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How India can win over the Kashmiris

By Colonel Anil A Athale (retd)
October 28, 2014 14:28 IST
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'No amount of economic measures or prosperity in Kashmir will make any dent in the situation there.'

'The average Kashmiri understands the Pakistani game and is unlikely to prefer Pakistan over India. But the Pakistanis have made clever use of religious symbols and slogans to force religious-minded Kashmiris to support them.'

'India has failed to counter this posturing by the separatists,' says Colonel Anil A Athale (retd).

The Indian Army celebrates Infantry Day on October 27 every year to commemorate the landing of troops in Srinagar on that day in 1947. The timely airlift saved the Kashmir valley from falling to the Pakistani-sponsored tribal invasion. The Indian troops were welcomed with rose petals by the Kashmiris and with the help of National Conference volunteers successfully drove out the invaders in less than a month.

A few days ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spent Diwali with the flood-affected citizens of Srinagar in Kashmir, he made another genuine gesture to the urban Kashmiris that the whole country stands with them in their hour of need.

Kashmir has been in the news for many months now, thanks to the desperate need across the border to keep the pot boiling in Kashmir. Bollywood is also not far behind and a newly released film on Kashmir of the 1990s has had a good run at the box office.

As someone deeply involved in Kashmir for over 20 years and a student of insurgency warfare, I feel it necessary to offer a wider and deeper perspective to both the common citizen and policy makers.

The television warriors and hordes of mediapersons have reduced the problems of insurgency to cliches. One continues to keep hearing the call for winning hearts and minds of the people as the catch-all formula for dealing with this issue.

This reminds me of Albert Einstein's quote on the definition of insanity as 'doing the same thing over and over again and yet expecting different results.' The underlying assumption about the troubles in Kashmir is that the lack of economic development is a 'cause' and thus more aid and economic prosperity will solve the problem.

As someone involved in Kashmir issue from 1991, I can vouch for the fact that the last 23 years have seem remarkable economic progress in Kashmir. I still remember a jawan pointing out the new footwear of a villager in Kamalkot (north of Uri) as evidence of her contact with her fugitive husband who was working as a courier for Pakistanis. The couriers got Rs 200 per trip for smuggling arms and ammunition into Kashmir.

There indeed was a great deal of poverty especially in the rural areas that was at the root of desperate people joining the insurgency. As our own very small effort, the Indian Initiative for Peace, Arms-control & Disarmament then started Project Hope in collaboration with the Indian Army to make a difference to the life of poor Indian citizens.

I managed to get some old computers for schools (donated by Cummin Engineers) in the Kupwara sector. One other suggestion implemented by the army was to start English medium schools. The first such effort by the army was at Tregam in north Kashmir. Inpad also took a delegation of scientists to the Rajouri-Poonch area to introduce new horticulture technologies suited for the region.

On a study tour of J&K in 2009 one found the 'goodwill schools' run by the army have mushroomed all over the state. Thanks to some effective governance first under Mufti Mohammad Sayeed and later under Ghulam Nabi Azad, Kashmir has indeed seen poverty reduced to a mere 6 per cent of the population. Logically, if poverty was the sole cause of the Kashmir unrest, then the problem ought to have died down. But has it?

Every insurgency is unique. To compare Kashmir to Nagaland or Naxalism in Chhattisgarh is intellectual laziness. The prominent characteristics of the Kashmir problem are:

  • It is mainly confined to the urban areas of the Kashmir valley while the Jammu division south of the Pir Panjal mountain ranges, the Shia-dominated Kargil area or the Ladakh areas are by and large unaffected.
  • The external element like the Lashkar-e-Tayiba terror group of Pakistan is predominant in the violence.
  • It is an ideological conflict in the sense that some Kashmiris do not accept that they are Indians.

Insurgencies keep changing and mutating all the time. In the early 1990s, it was the JKLF (the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front) that was the main insurgent group with independent Kashmir as a goal. Over time it was neutralised and the fighting was taken over by the Hizbul Mujahideen, a pro-Pakistan group that wants Kashmir to merge with Pakistan. Both were largely Kashmiri-based groups.

Since the late 1990s, both these have taken a back seat and the bulk of insurgents now belong to the LeT, a Lahore-based terrorist group that wants Kashmir to become part of Pakistan.

The Kashmir insurgency has evolved from being an internal problem to a proxy war being waged a neighboring country. The solution to the Kashmir problem now lies in de-radicalisation in Pakistani Punjab and the Pakistan army giving up the use of proxy war.

No amount of economic measures or prosperity in Kashmir will make any dent in the situation. An average Kashmiri is an intelligent person and perfectly understands the Pakistani game and if a push comes to shove, is unlikely to prefer Pakistan over India. But the Pakistanis and their local sympathisers have made clever use of religious symbols and slogans to force religious minded Kashmiris to support them.

Where India has failed is to counter this ideological posturing by the separatists. Under India's Constitution there is no bar on any one following the Sharia. And pray what is the connection between god and independence?

In this context the 1990s are of great relevance. At that time J&K had become a virtual battlefield. The insurgents had the full backing of two superpowers and actually had better and superior weapons compared to the Indian Army battling them.

The state government had collapsed to such an extent that the vehicles of the government forest department were regularly used to ferry ammunition for the rebels. People in Srinagar had adjusted their clocks to Pakistan Standard Time, Pakistani currency was in circulation and many stopped paying their electricity bills since a merger with Pakistan was expected to take place in months if not days.

It is in this situation that the Indian Army with great sacrifice pulled back the situation from the brink.

In the hypothetical case that the army had failed and Kashmir had become part of Pakistan, what would have been the situation now?

All the Hindus, Christians and Buddhists would have been thrown out. There would be regular attacks on Shias (20 per cent of the valley's population). Among the Sunnis the Barelvis would have been targeted by the Deobandis and their Sufi shrines attacked and destroyed.

Soon Kashmir would have become haven for Al Qaeda and the Taliban and pro-Pakistan leaders like Syed Ali Shah Geelani would have lived under constant threat of American drones. India's and Kashmir's mainstream political parties must confront the separatists with this. It is only then we can win the ideological battle in Kashmir and real peace can dawn in the Paradise on Earth.

Some years ago, Chief Minister Omar Abdullah during a parliamentary debate had asserted that he is proud to be a Muslim, Kashmiri and an Indian. This is indeed the right ideological answer to the separatists. But the tragedy is that this has never been forcefully asserted by the political leadership in Kashmir.

The time has come to tell the Kashmiri that it is only in India can they retain their multiple identities as Kashmiris and Muslims -- of any sect.

The excellent relief and rescue work by the army and air force during the recent floods has provided the politicians with a window of opportunity to take the ideological battle right to the separatists.

Colonel Anil A Athale (retd) is coordinator of the Pune-based think-tank INPAD

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