Address the 'new normal' in Kashmir

Updated - October 10, 2016 01:28 am IST

Published - October 10, 2016 01:27 am IST

161010 - Oped - Kashmir violence Illustration: Keshav

161010 - Oped - Kashmir violence Illustration: Keshav

Generals are, perhaps, not the only ones who fight today’s battles based on the ideas, tactics and lessons derived from previous wars. As Jammu and Kashmir confronts one of its gravest crises, a similar syndrome is playing out in Delhi and Srinagar. All shades of political leaders, strategic analysts, intelligence professionals, and almost everyone else seem to have reached a common conclusion that Kashmir’s present troubles are due solely to Pakistan and India’s mismanagement of the situation. History will not, however, spare those who do not make a distinction between current realities and past situations.

Right since Independence, Kashmir has been a contentious issue between India and Pakistan. Keeping a wary eye on Pakistan’s activities in Kashmir has been an important charge on the country’s intelligence and security services. Three unsuccessful wars and numerous failed terror attacks have not deflected Pakistan from continuing along this path.

On July 8 in Kokernag

The death of Burhan Wani in a July 8 encounter (Kokernag, Anantnag district) would in the past have routinely led to a minor flare-up. Pakistan’s involvement in such instances was a given. Hence, this long spell of continuing violence in the Valley needs somewhat deeper introspection to understand the real causative factors responsible for this situation.

Almost a hundred days of a daily diet of violence, more than seventy days of curfew across the State, very high figures of individuals killed and injured, including security personnel, all point to an extraordinary situation. No evidence has surfaced that the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) or the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) are involved in the violence, though Hizbul Mujahideen cadres are present in sizeable numbers. The vast majority of those involved in the agitation are, to all intents and purposes, ‘unattached’. Many come from the ranks of the educated unemployed. Some of the agitators are hardly ten or twelve.

The ‘unattached’ militant involved in the current violence is a new phenomenon — and a far cry from the erstwhile ‘foreign’ militants. Kashmir had become accustomed since end-1988 to the presence of foreign militants and their involvement in stoking violence. The ‘Afghan jihad’ of the 1980s had a mesmerising effect, and provided much of the inspiration for the subsequent agitations in Kashmir during the 1990s. As the Afghan War wound down, many of the LeT and other modules operating in Kashmir had some Afghanistan-returned jihadis.

Operating alongside the foreign militants were the relatively more indigenous Hizbul Mujahideen members, though they also drew inspiration and support from Pakistan. The Hizbul Mujahideen sported a distinctly different ‘terror sub-culture’ and identified more closely with the aspirations of the local Kashmiri youth. By the turn of the century, the Hizbul Mujahideen had lost out to the more powerful Pakistani outfits, though it still remained in contention.

The security forces tended to take strong action to contain the foreign militants, while reaching out to the Kashmiri youth and even some Hizbul Mujahideen elements, trying to persuade them to come to the negotiating table. Every Prime Minister since 1988, especially Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, also extended a hand of friendship to Pakistan in an attempt to reduce their capability to stir up trouble in the Valley. This met with mixed results, but did have some merit in preventing the situation from going out of control. The outreach to the Kashmiri youth yielded better results, with a sizeable majority seeking better employment opportunities, greater economic benefits, improved communication facilities, etc.

Signs of change

Treating the current turmoil in the Valley as an extension of the earlier spells of unrest could be highly simplistic. Since end-2013, signs of a change in atmosphere had become visible. This was apparently missed. Even now, and in the wake of the extraordinary situation that prevails in the Valley (several weeks of curfew, a total media blackout, and spontaneous eruption of street violence), no meaningful attempt has been made to understand what is happening beneath the surface. Few seem to think that this could well become a dangerous watershed in the troubled history of Kashmir.

A proper appraisal cannot wait for much longer. Who was Burhan Wani? How come he was perceived as a martyr by the Hizbul (even though he was appropriated by the group very recently)? More important, how is it that he is being compared to someone like Che Guevara in stature? Such a transformation – of a base metal into gold in such a short time – has never before occurred in the chequered history of violence in Kashmir. Delhi and Srinagar have hence reason to worry as to whether this points to a new inflection point in Kashmir’s three-decade-old militancy.

The character of the struggle has also altered, and the reasons for this also need deeper introspection. It is not a case of rumours metamorphosing into a violent movement. The particularly ferocious public reaction to Burhan Wani’s death should be troubling to everyone – politicians, authorities, the security establishment and even ordinary people. The movement gives the impression today of being on auto pilot, without any known leaders.

Students of history may find some parallels with what occurred in Prague in 1968, but authorities here need to find ways and means to deal with a situation where ‘spontaneous’ violence is being directed at each and every symbol of authority, and not orchestrated by separatist leaders or Pakistan. This is what distinguishes 2016 from what was witnessed during 2008, 2010 and 2013. Former Chief Minister Omar Abdullah’s purported remark that “Burhan’s ability to recruit into militancy from the grave will far outstrip anything he could have done on social media” possibly contains greater received wisdom than what he was possibly aware of.

Hackneyed arguments to explain the current upsurge in Kashmir can prove counterproductive. The Burhan Wani phenomenon will not go away by sympathetic references to the accumulated animosities and suspicions of Kashmiri youth against atrocities perpetrated by the security forces, or by attributing the situation to Delhi’s lack of understanding of the Kashmiri Weltanschauung. It must not also be mistakenly attributed to a new generation of youth from the educated classes exploiting the social media seeking ‘freedom from India’. The basic causes are much deeper. The presence of over 200,000 persons at Wani’s funeral needs a satisfactory explanation.

To try to retrieve this situation, it is necessary to recognise that, in marked contrast to earlier phases of trouble in Kashmir, the present movement is almost entirely home grown. The spontaneity of many ‘mini-uprisings’ demands a different explanation from earlier ones, for it smacks of near total alienation of an entire generation of young Kashmiris angry with the present state of affairs. Many are even willing to commit suicide to vent their anger.

Simply repeating phrases like ‘Insaniyat, Kashmiriyat and Jamhooriat’, or reiterating our commitment to Article 370 of the Constitution, removal of the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA), or provision of additional doses of development assistance, will not resonate with the current generation of agitators. Suggestions and ideas thrown up in the course of meetings of the Round Tables, Working Groups, and Group of Interlocutors (2007-2011) will likewise meet with little response (even though had they been acted upon at the time, the present situation might not have occurred). Talking to separatist leaders may make good copy, but they are irrelevant in today’s context, and out of sync with the younger generations now in revolt.

A most frightening prospect

This is turning into a battle for the minds of the Kashmiri youth. Using force of the kind employed against the Lashkar, Jaish and Hizbul against today’s 10 and 12-year-old schoolchildren would only inflame passions further. India has decisively won the battle against the foreign-based militants and terror outfits from Pakistan, but it now confronts a far graver problem of winning over the youth of Kashmir before an entire generation gets detached from India, a most frightening prospect.

Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti and her current advisers are hardly in a position, or possess the necessary intellectual or political acumen, to deal with what is taking place. Delhi, for its part, also does not appear better positioned to appreciate and deal with the kind of seismic shift occurring beneath the surface in Kashmir. It may, hence, be necessary to seek assistance from social scientists and psychologists, apart from strategic thinkers and political leaders, to come up with some fresh ideas on how to retrieve the situation.

M.K. Narayanan is a National Security Adviser and former Governor of West Bengal.

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