India’s endgame in Kashmir

Idreas Khandy 04/08/19

If there is one region in South Asia that has stubbornly refused to recognise the hegemony of the Indian state since its emergence in 1947 it has been Kashmir. The region has been involved in a nationalist struggle against the Indian state at least from 1953; the struggle has taken both violent and non-violent forms. Every time the Indian state declares a victory in Kashmir, the sentiment of freedom in Kashmir manages to make the Indian state and its functionaries face the uncomfortable reality.

Democracy be damned:

Historically, India has managed to keep all criticism over Kashmir at bay due to the cacophony of being the ‘world’s largest democracy’. For decades, the Indian state through blatant disregard for procedure, legislation, and the rule of law, sought to complete the assimilation of Kashmir into India. The spirit of democracy was sacrificed in Kashmir by the same Congress party, which these days has donned the costume of resistance against parochialism in mainland India. Congress put the ‘our way or highway’ model of governance into practice in Kashmir. Elections were systematically rigged; it is not a mere accusation as the current Home Minister stated this fact, albeit in a different context in the Indian parliament recently. For decades Congress micro-managed Kashmir through a series of pliant client politicians, who were installed in positions of power through rigged elections and they did India’s bidding without question. However, just managing Kashmir was never the intention of the Congress ruled Indian State, it was willing to play the long game and normalise the presence of India in Kashmir. To that end, Congress-led India diligently worked to dilute Kashmir’s autonomous position and through constitutional trickery succeeded in wrapping its militarily sustained presence in Kashmir in legal robes. This plan has largely succeeded in subsuming the territory of Kashmir under the aegis of India’s legal, economic, and military jurisdiction. However, the pretense of taking a moral high ground and taking Kashmir to UN for arbitration in 1947 by India’s first Prime Minister Nehru continues to haunt the Indian state, particularly the Congress Party. The far-right Hindu nationalist BJP, which came back to power in May 2019 has sought to portray the Congress Party as the root of all ills in India, and of course itself as the panacea.

            BJP believes in a ham-fisted approach and speaks plainly about it. The party does not doubt the sincerity of the Congress party’s stand on Kashmir, which also believes Kashmir is an integral part of India, but totally disagrees with the velvet glove approach that Congress had used for decades in Kashmir. What BJP is essentially saying to Congress is: “You had your shot at Kashmir, and your approach did not work; now it is our turn to do what you failed to achieve”. The party has consistently maintained that it will abrogate Articles 370 and 35A to pave the way for total integration of Kashmir with India. These articles of the Indian constitution provide legal cover to India’s presence in Kashmir and also allows the latter to retain its autonomy, much of which has been eroded. In a perfect world, these articles could have become the bedrock of thriving federalism in South Asia, but in reality, have been used as backdoors to bulldoze a defiant population into submission.

Off comes the glove:

The stated intention to do away with these articles was part of BJP’s election manifesto in 2014 as well as 2019. After coming to power in the parliamentary elections in 2014, the BJP in Kashmir joined hands with the regional pro-India electoral party PDP (People’s Democratic Party) in 2015. BJP had previously accused PDP of harbouring separatist tendencies and labelled it soft separatist. Joining hands with BJP has proved disastrous for PDP, but for the former, it was the opening it needed in Kashmir. Being a partner in the government in Kashmir allowed unprecedented access to BJP in the region as the state machinery was literally at its disposal since it was in power in New Delhi as well. BJP for the first time held public rallies and conducted mass recruitment drives across Kashmir. PDP was the expendable partner in the coalition from day one and two years into the tenure of the coalition, BJP pulled its support and imposed a President’s rule in Kashmir, which is a euphemism for a government that is remote-controlled by the centre, in this case by BJP. Two months later, in August 2018, the BJP appointed its own man as Kashmir’s Governor, who has since managed Kashmir in close coordination with New Delhi and an assortment of security and intelligence agencies.

CRPF personnel patrol a street as situation in Kashmir continues to be tense and uncertain, in Srinagar.
CPRF Patrol (PTI Photos)

Under the Governor’s rule, the counter-insurgency grid went into hyperdrive after a suicide attack on a convoy on the 14th of February 2019 killed 44 paramilitary troopers. The attack almost led to another war between India and Pakistan as both flexed their respective war machines, much to the discomfort of the entire region, especially the people of Kashmir. Within a week of the attack, India rushed 10000 more troops and began its crackdown on individuals and organisations with the minutest of affinity for the Kashmiri nationalist movement. To facilitate the movement of troops, civilian traffic on the main motorway of Kashmir was suspended for two days in a week, the traffic restrictions lasted for 45 days. The frequency of the, what the Indian state terms as ‘area domination exercises’ or ‘Cordon And Search Operations’ (CASO) also increased drastically as checkpoints were erected across Kashmir’s main roads, in which youth suspected of being sympathisers of the armed insurgents are routinely arrested, and many are subjected to torture in custody. According to a report jointly released in June earlier this year by JKCCS (Jammu Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society) and APDP (Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons), the Indian state uses torture as an instrument of control in Kashmir. Local media is similarly being bullied to toe the official narrative as the state has withheld advertisements, which is the main source of income for the media outlets. At the same time, media outlets willing to peddle the Indian state’s narrative are being rewarded with the ad money, this shows that the propaganda model proposed by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in Manufacturing Consent is clearly at work in Kashmir. The Indian state also barred Amnesty International from releasing a report in Kashmir, the organisation had planned to release a report entitled “Tyranny of a ‘Lawless Law’: Detention without Charge or Trial under the J&K PSA”. The report details how the much-criticised PSA (Public Safety Act) is used to detain even minors without trial or charges, many of whom are beaten and given electric shocks in custody. The Indian state has also used it investigating agency NIA (National Investigation Agency) to conduct raids across Kashmir under the pretext of cracking down on terrorism and their sources of funding. The agency even framed a photojournalist of being a ‘stone-pelter’ and has since earned the same notoriety that is attached by political activists from the Middle East to the Mukhabarat (Secret Intelligence Services of the dictatorships in the region).

Tourists prepare to leave Srinagar (Associated Press)

The Endgame

            Weeks after coming back to power in New Delhi, the BJP revealed the first step of its grand plan to fully ‘integrate’ Kashmir into Indian polity. On 5th June, the incumbent Home Minister and right-hand man of Modi, Amit Shah announced a plan to redraw the size of the constituencies in Kashmir. The objective is to increase the number of seats for Kashmir’s constituent assembly that currently stands at 89. Of these 89 seats, 46 are in Kashmir province of the state owing to its largest population, 37 are in Jammu province, and Ladakh province, the least populous region of the state has 4 seats. The plan has drawn criticism from the unionist politicians in Kashmir as it is widely speculated that BJP will seek to redraw the boundaries of constituencies along sectarian and caste lines. By increasing the number of seats in the Jammu province, which was not Hindu majority until 1947, the BJP hopes to increase its tally of seats in the next elections and capture the state’s assembly. Even though the BJP appointed Governor termed the talk of delimitation a rumour, things suggest otherwise. Since the announcement, New Delhi has deployed more paramilitary troops in Kashmir. In late June, a batch of 40,000 paramilitary troops was deployed in Kashmir under the pretext of safeguarding the Amarnath Yatra (an annual Hindu pilgrimage). Armed insurgents in Kashmir have repeatedly denied any such plans, and instead made statements welcoming the pilgrims. Nevertheless, pro-Government media outlets such as the Zee News have promoted the BJP government’s assertions of ‘terror threat to pilgrimage’ verbatim.

            Random searches of people and restrictions on vehicular movement have become a routine in Kashmir now. The Amarnath Yatra has been unprecedentedly politicised by the BJP Govt. to demonstrate its commitment to Hindutva and rising strong Hindu India. An example of this commitment this year was the blatant display of India state’s sovereign power when restrictions were again imposed on the movement of civilian traffic, this time to facilitate the movement of pilgrims on the main motorway of Kashmir. The pilgrimage this year had been progressing smoothly, as it has for decades until the Indian State on Monday, 2nd of August, issued an order advising tourists and Amarnath pilgrims to leave Kashmir immediately. Furthermore, 38000 additional troops have been deployed in Kashmir over the past couple of weeks again under the pretext of ‘perceived terror threat’.

Apart from citing intelligence reports of a possible terror attack, the Indian Govt. has remained tight-lipped, which has created panic and chaos in Kashmir as people brace for the worst. The developing situation has created an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty and led many Western countries to upgrade their travel advisories concerning Kashmir. As per one report, satellite phones have been allotted to the local police and civil administration, which is an ominous sign that a total communications blockade may be on the cards. The orders have triggered a chain reaction of sorts as colleges have asked students to evacuate the campus accommodation, and hospital staff has been asked to remain on standby. The chaos and uncertainty aided by the rumours that the administration has done nothing to address have forced the people to go on a buying spree and stock up on essentials, as they fear trouble. A shortage of essentials is already being reported. Furthermore, since Kashmir depends on essential items that are imported from India the situation is expected to worsen as the uncertainty and chaos are allowed to spiral out of control, and no transportation company would be willing to take the risk of sending its trucks to Kashmir. Shortage of supplies will eventually trigger protests in Kashmir and the paramilitary troops deployed will be called to quell a so-called ‘Pakistan sponsored unrest’. Protestors will be tackled with lethal force since the Indian state, and its Army believes protestors are ‘terrorists without guns’ and ‘stone-pelters today, terrorists tomorrow’.

The situation has all the signs of a manufactured crisis.

The situation has all the signs of a manufactured crisis. At the time of writing, no reports of protests in Kashmir have surfaced; however, Indian media has already branded the situation as ‘turmoil’ and the Government’s assertion of ‘terror threat’ is being reported in a matter of fact fashion. Amidst all this chaos, Indian media is fuelling dangerous speculations of the planned trifurcation of Kashmir, abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A. While the BJP has for long advocated the abrogation of Kashmir’s autonomous position, it finally may have a viable plan to make it happen and sustain it.

The endgame of BJP is to radically change the demography of Kashmir, by bloodletting if necessary. By restructuring the composition of Kashmir’s constituent assembly, the BJP aims first to capture the power in Kashmir. The second step will be to use the fig leaf of ‘democratically elected government’ to finalise the incorporation of Kashmir into India and nullify the former’s constitution, thus annihilating Kashmir’s relatively autonomous position. However, such a move will not go uncontested; therefore, the endgame necessarily involves a third, messy, step –population transfer. The ideological fountains of the BJP, i.e. the RSS (Rashtriya Swayam Sevak) and the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad) have for long believed that only a demographic change in Kashmir will integrate it with India. Such opinions were voiced in whispers for years, not any anymore. BJP politician and the disgraced Harvard academic Subramanium Swamy has publicly advocated that the abrogation of Article 370 must be followed by a settlement of 1 million armed ex-servicemen in Kashmir. Until now, this plan seemed nothing but a right-wing fantasy; however, the 2014 and 2019 parliamentary elections have changed everything. BJP become the first political party in India to win a simple majority since 1984. Right-wing Hindutva sentiment has become commonplace, and mob lynchings of people suspected of consuming beef have only gathered momentum. Average internet users to journalists who appear on state-run TV seem to be perfectly okay with the idea of changing the demographics of Kashmir, and if need be by genocide. Such a move will confirm the apprehensions of the people that India is pursuing an Israeli policy in Kashmir.

Why now?

But why the urgency? Two developments of significance have happened in the past few weeks. The first being, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan’s visit to America and his meeting with Donald Trump, which has been hailed as a win-win by Pakistan media. For years, Modi led Government had sustained a narrative within India that Modi robust outreach programme has effectively made Pakistan an outcast in the international diplomatic circles. Donald Trump’s claim that Modi requested him to mediate between India and Pakistan must have come as a rude shock to the Modi support base. Modi support base, i.e. the committed foot soldiers of Hindutva have also been supportive of Trump and took his Islamophobia as common ground between them. Trump did not stop there, a week later, he reiterated his willingness to mediate between the two countries on the Kashmir issue; it should surprise no one that he thinks it is an issue that involves just the Indian and the Pakistani state. Trump’s public statements have ruffled the feathers of the Indian state to the extent that Modi administration had to climb down from its previous position. Modi administration had until now categorically denied the disputed status of Kashmir, and maintained that there is nothing to discuss with Pakistan. However, Trump’s theatrics have deflated much of the machoism, which is evident from the statement of India’s External Affairs Minister that “any discussion on Kashmir will only be with Pakistan”.

The second factor, which to some extent explains the urgency, is the tanking Indian economy. The Modi administration has made tall claims of making India’s economy larger than ever since it came to power. However, recent figures suggest that India’s economy has entered doldrums and is headed into a proper recession. The opposition, at least whatever is left of it, has panned Modi for the falling growth in key economic sectors and called his newly appointed Finance Minister incompetent as the economy has slipped down to the seventh position. The Modi administration, on its part, has not done enough to alleviate the economic tremors. The Finance Minister has said that India is keeping its head well above water

Lastly, the Modi administration has not shied away from fanning the flames of hyper-nationalism to distract public attention from its shortcomings, scandals, and policy failures. What better distraction than Kashmir? It ticks all the boxes of the Hindutva imaginary. Returning Kashmir to its ‘glorious Hindu past’ is after all the first step in resurrecting Akhand Bharat –Greater India extending from Nepal to Afghanistan. At the time of writing, New Delhi has ordered the house arrest of electoral politicians in Kashmir, two of whom have been the former Chief Ministers of Kashmir, the mobile internet services have been snapped, and an indefinite curfew has been imposed. What happens in Kashmir in the next few days/weeks/months has the potential to quickly get out of hand should New Delhi choose to go ahead with its adventurism.

Idreas Khandy is a PhD candidate at Lancaster University’s Department of Politics, Philosophy and Religion