If India loses Kashmir, it will have Modi to blame 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown an incredible incapacity to learn from history, listen to sensible advice, read warning signals and initiate a dialogue on Kashmir

Photo by Waseem Andrabi/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Waseem Andrabi/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Prem Shankar Jha

On August 22, 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met a visiting delegation of Kashmiri opposition parties led by Omar Abdullah and stated unequivocally that a dialogue was “a must” for bringing about an end to the (then) weeks-long unrest, and added only that “we need to find a permanent and lasting solution to the problem within the framework of the Constitution”.

Ten months have passes since, yet he has not taken even the first necessary step to get the ball of détente rolling — declare a unilateral cease-fire, as Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had done in December 2000, so all through winter the security forces have continued to hunt down “terrorists” in the villages to which they had descended from their mountain hideouts to escape from the bitter cold. As a result, Kashmir has turned into a pressure cooker once more.

The lid blew off on March 28 when three young men died and 18 others were injured when they threw themselves in front of the police to allow a single militant holed up in a house to escape. In the week that followed, there were three attacks on the Indian security forces, on April 1, April 3 and April 4, and on these occasions the militants used guns.

But Mr Modi has treated these danger signals with an overweening contempt. Over Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s strenuous, written, objections, he insisted that by-elections be held to the parliamentary seats of Srinagar and Anantnag. Politically, this has been a disaster, for it has given the secessionists the perfect place to demonstrate to the world how completely India has lost the hearts and minds of the Kashmiris.

So, the voter turnout dropped from 27 percent in the assembly elections of 2014, to a paltry 7 percent, the lowest in 27 years. Stone-pelters burnt government schools that were to be used as polling centres; school and college students protested and were viciously beaten up. For the first time, girls joined in the stone throwing, and for perhaps the first time, even among them, the call to arms was not for azadi, but for saving Islam.

By the time the polling ended, the police and security forces had shot dead eight more young people, and a major of the Rashtriya Rifles had tied a young Kashmiri to the grill of his jeep and used him as a human shield to protect his column as it drove through the hostile streets. Paradoxically, this may have saved the lives of several more Kashmiris. But a video of the young man tied to the grill has gone viral, and brought India’s moral standing in the eyes of the world to its nadir.

Mr Modi has to know what a huge mistake he has made. The cancellation of the Anantnag bye-election shows that this has dawned upon him. But there is no reverse gear in his mental makeup. So, when Mehbooba Mufti rushed to Delhi and forced a meeting on Modi and Rajnath Singh to warn them that time had all but run out in Kashmir, both rebuffed her and insisted that Kashmiris had to stop stone pelting first.

Modi’s Kashmir doctrine: To cap this folly, when a Supreme Court bench presided over by the Chief Justice of India asked both the militants and the government to step back from violence and offered to set the stage for the resumption of talks, Attorney General Rohatgi rejected it with the blunt statement that the government would not talk to the “separatists” under any circumstances.

If he will not talk with anyone, how does Mr Modi intend to restore a lasting peace to the valley? The answer, arrived at by the process of exclusion is through the use of force. Incredible as it sounds, he does not seem to understand that in more than a hundred years no government has been able to end an insurgency anywhere in the world by force alone.

This is the warning that the 9/11 commission gave to the Bush administration in the US in 2004.This is also the warning that Kashmir has been giving to Delhi ever since the first stirrings of armed revolt in the state. For it was the hanging of Maqbool Butt in 1986 that began the trickle of Kashmiri insurgents into the ISI’s Mujahideen training camps in Pakistan and the hanging of Afzal Guru in 2013 that began the confrontation that we are in the midst of today.

Had Mr Modi been a soldier, or ruled a state beset with insurgency, he would have understood that an ideology cannot be killed by killing its proponents. This is especially true of nationalism which, second only to religion, is the most enduring ideology in the world. Hundreds of years of union with England have not eradicated nationalism in Wales and Scotland. Flemish nationalism has re-emerged in Belgium and the Basque revolt continues in Spain. The dissolution of the Soviet Union has caused scores of ethno-nationalist movements to be reborn all over eastern Europe and Asia.

Limits to armed intervention: Mr Modi also does not seem to understand that there are limits to what a country’s security forces can do to crush an armed uprising. India’s own experience provides an entire laboratory of examples. The Indian army fought the Naga insurgency for 16 years, and the Mizo insurgency for 24, without making a significant dent in either. It was only after Mrs Indira Gandhi offered the Nagas autonomy within the Indian union on the pattern of Kashmir, and Rajiv Gandhi struck a deal with its leader, Laldenga, that allowed the Mizo National Front to fight an election and come to power in the state, that insurgency in these states ended.

Punjab provides a more striking example of the limits of military power. From 1982, when the Khalistan insurgency began, till 1993 when it ended, there were never more than 500 gun-wielding terrorists in the state, backed by around 2,000 helpers and another 5,000 or so active sympathisers. Yet this small handful was able to paralyse the administration and the judiciary by threatening and killing judges, politicians and local officials, and sustain an insurgency for 10 years that claimed 41,000 civilian lives. It did so, in its post-1984 phase, by terrorising entire villages in the border districts adjoining Pakistan into becoming unwilling sanctuaries for the terrorists.

The insurgency was crushed only after Rajiv Gandhi entered into an accord with the head of the Akali Dal, Sant Longowal, that enabled elections to be held and the Akalis to come to power. The Akalis took away the mantle, of a freedom movement, that the Pakistan-based second Panthic committee was using to paralyse a civilian response to their terrorism. Shortly after the Akalis came to power ex-servicemen in the villages demanded and were given gun licenses by the administration, and drove the terrorists out into the sugar cane fields where the police decimated them.

Similarly, there were never more than 2,000 armed militants active at any given time in Kashmir. But they tied up more than 3 lakh police and paramilitary personnel. Even this vast force was only able to contain, not crush, the insurgency. What played a crucial part in making it subside in 1995 was prime minister Narasimha Rao’s instruction to the Election Commission in 1995 to start demarcating constituencies in the state in preparation for another election. This galvanised the dormant political process, put the JKLF and the Hurriyat on the defensive, and triggered the beginnings of a revolt against Pakistani control within the latter that ended in a formal split in the movement ten years later.

These successes stemmed from the consensus that existed among all parties in Delhi before the emergence of Mr Modi, that the security forces could only contain an insurgency, not make it disappear. For that a political dialogue had to follow.

Only in Kashmir did this not bring an end to the militancy. This is not because Kashmiri militants want to secede from India to join Pakistan because they are Muslims, but because while Pakistan terrorised the Hurriyat into boycotting state elections by assassinating any Kashmiri leader who has advocated participating in them, the National conference repeatedly made promises of empowerment to the electorate that it did not deliver upon.

Time to acknowledge the role of Kashmiri nationalists: Among those whom Pakistan’s ISI assassinated are Mirwaiz Maulvi Farouq, father of Mirwaiz Umar Farouq, Qazi Nisar, one of the founders of the Muslim United Front, JKLF ideologue Abdul Ahad Wani, Peoples Conference leader Professor Abdul Ghani Lone, the brother of Prof Abdul Ghani Butt, and uncle of Mirwaiz Umar Farouq.

These are Kashmiri nationalists who have paid with their lives for wanting to find a solution to the Kashmir dispute that will give Kashmiri nationalists their rightful place within the Indian political mosaic. But these are precisely the people whom Mr Modi publicly repudiated in August 2014, and is spurning today. Indeed, he does not even understand that when he refuses to talk to them, he is doing exactly what the Pakistan Army, which is clawing its way back to power in that country at the expense of its democracy, wants him to do.

Today, India is again on the brink of a precipice in Kashmir. Zakir Bhat, the Hizbul Mujahideen commander who replaced Burhan Wani, has warned policemen and informers that they will be killed if they continue to cooperate with the authorities. More ominously, he has urged Kashmiri youth not to fight for either Kashmiri nationalism or democracy, but for Islam.

The attack on a J&K Bank van on May 1, in which militants killed seven policemen and security guards and snatched four rifles and vast amounts of money, marks a sharp escalation in the budding armed insurgency. Once violence returns to the valley, any Kashmiri leader who dares to speak to Delhi will again be risking death. The space for a political solution will therefore vanish.

But it still exists today. All through winter, the Kashmiri civil society groups have been coming to Delhi, or welcoming their Indian counterparts in Srinagar, in an effort to break the ice of dogma and ignorance in which the Modi government has encased itself. Zakir Bhat’s admonition to stone-pelters is a tacit admission that nationalism and democracy still remain the main aspiration, even of the youth in the valley.

There are seasoned politicians in every political party who understand this, realise that a dialogue cannot be held in a political vacuum, and would like Delhi to put a concrete set of proposals on the table for a discussion to begin. More and more of them are coming around to the view that to give both Delhi and Kashmir a fresh start, it is necessary to take the Delhi Agreement of 1952, if not the Instrument of Accession of 1947, as the starting point.

Opposition must unite on Kashmir: The exceptions are the RSS and the ruling coterie in the BJP around Modi. Given their relentless use of communal polarisation to shore up its political base, it is unlikely that they will retreat willingly from their present position. So, it will be necessary for the opposition to join hands on Kashmir, formulate a common platform for the resumption of a political dialogue, and submit it to the prime minister for action.

Mr Modi’s personality makes it unlikely that he will listen even to a joint appeal from political parties that represent a majority of India and Jammu and Kashmir. But as his policy of repression begins to fail in the valley: as armed militancy grows; as Kashmiri police and civil servants start absenting themselves from work; and the flow of information from duty reduce to a trickle as informers start being killed and the flow of intelligence dries up, Modi will have to choose between calling in an army that has repeatedly said that it must not be asked to fire upon its own people, and looking for another way out.

The danger will then be that he might try to pin all the blame on Pakistan. Should that happen, the opposition will need to warn the nation of the havoc that a war with it will wreak, and provide an alternative channel through which to start a political dialogue with Kashmir’s leaders.

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