It is in India’s interest to step back and rethink what we are doing in Jammu and Kashmir.
You can’t solve a problem if you have not defined it correctly. The story of the Narendra Modi government’s approach towards Jammu and Kashmir is one of a poorly conceptualised problem definition.
Worst situation in 15 years
This union government and its political establishment believe that the fundamental problem in Jammu and Kashmir is Pakistan and Kashmiri Islamists who want to secede from the Indian republic. Logically, therefore, its response is to escalate military operations along the Line of Control and harden security operations in the Kashmir valley against civilian protestors. The presumable goal of this strategy is to use force to overwhelm civilian protestors, terrorists, militants and the Pakistani military-jihadi complex that fuels the fire.
The results on the ground show that this approach has failed. The number of protests have gone up substantially over the last few years. The number of militants killed has also gone up. It’s bizarre that this government’s spokespersons think that the rising number of militants killed is a figure of merit — because what it really shows is that their numbers have grown. Despite demonetisation and surgical strikes, there is no noticeable change in Pakistan’s support for militancy.
Meanwhile, it appears that the faith the Kashmiri people have in democratic politics and the promise of the Indian republic has declined, while anti-Kashmiri sentiment has risen in Jammu, Ladakh and other parts of India. While much of this may play well to the hyperventilating television channels and social media warriors drumming up support for the BJP in elections across the country, a cold, dispassionate assessment suggests that the situation in Jammu and Kashmir has not been this bad in the past 15 years.
It is in India’s national interest to step back and rethink what we are doing in Jammu and Kashmir. As I said, it starts with the problem definition.
While Pakistan, religious zealots, militants and violent protestors are certainly part of it, the fundamental problem is of a ‘Great Affective Divide’ between the people of the Kashmir valley and the rest of India. If a couple of decades ago the disaffection was unilateral (in the sense that the Kashmiri Muslims were disaffected), now it is increasingly reciprocated in other parts of the country.
Unless it is reversed, the politics of communal polarisation that is extant in India will worsen this divide over time. As the Great Affective Divide widens, external actors and the numerous local opportunists will find abundant opportunities to exploit it and promote their own agenda.
Once we define the problem in this manner, the solution stands out. You don’t even need to be a high-minded idealist to conclude that New Delhi’s policy must be to bridge the Great Affective Divide. And that this is essentially a political task.
The lesson from India’s successful management of insurgencies in Punjab, Assam and Mizoram is that once security forces have reduced violence below a threshold, it is the strengthening of local democratic politics that does the trick.
In my view, violence had fallen below that threshold by 2011, but the Manmohan Singh government lacked the courage and the Modi government lacked the motivation to make the move. As I argued then, a calibrated lifting of the AFSPA in Srinagar would have been one big game changer. Alas, the then political leadership in New Delhi was too weak to take the risk.
The past is past. The political objective now ought to be to get back to a 2011-2012 like situation quickly. Both the PDP and the National Conference are likely to support such a process.
This means that the mission and the role of the security forces must change. They must be called upon to deter the marginal protestor, the marginal separatist and the marginal terrorist. This is an altogether different task than aggressive confrontation and combat that only creates more protestors and more militants, who can easily emerge from the Valley’s combination of geographical remoteness, ideological blinkers and youthful demographics.
In fact, the aggressive use of force by Indian security forces is exactly what Pakistan and the separatists want. The whole point of the insurgency strategy is to provoke the Indian state into using disproportionate force, and using the footage from that as propaganda to create greater disaffection.
The Indian Army, in partnership with the Jammu and Kashmir Police and central paramilitary forces had, in the mid- to late-2000s, arrived at a sophisticated counter-insurgency strategy that combined the judicious use of force against irreconcilable targets with a softer touch towards marginal and reconcilable elements of society. We can go back to that approach as the new starting point.
This is cold, hard realism. Consider what Kautilya says. Disaffection, he recommends, “can be got rid of by putting down the leaders”. But “when local persons are abetting (with foreigners), the means to be employed to suppress them are conciliation (saama) and gifts (daana).”
A.B. Vajpayee did just that, and that’s perhaps why he is held in such high esteem in the Valley as in the rest of India. Manmohan Singh held the course, but lacked political capital to make the next big move.
Regardless of what happened earlier in his term, Modi still has the opportunity and the power to act in accordance with what Kautilya recommends.
Nitin Pai is director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy.