As the euphoria of a fantastic electoral victory dies down, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will start looking at various issues of governance and security. This must include a serious look at Kashmir, where a lack of understanding and of coordination between the Centre and the state, combined with wayward policies, has shaped the situation to the advantage of the separatists. Two observations need to be flagged. First, the 25-year, externally sponsored conflict is at a crucial stage. The military process of eliminating the internal systems of terror is reaching its culmination but politically, not enough has been done to take the situation to the next stage. Second, for the first time in 25 years, we have political stability at the Centre, with a single party having won a majority.
No doubt, the prime minister will be briefed by security experts. But he must avoid accepting cliched approaches. The most viable policy is to internally strengthen our position and disallow the message that the government is willing to negotiate from a position of weakness or an “as is where is” situation. There will be efforts to internationalise the Kashmir problem, with the notion that fresh initiatives are a must and that the goodwill brought in by Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s visit must be seized. But policy formulation is not based on such temporary positives, which appear from time to time. There are external, internal and external-internal dimensions to the situation that need to be understood. The external dimension is highly dynamic, contingent on the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, besides the peripheral areas. The attempts to ideologically establish radical roots in the region should concern us most. That is what drives radicals in Pakistan to continue targeting Jammu and Kashmir. It is important to remain engaged with Pakistan’s moderates and ensure that radical ideology is not allowed to dominate the future narrative — that is the common ground the two prime ministers have for the time being. China’s entry and interests in the AfPak region have to be taken into account while formulating our responses.
The external-internal dynamic is the deep interest that the extra-constitutional establishment in Pakistan takes in matters concerning India, with a special focus on J&K. The Pakistan army, struggling with internal security challenges at present, needs J&K as a diversion. The ISI has its own agenda and considers itself the guardian of Pakistan’s strategic interests. The radicals, led by Hafiz Saeed, have this establishment’s support to keep alive the J&K narrative in the minds of citizens and pursue violent activism. The authorised establishment can give no assurances — those given are face savers, at best. Yet the initiative of inviting Nawaz Sharif and his acceptance of the invitation were both bold and welcome, because doors have to be kept open and opportunities seized.
But the new government’s area of emphasis should be the internal dynamic, which needs to be clearly understood. Internal cleansing and strengthening can temper the possibility of external exploitation. The sense of alienation in Kashmir is real. It runs as deep as it did in 1989, if not deeper. A pro-Pakistan sentiment has given way to a pro-azadi sentiment, but that is because the situation has been allowed to drift. The initial part of the internal conflict saw the employment of India’s military hard power, without which J&K would have been lost. As the military space came under control, there was a need for the civilian space to be energised. When the assembly elections of 1996 took place, everyone assumed it would be the panacea for all ills, that the introduction of a democratic narrative would sufficient to galvanise the civilian space. That did not happen. The situation continued to flounder, with no real internal effort to return the citizens of J&K to being citizens of India. The sense of alienation was never seriously addressed. The longer this situation is allowed to fester, the more it will strengthen the separatist cause. The army presence provides the adhesive that has been so essential in the absence of serious initiatives to address the alienation. What are the issues that need to be flagged?
First, it is essential to maintain stability in the streets in the run up to the assembly elections. That means contentious issues must only be discussed for options and dialogue must be opened with diverse sections of people, including the youth. No triggers must be set off. Article 370 is a trigger and must not be allowed to divert the agenda even before the government settles in. It is essential for the PM to set up an advisory body under his direct control and with sufficient access to him, because there is a dearth of understanding about these issues at the Centre. A public information and perception management system, on the lines of the one followed by the army, albeit at a tactical level, must be set up to facilitate the flow of information and outreach, spreading the PM’s intent of goodwill and reforms to bring better administration to the state. J&K lacks an information link to rest of India because of thelimited national print media. This needs to be addressed.
Second, it is well known that Central funds have never been insufficient for J&K but there has been little accountability for them. Perhaps, a ministry to look after J&K, modelled on the ministry for the development of the Northeast, is in order, or at least a separate department under the PMO.
Strengthening the state’s administrative capability, channelling the best human resources from the rest of India, could help replicate the Gujarat model in J&K. This could find wide acceptance among people, especially the youth. J&K longs for the Modi touch, a fact even his detractors will admit.
Third, the PM must demand to be informed what our actual relationship with the Hurriyat is. The nation has been kept in the dark for too long on this count. Fourth, the release of detainees from various agitations should be subject to assurances of good behaviour. Law and order is a state subject, no doubt, but when the situation becomes a problem of public order, the Centre will have to step in.
Fifth, conceptually, there is a need to reach out with a change of stance. The army must be seen to be reaching out and acting as a harbinger of peace. Its presence gives it the scope to do so. It should not be hamstrung by criticism of its involvement in the civilian domain, because there is no agency that can carry the new message forward as passionately as the army. Fifth, AFSPA as an issue must not be allowed to dominate the narrative. Its continuance is necessary until a new legal instrument is drawn up.
Last, an entirely new package must be developed for the youth of the state, in consultation with them. Previous special allocations need to be accounted and the balance outlay merged for fresh initiatives.
Handling the Line of Control remains the army’s responsibility. No hiccups must be accepted, or mistakes condoned. Let’s not get carried away at this stage with the undoable. Converting the LoC into an international border and creating soft borders are steps to be taken once we are confident we can handle J&K emotionally. Strengthening the institutions that deal with India’s oldest security problem, at the Centre and in the state, is essential to finding peaceful solutions to the issue.
The writer is a recently-retired lieutenant general and former general officer commanding of the Srinagar-based 15 Corps and with the research teams of Vivekanand International Foundation and Delhi Policy Group.