It has been nearly three decades since the separatist movement in Kashmir, simmering beneath the surface right from the accession of Kashmir in 1948 itself, turned into a full-blown armed insurgency. It is a conflict that has led to three-and-a-half wars as well as this insurgency that is well into adulthood. Kashmir has been the stage for two nuclear armed neighbours to play their own 21st century blood-soaked version of the Great Game. It is a game that has been encouraged by, and has in equal measure, exasperated the great powers that have jostled for space and primacy through the Cold War and the post Cold War international order. Like Berlin, Beirut and Afghanistan, Kashmir too has come to occupy a strange place in geopolitics. Each one of us imagines and inhabits a different version of Kashmir. Not just geographically, but metaphorically too, Kashmir stands at the intersection of many different forces. Any solution that aspires for lasting peace has to grapple with this complexity. In the middle of this strategic and historical jigsaw puzzle, we who fight for the idea of India in Kashmir face some tough choices.
To get a first-hand feel of its contradictions, all one has to do is drive through the length and breadth of the Valley. There are daily traffic jams in Srinagar. The major highways and other arterial roads are choked with traffic. The entire Valley, especially the metropolitan area of Srinagar, is buzzing with construction activity. Barring the most remote mountains, all the dwellings that I have seen are twin storeys and made from construction materials that signal a minimum standard of economic well-being. Whatever is driving the militancy in Kashmir, it is certainly not economic deprivation.
On the flip side, armed personnel wearing different shades of the uniform are visible at all major intersections and at major intervals on the national highways. Every few days, fierce gun battles take place in the few hotspots of South Kashmir. The moulvis keep spewing bile against India by reading out from sermons scripted for them by their handlers in the ISI. The Joint Resistance Leadership keeps calling for bandhs. However, post Pulwama and Balakot, the response to these bandhs has been muted. It is almost as if there is a collective, though muted, realisation that pushing things beyond the brink between India and Pakistan would be a disaster for the Valley. The bulk of the militant struggle appears to have shifted to social media. As on date, the jihad in Kashmir is 90 per cent virtual and 10 per cent real. This has to be the most unusual war zone that has seen almost three decades of violence and unrest. It is a puzzle where the pieces are constantly changing shape so that they never quite fit together.
Undoubtedly, these years of insurgency have extracted a terrible toll in human lives. As per official records, nearly 50,000 people have lost their lives. This includes nearly 23,000 militants, nearly 6,000 security forces and over 20,000 civilians. Clearly, this level of violence has imposed terrible costs, human, social and economic, on all sides. The current status quo, with its high levels of deployment by Indian security forces, and the occasional spectacular terror strike by jihadi terrorists, cannot be our final destination in Kashmir.
Broadly speaking, there are three options before us in Kashmir. The first is what I call the attrition-driven approach. In this approach, India does not make any changes to the constitutional relationship with Kashmir. But it maintains an unrelenting security posture in the Valley. That is to say the current status quo, which requires an extensive and expensive counter insurgency grid in Kashmir, is the lesser evil of all possible scenarios. According to this school of thought, India can easily live with the current level of casualties and economic costs involved in maintaining our presence in Kashmir. Eventually, the expectation is that a war-weary and traumatised population will tire out. It is further hoped that the lack of local support caused by weariness will persuade the jihadi separatists and their mentors in Pakistan to back off and the insurgency will fade away.
The second approach is one advocated by a very vocal section of our intelligentsia and civil society. I call it the abdication approach. According to this view, India has a very weak legal and moral case in Kashmir. It sees Kashmiris as perpetual victims and the Indian state and its agencies as permanent villains. Therefore, lasting peace in Kashmir can be achieved only by conceding all the demands of Kashmiri separatists, which may range from complete autonomy to outright independence or merger with Pakistan. This approach glosses over the views of the people of Jammu and Ladakh. It also ignores the repercussions for the idea of India. What impact would the secession of Kashmir have on other sub national aspirations based on ethnicity, language, and religion? And given that Islamist ideology has been a key driver of the militancy in Kashmir, what would it do to Hindu-Muslim relations in the rest of the country? The aftermath of such a separation would make the original Partition of India, with its million casualties, look like a picnic.
The third approach is one that was completely off the table for the first 70 years of independent India but is increasingly talked about. I call it the assimilation approach. It rests on the belief that the separatist sentiment that has been a feature of Kashmiri politics since 1948 and the militancy that has raged in the state since 1990, both draw sustenance from the constitutional arrangements, namely Articles 35 A and 370, that have defined Kashmir’s relationship with India. Without dismantling this structure, separatism and militancy will always strike a chord among a large section of the population in the Valley. Together, these Articles have frozen the demography and politics of the state and skewed it in favour of the Muslim majority from the Kashmir Valley. Some of them favour azadi, some favour a merger with Pakistan. And almost all of them have an issue accepting the idea of India. Unless this structural dominance of the Valley is dismantled, no amount of operational successes can end the raging fire of insurgency in Kashmir.
I would argue that the time has come to seriously consider the merits of the third approach. Could it lead to a period of extremely violent public protests in Kashmir? Probably. Does the Indian nation-state have the economic heft, the military resources and the international clout to get a grip on this prolonged period of unrest? Most certainly. It is heartening that for the first time in our general elections, the legal status of Kashmir occupied centrestage in public debate. The resounding mandate given to the government also appears to be a clear preference for altering the fundamentals of Kashmir’s relationship with India. The concessions agreed upon at the time of accession of Kashmir to India were given in the expectation that they would facilitate Kashmir’s complete assimilation. The four decades of separatist politics and three decades of violence that have followed prove that it was an unrealistic expectation. The time has come to change the rules of engagement, not just militarily, as we saw with Balakot, but also constitutionally. The idea of India cannot be held indefinitely hostage to the petulant fantasies of azadi.
The writer is an IPS officer serving in Kashmir. Views are personal