What next for J&K?

Jitendra Kumar Ojha reflects on what may lie ahead for India’s most troubled region, and the wider implications for the country and sub-continent as a whole

The continued lockdown in the Kashmir Valley has begun raising concerns in sections of the Indian media and civil society groups, even though criticism from most opposition parties has remained subdued. What appeared to be an interim measure on August 5, when the special status of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) was abrogated and the state bifurcated into two union territories, has now extended beyond seven weeks.

Lately, several retired general and counter-insurgency security experts have conveyed their apprehension that this sustained curtailment of liberty may alienate local citizens in the Valley and damage years of hard work by the security forces towards weaning the local population away from subversive radicalisation by the proxies of the Pakistani military establishment.

Most market places in the Valley remain shut amidst heavy deployment of security personnel. Some easing of security restrictions, withdrawal of the curfew and resumption of normal schedules in government offices and schools have not made any significant difference. Traffic and pedestrian movement remains thin, as does attendance in most institutions.

To the credit of India’s security forces, no serious violent incidents have been reported. But what worries people most is the continued detention of most mainstream political leaders, with several of their colleagues, as well as civil society activists who attempted to visit them, being turned away from Srinagar airport. An ongoing clampdown on internet services and satellite TV channels has inspired the quip that ‘people in the Valley had been pushed back into the medieval era’.

On the other hand, life appears normal in both Ladakh and Jammu. Together, they accounted for nearly four-fifths of the territory and 46 per cent of the population of the bifurcated state. However, even here, the initial euphoria over ‘liberation from self-seeking Valley-based politicians milking separatist sentiments [in exchange] for their own bargains from New Delhi’ has given way to a sense of apprehension. Many fear their neighbourhoods beings wamped by outsiders and their picturesque landscape losing its sheen if development works remain as poorly regulated as in the rest of the country.

Soon, India’s Nationalist Government will have to find answers to reassure people. To some degree, Prime Minister Modi has already done this through his speeches and public utterances, but more substantial progress in this direction would be a real test of the strength of the country’s governing institutions.

The people of Jammu & Kashmir have traditionally enjoyed a privileged position in the union of India. Over the years, almost the entire state budget has remained heavily subsidised by the rest of the country. Locals were not only exempt from direct taxes but a few among them made a fortune by cornering most of the benefits. This section of Kashmiri society is likely to struggle more with reconciling itself to the loss of its special status, however nominal and symbolic. Some have already confided that a piece of their pride and identity had been taken away.

Meanwhile, the military controlled Pakistani state has upped its rhetoric on the so-called breach of human rights of Kashmiris. They have found some murmurs of support in the Chinese media but few from the Western world or even West Asia have paid any heed. Pakistan’s sole claim to Kashmir has been the Muslim identity of the Valley’s majority population. Global leaders at this juncture realise that an inter-connected world cannot afford segregation of people in the name of religion and race. Besides, Pakistan’s own record has been horrendous in governance, rule of law and the treatment of even non-Punjabi Muslims in the country. Most stable West Asian states, being wary of Pakistani involvement in radicalisation and terror incidents in their own territories, have maintained a distance.

Kashmiris on both sides of the divide have long been aware that Pakistan had nothing to offer them except cessation of their support for terrorism and radicalisation. However, this is not going to be easy. In pursuit of an all-out war against India through means including propaganda, deception, terror, subversion and Islamic radicalisation, the Pakistani deep state is suspected of having raised a worldwide mega crime infrastructure. This has helped fund not only proxy wars in India, Afghanistan and Iran but also offered them global clout.

Security agencies in developed nations have been wary of Pakistani involvement in the funding of lobbying networks, as well as support for political actors and for a few media and financial institutions in their countries. Episodes like those of Ghulam Nabi Fai or George Galloway could be the tips of a huge iceberg. Such clout has further helped these actors and institutions consolidate their grip over Pakistani state power to the detriment of the local population. Over the years, Kashmir has been whipped up as such an emotive identity issue that people are compelled to forgive their state for all its mis-governance, misrule and lack of accountability.

I have always maintained that traditional counter-terror and counter-insurgency strategies require a major revamp. In India, this has been particularly difficult due to a wider culture of hierarchical servitude in the bureaucracy –which stems from the country’s colonial legacy –dominating non-military security establishments. Senior leadership in this sector remains steeped in colonial values and outlook, resenting any new idea or even bonafide intellectual dissidence. It hasremained un-empathetic to the requirements of a modern democratic India. These leaders forget that, while obtrusive and oppressive security counter measures may be unavoidable in certain circumstances, they cannot be justified in perpetuity.

A visit to the Valley in May this year showed that the level of alienation amongst the Kashmiri population was remarkably low. This was despite three decades of violent militancy that had claimed nearly 25,000 civilian lives, severely curtailed the freedoms of local people and exposed them to multiple provocations and inducements including jihadi subversion. The democratic Indian state is obligated to look at its citizens in Kashmir beyond the prism of a proxy war with Pakistan’s deep state. India certainly needs a smarter security paradigm that both protects its people and decimates subversive networks feeding all-out covert Pakistani war. Smart security is a facilitator, not an impediment, to collective well-being, liberty and the dignity of citizens.

REASSURING: PM Modi has offered assurances through public speeches
REASSURING: PM Modi has offered assurances through public speeches

Prime Minister Modi has been exhorting his ministers and officials to quickly put in place measures for good governance to win the hearts and minds of Kashmiris. Yet intent alone appears insufficient in the face of formidable challenges. Constraints of governance within Indian democracy have remained its Achilles’ heels, constricting its overall output. This becomes particularly glaring when compared with neighbouring China, which has forged ahead multiple times over the past three decades from a similar position.

An inter-connected world cannot afford segregation of people in the name of religion and race

An enduring peace in Kashmir, a permanent victory in the covert war and a decisive boost to India’s national security aspirations require serious governance reforms beyond the Kashmir Valley. In order to convince Kashmiris that closer integration with the rest of the country is an opportunity they should seize with both hands, accelerated progress is needed throughout all of India towards economic prosperity, social harmony, the rule of law and a higher output on each of the parameters of the Human Development Index.

If this were to happen, it could bury the two-nation theory forever and equip India’s governing institutions with the capacity to push even further for the deradicalisation of Pakistani society and the democratisation of the Pakistani state. These are undoubtedly indispensable for peace and progress across the entire sub-continent and the resurrection of the Indian civilizational state as the third pillar – along with the West and China –of a new emerging global order.

Jitendra  Kumar  Ojha is an independent thinker on governance, geopolitics and national security.  During a 26-year career in the civil service, he specialised in national security and irregular warfare

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