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What the attacks against minorities in Kashmir reveal

Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes: India’s security environment is precarious, its political future fragile, and its human sympathies dead. It will require a great act of statesmanship to overcome these challenges.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |
Updated: October 10, 2021 7:30:10 am
Security personnel preparing for a search operation after a civilian was killed in a shopping complex allegedly by militants at Karan Nagar, in Srinagar, Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021. (PTI Photo/S. Irfan)

The targeted terror attacks against minorities in Kashmir mark a dangerous but not entirely unanticipated turn. It is important to be clear that these are targeted killings. Sikhs and Hindus were identified and shot for being who they are. The weight of the horrendous cumulative violence in Kashmir by the Indian state, or the presence of Muslim casualties, cannot be an excuse for soft peddling this fact. The purpose was pure terror to drive out and deter minorities, and exploit the communal fissures developing in India.

India’s fragility is being exposed at so many levels. These attacks are a reminder that very few counter-insurgency strategies succeed in the absence of a comprehensive political settlement that involves all parties. For small groups of terrorists, it is easy to switch to softer targets. It has been so easy to give a lie to premature and triumphalist claims about “normality” in Kashmir. There is an analogy rightly being drawn with the Nineties when Kashmiri Pandits were targeted and driven out. But there is another aspect to that analogy. Despite the intelligence inputs, it is once again proving difficult for the state in Kashmir to provide protection for minorities. Now, as then, it is easier to politically use the plight of minorities in Kashmir than to provide them security. The BJP government now has its Jagmohan moment.

Second, the purpose of these attacks is to draw a response from the state, and to create a “heads we win, tails you lose” strategy. There can be two responses. The first is a deepening and widening of combing for terrorists inside Kashmir. But given the state’s record, these measures are almost always more oppressive, and a reminder of the permanent state of emergency in which we have placed Kashmir. These responses increase political alienation. The second response is external. In the Indian state’s mind, there is no doubt that this is the work of groups supported by Pakistan. If that is the case, we have once again been reminded (as the US was in Afghanistan), that air strikes, even if they are within your rights, are not a solution to the problem of terrorism. India’s possible escalation against Pakistan is now hampered by the fact that it is militarily under great pressure from China on its eastern front. The performative bravado of air strikes notwithstanding, our security dilemma is now worse than it was a few years ago. The BJP government might want to break with the shackles of the past, but its hands are even more tied when it comes to solving real security dilemmas.

Third, these attacks play squarely into the politics of communalism in India. The plight of Hindus, and now Sikhs in Kashmir, has always been communally weaponised. We can all theoretically distinguish between terrorists and other members of the communities to which they belong. A responsible political leadership would make that distinction. But when you have a communally surcharged public discourse, which has political patronage at the highest levels, terrorism has its greatest triumph by reinforcing a mood affiliation with communalism. Slowly but surely, these attacks will play into the deep communal divide the BJP has created in the rest of India. That is their purpose. Fourth, the abiding tragedy of the Indian republic is that we simply do not have a common language of solidarity or a political language that can express a united front against violence of all kinds. These killings have been condemned by all communities and politicians of all stripes. A formal condemnation is easy. Social media has taken out the gravitas of even the most delicate of sentiments, by cheapening them. But the kind of political gestures that display a commitment to the idea that our mourning for victims will not be selective, our framing of the narrative of violence will not involve double standards (“my community victims died of bigotry, yours from ‘root causes’”), still elude us. In a state like Kashmir, we do not still have the political language to overcome this divide.

Fifth, the simple fact is that Kashmir still does not have avenues of normal political articulation. Its statehood has not been restored and its constitutional humiliation continues. The older political dispensation may have been delegitimised, but no new political class as emerged, contrary to the BJP’s claims to engineer one. Kashmir was never allowed the normal processes of social mediation of a democracy. In their absence, there is no chance of a counterinsurgency strategy succeeding.

There is also a tricky issue about which we are not often honest. Political violence in India is intimately tied to a demographic imagination. The narrative of Hindutva feeds on contrived fears of demographic domination by minorities. Other states have, to varying degrees, experienced violence over demography. In Kashmir, the fear of altering demography after the abrogation of Article 370 has been palpably real. These killings are probably politically over-determined so it might not be fruitful to speculate on their proximate causes.

Have they been provoked by the bravado of politicians claiming that properties sold or transferred by Pandits might be recovered? Is there a mundane effect of deterring investment, especially in land and property? Are these attacks aimed to pre-emptively make sure even the small minority groups left in Kashmir leave? Given the historical status of Kashmir, and in line with other “hill states”, the question of demographic composition is an important one, and Kashmiris are right to worry.

There is also a difference between engineered changes, and organic ones that arise out of the historical and economic needs of communities. But it is also hard to think of any politics centred on demography that does not shade into violence and prejudice. The line between saying that there are good historical and ecological reasons to worry about demographic balance in Kashmir, and someone seeing a puchka seller from Bihar or a school teacher from Jammu as a sign of oppression and a threat, can be palpably thin. Experience everywhere suggests that a politics of demography, despite best intentions, ends up in a reactionary place. India is now heading into that trap.

India’s security environment is precarious, its political future fragile, and its human sympathies dead. It will require a great act of statesmanship to overcome these challenges. But, instead, we are likely to get more communalism and bravado. No serious questions will be asked.

This column first appeared in the print edition on October 9, 2021 under the title ‘New dangers in Kashmir’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express.

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