It is obvious that the situation in Jammu & Kashmir has deteriorated significantly between last year and now, with the army and police fighting Pakistan-based jihadis and stone pelters with their backs to the wall. Many observers blame inept political management by the Centre for the widespread alienation of people in Kashmir Valley (but not necessarily people of Jammu and Ladakh), making restoration of normalcy very difficult.
We have been here before – in 2010, in the 1990s, etc – but this time the shift in public mood is qualitatively different. But it is not merely the result of poor political engagement with Kashmiri aspirations. A key new element is covert Chinese support to Pakistani mischief in Kashmir.
While the Chinese claim to have been miffed over the Dalai Lama’s visit to Tawang and Arunachal Pradesh, and have now given Chinese names to places in that state to buttress their territorial claims, the reality is that the dragon is keen to have the status quo changed in Jammu & Kashmir too. Reason: large parts of Pakistan-occupied Kashmir are critical to its new China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), including land access to Gwadar port in Balochistan.
Without the covert Chinese go-ahead to Pakistani aims in J&K, it is doubtful if an economically and politically isolated country would have dared change the game in Kashmir Valley. Here’s what’s new in this round of bloodletting in the Valley.
First, the Pakistani approach to Kashmir has changed from one of mindless terrorism against civilian and soft targets to symbols of state power – the army and central and state police forces. This is what explains the targeting of air force and army bases in Pathankot and Uri, not to speak of efforts to intimidate J&K Police by targeting their families at home. J&K Police are now a frightened lot.
Second, this time the war has an information component that is as lethal as stones, grenades and AK-47s. This is why we are being inundated with videos purporting to show Indian army or police forces beating up Kashmiris or tying them on top of vehicles to negotiate a stone pelting crowd. These propaganda tactics are intended to destroy the will of the Indian state to fight while, at the same time, ensuring the alienation of local citizenry.
The information war also has a secondary political motive, which is to set the so-called liberal elite, never positively inclined to the Modi government, against the latter’s policies in J&K, by focusing the narrative on human rights violations – real, imagined or manufactured.
The brazen Pakistani threat to execute a captured former Indian naval officer, Kulbhushan Jadhav, after a sham trial, is of a piece with this information war. It is intended to pile on the pressure and distract the government from ensuring that the Valley is safe and peaceful.
If Jadhav is executed one can expect the current consensus inside India to evaporate, as opposition politicians will surely accuse the government of mishandling this case. Which is what Pakistan wants – a divided political class in India, unsure about its aims in J&K. This disarray in the Indian intelligentsia suits Chinese objectives too.
Third, China may not be overtly keen to promote Pakistan-based jihadis who may well end up becoming a headache in its own Xinjiang province, where the Muslim Uighurs are restive. But one thing is certain: it appears to have decided to prop up the Pakistani deep state, both to further its own economic interests, and as a way of containing India.
Chinese pressure on Pakistan to declare Gilgit-Baltistan as its fifth province is key to legalising its highway to Gwadar, which passes through this area. China has decided that a strong Pakistan is in its interests – and this has negative consequences for India, especially in terms of Pakistan’s Kashmir policy.
Fourth, the US is distracted and Russia, a former staunch India ally, has neatly fallen into the Chinese camp, thanks to foolish US attempts to sanction Vladimir Putin over his ambitions in Syria, Ukraine and Crimea. The Donald Trump administration, widely expected to be tougher on terrorism, has fallen back on Obama-era policies of bombing Syria and alienating Russia and China even further. So, the China-Pakistan nexus can soon become a China-Russia-Pakistan nexus, hugely negative for India. Russia has only arms to offer by way of economic support, and soon these could be offered to Pakistan.
Fifth, there is a new domestic variable this time. Unlike in the past, when J&K always had Kashmiri politicians running the state, this time BJP has ensured that Jammu is part of the power structure, thanks to its huge representation in terms of MLAs from this region. Politically this is sharpening the Hindu-Muslim divide in the state, since it is presumed that it was the Hindus who put BJP in power in Srinagar along with PDP, which won big in the Valley. This Hindu-Muslim factor is sharpening the edge of Islamist militancy in the Valley.
In a sense, today’s crisis in the Valley has been enhanced by a democratic verdict in 2014. It is not going to be easy to disentangle this knot. The right way to go about restoring peace in the Valley is to impose a short spell of Governor’s rule, allow the armed forces to restore some semblance of peace in the Valley, and then restart the political dialogue process for a greater devolution of power, but one that does not concentrate it in Srinagar, but distributes it between Srinagar, Jammu and Ladakh.