Fear is the prevailing sentiment across many parts of Kashmir today. It has, in turn, led to comparisons with the situation that existed during the 1990s and the early years of the 21st century. In the past few weeks, several civilians as well as security and armed forces personnel, have been killed by terrorists, some of the latter being labelled as hybrid terrorists, though it is not clear what this phrase signifies.
A predictable reaction to the situation has been the exodus of Hindus, especially of the Kashmiri Pandits, and of migrant labour, fearing for their lives and their future. Side by side with this, an impression has been created of increasing support to militancy, though it is unclear whether this is indeed the case. However, as in all situations of this kind, it is apparent that impressions often appear more real than actual ground realities.
Latterly, Kashmir had managed to stay away from the headlines despite concerns expressed in different quarters about the ‘disciplined democracy’ being practised ever since the dilution of Article 370 and the restructuring of the erstwhile State of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) into two Union Territories. In the absence of an agile press, it has not been possible to fathom the intensity of protests against the existing order, and whether they constitute a rejection of the changes effected.
Incidents of violence have, however, continued. Notwithstanding this, given the hullabaloo in the immediate aftermath of the changes effected in August 2019, a degree of surface calm seemed to prevail, not very different from that which existed previously. Whether this was peace brought about through controlled conditions, or otherwise, has been difficult to discern.
Given the recent recrudescence of violence, it is, nevertheless, evident that the situation remains fragile. Whether this means that the changes effected since August 2019 were merely a ‘triumph of wishfulness over prudence’, an overestimation of belief on what was possible ignoring the history of several decades past, and the failure of many previous attempts to change the status quo , is hence worth examining.
More important is what could possibly be the reasons for the revival of aggravated violence in Kashmir. While assessing the ground situation in Kashmir, Pakistan has always tended to be a factor. It is, however, again possible that the lessons of the past on what needed to be done — to effectively checkmate insurgency from across the border or inflame Kashmiri opinion — might have gone unheeded in the euphoria of having succeeded in altering the character of J&K and Delhi establishing a degree of direct control. Promises made and an unwillingness to use the time and opportunity to create fresh opportunities for dialogue with communities in Kashmir, allied with reputational interest in not accepting that the many steps taken, were inadequate to defeat the machinations from across the border, could also, perhaps, be additional reasons.
By this reckoning, Kashmir might well seem, in some remote way, to reveal the same attitude as many post-conflict, pre-modern, hybrid societies with mixed populations. It would imply that in the case of Kashmir, making a transformation to a more stable society will always prove difficult. In addition, Kashmir has difficult neighbours such as Afghanistan, Pakistan and China, which leaves little scope for experimentation — a true test for decision-making of any kind.
As violence escalated in J&K, it became commonplace to link it with the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. This could, however, be a highly simplistic answer to a more complex situation. In the current context, geopolitics is something that cannot and must not be ignored. The sudden surge in violence in Kashmir needs a more careful evaluation of the facts rather than simplistic answers. It is a fact, for instance, that India’s world view has steadily expanded, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, and several, including some relatively unknown, tension points have emerged. All these will need to be carefully assessed before coming up with an answer — more so since India is wedged between two known antagonists (Pakistan and China), has a Talibanised Afghanistan as its neighbour, and there has been a resurgence of international terror groups, notably the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
The China factor
Of particular consequence in this context is China’s continuing cooperation with Pakistan in many matters, its growing assertiveness in regard to its territorial claims, vis-à-vis India, its opposition to the prominence given to India by the West in both Asian and global forums, etc. All these have further helped cement the nexus between China and Pakistan. Intertwined with this is again the battle raging for spheres of influence between China and India, which has intensified under China’s President Xi Jinping. The latter is intent on establishing an Asian system in which China sits at the summit of a hierarchical regional order. All this is altering the ground realities and it is worth considering whether Kashmir is emerging as a pressure point in this context.
Intelligence is critical
What it all boils down to is the need for hard and better intelligence. Hard intelligence is critical to avoid misperceptions and miscalculations. The (recent) history of the world is replete with stories of intelligence failures, misperceptions and miscalculations, which had led to grave situations, and which might well have been avoided had there been better intelligence. The serious miscalculation about Iraqi President Saddam Hussein possessing nuclear weapons based on wrong intelligence led to unnecessary involvement by the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in Iraq, followed by an unfortunate train of events that continues to haunt the world to this day. As tensions between India and China, and between India and Pakistan, intensify, the need for hard intelligence is thus vital to be able to control the train of events and avoid any serious miscalculations.
What is common to most, perhaps all, intelligence agencies — irrespective of their degrees of competence — is their limited capacity for imagination, viz. , to imagine future events and possibilities. Intelligence agencies, by and large, are adept at providing insights about yesterday’s threats rather than future ones, specially those that exist just beyond the horizon. Moreover, as intelligence agencies become more wedded to technology, they need to realise that advances in technology tend to be a double-edged sword insofar as intelligence is concerned. It should not negate the need for improved analysis and also how important it is to provide decision-makers with information on what is taking place in the minds of their opposite numbers.
In the extant situation, Indian intelligence agencies must avoid the kind of lapses of both imagination and analysis displayed by western intelligence agencies some years ago, who misread, misunderstood and failed to anticipate the role of Sayyid Qutb and his preachings which later set the stage for the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York and other targets in the U.S. Had they understood what Sayyid Qutb preached, viz. , that martyrdom was a necessary part of 20th century jihad, they would not have underestimated the influence exerted by Islamist theology on the terrorist mindset.
It is, thus, important that the ‘missing dimensions’ of intelligence in most cases, viz. , thinking imaginatively and improved analytical capabilities, receive the close attention of India’s intelligence agencies. Only then will it be possible to understand the nature of current events as a precursor of future threats. This is important to ensure that they do not ignore signals that may not be all too obvious at this time, and keep chasing more obvious and current aspects. Too narrowly focussed intelligence requirements, limited to current events such as, for example, tensions with China on the border, or Pakistan’s attempts to push in ‘irregulars’ and aid the Lashkar and Jaish elements to cross over into India, may prove self-defeating. The arc of intelligence needs to be much wider and Indian intelligence agencies such as the Intelligence Bureau, the Research & Analysis Wing as also the National Security Council Secretariat should ensure that they have the necessary capabilities.
Linked to this is also the danger of ‘intelligence adjustment’, viz. , avoiding challenging conventional assumptions, which could undermine their ability to provide a more accurate picture of the larger threat. Today, when India faces problems all around it, to limit what is happening in Kashmir solely to the impetus created by a Talibanised Afghanistan without fully analysing all the facts could cost the country dear.
M.K. Narayanan is a former Director, Intelligence Bureau, a former National Security Adviser and a former Governor of West Bengal