Making sense of India's preferred option in Kashmir

By Ali Ahmed. Dated: 1/6/2019 11:09:05 PM

India has four options for tackling its twin problems connected to Kashmir: that of India-Pakistan and one between India and an Indian community, its Muslim Kashmiris. One is its current bludgeoning of Kashmiri Muslims; two is waging a war on Pakistan; three is a façade of talks for conflict management; and last but not the least, meaningful talks towards conflict resolution. The article highlights India alighting on the first as its preference: bludgeon Kashmiri Muslims.
The year-end statistics put out by security forces on the 'success' of Operation All Out - on for two years now - is to bolster the faith in the home front in its lads in uniform. For security forces the statistics testify to their seeming indispensability. For the government, the gain is to broadcast strength to its base - cultural nationalists, devotees, lap media.
The successes of Operation All Out can be expected to continue indefinitely since the infrastructure for 'divide and kill', in place over the past three decades, is delivering. Sources have it that the credit for success goes to an informer network - the 'divide' part - setting the stage for stand-off kills. Reportedly, 100 houses have been brought down this year; copy cat tactics, making Indians indebted to Israelis for more than just technology.
It has little cost since India, as a middle level power, is borrowing a leaf from Pakistan in becoming a rentier state: renting its strategic location as neighbour to a rising superpower, China, for strategic utility for the established superpower, the United States. This enables India the chutzpah to pooh-pooh negative portrayals of its human rights record in Kashmir as surfaced mid-year when the departing head of the United Nations human rights watch dog turned in a scathing recommendation that a commission be set up to take a closer look.
The choice is set to continue also because India would not unduly like to take up the second option, that of war. To avoid war, it has severely-curtailed border-incident level actions up its sleeve, such as up-gunned surgical strikes which Pakistan would be hard put to ignore as it blithely did last time. The army through its latest set of reforms is moving towards reconfiguring its strike forces into viable integrated battle groups to prosecute limited war. Late December, it gave itself a new land warfare doctrine. Its air force has warned that it can take out - presumably through conventional means - any Pakistani reliance on low-caliber nuclear means to counter any Indian limited forays. The posturing of nonchalance in genuflection to deterrence notwithstanding, India is not insensitive to escalation possibilities. This compels use of force to be limited to subconventional levels, meaning managing proxy war on Pakistan's terms within Kashmir.
The application-of-force dominant conflict management approach in Kashmir has hitherto been leavened by holding out the promise of talks. There have been interlocutors dating to George Fernandes taking on the role at the outbreak of troubles in the 1990s. Others who have played a role with varying degrees of proactivism, official sanction and backing are Rajesh Pilot, KC Pant, AS Dulat and NN Vohra. The policy has always been use of force, supplemented with a peace track of sorts. Atal Behari Vajpayee earned his place in Kashmiri hearts. Manmohan Singh was similarly well-intentioned. Neither made headway as the remote was elsewhere, with the Parivar in case of the former and 10 Janpath, equally wary of the Parivar's increasingly electoral sway.
Since it was a conflict management approach operational, once the immediate impetus to defuse some or other crisis was exhausted, the talks track usually lost immediacy. For example, a former home minister now laments that he was less than punctilious on receipt of the report of the three interlocutors. The three interlocutors defused the 2010 street fury, leaving the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government free to let down the people. Lacking political heft and self-confidence to risk being outflanked by the right wing opposition, seemingly it had little choice. The political track - in a way - had subterfuge and an early opt-out clause built in.
The present government too has a political track of sorts in play. In order to defuse any American pressure on India as part of America's exit strategy in Afghanistan, it appointed a representative with a mandate to conduct a sustained dialogue with Kashmiris. Apprehending a quid pro quo on part of the Americans to Pakistan, they anticipated pressure on India in regard to Pakistan's pet theme, Kashmir. True to his mandate he has been in dialogue, in a typically Indian fashion, unforgettably put by Sardar Swaran Singh on his round of talks with Bhutto post Sino-Indian War under American pressure, 'talks for talks sake'. Dineshwar Sharma, the present interlocutor, could (should) have supped with separatists and interacted with the regional political parties on their versions of 'azadi', such as the State Autonomy Committee report of 2000 of the National Conference, the People's Democratic Party's 'The Self-Rule Framework for Kashmir Resolution' and the People's Conference's 'Achievable nationhood'.
With no fear of being outflanked as its predecessor, this government has little need to be hypocritical. It has instead - or so its gullible army chief lets on - a policy of 'sticks and carrot', in that order. The 255 Kashmiri youth dead this year were to have forced the separatists to Sharma's lair. For its pains, the army surveys another year of more of the same. Not that it would complain, even though the situation is not doctrinally compliant. It has gone public on occasion with its reservations, such as when the Special Powers Act comes under cloud. In instances of government unwillingness to progress talks - the second doctrinal pincer in a counter insurgency campaign - it is mute, and unsurprisingly so. Institutional interest sustained on lives of Indian (Kashmiri) youth, incidentally not unlike its Pakistani counterpart.
The fourth option, untouched so far, is a political track of meaningful talks. These necessarily cannot but be two pronged, if not quite trilateral: one in relation to Pakistan and another with Kashmiris. In his recent interview, Prime Minister Modi lamented India's inability to influence Pakistan to mend its ways and that it would unlikely be doing so any time soon. He was only admitting to the limitations of Indian power. It has proven unequal to overawing Pakistan. There is also the under-studied factor of a millennial and civilisational account to be settled with beef-eating Muslim invaders that makes talks unthinkable. Even if talks with Pakistan are set aside pragmatically in a consideration, these could reasonably be progressed with Kashmiris. There is precedent of this not only in Kashmir's post accession history - such as the Parthasarathy-Afzal Beg talks - but more pertinently from the north east.
Apparently, there is a 'doctrine of state' that is holding back the Indian state based on the logic that suppression is the only answer for a challenge to the state. Therefore, if a section takes up guns, it has to be beaten down with guns. The unstated justification for repression is its demonstration effect on other Indian ethnicities. It is a way to hold India together. The self-serving justification is that the Kashmir problem is a manifestation of the larger Pakistan problem, of a hybrid or proxy war, ruling out tackling through piecemeal talks. Finally, is the Muslim factor, rendering null the north east analogy.
India is thus left with only one option: bludgeon Kashmiris. It's an option that can be mellowed though. The army is the nation's army and army of the state. If it is being put to use for the electoral benefit of the ruling political party, it has the counsels of state to voice its reservations. There is precedence in which it has gone public with policy reservations, such as stalling the Siachen initiatives. In this case it needs to highlight for the government's security minders the doctrinal matrix in which the success of kinetic operations is to be reinforced by initiation of talks.
If the year-end statistics are to make any sense at all, it is to push a case for talks. It is within the army's purview to press for this since it is a lead player in Kashmir. It does amount to a political exertion on its part, but it is within the democratic framework of speaking truth to power as an institution and its leadership discharging a representative and advisory role in a democracy. Resignation is a final power play up its sleeve. Alongside, it bears reminding that if the government sets it to the task yet, it does not need to say 'three bags full sir'. Its domain expertise enables it. The manner it executes its task is it own handiwork. On this score, it has the 'iron fist in a velvet glove' doctrine as guide. Else it is guilty of trotting out statistics of kills for its own narrow ends, making it yet another institutional casualty of the Modi era.
(Ali Ahmed, a former UN official, blogs at www.ali-writings.blogspot.in. )

 

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