Kashmir in the grip of contentious politics

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By Talmiz Ahmed

The Mughal emperor Jahangir described Kashmir as paradise on earth. But over the past 30 years this state has been gripped by violence that has pitted Indian forces against its citizens and militants crossing from Pakistan. This “proxy war” has claimed the lives of 80,000 people.
The people of Jammu and Kashmir are the victims of a triple betrayal: Most of their local political leaders have stripped the state of its assets and dignity. These leaders have been backed by successive governments in New Delhi that have been, in turn, indifferent and harsh, and frequently partners in the corruption and venality of state authorities.
But the greatest betrayal of the Kashmiris has been at the hands of Pakistan. From independence, its leaders have believed that their newly acquired nationhood was incomplete without the accession of Muslim-majority Kashmir. After failure in war, they have made extremism an instrument of state policy, mobilizing militant groups to promote the Pakistani cause.
As the third decade of violence in the state neared an end this year, it was obvious that the old order — involving tired (and hereditary) state leaders, all-too-frequent deployment of national forces to address essentially political grievances, and extremism exported from neighboring states — needed to be replaced with new ideas and fresh purpose.
This was delivered on Aug. 5 by the recently re-elected government of Narendra Modi, which pushed through Parliament measures that amended the constitution and deprived the state of its special status, tearing away its identity as a state and making it a “union territory” (and hence under greater central control). The government also made Buddhist-majority Ladakh a separate union territory.
India has asserted that these measures will fully integrate Kashmir with the Indian union, do away with its politicians’ chicanery and open up opportunities for all-round development.
Brave words. The government, fearing a backlash, prepared for this promised El Dorado a week earlier by mobilizing 40,000 additional forces, detaining prominent leaders, forcing pilgrims and tourists to leave, and shutting down internet and other communication networks.
The response in India has been mixed. Parliament gave the new laws overwhelming support. The largely pro-government television channels have been euphoric, even on occasion describing critics as anti-national. Liberal commentators have been anguished, viewing the legal changes as a “monstrosity” and evidence of the government’s “authoritarian muscularity.”

In taking these dramatic initiatives, the government was encouraged by several factors. The removal of Kashmir’s special status has been on the agenda of the ruling party and its ideological adherents since 1950.
More recently, since 2014, Pakistan’s armed forces have staged several attacks on sensitive Indian targets, ending any prospect of dialogue between the two countries. From 2016, there were suggestions of a new, more radical turn to the insurgency, with indications that militants were gaining inspiration from Daesh.
Then, in the past few months, US-Pakistan ties improved rapidly after President Donald Trump affirmed his interest in withdrawing from Afghanistan on the basis of a deal with the Taliban, something that, in the US view, only Pakistan can deliver. Last month, Pakistan was particularly enthused by Trump’s offer to “mediate” on the Kashmir issue. To pre-empt some misguided US initiative, Modi was encouraged to quickly introduce legal changes in the state.
Three areas of uncertainty remain: The validity of the legal initiatives, the likely domestic political fallout, and regional responses. Legal issues will be decided by India’s Supreme Court, with opinion deeply divided on the constitutional validity of the measures.
On the political side, there are grave concerns that there could be a fresh upsurge of violence in Kashmir by youth protesting at this latest “betrayal” by New Delhi. Protesters could receive backing from Pakistan-sponsored cross-border intrusions to carry out acts of destruction and murder. Hopefully, the presence of Indian security forces will be a deterrent and reduce casualties.
Pakistan, inevitably, has reacted most sharply. Its prime minister has warned of nuclear war, while the army chief has affirmed his forces will stand by the Kashmiri people. The Indian ambassador has been expelled and trade ties with India suspended. Much of this is hollow rhetoric, described by one Pakistani writer as “national self-flagellation.” In fact, this would be a good time for politicians and commentators in Pakistan to ponder their own role in coarsening the Kashmiri fiber by injecting into it the virus of extremist violence.
China has contented itself with saying that the initiative on Ladakh “hurts Chinese sovereignty,” referring to the border dispute with India. Otherwise, it has called on all sides merely “to exercise restraint and act prudently.” The US State Department has noted that India has described its legal measures as “an internal matter,” a view shared by most regional powers.
The principal challenge facing India is domestic. The government has to ensure that, through sincere and effective political and economic initiatives, including development, employment and empowerment, it can win back the confidence of the Kashmiri populace by providing it with the sense of dignified national partnership denied over several decades.

( Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE. He holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.)