The Modi government needs to overhaul its approach to Kashmir
There is nothing worse than gloating ‘I told you so’ when the going gets tough. Fortunately, I am not the only one saying this. The chorus against Modi government’s lack of direction and policy in Kashmir is increasing by the day. Even the erstwhile loyalists are urging the government to do more to help Mufti Mohammed Sayeed stabilise the state which is throwing up new challenges every week.
The problem is not that the Modi government is not doing to enough to help the Mufti government. The truth is that there is nothing that the Modi government can do to help the Mufti government. The rehabilitation of flood victims, dithering on resettlement of Kashmiri Pandits, moratorium on Article 370 (as well as AFSPA as a quid pro quo) are flimsy measures to create any amount of positivity in the state, which has been crying for a political process for many years now.
Within a few months of coming to office, the Modi government shot itself in the body. Getting carried away by the self-promoted image of toughness, the government called off talks with Pakistan on the plea that the Pakistan high commissioner had confabulated with the Separatist leaders in Delhi. Two messages were sent out through this: Government will not talk Kashmir with Pakistan; and the Separatist leaders are not representative of Kashmiri people and hence no question of talks with them.
By the time the government realised that it had overplayed the ‘act tough’ part, it was already too late. Offering a fig leaf, foreign secretary S. Jaishankar went to Pakistan as part of his SAARC yatra earlier this year. But the dialogue has not resumed. After all, without Kashmir, Pakistan has little interest in talks with India. With China covering its flanks, Pakistan can afford to show muscles, and is doing precisely that.
For want of any other ideas, the government recently started a quiet conversation with the non-Geelani faction of the Hurriyat Conference through its think-tank Vivekanand International Foundation (VIF). This conversation is unlikely to move forward. One, without Pakistan being on-board, there isn’t much that the government can talk with the Hurriyat. Two, the deniability that the government is seeking by engaging VIF will be its undoing. Secret talks do not help the Separatists in anyway. They need a public conversation so that they can show both Pakistan and the people of Kashmir that they are being taken seriously by the Government of India. A secret conversation will only further erode their credibility. Once the government gets tired or distracted, it will simply close the communication leaving the Separatists high and dry. This has happened in the past and there is no reason to believe that it may not happen again.
The last time this happened, the Pakistani establishment simply abandoned the moderate faction of Hurriyat and resurrected flailing Geelani. Now that under pressure from Pakistan all factions of Hurriyat are talking about cooperation, Mirwaiz cannot afford to be left out of the party by indulging in private talks with VIF-sponsored retired Indian Army officers.
Meanwhile, the insurgency in Kashmir has entered yet another phase. Both blatant violence and groups with extra-territorial control are a thing of past. With the experience of 25 years, Pakistan now is an expert in managing the ebb and tide of insurgency. Several new things have been happening in Kashmir lately.
Groups like Lashkar-e-Taiyyaba and Jaish-e-Mohammed have been asked to keep a low profile, letting the indigenous Hizbul Mujahideen take the lead. From within the Hizbul, a few smaller groups (more like teams) have sprouted in different parts of the state to keep the police and the Paramilitary on a wild goose chase, threatening mobile towers in some parts and dissenting Separatists in others; a few of them have been killed in targeted killings.
If the tide of an insurgency is determined by the support it enjoys on the ground, then the Kashmiri one has become even more entrenched. The young, who till a year ago were crossing the Line of Control for training, are no longer doing so. Instead, they have found places to train within the Valley. This implies that there are camps now inside the state where young people are practising using firearms without anyone reporting them to the police.
In the last few weeks, the state police has also chanced upon self-motivated, fringe groups with just a handful of members. Their numbers maybe inconsequential; their scope for destruction immaterial too; the worrisome issue is the depth of their radicalisation. Maybe even the waving of the ISIS flags by some was not more than a red-rag to irritate the government with, but does it not merit thinking why even after 25 years the sentiment is not waning? And why after the relative calm and optimism of the last few years when India and Pakistan were on talking terms, have the people of Kashmir become so restive once again?
Clearly, the messages that the Modi government has been sending for the last one year have boomeranged. There is a need to rejig the approach to Kashmir. The last thing that the government should do is rely on VIF and retired generals to direct its Kashmir policy. Time for hearts and minds is long over. Kashmir needs a roadmap.