On Friday 12 August, representatives of several Indian political parties met to discuss the mounting unrest in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. Over the past month, Kashmir has experienced a wave of protest and repression after Indian security forces killed a charismatic young militant, Burhan Wani. In the mass protests which ensued, 58 civilians were killed and thousands of demonstrators have been arrested.
Wani belonged to the Hizbul Mujahideen organisation, designated as a terrorist group by India, as well as by the EU and the US – his funeral drew a crowd of 7,000 Kashmiris. Much of the valley – the Muslim-majority part of the state, distinct from Hindu-majority Jammu in the south and Buddhist-majority Ladakh in the east – is under curfew, with mobile internet services suspended. While Kashmir experienced bouts of protest in 2008 and 2010, this latest episode has revealed a qualitative shift in the nature of the crisis.
In the late 1980s, armed Kashmiri groups led an insurgency against Indian rule. Through the 1990s, groups backed by Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, decimated indigenous groups. In the early 2000s, another group, Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) – which would later mount the Mumbai attacks of 2008 – grew powerful. Yet armed insurgency in the region largely waned through the 2000s, helped by a landmark ceasefire agreement between India and Pakistan in 2003 that made it harder for the latter to infiltrate militants. As of last year, India estimated that only 142 militants remained active in the state, with only 40 per cent hailing from Pakistan. However, a younger generation of protesters is now starting to play a role in the conflict. Many of them have little or no memory of the insurgency of the 1990s; are sympathetic to the message and iconography of militants like Wani; and have directly confronted security forces – most notably through stone-throwing – as they seek to disrupt army cordons around villages. As one young person in Kashmir put it, ‘we don’t have any guns as yet. Other than that, we are all militants’.
Two of the pivotal actors in Kashmir’s crises – Pakistan and the traditional separatist leadership – are therefore less important than they used to be. Pakistan has criticised India – Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif dedicated his country’s Independence Day on 14 August to Kashmiris – while India has hit back, producing an LeT operative as evidence of what it claims is the ISI’s continued meddling.
However, Pakistan, though not uninvolved, is no longer the primary driver of unrest in Kashmir. While India–Pakistan talks are still relevant to the Kashmir dispute as a whole – in part because the relationship between Indian-administered and Pakistan-administered Kashmir is of critical interest to both sets of Kashmiris – neither the harmonious conclusion of talks, nor any unilateral Pakistani decision would any longer be capable of suddenly bringing calm to the region. Meanwhile, the separatists’ traditional political leadership, primarily grouped under a coalition known as the Hurriyat Conference, is acknowledged to be losing influence and authority in the face of younger activists. Its role as a conduit between New Delhi and the Kashmiri ‘street’ has become degraded. What we see today is a predominantly indigenous, apparently leaderless challenge to Indian rule.
Indian observers had warned of worsening conditions. The journalist Praveen Swami cautioned in April that ‘failing a serious effort to revive and build a new democratic culture, the prospect of a larger crisis is very real. Kashmir’s civil society’, he continued, ‘its political organisations, cultural bodies and the very structure of the family’ had been destroyed. In May, India’s former National Security Advisor MK Narayanan sounded a similar alarm, writing that ‘since the beginning of 2016, the Valley has been facing its gravest crisis since 2008 and 2010’, which was a period of mass unrest. He blamed this on Kashmiris’ anger at the continued erosion of their traditional constitutional autonomy from New Delhi (consistently whittled down over the past five decades), their consequent readiness to shelter militants infiltrating from Pakistan and the large proportion of young people within the population feeding the ranks of protesters.
Kashmiri grievances have been directed in part at the state government and specifically the local Peoples Democratic Party (PDP) which has, since early 2015, ruled in a curious coalition with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP); the PDP has historically been receptive to separatist and dissenting voices, while the BJP has vehemently opposed them. Other grievances have included assertive moves by Hindu nationalist groups and causes, legal attacks on the Kashmiri state flag, and the continued use of disfiguring and blinding weapons among other heavy-handed crowd-control and counterinsurgency tactics.
Hard line Indian nationalists, amply represented in sections of the broadcast media, respond to these views by emphasising the opposition of the state’s non-Muslim and non-Sunni minorities to separatism. They point to the historic ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits (Hindus) from the state at the hands of Islamist rebels. And they frame the uprising as a continuation of Pakistani hybrid warfare, requiring a hard-headed approach rather than appeasement. Liberals, who are better represented in the print media, urge political flexibility. While there is near-unanimous opposition to Kashmiri independence or accession to Pakistan, their recommendations have focused on restraint on the part of the security forces, a political roadmap and greater state-level autonomy.
Both Modi and his party have historically leaned to the former view, and the early indications are that New Delhi’s policy will reflect this. The Telegraph newspaper of Calcutta notes that the government ‘wants the violence stamped out first … with a hard hand’ and is willing to deploy the army back on the streets. On Sunday 14 August, the BJP’s general secretary, Ram Madhav, declared, ’you cannot compromise on Kashmir’. And, most significantly of all, Modi’s speech on India’s Independence Day on 15 August included an unprecedented reference not just to what India calls ‘Pakistan-occupied Kashmir’, but also to Pakistan’s restive province of Balochistan, where the Pakistani Army has fought its own separatists for nearly 70 years. This is at once a form of deflection – a way of signalling that India holds Pakistan responsible for the unrest – but also an oblique threat that India is open to the possibility of retaliatory measures.
In Kashmir itself, the government is likely to seek to exhaust the protest movement before dividing it and then talking to segments; but the challenge, increasingly, is to find credible interlocutors among a younger, less organised, less leader-led movement.