Mapping Kashmir’s Cycle of Discontent

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LIGHTING THE FUSE: Burhan Wani’s death earlier this year has sparked a wave of violence across Kashmir that poses a threat to regional security.

By Asma Khan Lone

Kashmir has erupted once again, engulfed by yet another cycle of conflict and violence—its Sisyphean bane. The trigger this time is the killing of rebel commander, Burhan Wani, the tech-savvy poster boy of the militant organization Hizb Ul Mujahideen. His killing led to an outpour of emotions and anger on the streets of Kashmir, attracting thousands of mourners to his funeral. The scale and nature of the protests are symptomatic of a deep-seated malaise while the incident has become a release valve for a much grievous resentment.

Wani, in many ways, symbolized the new age militancy in Kashmir. Young and educated, his tryst with militancy came about not as a result of any ideological drift, but the outcome of an unprovoked encounter with the Indian security forces scarring him with a sense of indignity and disillusionment. It was not the result of an individual phenomenon created by a personal proclivity, but the consequence of a structural construct, bred by the alienation and injustice that prevailing political dynamics invoked.

The lack of agency, ownership and engagement on the part of the Kashmiris, exacerbated by the excesses of unresponsive governments, provided the desired social sanctity to Wani’s cause and (violent) path. The shrinking political and secular space further fueled radicalization, especially among the youth, while realigning the popular paradigm from peaceful to violent methods of protest. Hence the bloodied streets of Kashmir over the past few weeks, leaving more than 65 dead and thousands injured, including injuries to the eye from “non-lethal” pellet guns used as a measure of crowd control in Kashmir.

Leading a team of eye specialists from New Delhi, Dr. Sudarshan Kumar said that the nature of the injuries caused by pellet guns was so severe that it was almost as if Kashmiri doctors were dealing with a “war-like situation.”

“We are not security experts and have inherited the policy from the previous government,” explains Sajad Lone, Minister in the Kashmiri Cabinet.

“I can however assure you that as soon as normalcy returns, we will make it a point to replace the use of pellet guns by more benign methods,” he adds.

Qualifying Lone’s statement, the Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh on a just-concluded visit to Kashmir, promised a revision of the use of pellet guns and its replacement by less lethal means.

Conventionally, the Kashmir issue is perceived as a territorial dispute between India and Pakistan, having provoked two major wars between the belligerent neighbors. Its indigenous origins, however, can be traced back to as early as 1931, when the Kashmiri people mounted a struggle for self-determination, articulated as the demand for self-rule and responsible governance against the ruler of the then princely state of Jammu and Kashmir.

India’s concerns regarding Pakistan’s intentions and influence in Kashmir framed its relationship with Kashmir. Rather than appreciating the conditional nature of Kashmir’s union with India, New Delhi sought to undermine it. It was unable to recognize the autonomous nature of the issue irrespective of Pakistan. New Delhi’s failure to honor the promised referendum and the constant erosion of the special status guaranteed to Kashmir under the terms of the ‘instrument of accession’ with India, deepened the cleft between both the entities. The ensuing misgivings culminated in the eruption of an armed movement against the Indian state by 1989.

More than a decade of armed insurgency and its inability to deliver, conflict fatigue set in. The peace overtures commencing between India and Pakistan in 2003 were thus widely welcomed. The Peace Process and its constituent Confidence Building Measures, especially the Musharraf-Vajpayee and later, the Musharaf-Manmohan Singh peace talks, generated much anticipation. The engagement of the moderate faction of the separatist leadership by the government of India, the introduction of a bus service and trade mechanism between the divided parts of Kashmir and relative peace along the Line of Control (LoC) created a feel-good factor, providing the much needed psychological respite.

However, regime change in Pakistan in 2008, along with a reticent Manmohan Singh, slowed down the process. The Mumbai attacks of 2008 dismantled the peace edifice in its entirety. External reversals coincided with internal strife, as controversy over the transfer of forest land to the Shri Amarnath Shrine Board—seen as a measure of demographic engineering—rocked Kashmir the same year. The ensuing upheavals of 2009 and 2010, leaving more than 200 people dead and thousands injured, ruptured the cautious optimism evolving within Kashmir.

New Delhi’s subsequent reneging on its own mechanisms of redress, such as the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s appointed Working Group’s recommendations and the Interlocutors’ Report, further substantiated the belief that they were mere tactics for buying time and providing the façade of engagement, while systemically entrenching the status quo. Dilip Padgaonker, one of the authors of the Interlocutors’ Report says that “had the government taken serious notice of the recommendations we had made, perhaps we would not have reached the situation we have in Kashmir today.”

While New Delhi was eventually able to contain the unrest, it was unable to contain the anger or the sense of betrayal. Rather than reaching out to Kashmir, especially at a time when Pakistan was embroiled in its own domestic challenges, New Delhi added to the despondency by stoking unnecessary controversies such as the hanging of Afzal Guru, banning certain food preferences and separating (communal) residential colonies, among other things. Most importantly, India was unable to identify the will for a dignified peace on the part of Kashmiris as a key factor for the intervening “negative peace.”

Fast forward to summer 2016: the killing of Burhan Wani proved the catalyst for the seething anger to brim over. Unlike previous precedents, the present uprising has completely different dynamics. The scope and scale is far more intense and widespread extending to hitherto unaffected areas and populations. It is mostly spontaneous and led by groups of dauntless local youngsters, even if the militant footprint is on the rise. Most importantly, distinct from previous episodes, the present uprising is not issue-based—set against the ‘grievance’ of human rights violations as was the case in 2008 and 2010–– but sentiment-based, placed within the greater ‘aspiration’ for azaadi (self-determination).

“We can’t have these cycles of destruction erupting every few years, we will have to decide once and for all, it’s now or never,” says Mushtaq Wani, a young businessman from Budgaam.

After over a month of unrest the state machinery in Srinagar seems to have just about come to grips with the situation. Marred by confusion, internal power struggles—impeding a collective response and the process of balancing the divergent outlooks within the coalition partnership –the government’s ability for a more effective and engaging approach.

Jammu and Kashmir’s Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti’s call for action against the ‘handful miscreants’ on the one hand, and an appeal for calm and saving of young lives on the other, evinced a balancing act between her erstwhile healing touch policy and a more aggressive strategy.

“This is not a situation we created in our one year in office,” says Imran Ansari, a cabinet minister in Kashmir. “We can’t be expected to redress a situation in a year that previous governments have failed to address over decades.”

New Delhi, too, seemed amiss. During previous crisis, it would step in, making up for the political vacuum within Srinagar, as was the case in 2010. However, this time there was a conspicuous absence of the same, perilously allowing the power vacuum to expand. The home minister’s recent visits to Kashmir as well as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s conciliatory overtures finally seem to have set the ball rolling in New Delhi. But will it be enough in Kashmir?

According to Muzzamil Jaleel, a leading journalist in Kashmir, “New Delhi’s policy has traditionally been rooted in the belief that managing the conflict, maintaining the status quo and delaying resolution will ultimately tire out the majority in Kashmir and end the political problem.”

Heeding conventional wisdom, New Delhi appropriated the policy of allowing the present resistance to wither out on its own, reeling under the self-defeating protest methods of the separatist leadership on the one hand and the government-imposed curfew on the other. The ruling party’s tough stance against perceived “terrorism” in Kashmir, seen as incited by Pakistan, allows it to play to the gallery while also consolidating its legitimacy domestically, especially with an eye on a string of crucial state elections ahead. Its insinuation of Pakistan’s role in inciting the current unrest enables it to pre-empt Pakistan’s diplomatic onslaught against India’s human rights violations, while also papering over India’s own pitfalls in Kashmir. Militant outfits in Pakistan publicly calling for jihad in Kashmir not only make India’s job that much easier but also strip the movement of its indigenous legitimacy and diplomatic support.

PM Modi’s allusion to Pakistan’s troubled Baluchistan region is designed to allow New Delhi to up the ante and exert pressure on Pakistan, while functioning as a deterrent against Pakistan-based militants meddling in Kashmir. Pakistan is challenging the Indian narrative by reference to Kashmiris’ right to self-determination within the framework of the 1949 U.N. Resolutions on Kashmir. But by limiting the choice of the Kashmiri’s to accede with either India or Pakistan, the resolutions undermine the Kashmiris’ overriding desire for azaadi, repeatedly reiterated through various Gallup polls conducted under the aegis of international organizations.

The inability to furnish an option reflecting the overwhelming will of the people – independence – renders the U.N. resolutions practically a cul-de-sac.

Amidst all this, the traditional separatist leadership finds itself at the periphery, as charged idealist youth barge ahead, at times defying the former.

“They couldn’t deliver in 2008 nor in 2010, why should we expect that they will deliver now?” says Furqaan, a youngster manning a Srinagar highway.

Dismissed earlier as the final pangs of a dying movement, the unrest also poses a serious threat to regional security. Notwithstanding the fact that Kashmir lies within the neighborhood of three nuclear powers, its incessant conflict could become the theatre for transnational organizations such as Daesh and Al Qaeda to move in. The ongoing unrest, having already lured Pakistan based militants to Kashmir, could spill over onto competing regional stakes and maneuvers in Afghanistan and beyond, into Iran.

The (Kashmir) region’s continued volatility juxtaposed with its strategic significance for China, through the China Pakistan Economic Corridor and One Belt Road vision, could further add to an already strained Sino-India calculus.

Reflecting on the criticality of the issue, empathy–not grandstanding–is the need of the hour. New Delhi needs to reach out and identify partners for peace in Kashmir, while addressing the issue within a broader political framework rather than merely as a developmental blueprint. PM Modi’s recent statement reiterating “the need to find a lasting solution to the Kashmir issue” is a move in the right direction and needs to be followed-up by concrete action.

The envisaged “track two dialogue” with all stakeholders in Kashmir is a plausible measure on its own. Yet, when set against the precedent of previous dialogue between New Delhi and Kashmir and its systemic erosion as a mechanism of peace-building, it doesn’t inspire much hope beyond the auxiliary role of an opening move which it is probably posited to be.

It is time to move beyond frameworks into the specifics, beyond the talk of talks to actual brass-tacks. Can PM Modi clench the game changer? And in the process, a possible Nobel Peace Prize aka Oslo Accords?

Asma Khan Lone is an academic based in New Delhi.

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