year. 112 infiltrators have succeeded in crossing the LOC so far. In the first seven months of 2020 , over 155 militants – mostly local Kashmiris – have been killed in security operations. The killing of local militants particularly belonging to the Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) has seen a tremendous increase in comparison to the previous years. The entire top leadership of the HM, JEM, Ansar Ul Gazwatul Hind ISJK has been neutralised.
Curiously enough, the number of foreign militants killed – who are better trained and capable inflicting serious damage – remains very low. A careful analysis of the encounters of last few years reveals that local and foreign militants were operating together. It seems the inter-operability of foreigners and locals has seen a tactical shift. Sources in the security agencies claim that the foreigners have now shifted their bases away from the populated areas to high reaches and maintain limited contact with the local population. This trend could pose serious challenges in future.
The lockdown-imposed post-5 August followed by the strict COVID lockdown coupled with the heavy on-ground deployment during non-lockdown days has resulted in a decline in stone-pelting incidents and militant initiated action particularly the low intensity incidents like stand-off firing and grenade throwing.
The decline in militancy is certainly significant, but its significance should not be overstated. The decline in recruitment can in part be credited to the sustained assault on the over ground networks and logistical support of the militant groups. It could also be the result of a change of tactics by Pakistani managers as they are busy raising new militant outfits such as The Resistance Front. There is no dearth of new recruits willing to join the militant outfits, as has been claimed by HM Chief in an audio clip but the dearth in logistics, particularly weapons, is proving to be a serious handicap.
The emergence of TRF has shown Pakistan is capable of creating a new outfit in a matter of a few months. The attacks which claimed the lives of five members of the elite para commandoes and another in which senior ranking officers including a colonel, and a major were killed in Handwara demonstrates the lethality of militant outfits. Similarly, the killing of BJP worker, his brother and father in Bandipora shows that the militants are capable of targeted terror strikes even now.
On the LoC, cross border firing has seen a tremendous increase with 2300 ceasefire violation in just 6 months of 2020. In the previous year, 1,321 violations happened in the corresponding period. Ceasefire violations have seen a 75% increase in first six months of 2020. Clearly the security situation in Jammu and Kashmir isn’t all rosy. Far from the claims of the government of ending violence and terrorism in Kashmir as a result of the hollowing out of Article 370- the conflict continues to simmer.
Meanwhile the democratic process in J&K is in suspended animation. In the run-up to the first anniversary of 5 August, former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah broke his silence on the constitutional rearrangement of the erstwhile state, detention of political leaders and on the way forward. Omar’s article and subsequent interview to Indian Express where he demanded the restoration of statehood has not won him too many friends within and outside the National Conference. One party leader openly opposed Omar’s position, another subtly indicated the party view for restoration of Article 370. Intentionally or otherwise, the grand old party of Kashmir, National Conference, has taken the political focus back on Article 370 with its seniormost leadership openly stating that the August 5th decision was not acceptable.
PDP has outrightly rejected the demand for statehood as a non-issue and centered its future course around the restoration of article 370 and 35A. Omar Abdullah has categorically stated that NC will not take the fight on Article 370 to streets but will rather battle it in the courts. PDP has openly called for ‘democratic resistance’ to oppose the decision taken on 5 August – which means that the party leader Mehbooba Mufti may immediately after her release hit streets to galvanize the people against New Delhi. The mere thought of a mass agitation will sound nightmarish to Delhi. In any case, the extension of PSA to Mehbooba Mufti has bolstered her image in Kashmir as lone voice unwilling to bow down.
Reading between the lines of statements issued by NC and PDP, it seems the “restoration of statehood” is a non-starter for valley-based parties. One year after it was reduced to a shell, Article 370 is more prominent in the political discourse of Kashmir than ever before. The government tried its best to silence dissent on its abrogation but has failed miserably.
The King’s party also known as Apni Party which was launched with much fanfare is now sharpening its attacks against New Delhi. Interviews of its leader Altaf Bukhari suggest that he is feeling betrayed with very little elbow room to maneuver and suffocated with negligible support on the ground. In recent statements, APNI Party has not hesitated in indirectly criticizing the BJP ruled central government. Bukhari wants immediate restoration of statehood and elections as he fears that traditional parties NC, PDP and Peoples’ Conference are gaining some sympathy due to long periods of detention of their leaders.
Elections may not happen in 2021, as the delimitation exercise made mandatory by the J&K Reorganization Act has only begun in March 2020 with the appointment of a commission to carry out the exercise. Even before the delimitation commission could start its work, the pandemic halted its functioning. Delimitation exercise will take more than a year to finish its work.
The much-touted panchayat and municipal leadership have gone in cold storage. Their visibility on the ground, barring one odd municipal committee, has been limited. To begin with, 62% of the panchayat seats remain vacant. Surprisingly, dates for fresh elections for the vacant panchayat bodies were announced in February this year. The elections were postponed immediately after the National Conference decided to contest but asked for release of its leaders. Since then nothing has been heard about these polls.
In Jammu, the anger is brewing up. Locals believe the region has been turned into an area of toll plazas. Having lived with internet restriction for a year now, the people in Jammu feel short-changed. Hardly any developmental activity has taken place in the region. Concerns about land rights and demographic change have started sprouting in Jammu. Insecurities around the cultural identity of the region have been triggered by the new domicile laws.
A year later, the new ‘political class’ is nowhere to be seen. The much talked about political vacuum continues. And as analysts have pointed out, the concept of the mainstream has lost legitimacy among the people and only strengthened the separatist discourse. No one in New Delhi can today claim that the future elections in the valley will see any participation at all.
Although the interviews by political parties have triggered a debate around abrogation of Article 370 and downgrading of J&K to a Union Territory, the cacophony does not indicate resumption of political activity. Farooq Abdullah and other leader of National Conference have made it clear that Gupkar Declaration will form the basis of their future politics – a cause of worry for New Delhi, because a united front of valley-based parties will be hard to tackle. This suggests that government of India’s efforts towards normalization of 5 August has not borne much results.
Plight of Mainstream leaders
The long detention of mainstream leaders was perhaps the biggest blunder of New Delhi. The PSA cases against former chief ministers brought them on the equal keel as the separatists. Unionists who gave blood and sweat to pro-India politics rightly feel humiliated. Many among them whose fathers, brothers and other family members were killed by militants for contesting elections are left with no face to save.
Others whose names continue to be on the hit-list of militants face indignities of the government in power. A Hurriyat leader who chose elections as a means of addressing the political aspiration of his people feels no different from a separatist even after having served as a cabinet minister.
A three-decade-long project of having a robust political leadership in J&K was decimated in a single day. The bonds that became the precursor for release of political leaders added further injury to the wound. With or without signing bonds, many mainstream leaders in Kashmir were coerced into silence. And many of them continue to maintain that silence.
A young political activist who was once seen as a beacon of hope, who dreamed of peace with dignity today feels disgraced and defeated – personally as well as politically. Whether the defeat of mainstream was one of the objectives of August 5 is not known. Nonetheless, a sense of defeat has been delivered. Most importantly it’s the very ideas of reconciliation, non-violence and democracy that have been trounced in the battle of ideas started by Late Mufti Mohammad Sayeed. Today the saga of mainstream leaders is that of betrayal, hurt, resentment, disgrace and defeat and through them another generation of Kashmir received a message loud and clear: New Delhi can never be trusted.
Khalid Shah @khalidbshah is an Associate Fellow at ORF. His research focuses on Kashmir conflict, Pakistan and terrorism. Views are personal.
The article was first published on the Observer Research Foundation website.