IN the weeks after the 1965 war, Kashmir’s greatest spymaster began compiling the first volume of what would grow into a secret opus, reducing to paper the experience of decades of covert warfare against Pakistan. The story he told was grim. “The ceasefire which came into effect on the 1st of January, 1949,” Surendra Nath wrote, “was merely a prelude to Pakistani efforts to grab Kashmir by other means”. Pakistan’s aim, he said, was “to arouse communal passions, to assassinate important nationalist leaders, and ultimately overthrow the Government and capture power either through their agents, or by direct intervention”.
Nath’s still-classified ‘Report on Pakistani-Organised Subversion’ laid out, in granular detail, the failed efforts of two generations of pro-independence radicals to make war on India.
But by the eve of the long jihad that began in 1988, that war appeared won — Pakistan’s defeat in 1971 had established India’s military supremacy. Nath’s radicals had become pillars of the establishment: among them, Cabinet Minister in the National Conference government in J&K Bashir Kitchloo, senior police officer Javed Makhdoomi, and Muzaffar Beigh, who went on to become a top leader of the People’s Democratic Party.
The Report’s volumes lay forgotten, its pages eaten away by damp and insects, in a basement in Srinagar. Nath himself was despatched to Punjab, as Governor, to stamp out the fires raging there.
For policy-makers, there’s a lesson in the story: along the Line of Control in Kashmir, the abyss is always just a step away.
On Wednesday, the day before the 13th anniversary of the Line of Control ceasefire that was to lay the foundations for peace in Kashmir, India and Pakistan were locked in savage bloodletting. The deaths of 9 bus passengers and the retaliatory strikes on Pakistani soldiers, which followed the brutal killings of Indian troops — these are just parts of an even uglier big picture. Government data obtained by The Indian Express show 279 exchanges of fire between Indian and Pakistani troops between September 29, when India announced its cross-LoC strikes on the Lashkar-e-Toiba, and November 15 — the highest level since 2003.
The fire on the LoC has destroyed what had been a peaceful year: until the cross-border raids, just 4 exchanges of fire and no fatalities, had been reported. The strains that began developing in 2008, it seemed, were stilling.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to order the cross-LoC strikes weren’t meant to have this outcome. Following his election, the Prime Minister had sought normalisation of the India-Pakistan relationship. That effort, however, was challenged by Pakistan’s generals, using their time-trusted allies, jihadist terrorists. The generals believed Modi would not retaliate, for fear of sparking off a war — and the strikes were meant to challenge that assumption.
The generals, though, responded by raising the stakes, leaving the Prime Minister with a tough call. He could back down or double his bid, by threatening to seize territory along the LoC or bomb jihadist targets deep inside Pakistan. In theory, the threat could make the Pakistan Army back down, for fear of losing its credibility at home. The downside, of course, was full-blown war.
Five years after the 2003 ceasefire, things had looked very different: infiltration had dried to near-zero, and the jihad in Kashmir had died out. So how did things get so bad, so fast?
The story begins, in a sense, with the end of the Kargil war, when General Pervez Musharraf had tried to bring Kashmir to the international centrestage with military force. His gamble didn’t pay off — but the war didn’t quite end. In the three years after the war, Musharraf ratcheted the pain up in Kashmir to record levels, a part of the story that isn’t often told or understood in India. From 1999 to 2003, India lost a staggering 2,125 security force personnel — in contrast, India lost 521 soldiers during the Kargil war.
The attack on Parliament House in December 2001 led Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to conclude that he had to threaten war against this onslaught — much as Prime Minister Narendra Modi is doing now. The standoff that followed in 2001-02 has been criticised as pointless; the data, though, shows otherwise: from 2003 on, violence in Kashmir began to fall steadily, as Pakistan choked support to the jihad it had nurtured.
From unsigned notes revealed in 2009, we know that this happened because secret envoys working for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and General Musharraf came close to a final-status deal on Kashmir. In the wake of the 2001-02 crisis, Musharraf came to the conclusion that the stand-off against India was bleeding Pakistan, not the other way round. Pakistan’s nuclear weapons had indeed deterred India from going to war, but the economic cost of the crisis was just too high.
In 1950, Pakistan’s first Governor-General, Cambridge-educated Dhaka Nawab scion Khawaja Nazimuddin, told his country that it would “remain incomplete until the whole of Kashmir is liberated”. His view was rooted in a certain idea of nationhood: “I do not agree that religion is a private affair of the individual,” Nazimuddin asserted. “Nor do I agree that in an Islamic state every citizen has identical rights.”
Ashfaq Parvez Kayani’s rise as Pak Army chief saw the resumption of support for jihadists — 26/11 led on, less noticed, to a steady uptick in violence both along the LoC and inside Kashmir. Kayani’s vision, like Nazimuddin’s, saw Pakistan as an Islamic state, with the Army as the guardian of its ideological frontiers, not just territory. The general’s ascent to power coincided with the fateful rise of third phase of Kashmiri secessionism.
New Islamism cast the Kashmir jihad as not just an instrument of national liberation, but as part of a wider global struggle between Islam and unbelief. In 2006, the New Islamists first registered their presence with a struggle against alleged Srinagar madam Sabina Bulla, who was alleged — though acquitted — to have serviced the city’s élite. Her home was demolished by an Islamist mob, as police stood by and watched. In 2007, the rape-murder of a teenager provided a pretext for similar mobilisation.
The New Islamist triumph came in 2008, over the grant of land-use rights to the Amarnath shrine. The authorities, Islamist patriarch Syed Ali Shah Geelani charged, were working “on an agenda of changing the demography of the state”. “I caution my nation,” he warned, “that if we don’t wake up in time, India and its stooges will succeed and we will be displaced.”
The key lesson of the 2016 crisis is that India is, as yet, to find political answers to the New Islamist challenge. Though, like the crisis before it, the violence has stilled, the political system has shown itself unable to address the urban poverty and youth disenfranchisement that facilitated the growth of New Islamism. The jihadists Pakistan is now pumping in have a new generation of followers waiting.
Like in 1965, when Pakistan had hoped to cash in on anti-India sentiment in Kashmir, Pakistan’s covert services again see an opportunity — but they also face constraints.
India is estimated to deploy between 2,00,000 and 2,25,000 troops on the Line of Control. Pakistan only has the X Corps to face India’s XV and XVI Corps. The X Corps’ 23 Division, with 4 brigades and 2 in reserve, the double-sized 12 Division with 7 Infantry Division, the 19 Division and the Force Commander Gilgit-Baltistan together command between 1,00,000-1,25,000 troops.
This means Pakistan’s forces wouldn’t be able to defend the LoC should India choose to wage a limited war along the Neelum valley. With over 2,00,000 troops committed to counter-insurgency in the country’s north-west, Pakistan’s generals are also hard pressed for troops.
Like Vajpayee, Modi is hoping the threat of war will compel Pakistan to leash the terrorists it has let out of their pens. Both sides, though, seem determined not to blink first. It is a dangerous game. Force is a useful instrument, but it also seduces. Even small missteps or miscalculations could, only too easily, lead to war.