Burhan, Islamabad and Gwadar

Delhi manipulated post-1965 support in Kashmir by permitting a minority political class to grow gradually and dominate the scene. Strategic affairs specialists Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab argue in their book that unlike past, settling Kashmir is impossible without Pakistan, especially after CEPC take off

Today, instead of building on the legacies of its predecessors, the BJP government is trying to chart a new path by introducing communal consciousness in an already unstable situation by raising issues like enforcing the archaic law banning beef, the status of Article 370, the creation of special colonies for Kashmiri Pandits and retired Indian Army soldiers, besides reclaiming the ancient Hindu legacy of the state. It is true that Kashmir has an extremely rich history of Hinduism to which, over time, Islamic traditions were added to such an extent that they overwhelmed the ancient legacy in sheer numerical terms.

Yet, the two coexisted. And despite efforts by radicals on both sides to sully this confluence, even today many Muslim Kashmiri writers and poets of a certain age use Hindu metaphors and imagery in their work as evidence of the religious syncretism of the region. It is understandable that people with a sense of legacy, as well as Kashmiri Pandits, would want to reclaim and revive this tradition; just as people who feel that they are under siege would try to resist this reclamation for fear of being overwhelmed. Conversation and understanding can overcome these hurdles.

However, when politicians want to be part of the revival exercise, it is bound to lead to conflagration as has been happening in the state since the BJP-PDP government came to power after the 2014 assembly elections. Adding volatility to this already dangerous situation is the union government’s refusal to talk about the resolution. A party’s professed position is one thing, a government’s commitment is quite another. The BJP may be committed to the complete integration of Kashmir with India, but the Government of India has committed itself to the final resolution of Kashmir with Pakistan. It has also repeatedly stressed that all stakeholders will be taken on board and these include the people of Kashmir. While once upon a time it meant the elected representatives of the people (as in the state government), by repeatedly engaging with the Hurriyat Conference after it came into being in 1993, the Government of India conveyed the message that even non-elected politicians were stakeholders.

Ghazala Wahab

Hence, Kashmiri politics will always revolve around resolution. Especially when the Kashmiris were led to believe that a resolution, acceptable to them, was around the corner. To use the level of violence as a parameter to determine normalcy is to fool oneself. The Kashmir issue predates the violent insurgency that started in 1989. The present reality is that Kashmir is too dangerous a place to play religious games. In this tinderbox of frayed emotions, divisive politics will create havoc. Moreover, as experience shows, when moderate people are deliberately discredited or marginalized, extremists step in to fill the void. The polarized vote bank in Kashmir, which delivered the Jammu region to the BJP and the Valley to the PDP, has further deepened the internal rift between the three regions of the state.

While the Jammu division may have a substantial Hindu and Sikh population, nurtured carefully into a constituency by the BJP’s sister organizations such as the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bajrang Dal, the majority, howsoever slender, is still Muslim. If religion becomes the defining factor in the politics of the state, civil society will further lose its civility, and the consequences may be too horrible to even contemplate.

Already, Kashmiri society has started to change. Kashmiri youth today are extremely vulnerable and susceptible to radicalization. The armed insurgency is in its twenty-eighth year. Everyone in the Valley below the age of twenty-six has seen nothing but violence, curfews, cordon and search operations, humiliation and uncertainty. Their entertainment avenues are limited to spending time at mosques or playing cricket or football in one of several graveyards dotting the state, provided there is no curfew or crackdown that day.

They are not radical people right now, only hugely insecure youngsters, who, for want of anything else, have entrusted their judgement to the so-called religious wise men. And here lies the danger. The process of radicalization does not happen in isolation. It needs a mind made receptive by religious indoctrination to take root. The first step is always an obsessive commitment to the fundamentals of religion and blind faith in the local preacher. The second step is the cause that cultivates and fans the sense of injustice.

Innumerable examples of this exist in the case studies of young men in different European states who wake up one day to enrol themselves for jihad, earlier in Afghanistan and now in Iraq and Syria. The biggest mistake that the West has made in addressing the issue of radicalization is to dismiss the cause. It is almost impossible for a person, with the promise of a fulfilling life ahead, to choose death without a cause. Since we usually emulate the West, we are making the same mistake in Kashmir—dismissing insurgents as either misguided youth or denouncing them as terrorists, as if they are operating completely without a context.

For the burgeoning youth of Kashmir, the cause was always there. Now it is being nurtured through careful religious indoctrination. ‘In the last twenty years, madrassas have mushroomed all over the state. Most of them are one-room tenements,’ a middle-level police officer posted in south Kashmir told the authors. According to him, there is no accounting of their funding or syllabi, despite the fact that everyone knows that money comes from West Asia, especially Saudi Arabia. ‘The successive state governments have had a hands-off approach, saying that since they do not take any money from the state, the government has no control over them. But in the interest of the future of the state, some sort of auditing must be carried out of these madrassas,’ he said.

Posted in the part of the Valley that in recent times has had the highest number of youth picking up guns, the police officer had done his homework. In 2015 alone, sixty-five boys from south Kashmir joined militant groups, essentially the Hizbul Mujahideen. And with the exception of one who was a police constable, the rest were young, semi-educated, unemployed boys with an obsessive commitment towards ritualistic religion. Needless to say their favourite haunts were the mosques.

Islam arrived in India in all its various permutations and combinations over a period of time. However, in Kashmir, it was the Sufi strand of Islam which caught on, primarily because the Sufis rejected little and embraced everything. The so-called syncretism of Kashmir or Kashmiriyat emanated primarily from Sufi thought, which combined metaphysics with the religion. There was no conflict in coexistence with other faiths and practices despite the fact that Kashmir, as a society, was deeply religious, whichever be the religion. Even when revisionist, or what is referred to as reformist, Islam swept through the world, including parts of India, in Kashmir it could not make much of a mark.

Pravin Sawhney

However, years of exposure to violence has changed all that. While in absolute terms, Sufism may still be the dominant strain of Islam in Kashmir, newer and more exclusivist sects have emerged as the favourite of the young. There are many reasons for that.

One, the puritan sects demand little intellectual investment from their followers. All they ask is absolute and complete adherence to their interpretation of the Quran and the Hadith.

Two, given the long list of proscriptions, following the religious path becomes very arduous for devotees, leading to the feeling that they are on the right path. After all, isn’t the righteous path more difficult? This is something akin to performing a pilgrimage on a daily basis. Moreover, this makes one aspire for paradise even more fervently.

Three, an increasing number of young people are technology-savvy. A technical mind prefers a simplistic religion with clear-cut tasks and goals. The amorphous, informal and all-encompassing Sufi thinking simply urges each individual to walk his or her own path. It is not formulaic but enables voyages of discovery, not the sort of thing a certain kind of young person is looking for. This is also the reason why the easiest people to get radicalized have studied technology. Their minds are already trained to learn and execute formulas and equations.

The biggest concern here is that the youth which is relentlessly exposed to such a puritanical form of religion ceases the habit of independent thinking and becomes susceptible to indoctrination. Puritanism, by definition, implies intolerance for dissent and different viewpoints. Since the puritan is convinced that only he is on the right path, he has only two choices. Either get others onto your path through proselytizing (Dawah) or simply shun them. It is also not difficult to justify to oneself that since the others are already doomed in the hereafter, their fate in this world is of little consequence. Religious violence is just the next step.

China Pakistan Economic Corridor at Gwadar, Karachi.

While this is universally applicable, for India this is the most worrying reality of Kashmir today, because the failure to resolve the issue has now ladled religious extremism into the already churning cauldron of political discontent. The insurgency exposed the Kashmiri to foreign forms of puritan Islam which disparaged the indigenous and inclusive religion followed by the locals.

As the offshoots of the so-called Wahhabi / Salafi line of Islam started to take root in Kashmir, several Kashmiris, the authors have spoken to over the years, have alleged that the formation of some moderate Islamic sects in the state owe their existence to the government. This was because the state believed this would be one way of countering the Saudi brand of Islam. According to the locals, the Ahle-Sunnat Dawat-e-Islami sect (a derivative of the Barelvi sect) has been New Delhi’s gift to Kashmir.

What the state failed to foresee was that even a moderate sect is a sect nevertheless. To increase its base and to keep its flock from wandering over to a different sect, it has to perforce preach intolerance of other sects. Imagine a society divided into religious communities of a few hundred thousand, each convinced that only it is right. That would be a radical society the likes of which has hitherto not existed in the subcontinent. Weekly waving of the ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) flag is not a measure of radicalism; it is just disillusionment and helpless anger.

This probably weighed on Prime Minister Modi’s mind. In the second week of July 2015, the government sent Asif Ibrahim, former director, Intelligence Bureau, and special envoy for counter-insurgency (CI) and extremism, to the Valley to assess the extent of radicalization. He was accompanied by Dineshwar Sharma, director of the Intelligence Bureau. A few days later, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval also visited Srinagar and met the same set of people: governor, chief minister, 15 Corps commander, director general police, J&K, inspector general police, Kashmir zone, and inspector general police, CID. It is not known what they discovered, but whatever it was it has been guiding the government’s uneven steps on talks with Pakistan. Despite its unwillingness to include the Kashmir issue in the talks, it has been unable to keep it out.

That said, it continues to ignore the fact that Pakistan will not allow the issue to be put on the back-burner. For instance, the protests that followed the killing of Burhan Wani, the twenty-one-year-old Hizbul Mujahideen commander, by Indian security forces on 8 July 2016 were yet another example of Pakistan exploiting Indian fault lines in Kashmir. The moment the news of Wani’s death spread, the entire Valley erupted in an outpouring of grief and protests. By the government’s own assessment, over 200,000 people joined in Wani’s funeral prayers, though local journalists claim a figure of half a million. Such numbers are unheard of, even in a place where people are known to honour militants killed by Indian security forces as martyrs. Yet, the government, both the union, and at its behest the state, continued to treat sustained street protests as a law and order problem created by Pakistan. As opposition parties rallied around the government to present a united front against Pakistan, all failed to notice how the present crisis was unprecedented, at least for three reasons.

Ex COAS Raheel Sharief with PM Nawaz Sharief.

One, for the first time, protests and violence has spread to all districts of the Valley, including the border areas. In the past, whether it was the violent nineties or the ugly events of 2010 (when nearly 120 youth were killed in police and CRPF firings over three months), Kashmir has always had islands of calm unaffected by the chaos elsewhere. Not this time.

Secondly, unlike the past, this time, people were not merely picketing bunkers or public property, they were marching towards the camps of the security forces and attacking them. The rage is directed towards not just the security personnel but all those civilians who are seen to be on the side of the Indian state, including elected legislators. According to some reports, the Kashmiri members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) went into hiding to escape the brunt of public anger. So much so that when the PDP MLA, Khalil Bandh, was injured in one of the protests, he could not be admitted to any civilian hospital but had to be treated at the army base hospital. Is this not the erosion of credibility of the people’s representatives?

And thirdly, it has brought together the disparate factions of the separatists who are now speaking in one voice; they recently issued an appeal to all the hiding MLAs to switch sides. Now, whether this voice is at the behest of Pakistan is immaterial, because unity is strength. Moreover, as long as the separatists were disunited, the Government of India at least had a channel of communication with several of them, whom it called moderate. Not any longer.

Unfortunately, overwhelmed by the sense of the street, with relentless protests against ‘terrorist’ Burhan Wani’s killing, all that the politicians in Delhi have been able to do is once again resort to nationalistic rhetoric and sloganeering. If only the government had imagination, it would have understood what Wani represented for the people of Kashmir. Of course, he was a radicalized youth who took up arms against the Indian state because of the atrocities he saw and suffered in his teens at the hands of the security forces. But he was no renegade; by throwing away his mask and revealing his face, he raised the level of his so-called movement. He conveyed to his people that he had both courage and conviction to stand up for his cause; that he was neither a terrorist nor a mercenary. Those who mourn him do so out of genuine feeling. Of course, Pakistan has a role in the street protests and violence, but not in the outpouring of grief for Wani, whose face lent a new credibility to the insurgency. The Government of India killed a local hero, and resurrected a legend. And it doesn’t even realize how this is changing the situation on the ground. The people are becoming increasingly restive because they had come so close to a semblance of permanent peace in the halcyon years of 2005–08. The Government of India can of course commit more troops to quell the turmoil, but it will be at a military cost.

Military considerations aside, an unresolved Kashmir shackles India, holds it back through two military-determined lines, undermines its moral stature globally and increases its vulnerability to China. ‘Just imagine,’ said Professor (Abdul Ghani) Bhat, ‘if the Kashmir issue is resolved, the biggest thorn in India-Pakistan relations will be removed forever. Kashmir, and along with it, India and Pakistan, will prosper because of open trade through a network of roads and mountain passes linking it with Central Asia, Afghanistan, Tibet and even China. Economic prosperity will curb the tendency towards religious extremism too.’ And perhaps, with this cross-linking of economic activities, China will become less of a threat to India.

It may be a flight of fancy, but it’s a dream worth nurturing. J&K state is the only place that gives Pakistan and China a physical link-up. While any Kashmir resolution with Pakistan will not remove the connection, it is likely to reduce its volatility. Most importantly, it will relieve the Indian Army from its counter-insurgency role. Perhaps then it will be able to look at the big picture emerging on India’s north and east.

As we have seen, in 1965 when Pakistan tried to raise the Kashmir banner, the locals stood with India. Yet instead of cashing in on its biggest advantage in the Valley—the people’s support—India squandered it away by opportunist politics, thereby giving Pakistan a foothold inside Kashmir. Thereafter small pockets of resentment have grown into full-fledged insurgency. Today, even if the Government of India takes all kinds of ameliorative measures to meet the aspirations of the people, a resolution without Pakistan is no longer possible; and with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, China’s stakes will also grow in the Valley. As will the desire of the average Kashmiri to jump on the CPEC’s economic bandwagon, which promises growth and prosperity.

The Government of India’s policy of status quo has been yielding diminishing returns, because both Pakistan and China have been working extremely hard to change the ground situation. While an honourable and cooperative resolution is still in the realms of possibility today, Chinese activities in Ladakh are changing the situation so rapidly that in a few years this option may no longer be there.

(This extract has been taken from the chapter, Kashmir: Political Games at Work, from the book Dragon On Our Doorstep: Managing China Through Military Power, authored by Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab, an Aleph Book Company publication.)


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here